Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday: From "Hosanna" to "Crucify Him!"

Scripture readings for the day:  Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Matthew 26:14-27:66 
It was an ordinary day of shopping.  Suddenly two people start singing and dancing.  Unexpected for the middle of the mall food court. 
But look – now there’s five more.  Now there’s fifteen, twenty.  People stop shopping, food service workers ignore customers, but it doesn’t matter because their customers are also staring at the dancing group.  More people join in the dance.  Faces stare down from the banisters of the upper level.  What is going on?
Suddenly, there’s an opening in the group of dancers. Applause and cheers follow the bride as she dances down the aisle of the flash mob to her husband and the minister, standing at the far end of the aisle.  It’s a wedding and everyone is invited!  Everyone at the mall celebrates with the happy couple.

It was an ordinary day in Jerusalem, just before Passover.  Pilgrims were celebrating their journey’s end as they caught sight of the city gates.  Groups along the road were singing and chanting Psalms of ascent.  A festive mood was in the air.
Suddenly, there’s a man on a donkey, disciples walking along side, followers shouting “Hosanna” and waving palm fronds.  They are loud and joyous and the nearby groups grab some palm branches and join in.  The groups continue to merge until a huge mob – a multitude – is shouting praise, celebrating Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. 
The whole city notices them.  In the weeks just before Passover, groups of celebrating pilgrims are nothing new.  Every day, songs and laughter fill the air as the city swells with people coming to celebrate Passover.  But today, the singing and shouts hold a different note.  The people in the city, used to noisy Passover pilgrims, look up from their daily activities.  What in the world is going on?  People stop alongside the road and stare.  The merchants look away from their wares, but it doesn’t matter because their customers have also stopped their bargaining to gape at the procession.  Women drop their chores and children leave their games to dash to housetop roofs for a better view.
Who is this man, entering the city on a donkey?  It’s Jesus of Nazareth.  They’ve heard of Jesus. Some of them have even seen him preach in the temple, have watched him heal.  Now he’s coming to Jerusalem once again, entering the city in the same way as kings did in times of peace.  What could it mean?  Speculation and hope mingle with the growing shouts of Hosanna.
Over the next few days, Jesus is everywhere, preaching and teaching.  He’s outspoken, daring. He turns over the merchant tables in the temple. He takes on the Pharisees and the Sadducees, easily defeating their attempts to trick him with questions.  Jesus denounces these teachers of the law as hypocrites. He makes outrageous statements about messiah and the temple.  He openly teaches about the kingdom of heaven even as the Pharisees plot to get rid of him.

The crowds are delighted! 
“You go Jesus!”
“Take on the powers of Rome!  Show us that you are Messiah!”
“Bring liberation for God’s people, just as Moses freed us from Pharaoh!”

For a few dizzying days, it seemed the long-awaited king HAD come.

But then Jesus starts saying some very un-kingly things.  He cries openly as he predicts the future destruction of Jerusalem.  Comments about the majesty of the temple lead him to predict his death and resurrection.  When a woman anoints his feet, Jesus says that she is anointing him for his burial. 

Wait, this doesn’t sound like Messiah.  This doesn’t sound like the conquering hero God sent to save us.

Then it all comes crashing down. Judas makes arrangements to betray him as the others make arrangements for the Passover.  There’s agonizing prayer in a dark garden, the betrayer’s kiss, Peter’s denial.  The disciples flee as Jesus is arrested. 

The crowd in Pilate’s courtyard becomes a very different flash mob – building energy from the high priests and Pharisees fanning the flames of hatred – “Crucify him.”

But wait.  Listen. 

Listen again to the shouts of “crucify him?” Can you hear the “hosanna?”

The crowd couldn’t hear it. 

They could hear the “Hosanna” that morning on the road to Jerusalem. 
“Hosanna!”  - which means: “Save us!” 
“Hosanna, God is with us.”
“Hosanna, God’s salvation is brought near, salvation here and now.”

They had no way of knowing that the path to “Hosanna” led straight through the shouts of “Crucify Him!”  They could not see that what looked like defeat on a cross would become triumph of resurrection.  God would indeed bring salvation near – just not in the way the crowd had imagined.

Jesus could hear it.

Jesus heard the undertones of “crucify” when the crowds shouted “hosanna.”  He knew he had to walk the whole journey – from birth to death, from triumphal entry to the cross.  Jesus knew God was doing a new thing, a thing beyond hope and fear and imagination.  He knew that underneath “crucify him” was the hope of “hosanna.”

The crowds that gathered to sing and dance and wave palms that morning expected victory on their terms.  They wanted to go directly from triumphal entry to triumph over everything that oppressed them. 

Sometimes we do the very same thing.  We skip from palm fronds to the empty tomb, from triumphal entry to ultimate triumph over sin, death, and the devil. 

We love to shout, “Hosanna!”  We don’t want to hear, “Crucify him!”

I frequent a sermon discussion blog.  Yesterday, there was a lot of discussion on whether to focus on just Palm Sunday or to include Jesus’ passion.  A blogger friend said, “If the Passion is not at least a distant drumbeat, then Palm Sunday is just a happy little parade.”[1] 

So, I ask, which are we – members of a happy little parade, or do we hear the echoes of “Crucify” that are undertones of “Hosanna”?  Are we members of a carefully choreographed flash mob, or are we disciples on the journey with Jesus?  Do we flit from party to party, or are we able to walk in the garden, stand at the foot of the cross and acknowledge the fear and despair of the three days that our Master is in the tomb?

I would invite each of you to take time this Holy week to walk the path with Jesus.  On a table in the back of the worship space is a devotional handout with readings for each of the six days between Palm Sunday and Easter {blog readers can find this handout in the next post}.  Join us as we spend Maundy Thursday in the upper room and the garden of Gethsemane.  On that Friday which is called “Good”, stand at the foot of the cross and walk with the funeral procession to the tomb.

Listen for the undertone of ‘crucify him’ in the lingering hosannas of today.  This week, listen for the hope of ‘hosanna’ in the shouts of ‘crucify him.’  And let those hosannas of hope lead you to Easter morning. 

[1] Thanks, Sharon, for this pearl of wisdom! (, 11th hour preacher party.)

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