Sermon for Palm Sunday – April 5th, 2020

Text: Matthew 21:1-11 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

21 And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Beth′phage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If any one says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of an ass.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.”

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” So shout the jubilant, ecstatic crowds as Jesus enters Jerusalem.

In this dark time of the coronavirus, we can be forgiven, I think, if we greet this day with a certain sense of irony, as our mood today is anything but jubilant.

However, the irony goes away instantly, though, when we realize just what the crowds were really shouting when they cried out “Hosanna!” on that momentous day. Here’s the significant thing about that word – we think it’s a word of praise, like “Halleluiah,” or “Hooray” – but it isn’t. The meaning of the word “Hosanna” is: “Help, save us!” So the people who greeted Jesus on that day were, at the same time they were lavishing praise and adoration on him, really calling upon him to save them! So it would seem that at least some of the people in that crowd believed that he was not just a great leader, not even just a King, but that this Jesus was indeed their Messiah.

And, boy did they ever need help! Palestine was a powder keg just waiting for someone to light its fuse. Tensions ran high. The crowds greeting Jesus were under the suspicious and watchful eyes of soldiers posted strategically along the walls. There were untold numbers of Roman spies interspersed throughout the throngs.

They definitely were in need of some real help!

And so are we! So today, when we shout “Hosanna!” we, too, are calling upon Jesus to save us!

For there seems to be very little in our lives at the moment that’s joyful. Like all of you, I worry – I worry about my family, especially our daughter and her family in London; I worry about my Mom; I worry about all of you, my church family. For the news is unremittingly bad – the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t even peaked here yet, but various experts have projected a death toll numbering in the hundreds of thousands; this scourge is no respecter of age or status; our economy is on the ropes…in short, we are facing a crisis of epic proportions. One columnist, Jonathan V. Last, drawing on figures reported by John Hopkins University in Baltimore, opens a recent article by illustrating how rapidly the coronavirus has been spreading in the United States — and notes that on March 31, “1,049 Americans died from COVID-19” and that “the number of deaths per day doubles roughly every three of four days.” Reading such terrifying statistics certainly helps us to put our frustrating, annoying, but temporary home isolation into proper perspective.

But you follow the news just like I do; you don’t need me to give you a recap of what’s going on.

What you do need from me – and certainly what I also need to hear and keep in mind – is this: A glimmer of hope, a word or two of encouragement, a bit of perspective, a sense of where God is in the midst of these dark times. So, here we go:

First, let’s just revisit that first Palm Sunday and reacquaint ourselves with what was going on that day.

This triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was the beginning of the last act of the drama that was Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Palestine was a powder keg just waiting for someone to light its fuse. Tensions ran high. The crowds greeting Jesus were under the suspicious and watchful eyes of soldiers posted strategically along the walls. There were untold numbers of Roman spies interspersed throughout the throngs.

I can’t help but recognize parallels between this situation and what I encountered in the summer of 1989, when I was a member of a delegation from our Wisconsin Conference to the Evangelische Kirche der Union (Evangelical Church of the Union) in Görlitz, then in East Germany, just before the Berlin Wall came down.

The first inkling we had that all was not well in the Worker’s Paradise was the encounter we had with a woman on the train from Berlin to Görlitz. The train was packed – every available seat was taken, and people lined the corridors, hanging on for dear life as the rickety 1930s-vintage train rocked and swayed back and forth. My fellow delegates and I assumed, as everyone did over there, that a fairly significant number of our fellow passengers were Stasi agents, who at any time they overheard people making comments which they deemed suspicious or against the State, could whisk those unfortunates away to the nearest Polizeipräsidium (police headquarters) for interrogation.

But this woman did not care. Once she found out we were Americans, she unloaded at length and at high volume her views of the regime and said the words that should have gotten her packed off to jail (who knows? Maybe they did once she got off the train). Those words were: “There’s going to be a rebellion!” When your normally stolid, phlegmatic German (apologies for the gross generalization) states such things publicly to perfect strangers, you know something big is brewing.

The entire country of East Germany was like that. The very air was electric; I felt as though I’d jammed my finger into a light socket the second I got off the plane and had kept it there. People in the street passed by with grim expressions, there was none of the usual banter; conversations were conducted in hushed, quiet tones. It was a surreal, Twilight Zone-like experience.    

I believe that this is the same sort of situation the people of Jerusalem were in. The Romans were just the latest in long line of conquerors stretching back hundreds of years who marched in and took over; and although the Romans took a “hands off” approach to governing, preferring to leave local governments and leaders in place, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who really called the shots or ran the show. If anyone ever had any doubt about that, all they had to do was step out of line.

In sum: If ever there was a group of people who desperately needed to be saved, it was the people of Jerusalem. And they had heard tales of this marvelous young rabbi from Nazareth, and they – many of them, anyway – thought he was indeed the promised Messiah. No wonder they cut down those palm branches and threw their coats onto the dusty ground. No wonder they shouted themselves hoarse crying “Hosanna!” “Save us!” They needed a Messiah. They needed to believe.

And so do we.

Though their joy and adulation at the beginning of the week turned to murderous betrayal at the end of it, the people of Jerusalem did get the Messiah they asked for – they just didn’t know it at the time.

But we do. And that is why we, today, know without a shadow of a doubt, that our Messiah is with us, always, especially now in this time of uncertainty and anxiety. Our God is not some “fair weather friend” who’s with us when all is sweetness and light, but also – and especially – a God who is with us when the way is hard and the night dark.

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

So wrote the poet Alexander Pope in his “An Essay on Man: Epistle One.” And certainly we, too, feel hope like the cool, refreshing waters of Jacob’s Well springing up within us.

We can take heart and be encouraged that the Messiah who came to us and sacrificed himself on the cross is even now with us. As for perspective – as bad and even terrifying as this pandemic is, it is not the worst plague humanity has faced – the Black Death of the Middle Ages, for example, or the flu pandemic if 1918, were both far worse than what we are encountering now; yet we survived. And today we do have medical knowledge that far surpasses that of any previous age. God is giving us even now brilliant brains and healing hands to get us through this.

Above all, let us bear in mind the words of this beautiful hymn:

“The King of love my shepherd is

Whose goodness faileth never.

I nothing lack if I am his,

And He is mine forever.”

When we say that “God is love,” I sometimes think that we don’t fully realize just how courageous, how far-reaching, how deep and abiding that love is. We don’t fully comprehend what a risk it was – even for Jesus – to live out that love by riding through the gates of Jerusalem that day.

That’s not the kind of love we find in Hallmark cards. That’s the kind of love that changes the world. It is the love which surrounds us right now.

All the plagues of the past are over. Yet Jesus lives. We are still here. God still reigns. We will get through this.

There is no greater force in the Universe than the power of love. 

So let’s wave those palms!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity