Mercy in Palms
Scripture - Luke 19:28-40
Today is Palm Sunday. This is the day in which we remember Christ’s procession into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. It is called Palm Sunday because the people used palm branches to welcome & honor Jesus as he entered the city. John 12:13 tells us that many people in Jerusalem took branches of palm trees & went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” Other accounts say that they spread these palm branches on the road before Jesus to honor him.
What is the significance of palm branches for entering into Jerusalem? Well, almost two centuries before this event, palm branches had become associated with triumphal celebrations. In 164 BC, palm branches were used to celebrate the rededication of the temple that had been occupied by enemies but now was reclaimed by the Jews. In 141 BC, the Jews celebrated victory over their enemies by honoring their liberator, Simon the Maccabee, with the waving of palm branches. Truly, the palm branch became a symbol of Jewish nationalism in the centuries surrounding the ministry of Christ. So, at this event, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, palm branches are used to signal the people’s hope that a new liberator had arrived.
Today we might compare the Palm Sunday event to a parade in a big city. It might look like a victory parade following the successful conclusion of a war, with military bands marching while confetti & ticker tape float from the sky. Or it might look like the victory celebration of the LA Rams having just won the NFL championship or the Braves having triumphed in the World Series. Crowds gather to celebrate their heroes & to rejoice in the victory.
In the ancient world such triumphal processions were very impressive. The conquering general would lead the parade in a golden chariot pulled by white stallions pulling at the reins. He would be dressed in a royal robe & would smile with satisfaction over his military forces. The lead warrior would be followed by his officers in polished armor, who would then be followed by ranks of soldiers carrying banners & flags. Last of all would come the captives of the conquered land pulling wagons filled with the spoils of war. All the while the crowds lined the streets calling out “Hail!” to their heroes. The message of this pomp & ceremony is clear: the victors deserve glory for their military conquest!
But the triumphal procession that took place that Palm Sunday in Jerusalem looked very different. The center of attention was a very-ordinary looking man clothed in everyday dress – the dirty ragged clothes of a commoner.
Far from riding a chariot or a prancing stallion, Jesus sat on a borrowed young donkey with a coat as a saddle. Luke’s gospel tells us that as he approached the city, Jesus began to weep bitterly. Instead of celebrating a national victory, Jesus predicts the future demise of Jerusalem. Those who welcomed him into the city were the blind & the lame & little children who chant songs to him. The crowd lining the street do not cry out “Hail to the Chief!” but rather “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!”
Picture this parade: a forlorn weeping figure rides on a lowly donkey followed by a disorganized assortment of lowly folk. Can you have a more dramatic contrast with the grand military processions of Rome?
And what is the meaning of this unconventional procession? What is the message behind this pathetic parade? It tells us that although Jesus is a king, he is unlike other kings of the world. He comes not in military power & conquest but in humility & compassion. His weeping indicates that this is a pathway to sorrow & sacrifice.
Why is Jesus entering the city? Actually, it is to accomplish what the people are crying for. The crowds call out “Hosanna!” or “Save us!” And Jesus came to save them. He comes to bring salvation. He comes to sacrifice his life in the city where ritual sacrifices are made. He has come at Passover to offer up his life as the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice. He comes to save humanity from its ultimate enemies of sin, death, & hell.
The palm procession took place on Sunday of Holy Week. But another procession took place five days later on Friday. Again, the focus is on Jesus, but this time he is not carried by a donkey. Instead, he carries something: he bears the burden of a heavy wooden cross. He wears only the lacerations of a brutal scourging. This time he is not going into the city of Jerusalem, but out of it – to Golgotha, the place of execution. There are soldiers in this procession, but they serve as Jesus’ executioners. Along this path are many tears from women, for it is the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows. Yet Jesus, who had wept for Jerusalem when he entered it, now sets his face resolutely as he exits it. His face is set to meet his death. Instead of sounding the call “Hosanna,” on this day, the crowd cries “Crucify him!” It is quite a different scene on Friday as compared to the previous Sunday.
And what is the meaning of Friday’s procession? What is the message of this journey to crucifixion? It is that Jesus will not save himself but gives himself up as a sacrifice to save others, to save the world. He is the sacrificial Lamb who gives his life as a ransom for many.
Sunday’s cry of “Hosanna!” is fulfilled in Friday’s cry of “It is finished!” Palm Sunday’s requests to “save us” are accomplished in Good Friday’s sacrifice that brings salvation.
But why do we recall this seemingly misdirected ‘celebration’ year after year as the beginning of Holy Week? Because Palm Sunday is not only an event of the past, it is a promise for the future. The Bible envisions a day in which people from across the globe will honor the One who died for them with palm branches in their hands. Revelation 7:9-10 gives this depiction: After this I looked, & there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes & peoples & languages, standing before the throne & before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, & to the Lamb!”
It is because of the Lamb who was slain that we have salvation. It is because Jesus Christ went the way of the cross for us that we have been rescued from sin. It is because our Lord died the death we deserve that we will now live eternally.
Today, on this Palm Sunday, we cry out “Hosanna! Save us!” Because Jesus walked the path from Jerusalem to the cross for us, one day we will join with the heavenly throng to cry out: Salvation belongs to our God! And in our hands, we shall hold palm branches to honor the One who has saved us eternally.
All because of Christ’s mercy. All in view of God’s mercy.
Let us pray. Give thanks to God, for the Lord is good. Declare it with thanksgiving. The Lord is our salvation. Give thanks to God, for the Lord is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever. Amen.