Matthew 21:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11
A sentry stands in the highest tower of the city of Jerusalem. As he looks to the east, the sun begins to climb into the empty sky. It’s Sunday, the day after the Sabbath, and the first day of the Passover Celebration. Soon the roads will be crowded with pilgrims headed toward Jerusalem to celebrate the holiest of holidays. The sentry strains his eyes to the west toward Caesarea Philippi. It will only be a matter of minutes before the royal guard from the Roman garrison will appear on the horizon. Rome wants to take no chances of even the hint of an insurrection during the holidays. Before the Passover meal is shared, Jerusalem will swell from a town of 40,000 to a city of 200,000. There will be memories of Moses. There will be stories of Israel’s years of slavery. There will be songs of freedom. Eventually the stories and songs will lead to talk of revolt and revolution. This will be a busy week in Jerusalem.
Down the road they march, 10,000 strong, the peacemakers of the Emperor. The sentry’s heart swells as he views the pride of Rome marching toward Jerusalem. The parade is led by a centurion, seated upright on his Arabian mount. As the sun reflects off his helmet, it appears as if God himself is marching a legend of angels toward the heavenly throne. No power on heaven or earth can stand against this holy expedition.
The sentry turns once again to view the whole city. From the north he can already see a steady stream of travelers. He thinks to himself, “They must be from Galilee”. Then he spies some commotion below. A second parade, with none of the grandeur of his comrades, seems to have formed toward the east gate. Children and parents began to line the streets in anticipation of something spectacular. It is only Sunday and already the spectacle has begun. What a joke that someone would attempt to rival the magnificence of Pax Romana.
From far below, the crowd began to chant, “Hosanna, Hosanna”. The sentry was not fluent in Aramaic, but he knew the meaning of the phrase. “Save us! Save us!”
“How ironic”, he thought. The crowd was shouting for salvation and they were missing the entrance of the world’s greatest saviors who were now entering the West Gate. Maybe he should redirect them to the other side of the city. As he pondered that thought, the sentry witnessed the object of their adoration. A young man, wearing a simple robe, was riding a young colt into the city. The man looked almost clownish on the back of the adolescent animal. Was he their savior? Was this some kind of Jewish joke? Didn’t these folks realize the real show was on the other side of town? Oh well, it was only Sunday; soon there would be a dozen other spectacles. The sentry’s thoughts were interrupted when his replacement arrived. He didn’t even think to mention the impromptu parade.
I have always found Palm Sunday to be ….. awkward. It is the story of a desperate people crying out to be saved, not fully understanding the salvation that was being accomplished right before their eyes. What was it these people wanted? Why did they so quickly turn on Jesus five days later and demand his crucifixion? Who did they believe Jesus to be? Was he a prophet, a teacher, a rabbi? Why did Jesus insist on riding that young colt into the city? It had to be more than a fulfillment of those verses from Isaiah. The contrast between the two kings is far too obvious. Caesar was represented by his legions. Caesar’s representative wore purple, carried a sword and rode a commanding beast. Caesar conquered with might and power. Caesar ruled through fear. God was represented by one lowly, empty-handed man, riding a colt. Think about it. Who was going to draw the larger crowd? Who was going to command the greatest attention? Who was going to be around tomorrow?
The problem with Jesus is we don’t get what we are looking for? Imagine if Jesus had showed up with a battalion of angels and wiped out a whole legion of the Roman Empire with a flick of his wrist. Now that would have gotten Caesars attention. It would have been Moses verses Pharaoh all over again. Perhaps that was the problem. Remember the original Passover? God showed a mighty hand. God disrupted nature, God destroyed families, and finally God liberated the Israelites from the power of Pharaoh by destroying an entire army on the banks of the Red Sea. You think the Hebrews would have been impressed. When God said, “Now go, sin no more,” they should have responded in a way that would have eliminated sin from all human records. But you remember the story. In a matter of days, the Hebrews were back to worshiping other gods.
This time, God had a new plan. This time, God was not going to depend on the fickleness of the human spirit. This time, from beginning to end, God was going to play the drama out in a way that would confuse us, bewilder us and finally convert us. This time God was going to overcome power with humbleness.
Yes, you heard me right, I said “humbleness”. Those wonderful and theologically sound men and women who pick the lectionary texts included Philippians 2:5-11 in our Palm Sunday readings. Paul wrote, “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard himself as equal with God. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. Jesus humbled himself and became obedient, to the point of death, even death on the cross.”
What kind of plan was this? Who in their right mind is going to follow someone who picks death over life? Who among us is willing to celebrate humbleness as our greatest attribute? Perhaps that is the wrong question. Who among us has not been humbled to a point that we are completely helpless with no place else to turn. We have lost all power in our own ability to change a particular situation. Having no other recourse we empty ourselves and call on God.
Last year, to prepare for the 150 anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter, I was re-reading some of the letters of Abraham Lincoln. During the darkest hours of the Civil War, Lincoln took it upon himself to write a letter to every mother who lost a son during that awful conflict. This president, who seldom talked about his faith, wrote to Edwin Stanton, his Secretary of War, “I have been driven to my knees in prayer by the overwhelming and humbling conviction that I had no place else to go.”
Jesus bore the cross, not in fulfillment of a particular commandment, but in response to God’s call to accept a specific fate and perform a specific task. This left him completely overwhelmed and humbled.
Is it any wonder that on the Sunday before the crucifixion there were two parades? And is it any wonder that remembering this “Sunday” is a bit awkward. The solution of the world was seen on a white horse, in a purple robe with a placard that read “Peacemaker”. That image remains the answer to almost all our earthly problems, until we are driven to our knees by the loss of a job; or perhaps a routine doctor’s visit reveals a terminal disease; or we are stunned by the end of a relationship; or we are sobered by the reality that we are enslaved by an addiction. We understand power. We use it, we wield it, we even destroy others with it. But where do we go when we are empty. What do we do when we realize our own resources are inadequate? What happens when of all the verses in the Bible that could pop in our head, the one that God makes available to us is, “Those who want to save their lives will lose it, but those who lose their lives for my sake will find it.”
Hosanna! Save us! That is the message of Palm Sunday.
Hosanna! Save us! This is the prayer that crosses out lips when we have tried everything else.
Hosanna! Save us! This is our cry when are overwhelmed, even humbled to the point we fall to our knees, empty and afraid.
Hosanna! Save us! Not with the sword, but with the humility and grace of that solitary figure on a donkey.
Every Palm Sunday there are two parades offering salvation. One goes though Rome. The other goes through Calvary. One celebrates the sword. The other observes the cross. One makes promises it can never keep. One keeps promises God will never break.
Hosanna! Save us!
Hosanna! Humble us!
In the name of one who became obedient,
Even to death. Amen.