“The Problem With Palms”

Matthew 21:1-11

“Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” 

If you listen, you can hear the crowd off in the distance, a muffled roar, indistinguishable words, then a cheer, and then a chant: “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!”

If you look carefully, you can see the brightly colored holiday clothes of festive pilgrims gathering in Jerusalem. The Passover is not for several days yet, and the people are restless.  A rumor draws them from their eating, from their sightseeing, from their napping. “The Messiah has revealed himself!”

If you use your imagination just for a moment, you can feel the press of the people as they gather along the road from Bethany to Jerusalem.  You can smell the dust, and the donkeys, and the unmistakable odor of too many unwashed people in too close a space.

You can sense the almost palpable excitement in the air, and soon you find yourself climbing a tree to break down a palm branch, and then straining to see through all the other waving branches.  You may even find yourself shouting:

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

If you are the kind of person who thinks about things, you may even wonder what all this is about.  Who is this man on the donkey that the people are treating like a king?  If he really is a new king, am I supposed to be his subject?  If so, what will he expect of me?

The crucifixion is six days away.  Jesus is coming to Jerusalem despite the danger, because there are some things he must say, things he must do.  Perhaps the most important thing that he said publicly, he said symbolically.  He rode a donkey into town.  And why is this so significant?

So far as we know, Jesus never rode a donkey before. Prior to this day, he always walked with his disciples. He ate and slept and sweated in their midst.  Often he drew apart from them for prayer, but he never expected any special privilege.  Now he sends them to fetch a donkey for him to ride.  Why?

Entering the city on a donkey’s colt was a simple way to symbolize the truth that Jesus did in fact come as king.  He accepts the title, and he accepts the people’s praise.  He remembered that when Solomon became king after David, he rode his father’s favorite mule during the inaugural procession into the royal city of Jerusalem (1 Kings 1:33). Now, a far greater “son of David” rides triumphantly into the city of kings in similar fashion.

A conquering king would have ridden into the city on a fearsome warhorse, or in a gilded chariot, but Jesus rode on the back of a donkey.  While he accepted the title of “king,” he refused to become the military messiah that the people – even his disciples – wanted.

Jesus had specified that the donkey was to be a young colt that had not been ridden. This suggests the sacred aspect of his journey to Jerusalem.  Only animals that had never been used as beasts of burden could be considered suitable for sacred purposes (Num. 19:2; 1 Sam. 6:7).  The un-ridden animal’s willingness to bear Jesus also says something about His power. Jesus is not only a king–he is a divine king.  This is not a political occasion, but a sacred one.

Jesus’ choice of a donkey fulfills a prediction made by the prophet Zechariah that the Messiah would one day ride into Jerusalem on “a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9: 9)  According to Zechariah, the colt is a sign of peace, in contrast to the “warhorses” present in Jerusalem.

Imagine what the disciples must have been thinking. As they approached the city, looking across the Kidron Valley at the shining city of Jerusalem, and as they watched Jesus preparing to climb on that donkey’s back, a string of excitement snapped within them and freed their pent-up hopes.

They knew that Jesus was perfectly capable of walking, and not so uppity as to think he should ride.  Jesus never did anything without a purpose, so he must be saying something.  Gradually it dawned on them that Jesus was accepting the title of “King.”

The disciples had longed for this, but wondered if it would ever happen. Once they realized what was on his mind, though, they did all they could to make this a truly royal procession.  They draped their cloaks over the donkey’s back to make Jesus’ seat more comfortable and to make the donkey look more presentable. The road was already crowded with pilgrims, and many of them knew about Jesus, so it was not hard for the disciples to stir up the crowd’s excitement. “Jesus has proclaimed himself king!”

Soon the road was jammed with pilgrims and locals alike.  They joined the disciples in laying their cloaks across the path to show Jesus honor.  They broke branches from the palm trees and waved them in the air, and spread them on the road.  The last time Israel had been independent was a hundred years ago, when Judas Maccabeus had led them to victory and became king.  His nickname was “the hammer,” and he had adopted the palm branch as a symbol of his victory.  He put the image of a palm branch on his coins, and had them used in temple feasts to celebrate the victory over Rome.  When the crowd rushed to get palm branches for this occasion, it was not just because they were convenient.

While the cloaks and the palm branches make this a royal procession, the cheers of the people are even more significant:

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

The word “Hosanna” is a Latinized transliteration of a Hebrew phrase that means “please save!” or “help!” It occurs in Ps. 118:25, just before the other phrase used here, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Both of these quotations were used in the liturgy of the Jewish feast of tabernacles, when the people would commonly wave branches in the air and pray for God’s help.  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” was a popular greeting shared between pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the festival. Here it is adapted to pronounce a blessing on the King who comes in the name of the Lord.

As we study this scene, we must remember that the story never ends.  As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people all about took notice. Matthew tells us that “the whole city was stirred and asked `Who is this’?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

When we read this story, we also ask, “Who is this?”, and in particular, we must ask “Who is Jesus to me?”

The problem with palms is that once you cut the branches from the tree, they don’t live long. The problem with Palm Sunday is that the excitement of that crowd soon faded, and when Good Friday rolled around, many of the same voices who shouted “Hosanna!” were also shouting “Crucify Him!” Their love for the Lord was shallow and based entirely on their hope of what exciting things he could do for them.

Too many pilgrims would get in behind Jesus on the road to the throne, but they would not follow him on the way to the cross.  They would wave palms before the coming king, but they would not obey the Suffering Servant.

This day in Jesus’ life was significant in many ways.  Jesus knew that the end of his earthly ministry was near.  It was time to do what he had come to accomplish.

It was now or never.  This was Jesus’ opportunity to be obedient to the will of God, and to accomplish the purpose set out for him.  It is a day in history that speaks to Christians of every age.  Are we also so shallow that we will wave palms on one Sunday a year, and sing occasional hymns of praise, but refuse to obey the Servant King?

There is a life ahead of us and a purpose for us.  None of us knows just how long that life will be, just how much time we have left.  Every time we learn of someone who dies young or without warning, we are reminded of that.

None of us can know what the future holds.  We don’t know how long we will be on this earth.  But we do know that God has a purpose for us.  He calls us to love him and to love others with the kind of love that makes a difference.  He calls us to speak out the truth, to reach out our hands, and to hold out our hearts.  And he calls us to do that now.  Most of us hold out to the ideal that one day in the future we will truly be faithful to Christ. “One day I’ll be obedient; one day I’ll be truly committed; one day I’ll truly serve him.”  That day is now.  For you see we don’t know how many more days there will be.

Back in the mid-sixties, as the world was in an uncomfortable turmoil, a young college student named Phil Ochs decided that he wanted to make a difference.  He left the field of journalism and began using his gift with words to write songs.  Primarily, he was an anti-war activist.  You may not agree with Phil Ochs’ politics, but in this song of his I hope you will hear something of what it means to be committed to doing something – NOW.  His song is:

When I’m Gone.”

“There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone,
And I can’t show the right from the wrong, when I’m gone,
And you won’t find me singing on this song when I’m gone,

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

And I won’t breathe the bracing air when I’m gone,
And I can’t even worry ’bout my cares when I’m gone,
Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone,

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

And I won’t be running from the rain when I’m gone,
And I can’t even suffer from the pain when I’m gone,
Can’t say who’s to praise and who’s to blame when I’m gone,

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone,
And the evenings and the mornings will be one, when I’m gone,
Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone,

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone,
And I can’t question how or what or why when I’m gone,
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone,

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone,
And I won’t know the right from the wrong, when I’m gone,
And you won’t hear me singing on this song when I’m gone,

So I guess I’ll have to do it — I guess I’ll have to do it — I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here!”

What are we going to do while we are here? My fervent hope and prayer   is that we will choose to follow Jesus, wherever he leads.

Following Jesus means following him on the way; the way leads to Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is the place of confrontation with the “powers that be.” Jerusalem is also the place of death and resurrection.  Genuine discipleship means following Jesus; following him to Jerusalem.

On this Palm/Passion Sunday we begin Passion Week – holy week.  It is a difficult week.  Like the disciples we are called to stay with Jesus this week. The season of Lent and in particular, holy week asks us: to repent, to change,  and to participate with Jesus in the events of the week.

Henri Nouwen asks us how we can rejoice fully in Christ’s resurrection if we have avoided participating with Christ in his death.  Nouwen says:

“Yes, Lord I have to die with you, through you and in you – and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your resurrection.  There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess.  O Lord, I am self-centered, concerned about my career, my future, my name, and my fame.”

We must pass through death to new life as we seek to follow Jesus’ example; following him to Jerusalem, so that we might experience the resurrection, a resurrection to new life!

Again, my fervent hope and prayer is that we will choose to follow Jesus, wherever he leads us.

“So I guess I’ll have to do it – I guess I’ll have to do it – I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here!”