TEXTS: Zechariah 9:9-12 and Mark 11:1-11
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey … (Zechariah 9:9)
If somebody asked you, “Do you celebrate Palm Sunday at your church?”… You might think it’s a strange question. Of course we celebrate Palm Sunday! Doesn’t everybody shake greenery on the last Sunday before Easter?
This is just what we do, isn’t it? We like to picture ourselves among the crowds that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem—waving branches, singing hymns, weaving ourselves in with those who shouted, “Hosanna! Hosanna, to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” It’s how we begin our holiest week.
Yet, if you’re sitting in a mainline Protestant church—or watching a service online—you might notice the liturgical heading says that this is “Palm/Passion Sunday.”
Why? Why the Passion along with the Palms? Why mix suffering into celebration?
Well, one line of reasoning goes like this: fewer and fewer people are attending Good Friday services—or observing Holy Week at all. And the reason is not difficult to understand. Holy Week—and especially Good Friday—is too somber, too bleak, too brutal. It’s depressing.
And besides, we all think we know the story of the Passion of the Christ—even if only because we saw that Mel Gibson movie! But who wants to wallow in that gore and misery? The account of Jesus’ final day (or at least, his final day until Easter morning) is too much of a downer—especially in a culture that favors more upbeat religion.
Most contemporary Christians simply ignore the details of the Passion. After the Palm Sunday parade, they bounce directly into the ecstatic rejoicing of Easter.
And that worries more than a few theologians, who are concerned that such attitudes may lead to a warped kind of faith.
Here’s a question: what happens to faith that has not had an opportunity to struggle? Faith that has never faced difficulty, or grappled with the problem of pain? It might become a superficial thing that melts away in the face of hardship and tragedy. After all, if you believe that life is one long party for those who trust in God, then … What happens when the party’s over? Is faith over, as well?
Birthed from these considerations was the day we know as Palm (slash) Passion Sunday—a day on which we recognize both the triumphal entry and the sad events which followed.
Now, I understand the reason for “Palm/Passion Sunday” … but … I must confess that over my many years in ministry, I’ve never been entirely sure how to combine those two very different themes—or at least, how to do an effective job of that in a roughly hour-long worship time. I guess I’m afraid that my attempts at doing so might end up looking a lot like a Chevrolet product that came out in the 1960s—the El Camino!
Remember the El Camino? The El Camino aspired to be both a cushy sedan (up front) and a rugged pickup truck (in the rear). It was around for quite a while. But it was a weird-looking critter. I mean, if you wanted a comfortable ride, you’d buy a sedan, right? And if you seriously wanted to haul stuff … well, you’d get a truck, wouldn’t you? To me, the El Camino was always kind of an ugly duckling. I worry that a “Palm/Passion” service may run the same risk. By trying to do too much, it might, in the end, just be weird-looking.
On the other hand, translated from the Spanish, “El Camino” means “The Path.” And to the world around us, the path of Christian discipleship does look pretty weird.
Pondering this dilemma, I keep coming back to that strange word, “Hosanna.” It’s not a term that comes up much in everyday conversation, is it? The last time most of us uttered “Hosanna” was about a year ago, at least; on Palm Sunday, April the fifth, 2020.
As Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem, his fans made a carpet of welcome for him with their cloaks—and with the branches they had cut in the fields. They waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!”
The word hosanna means “save now” or “save us now.” To call out, “Save us!” was to greet a saviour—but not in the personal sense in which Christians today might think of it. No. The sense here is of a national Saviour—like a general leading an army of liberation.
The form of this observance goes back to the Jewish “Festival of the Booths.” In that celebration, the branches represented the crude structures that sheltered the Hebrew people in the desert after they escaped from Egypt.
Psalm 118 was one of the songs that Jewish pilgrims used to sing as they approached Jerusalem to join in the festival. In part, it goes like this:
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
“Save us! (Hosanna!) Save us, we beseech you …” These are the words with which Jesus was welcomed into the holy city. They used the greeting for a saviour—for a liberator, a Messiah.
Jesus was welcomed as a conquering hero. But instead of a war horse, he chose to ride a donkey. He entered Jerusalem not in the style of a triumphant general, but in the style of a humble servant. To the very end, Jesus tried to make people understand the true nature of his Messiahship.
It is perhaps difficult for us to grasp—as we look backward in time—how they could possibly have misunderstood him. But we have to remember how desperate they were. They were an occupied and oppressed people. What they wanted—what they thought they needed—was a warrior-king who would expel the Romans, and restore their nation.
If they had paid attention to what Jesus was trying to show them about himself, they would have had to face the same question which confronted Pontius Pilate later in the week—concerning who this man was, and—if he was a king … What sort of king? (see John 18:33-38)
I guess it’s the same question we still grapple with, some 2,000 years later: Who was he? Who is he? And—with all the conflicting and competing pictures of Jesus in our modern world—who is he, for us?
Who is Jesus, for you? Who is he, for me? Perhaps, for us, it has indeed become a question that can only be answered in a personal way … and perhaps, after all, that’s what he always intended.
You know, 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 had shouted “Hosanna!” were now screaming “Crucify Him!” Their love for Jesus was shallow—based entirely on their hope of what exciting things he could do for them. Many, many pilgrims would follow behind Jesus on the road to the throne, but they would not follow him on the road to the cross. They would wave palms before the coming king, but they wanted nothing to do with the Suffering Servant.
On this day, Jesus knew that the end of his earthly ministry was near. It was time to finish what he had started. It was now or never. This was his 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 in every era. Are we so shallow that we will wave palms on one Sunday a year, and sing occasional hymns of praise, but refuse to follow the example of the Servant King?
There is a life ahead of us, and God has a purpose for that life. None of us knows exactly how long our lives will be, or precisely how much time we have left. Whenever we hear of someone who dies too young, we are reminded of those facts.
None of us can know all that the future holds. We don’t know how long we will remain upon this earth. But we do know that God has a purpose for each one of us. Yes. God has a “call” upon your life!
Did you know that? It’s not just pastors and missionaries who receive a “call” from God. Each and every Christian is called to some form of ministry. That may look slightly different for each believer, but I think certain elements remain constant. He calls us to love him—and to love others—with the kind of love that makes a difference. He calls us to speak the truth. He calls us to reach out our hands. He calls us to open up our hearts. And he calls us to do all of that … right now!
May the Lord grant us courage … and wisdom … as we walk our El Camino.