Back in Advent, when we were getting ready for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we read the story of John the Baptist. You might remember John. He lived out in the wilderness and ate locusts and honey and wore the camelhair clothing. He was sort of this eccentric character who told everyone to “prepare the way of the Lord” and get ready for the birth of a new king.
The song we sang during the children’s time in December reminded us of that. I won’t sing it, but remember how it went? “Prepare the way of the Lord, prepare the way of the Lord, and all people shall see the salvation of our God.”
That was the beginning of Jesus’ life. The faithful telling us to get ready for Jesus, and to get things ready for Jesus.
Fast forward to today, the start of Holy Week, the most important time in the Christian year. And while John the Baptist is gone by this point in the Gospel story, he words ring back and ring true: “prepare the way of the Lord”. Get ready, because he is coming.
All those years ago, as Jesus was starting what would be his last week of life, he and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem, the holy city. And the people heard he was coming, and so they went out and they lined the road. And as Jesus entered on a donkey they threw down what they had in front of him, including palm leaves like the ones you have today.
Now, up here in New England, we don’t have palm branches all around us. We have to order them in, and the Fed Ex guy brings them to us neatly packed in a cardboard box. This always cracks me up because I grew up in Florida and we had palm leaves everywhere. When you did yard work you had to get rid of these things, and they are big and bulky. You couldn’t give them away.
I had no idea we could have sold them to y’all in northern churches.
But that tells you a little about what was happening in Jerusalem. These were not wealthy people and they didn’t have much. But they knew there was something about Jesus and they wanted to welcome him. And so they used what was readily available, and free; things like these palm leaves, and they spread them out on his path.
Had Jesus come to New Hampshire, we wouldn’t have been welcoming him with palm leaves. This time of year maybe we’d throw out road salt instead, thawing the ice on the road in front of him. Maybe we’d wave empty branches. Or maybe we’d throw our Red Sox hats and bring him Dunkin coffee.
Who knows? The point is, they were doing what they could with what they had. And that wasn’t a lot. Because back then, in Jerusalem, the Jewish people were not in a good place. The Roman empire was occupying Jerusalem and oppressing the people. And many of the religious leaders, like religious leaders in every faith, were not a whole lot better. They would exploit others and work in their own best interests, and not that of the people.
And so when word about Jesus started to spread, when it became clear that there might be something about him that was different, they began to hope. Maybe this was the one that Scripture called the “Messiah”. Maybe he would be the one to break the stranglehold that Rome had on Jerusalem. Maybe he would purify a Temple that had become a house for money changers. Maybe he would bring change.
That’s why they lined the streets and cheered as he rode into town. And that’s why they shouted “hosanna!” which literally means “save us”. “Save us, Jesus, because we need help.”
Last year the Rev. Quinn Caldwell, a friend of mine who also writes for the UCC’s Daily Devotionals, wrote a piece for Palm Sunday about a custom I’d never heard of before. In Latin America there is a tradition of preparing “alfombras” for Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Alfombra literally means “carpet”, and these are elaborate carpets, of a sort, that are created in the streets. People use materials like sand and sawdust and flowers, and they work for days making the beautiful, intricate displays. Some are as much as a mile long.
They do this because during Holy Week processions take place through the streets, and often Jesus is depicted. And so, like the people who threw palms in his path, and like John the Baptist said, they are preparing the way for the Lord. They are putting something beautiful and soft in front of him as he travels on to his hardest days. And with every grain of sand laid, every flower put in place, they are saying “hosanna”…”save us”.
Today we wave our palms, and we say the same thing too. But we don’t do this just as a reenactment. This isn’t just something that happened two thousands years ago. This is real life, and this is about the salvation that we need too.
The situation is different for us. The Roman government is gone and we don’t have money changers in the Temple, because now there is no Temple. But if we look around, we might find that there’s plenty that might look familiar to the people who lined the roads.
Because even two thousand years later, we human beings still look for salvation in the wrong places. We yell “save us” and there are plenty of people and things who are ready to tell you they can do it. But in the end, no politician will save you. Nothing you buy will save you. No drink or drug will save you. No new job or big promotion will save you. That’s not how salvation works.
Instead, salvation looks like this. It looks like Jesus riding into Jerusalem, not down a red carpet, and not pulled in the finest coach with a team of horses, but over palm leaves and on the back of a donkey. And, to put it in modern terms, it doesn’t come by the sword, with Jesus on top of an armored tank division, taking the government by force, but rather by this man who was ready to face down the forces of death unarmed.
Jesus really doesn’t look much like a man who could save the people. In the end he can’t even save himself. And yet, it is in his dying that the stage is set for his greatest triumph. It is in his resurrection that we are given new life.
The work of salvation that was started all those centuries ago still goes on because Jesus didn’t suddenly change everything as expected. He was much more subversive, and much more powerful, than that. And because of that we get to be a part of it too.
And so, like generations before us, we prepare the way for what Christ is doing now. We build our own alfombras for him to travel over, creating beauty and meaning as a pathway to a better way. We shout “hosanna”, “save us”, by our very actions.
We stuff our Heifer boxes and send them off, and we prepare the way. We take care of our earth and all of God’s creation, and we prepare the way. We take care of the sick and suffering, and we prepare the way. And we gather here week after week, worshipping God and loving one another, and we prepare the way.
As I told you earlier, after worship ends we are going to stay in the sanctuary in order to take a quick all-church photo. I know it’s tempting to get down to coffee hour or get out the door to start your Sunday, so I promise this won’t take long. But please, stay. Choose to be in the photo.
The picture we are about to take is one of a community that has gathered together not because we are the same, but because we love Christ the same…and so we love the world in the same way too. This is our own alfombra, beautiful because each of us is a piece of the mosaic. And it is our own “hosanna”, our own call to Christ to use us in his saving work.
We all are called to prepare the way. And we all need the reminder that we are not alone in that.