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The servant king

Luke says that they began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice as Jesus and his followers came down from the Mount of Olives to the city of Jerusalem, saying,

"Blessed", "the king who comes", "in the name of Lord", "Peace in heaven", "glory in the highest". Those words they shouted as they waved branches welcoming Jesus were symbols of great power, recalling ancient events and the promises of God which his followers now applied to Jesus.

The first part of the greeting recorded by Luke comes from two books in the Old Testament. Psalm 118 was particularly well known and many people would have been able to quote it like a popular song.

They made it a little stronger, interpreting its original meaning: so that the 'one' who comes is called the 'king' who comes, because he who comes in the name of the Lord is the Messiah, a king, and that is clear in the book of the prophet Zechariah, whose words strangely fitted what was happening:

Here we have that wonderful conjunction of rejoicing over the coming of the king who is triumphant and victorious with the strange character of one who is humble and riding on a donkey. And of course you see how the ancient prophecy is being fulfilled in extraordinary detail that is packed with meaning. A king riding on a donkey, whoever heard of such a thing, yet there it was in the scriptures as a sign over which the daughters of Jerusalem would rejoice. We will come back to the meaning of this sign of humility.

The other part of the greeting Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven! is unique to Luke. It recalls the song sung by the angels to the shepherds at Bethlehem:

The idea that the Messiah will bring peace is also found in the prophets, For example, Isaiah:

and this seems to fit one who proclaimed the good news announcing salvation with the coming of the kingdom, but it was not well understood and when he reached the city Jesus wept over it and said

You might notice that the angels sang of peace on earth and the people welcoming Jesus to the city spoke of peace in heaven. They said more than they appeared to understand. The victory that Jesus was winning for the people was, as they had seen from his deeds of power, not only a victory over evil in the earth but in the contest with rebellious spiritual powers, and most importantly, true peace is a gift of God that comes from being in a right relationship with God. How it was to be accomplished was yet to be revealed. It was clear to Paul much later, after the cross and resurrection, which the people in the crowd could not then anticipate. Afterward, Paul was able to write,

That is taking us beyond the events of Palm Sunday, which is where we need to be, beyond Good Friday and Easter Day, to see the significance of what was happening, but there was still more to the celebration on that day when he entered the city.

Hosanna: a welcome to one who has power to save

When the other gospel writers record the same event they quote also the preceding verse in Psalm 118:25 which is translated [NRSV]

But they let us have the untranslated form of "save us, we beseech you", repeating the old Hebrew word of celebration, Hosanna, which Luke omitted for his gentile readers. It is a celebratory prayer for salvation:

Instead of calling him simply a king, as in Luke, he is called "Son of David" in the other accounts, which is to say he is called "the Messiah", who is a king in succession to the great King David of a thousand years before. It means then the same as Luke has in different words, but would help Jewish reader to recall the same scripture.

`Hosanna' means `Save us, we beseech you!' or when combined with the name of God (rendered Lord in the Greek), `Save us, O Lord, we beseech you' as in Ps 118:25. So Jesus is greeted as the Saviour, as the Messiah who is a king who has come to save, to rescue, to deliver, to set free. He is the one anointed for this ministry of saving people from their distress. 'Hosanna' is a plea for salvation, and here it is said joyfully in expectation of fulfilment; it carries a sense here of greeting and celebration in the hope that a saviour is coming; and it has a special meaning when applied to a man whose name is Jesus because that is the meaning of the name `Jesus', which means `saviour': as the angel said to Joseph:

So, saying "Hosanna" was an affirmation of belief in Jesus as saviour.

The original use of Psalm 118 in the Festival of the Booths

The special occasion on which Psalm 118, the Hosanna psalm, was regularly sung was in one of the three great annual festivals for which the Jews were expected to go the Jerusalem, the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles. Psalm 118 was part of the 'Hallel', a song cycle in praise of God, from which we have the word `Hallelujah' meaning praise the Lord! The 'Egyptian Hallel', Psalms 113-118, was recited at the Passover meal (Matt. 26:30), in the temple and in synagogues at the time of the great festivals and at the day of the New Moon. It belonged especially to the Festival of the Booths, celebrating God's great deeds from the exodus to the time of the Messiah. When it was used to greet Jesus at the time of the Passover it was a celebration of the new exodus, the new liberation of the slaves, the coming of the new time.

The Feast of the Booths was like a harvest festival.

It was sung in the ancient Feast of the Booths as the priests marched around the alter once each day for seven days and seven times on the seventh day, and as they did so the congregation waved branches of myrtle, willow and palm leaf. In later years around the time of Jesus, it was a major feature of the pilgrimage to the temple of Jews who had settled in foreign countries. It was sung as the pilgrims came up the hill to the temple to celebrate the goodness of God and offer gifts in thanksgiving for their prosperity. Its celebration was required under the law as it was, like the Passover, another way of remembering their salvation from slavery. Part of the ritual was like going camping. Men would sleep out and eat all their meals for seven days in roughly constructed shelters or booths made of branches, while, except for the first day which was a holiday, they continued their daily work. It was repeated as a ritual to remember that when they escaped from Egypt they had at first to live in rough shelters or in tents. They did actually go out and camp in the open and many Jews still do that today. So they brought the branches to the temple to take part in the celebration. That is the origin of the palm branches used on Palm Sunday. You can read all about it in the old law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy:

In the Old testament, there are many references to this feast being kept. It was still being observed at the time of Jesus, and it was taken as model for other celebrations. For example, we read in the literature which comes after the Old Testament and before the New Testament of how it was a model for a later celebration of deliverance from an enemy.

Other Celebrations of Renewal

There was a great celebration at the time of the rededication of the Temple in December 164 BC, after its desecration by Antiochus Ephiphanes the Greek-Persian conqueror who had set up a heathen idol in the holy place on the same day three year before. This celebration took place after the defeat of the aliens by Jewish patriots led by the Maccabees and when the sanctuary was purified, the alter rebuilt, and their worship recommenced.

In another part of those writings, 1 Maccabees 13:51, we read of an entry to Jerusalem not very different from what happened with Jesus:

That was only a few generations before the time of Jesus and it would have been spoken of in his time. A while back, I was talking with a member of my former congregation who was nearly 90. She was recalling things her grandmother had told her of when she was young, and her grandmother was born in 1839 so she would have been able to pass on things that happened over 140 years ago, about the time of the gold rush, for example. The old people in the time of Jesus would still have been telling the young ones what it was like to live in the time of the Maccabees. The noise they made and the branches they waved when Jesus came to Jerusalem would have reminded them of that time of liberation.

The celebration of the restoration of the temple by the Maccabees is still remembered today among Jews in their festival of Hanukkah, celebrated each year for eight days, at about our Christmas time. The original celebration at a time of victory and restoration shows how what was done in the festival of the booths formed the pattern for other festivals.

Another example of a similar celebration for eight days was at the rededication of the temple by king Hezekiah, nearly 500 years earlier [2 Chronicles 29:17], although that was at the time of the Passover. It was another time when idolatry had been associated with foreign conquest, that time by the Assyrians, and at the time when the prophecy of Isaiah caused many to think again of their covenant with God. And you will remember that following the procession Jesus did something again about cleansing the temple.

Celebrating the arrival of Jesus as the king who saves

When Jesus came to Jerusalem and he was welcomed with the waving of branches and palm fronds at the time of the Passover, it was not the feast of the booths, but they used the ancient symbols of the celebrations of deliverance, harvest and renewal because that was the kind of thing they expected of him. These symbols had deep significance for Jesus as he had given much of his ministry to the liberation of people from false allegiances and had driven out evil powers. Like Hezekiah and the Maccabees, he even cleansed the Temple, driving out the merchants who he said had made it a den of thieves. Those who shouted welcome and waved the branches would remember the previous cleansings of the temple and the restorations of the worship of the one true God. So they must have had high, very high, hopes that week which began when they shouted "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"

So we have the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, embedded in the traditions, the celebrations, the signs and the language of the old covenant:

Isaiah 62:11
This is the Lord's proclamation
to earth's farthest bounds:
Tell the daughter of Zion,
`See, your deliverance comes.
His reward is with him,
His recompense before him.'

Zechariah 9:9
Daughter of Zion, rejoice with all your heart;
shout in triumph, daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king is coming to you,
his cause won, his victory gained,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

What sort of king?

Those who welcomed him understood a great deal, but much was yet to be revealed. In particular, as we saw at the beginning, they did not understand his humility and it yet was necessary for their salvation. His humility, even humiliation, was necessary for their shouted prayer of Hosanna, "Save us", to be answered!

The entry to Jerusalem was not a mistake or tragic irony but a genuine celebration. A real victory was being won. He is indeed Christ the King. It was good that he was acknowledged as a king, and Jesus must have intended it to happen. But what sort of king was he? That was to become the great point of contention in the days to come, especially in his trial before Pilate. Some of it was grasped dimly by Mary of Bethany when she anointed him, not only as the Messiah, but beforehand for his burial. Paul saw it more clearly later, in the light of all that had happened, when he wrote to the Philippians:

It was not until after his death and resurrection that they understood that as the saving king of Psalm 118, he was also the suffering servant of Isaiah, as in the lesson for today and in chapter 53:

What do we learn?

Here is one who deserves our love and loyalty. As we follow him to the cross over the coming week he will call forth our devotion. Then on Easter day we will greet him as the victorious Lord, and especially when, during the great prayer of thanksgiving at the Lord Table, we respond

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

which we always say in the Eucharist; we will remember his glorious and humble entry to the city: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Beside our personal devotion and the celebration of the sacraments, there are also practical implications for everyday living. As Paul in recalling his humility pointed out, the example of our Lord requires us to give humble service to one another. That is made dramatically clear in the way Jesus washed his disciples feet at the Last Supper, as we will recall on Thursday night.

Taking the role of servant he was not denying his leadership, he continued to bear the responsibilities that had been given to him. What he did was to provide a model for a new kind of leader. The servant leader. As he said to the disciples: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

That is the basis for a radically different kind of society. It is not one in which there is no leadership, or no authority, let alone no responsibility. Just as it does not support authoritarian leadership, neither is it a basis for an ideology of equality in which each person tries to build herself or himself up to be equal to anyone else as a matter of right. Excessive concern for equality is a clear sign of concern for status with all its distressing consequences. The way modeled by the servant king is far more radical than any popular democratic model. The way of servant leadership is a challenge to all, both in giving such service and in accepting it. It is a challenge we need to work on to see how it can be made to work in servant leadership among people today. That challenge comes to us uneasily, as the challenge of Jesus came uneasily to the people of Jerusalem so long ago: it is eternal and yet ever new:

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