Sermon - Lent 6 (Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday) Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |


Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Mark 11:9)

How would you welcome Jesus to the city? What should be our attitude to his coming into our world or into our lives? He is one who comes to meet us. Remember too that he did promise to come again and he warned his followers to be ready to welcome him when they least expected to see him.

If we are to be ready, what should be our attitude in expecting him? And, at a devotional level, remember how he said, in that vision of the end time in the book of Revelation:

Those are perhaps more private ways of welcoming him than the public demonstration which greeted him at the entry to Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. As we were remembering last week he arrived on an immense wave of popularity, while at the same time trying to prepare himself and his disciples for his death.

As they made a carpet of welcome for him with their cloaks and the branches they carried, they shouted "Hosanna!" The word "Hosanna" is formed from two Hebrew words meaning "Save now", or taken together "Save us" or "O save". We tend to think of the shouts of the crowd welcoming Jesus as shouts of joy; and true it is that the cry of "Hosanna" had been used for centuries in festivals of joyful celebration; yet originally such festivals were also times of remembrance when pain and suffering were brought to mind. To call out "Save us" was to greet a saviour, not in the personal sense in which Christians today might think of it concerning our individual salvation, but more in the sense of a national saviour, like a general leading an army of liberation. That kind of saviour came to deliver them from danger or present suffering under an oppressor who was a ruler of a similar kind. For the people who shouted "Hosanna" to Jesus, it might well have been a joyful in anticipation of being liberated from a foreign power which occupied their country. The same shouts with the waving of branches were sometimes used to celebrate a victory over enemies that had already been won, as when a few generations before Jesus came to Jerusalem the people celebrated the defeat of their enemies in the time of the Maccabees:

Note the waving of branches and remember too how Jesus purified the Temple. In another part of those writings that fall between the Old and New Testaments, 1 Maccabees 13:51, we read of an entry to Jerusalem not very different from what happened with Jesus:

Those celebrations of the life of the nation being saved and the Temple restored are continued today as the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which comes close to our Christmas -- our celebration of the coming of the Saviour.

So Jesus was welcomed in a traditional manner, and it was with thoughts of deliverance of the kind that one would expect of a king leading an army of liberation. Of course it was quite clearly different. Jesus chose to ride a donkey rather than a war horse and took on the style of a humble servant. And even that had a scriptural precedent:

Nevertheless, they welcomed him as a king in the succession of the great king David:

The form of this celebration goes back to a much earlier time than the deliverance of Judea from Greco-Persian rule by the Maccabees about 150 BC. All such festivals appear to have been derived like the celebration from the festival of the booths, and it was traditional in those celebrations to recite certain psalms called the Egyptian Psalms about the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, after which they had camped in the wilderness. The branches were a reminder to present day people of the crude shelters their ancestors made when camping, which the men of Israel now remembered by sleeping outdoors for a week in shelters made of branches. That practice is still observed by some Jews. Psalm 118 which we have read [or sung] today is of one those the ancient Jews used to recite as they approached the city to join in the festival. In it they sang the words which were repeated in part when Jesus was being welcomed to Jerusalem:

You can see that it speaks of success, and that blessings are invoked in a prayer of happiness, but it was more a prayer than a shout of triumph. So in its original form in the psalm the shout "Hosanna", "Save us", is followed by prayerful words "we beseech you, O Lord!" Did the people welcoming Jesus forget the prayerful sense in which the Saviour was to be greeted? Traditional words, we know, are often repeated without their original meaning being consciously intended. Yet even if they did simply shout a joyful welcome, they still used the greeting for a saviour, not yet knowing what it meant or at what cost their salvation would come. That apparently unconscious acknowledgment in the word "Hosanna", "Save us", is like the use of the name "Jesus" which means "Saviour". (I wonder if people who take the name of the Lord in vain, as when they say "Jesus!", at a time of frustration, disappointment or pain, realize that they are calling for someone to save them..) "Hosanna, Jesus" would then be a prayer for salvation, "Save us, Saviour".

If the crowd welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem even half expected him to act as a king or military leader to expel their foreign rulers, the Romans, it raised for them, when they became aware of it, the same question which confronted Pilate later in the week. If the Saviour is a king, what sort of king is he? The famous exchange with Pilate during his trial as reported by John deals directly with the question that those who welcomed him to Jerusalem had scarcely begun to think about in any depth:

Yet Pilate found it expedient to have him killed and the charge on which he was condemned was written in a notice on his cross:

So in John's Gospel again Pilate came to say something more true than he believed, like the chief priest who unwittingly described the saving action of his death:

When the people said "Hosanna" they called on the Saviour of their nation and all mankind in a prayer they might not have intended to pray, while like Pilate and Caiaphas later in the week, they said more than they knew in words which said who he was in spite of their unbelief. So too the soldiers who mocked him declared a truth of which they were not aware:

What had them all tossed was the way that Jesus in his teaching and in his actions, especially in the manner in which he went to his death, combined what was expected of the Messiah as a conquering hero with the remembrance of the suffering servant as the one who would save the people. That ambiguous alternative of the triumphant suffering servant was there in the prophecies just as clearly as the more militant image of the Messiah. Jesus knew it and spoke of it to his disciples, although they forgot what it meant until after he died. We have been remembering in recent weeks how from the time when they first openly professed him to be the Messiah Jesus had been preparing his disciples for that different understanding of who he was :

We know that it was hard for them to accept, and it is still hard for people to believe that the suffering servant is the one capable of delivering them from their enemies. How can there be strength in weakness? It is same question that we addressed last week in a different way. It was not until after his death and resurrection that his followers understood. Then they saw the meekness in his attitude before his accusers as the strength of a saviour no powers in heaven or on earth could ever destroy, but it puzzled the authorities at the time:

The way that Jesus kept silent in the face of the charges against him greatly impressed observers. It was one of the things most clearly remembered about his trial which later contributed to understanding his nature as Lord and Saviour. We have one example of it in the way that Philip linked his silence with Isaiah's prophecy of the suffering servant as part of his message of evangelism to a man who was reading from the prophet as he rode along in a chariot:

Let us then recall again the passage in Isaiah that Philip explained by telling the story of Jesus, especially of what happened to him after that "Hosanna", "Save us," entry to Jerusalem. It brings home to us how Palm Sunday is at the same time Passion Sunday:

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

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