Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
Hark! All the tribes Hosanna cry;
O Savior meek, pursue Thy road
With palms and scattered garments strowed.
Palm Sunday has always been one of my favorite Sundays. It brings to mind the celebrations from my childhood at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. We would get to march in the procession down the center aisle with the choir, swinging our palm branches, with the pipe organ at full tilt pealing out the refrain of “All Glory, Laud, and Honor to Thee Redeemer King.” A glorious occasion, indeed. And who doesn’t like a good parade? It’s about the most fun you can have in a Presbyterian Church. Our worship services aren’t really known for excitement, after all.
Throughout Lent, we have been looking at the I AM statements of Jesus found in the Gospel of John. But today, we are thinking about a “He is” statement: He is King. Jesus is King. The first Palm Sunday was, for Jesus, his “triumphal entry” into the city of Jerusalem. He and his disciples had traversed the countryside, and as his fame grew, crowds began to follow him. Jesus’ teachings about the coming of the kingdom of God excited both the disciples and the crowds.
“Look, your king is coming,” said the prophet. Kings have kingdoms – realms or domains where rule is exercised. One of the key features of Jesus’ teaching is the Kingdom of God, the place where God’s plans and purposes are carried out. Almost all of the parables we find in the Gospels are about the kingdom of God. One of the most revolutionary parts of the prayer commonly called The Lord’s Prayer is the phrase, “Thy Kingdom come.” The phrase rolls off our lips without us giving much thought to what we’re asking for when we pray it every week. But, when we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we are, in effect, asking for the current kingdoms to be replaced. Jesus said (John 18:36), “my kingdom is not of this world.” So, when we pray for the coming Kingdom, we are asking for God to bring heaven and earth closer together – so that God’s will is done here on earth, just as God’s will is done there in heaven.
Now, the crowd on that first Palm Sunday was not thinking in those terms at all. When they thought of the prophet Zechariah’s words (Zech. 9:9): “Rejoice greatly … Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Look, your king comes to you; Triumphant and victorious is he…” they were thinking of military messiah, a warrior king. Remember, the Romans controlled Jerusalem during Jesus’ time, and the Jewish people wanted nothing more than the Holy City to be controlled by their own people – not these Pagan Romans. So, the crowds’ messianic hope was that Jesus would come to lead a political revolution and overthrow this occupying government. They thought it would be a showdown between Jesus and the Roman officials. Their prayers would be answered when Jesus restored the kingdom to Jewish rule.
But Jesus proves to be a frustrating messiah, because he rarely does what anyone expects. Maybe in their enthusiasm they missed it, but Jesus was riding a colt, a symbol of peace, not a horse, the symbol of a conquering warrior. The people were so preoccupied in their zeal for political power that they could not see what was taking place right in front of them. God was at work, but not in a way that they could see. It’s a reminder that God’s work isn’t always obvious to us. Maybe that is why the Kingdom of God is so often compared to small things – like mustard seeds, and pearls, and leaven. We miss the Kingdom of God in our lives because our expectation is that it is something grand and flashy. But the image Jesus paints for us is something that is small and seemingly insignificant by the world’s standards, but that grows into something much larger. Jesus speaks of his presence with his disciples as being the place where “two or three are gathered” in his name. It doesn’t require a grand arena or a mega-church – just a small gathering of his faithful followers. “Your kingdom come,” we pray – and it does. King Jesus does bring his Kingdom; just not in the way we expect it.
The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!” It’s an interesting word, Hosanna. No one really knows what it means. The best guess scholars make is that it is comprised of two Hebrew terms: yaw-shah, meaning to save or deliver, and naw, meaning to beseech or pray. So, they were saying to Jesus as he passed them on the road to Jerusalem, “We beseech you to deliver us.” Or to shorten it: “Save us.” “Save us,” Jesus.
But save us from what? Obviously, as I said earlier, the crowds were looking for political salvation. That’s what they wanted. But what does salvation mean for us. One minister asked this question to a seventh-grade Sunday school class: “Since salvation implies that you are being saved from something, what do you think Jesus is saving you from?” The first answer that came back was “hell”. While the minister thought that was a good answer, he was suspicious that this kid was just giving him an answer that a minister might want to hear.
The minister decided to change tactics. “Let me put it this way,” he said to them, “if God was on the ball, what would God save you from?” Suddenly, their conversation got interesting. One of the students raised her hand and said, “Death.” Another student offered that God could really help him out by saving him from an upcoming math test. Then one of the seventh graders said, “Pressure.” And another youth said, “My parents’ expectations.” Then another, shy individual, almost in a whisper said, “Fear. I want God to save me from my fears.” All of these answers seemed more heartfelt than “hell.” Although, one might say their comments gave a pretty clear picture of what “hell” looked like to these 7th graders.
When we wave our palm branches and say, “Hosanna,” do we dare imagine what we really want God to save us from? Maybe you want God to save you from grief, or anger, or resentment. Save you from unemployment, or debt. Save us from COVID-19 and this pandemic. Save us, God, save us from our fears.
“You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee.” He saves us from our sin. We think of sin as some moral infraction, and that is certainly part of it. But the sin Jesus saves us from is not simply our slipups, but rather from our condition. The Apostle Paul describes sin as a part of the human condition. To sin, using the metaphor from archery, is to miss the mark of God. The center of the target is God’s will: it is human life lived to its fullest. That is our target. But because we’re sinful humans, we often miss the target. We go off in our own direction – again, and again, and again, and we punish ourselves by our actions. That’s really what we mean when we say that we’re missing something in our life. And so, when we ask for Jesus to save us, we are asking him to help us hit the center of the target. We are asking him to help us accomplish God’s will.
Followers of Jesus are called to live lives of purpose, and courage, and commitment. Perhaps you can remember a moment when you said Yes – a moment that changed your life. It may have been a profound, ‘mountaintop’ religious experience, or it may have been something mundane. Those moments shape us because they are about living into the destiny that God has for us.
In his book, Lift High the Cross, Robert Morgan tells a story about a man named Dave Hutto, who worked at a Christian camp in Alabama. In the hills above the camp is the camp’s landmark — a large, lighted cross. One winter night, a stranger came to Dave’s home to ask Dave if he would take him up the hill to see the cross. It was an icy, snowy night and Dave tried to put the stranger off, but the man seemed determined to see this cross, so Dave reluctantly agreed. As they drove the narrow winding road up the hill, the stranger told his story. The night before, the man had set out in his small airplane to fly from Atlanta to Birmingham. His life was in shambles, and he wanted nothing more than to escape – to run away from his problems. He even contemplated flying his plane into the hillside and ending it all. As those two bleak options churned in his mind, a freak snowstorm suddenly overtook him. He became disoriented and began to panic.
He radioed for help, but he wasn’t able to tell the control tower where he was, because the snow obscured the landmarks for miles around him. Then suddenly from out of nowhere, the man saw a glowing cross in front of him. At first, he thought it was a hallucination. But when he described the cross, the traffic controller immediately knew where he was and was able to guide him to safety. “That cross saved me,” the man told Dave as they reached the hilltop. “I would never have found my way without it. And now my life is different. I found my way back to God. I’ll never be the same again.”
On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus was on his way to the cross to bring us new life and salvation. The good news is that we can always follow Jesus: it’s never too late; you’re never too young or too old to say Yes. So, in your hearts, fall in behind King Jesus today as he enters the city.
Watch with wonder this Holy Week as Christ in the Passion lives out his life of courageous commitment. And know that whatever that might look like for you, whatever you are facing – uncertainty about the future, the grief from a recent loss, concern about your health, or life itself – Jesus is with you. Watch in reverence as he goes ahead of us, as he shows us how to do it – how to live and love and how to die.
Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, Thy power, and reign.
 Robert C. Morgan, Lift High the Cross (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 115-117