Palm Sunday is, at first glance, a strange tradition. Once a year you come through the doors of the church and the usher hands you not just a bulletin, but a palm frond. If you didn’t know about it in advance, you’d probably think it was pretty odd.
On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.
All these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem.
Along with the palms, though, there is something else we do on Palm Sunday that we don’t do through the year. We shout this odd word, “Hosanna”. It’s the same word that the crowds shouted to Jesus as he entered the city. Hosanna has come to be understood as a sort of joyful cheer, like maybe you’d hear at a sports event or political rally. A sort of “hurray” or “huzzah”.
But, it’s important to note that this word we hear today, hosanna, wasn’t exactly one of celebration. It meant something more dire to the people who lined Jesus route. Hosanna comes from the Psalms, something the people of Jerusalem would have known well, and it doesn’t mean “yay” or “isn’t this great”. It means, literally, “save us”.
Those people who lined the route to the city and welcomed Jesus in, lining his route with palms, they were calling out to him, shouting, “Jesus, save us…we need help.”
There was plenty to need saving from for the people who lined the route. They lived under an oppressive Roman empire, one in which their safety and rights were constantly under threat. For some who shouted “hosanna”, they believed that maybe Jesus had come to end all of that. It’s one reason why the Roman officials were so scared of him. They thought he would bring political upheaval. And so they yelled “hosanna”…save us.
For others that day, Jesus represented another kind of hope. They had something going on in their own lives and they thought maybe Jesus would help them. They were sick, or destitute, or maybe just hopeless. And so they too yelled their “hosannas”…save us.
That’s what happened in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. But, what would happen if Jesus came down Front Street in Exeter, New Hampshire today? What would we be doing if he rode up the center of town on a donkey and stopped there at the bandstand. What would we be shouting out?
The reality is that if Jesus came to town today, he probably wouldn’t be riding a donkey. I’m not sure what he would drive, but maybe a plain old Ford or Chevy, Honda or Toyota, as common and unexciting today as a donkey would have been back then, would bring him up Front Street.
And you and I would probably not be waving palms either. They’re not exactly native to our region. Maybe we’d be out there with pine boughs, or the branches of trees that haven’t quite bloomed yet. We would use whatever was handy. Some years we’d probably be waving snow shovels about now.
It would look a lot different from Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. But what wouldn’t be different is this: we’d still have reason to shout “hosanna”.
The reality is that probably almost all of us have something from which we want saving. Maybe we are sick. Maybe we are feeling hopeless. Maybe we are wandering and feeling alone. Maybe we are uncertain. Maybe we are worried for our community, or our country. Whatever it is, we know we can’t fix it alone.
But, at the same time, as much as those who lined the streets in Jerusalem, we believe that maybe someone can. And so we cry out to Jesus, to God incarnate who has come to our very town, “hosanna”. “Save us”.
Hosanna is the word in which both humility and hope collide. It is simultaneously a confession that we can not fix it ourselves, and that we believe that God can. Hosanna is one of the best statements of faith that we can make.
It’s also a statement that flips everything on its head. And that’s because when we call out to Jesus to save us, we might know expect the way he will do it.
When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the people prepared the road for him. They laid out palms and their own clothing so that he could walk into town. They were trying to prepare a procession for a conquering king who would save them from the hard lives they knew. They were probably expecting a regal king riding in on a sturdy horse with his entourage.
Instead, they got this guy on a donkey.
Today it would be a little like waiting for a liberating army to arrive in a tank and instead seeing someone roll up the street in a jeep. It wouldn’t exactly be confidence-inspiring.
And yet, Jesus did hear the calls of the crowd to save them. And he did. The next week in Jerusalem would turn everything on its head. That’s what we will be celebrating next Sunday when we gather back here for Easter.
But none of it went down the way that the people lining that street expected. And none of it happened immediately. Even when they found the empty tomb on Easter morning, the work was not done. In fact, even 2,000 years later, you and I are still responding to the calls that Jesus heard that day. You and I are still working as Christ’s disciples to change this world.
And that’s really what the life of faith is like in some ways. It’s acknowledging the cries of a broken world, and it’s responding to them as Christ’s own disciples.
When the people on the street cried out “hosanna” that day, the Pharisees and the religious officials told Jesus to make them stop. But he refused. He told them, “even if they were silent, the stones themselves would cry out”.
That’s true. Even if we don’t shout our “hosannas”, the world already knows what is not right. Even if we don’t cry out in humility or hope, others will. Those same cries for justice, for liberation, for life that were raised from that crowd 2,000 years ago are being echoed today, all around us. The hope comes in the fact that they have not gone silent and underground. They are still being shouted today.
And so, how do we line the streets? And what do we wave to welcome Jesus into our town, and into our hearts? What can we use to welcome him? And how can we work with him to respond to a world full of “hosannas”.
That’s the question we ask ourselves every day as the church. How do we bring hope to a world where there is often pain? And how do we shout our own hosannas until they can never be silenced?
I can’t tell you exactly how that will happen, but I can tell you that we will be in good company. Today our crowd grows a little bigger. Today we welcome fifteen new members to this church. That’s fifteen more people who will stand with us and shout “hosanna”. And fifteen more who will hear the hosannas of the world and respond.
Sometimes “hosanna” is all you can say. Today I give thanks that we can say it, and hear it, together. And, palms raised, that we are ready to welcome Jesus to our town. Amen?