Mark 11:1-11; Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday Sermon
Mark 11:1-11
April 5, 2009
Joanna Harader

Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

If you have been at one or more Palm Sunday services, you know that these are the words the crowd shouts that day as Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey. What you may not realize is that these are the words most of those pilgrims would have been singing and shouting whether Jesus was there or not.

Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Jewish pilgrims were streaming into the city in preparation for Passover. As they approached Jerusalem, they would sing praise songs—songs that we have today in the form of psalms. Traditionally, the last of the songs the pilgrims would sing was from Psalm 118:

Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good.
God’s steadfast love endures forever. . . .
Save us—Hosanna in Hebrew—Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

This is the hymn that Jewish pilgrims sang every year as they approached the gates of the holy city. Yet surely some in that crowd intended those words as a particular statement about Jesus—a statement of Jesus’ unique role in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.

The leper, with skin restored. The paralyzed man who had been lowered to Jesus on a pallet. The Gerasene demoniac. Jarius’ daughter. The woman who had been bleeding for twelve years—and bled no longer. The man once deaf who could hear when Jesus pulled his fingers from his ears—who could speak clearly after Jesus touched his tongue. All of those from whom Jesus had banished unclean spirits. The once-blind who now could see.

These people, these healed, restored, joyful, grateful people may well have been cheering Jesus on as he entered Jerusalem that day.

Save us, we beseech you!” He has saved them from their diseases. They make their plea to Jesus in particular, knowing that he has power to save.

Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Yes, some in the crowd surely intended these words as a particular statement about Jesus. Some recognized that his entry into Jerusalem had great significance for the relationship of the people with their God.

The disciples—Matthew, John, Bartholomew—the lot of them. His women followers—Mary, Joanna, Suzannah—and all whose names we don’t know. All of these hopeful people who had left the lives they knew to be with Jesus. Those who had listened, watched, touched him every day.

Maybe they had some idea of what it meant to say: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

But what about the rest of the crowd? What about all of those people who had been traveling for days, looking forward to celebrating Passover in the holy city—perhaps just this once. Those weary pilgrims who burst into song when the peak of the temple was in sight. All of those who sang and sang psalms of praise as they approached the gates. Those expectant people who were just preparing to sing the final hymn of praise when this common-looking guy came riding into the crowd on a donkey.

What did they mean by shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”?

I suppose one could argue that they didn’t mean anything. That they were just singing the psalm and Jesus took advantage of the situation to make himself look important. Imagine you’ve just watched a great show at the theater. The audience is applauding enthusiastically and then someone jumps up on the stage to take a bow. This person had nothing to do with the show, but of course the audience doesn’t stop in mid-clap. They keep clapping, the stage-jumper keeps bowing.

Is that what is going on here with Jesus? Good timing and a lot of chutzpah?

You could argue that . . . except you still have to account for the coats; and the leafy branches.

These people—even the ones who do not really know Jesus—still mean something as they shout “Hosanna—save us, we beseech you!”

They are looking for a savior. Particularly, they are looking for someone to save them from the Roman government. Someone to grant Israel political independence.

The waving of branches hearkens back to the entry of the Maccabees into Jerusalem over 150 years prior—an entry that marked the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt which lead to incredible bloodshed and a brief period of Jewish independence.

In laying their coats on the donkey and on the ground, they are re-enacting a Jewish coronation custom—claiming that they desire a Jewish ruler, not Herod.

“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Interesting thing is—this part of the crowd’s exclamation is not in Psalm 118. The people add this bit about David, because that is what they want from Jesus. A great military might. Someone who will bring Israel back to political power.

I don’t think Jesus was taking advantage of the crowd. I think the crowd was taking advantage of Jesus. I think that Jesus was a convenient person on whom to pin their hopes. A learned Jewish teacher, said to have performed miracles, riding into the holy city on a donkey colt. It must be him!

“Him” being . . . whoever they were wanting him to be. And they took his silence as consent. Because he did not tell them otherwise, they clung dearly to their ideas of how and when and why Jesus would save them. In their own minds, the people in the crowd made Jesus into whoever they wanted him to be.

Now, if you know anything about history, then you know that the original Palm Sunday crowd is not the only group of people guilty of taking advantage of Jesus. From Constantine to the Crusaders to Nazis to the Klu Klux Klan to Fred Phelps and his “church.” It is so easy for people to use Jesus as a rallying cry for their own ideals and causes.

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Of course, there are examples less drastic than Hitler. A perusal of the religious bookstore will prove my point. Now, I am sure that some of these books contain good theology. I’m also sure some of them don’t. Still, it is instructive to consider the range of titles.

All of these books are for sale on Amazon: Jesus CEO; Jesus, Entrepreneur; Jesus, MD; Jesus, Life Coach; Rabbi Jesus; Jesus the Pastor; Jesus . . . A Religious Revolutionary; Jesus, the Greatest Therapist who Ever Lived; The Laughing Jesus; Jesus Mean and Wild; Jesus in Blue Jeans; My Best Friend, Jesus; Jesus Christ, Superstar; The Yoga of Jesus; The Politics of Jesus.

Save us, we beseech you! O please, please, give us success!”

We are desperate for salvation. When a savior comes along, our tendency is to mold that savior, in our own minds, into whatever we think we need from a savior.

In this congregation, we have taken it as our challenge during this Lenten season to open our minds more fully to who Jesus really was—and is. We have explored parts of the Jesus story that we would prefer to ignore. We have read together the words of Jesus that seem to go against what we want in a savior. It has been a good practice.

It is easy to follow Jesus when we simply make Jesus into the person we want to follow. It is much harder to follow the one who rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt in silence, tottering towards death.

We tend to celebrate Palm Sunday with exuberant songs and waving branches. But I imagine this was a lonely, heartbreaking time for Jesus. As he listened to the praises of the crowd, he must have known that he would not live up to their expectations. That the salvation he offered was not the salvation they wanted.

Jesus, also, surely anticipated the other crowd. The crowd that would gather later in the week, singing a different song.

This crowd, too, would be making Jesus into what they wanted him to be. Despite his refusal to run away or fight back. Despite his instructions for his disciples to put away their swords. This crowd needed Jesus to be a political threat. Because they knew how to handle such threats. They needed Jesus to follow a precedent so they could deal with him.

So they decided, despite evidence to the contrary, that he was going to lead an armed revolt. And then they knew what to do with him. Their hymn became: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

It is easy to do. To make Jesus into what we want him to be. To latch onto him at just those moments when he seems to fulfill our hopes, our needs, our expectations.

But ultimately, when we only look to Jesus for the salvation we want, we deprive ourselves of the fullness of the salvation Jesus offers.

The way to avoid the trap of those who shouted “Hosanna” and those who shouted “Crucify”–is to walk with Jesus. Listen to Jesus. Seek to really, deeply know Jesus.

Holy week is not an easy time to walk with Jesus. To stay with him. But we must do it if we are to know him. If we are to celebrate the coming of Christ and truly understand our own song of praise, our prayer of hope: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

4 thoughts on “Mark 11:1-11; Palm Sunday

  1. Pingback: The Palm Sunday Crowd | Spacious Faith

  2. Pingback: Lenten Reflection for Palm Sunday | Spacious Faith

  3. Pingback: The Savior we Want | Spacious Faith

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