March 20, 2016 ~ Palm Sunday
TEXT: Luke 19:28b-40
As [Jesus] was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (LUKE 19:37-38)
So begins Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The people of the city—or, at least, many of them—catch sight of Jesus, and they go wild with reckless enthusiasm. “Jesusmania,” as Tim Rice called it.*
Yes, the Palm Sunday circus has come to town! And to each and every one of us, it is a familiar account—isn’t it? From years of Sunday School processions and decades of gospel readings, we all know the story of Palm Sunday. Probably, most of us could describe these events without even opening a Bible.
But, did you notice? There’s an important word that’s missing from Luke’s account, which Marlene read for us earlier. And that word is: “Hosanna!” Luke never uses it. He doesn’t mention palms, either—but for me, it is the missing hosanna that stands out. All of the other gospels use that word.
In chapter 21 of Matthew’s gospel, we read: “The crowds that went ahead of [Jesus] and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (MATT. 21:9)
Mark tells us that “those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (MARK 11:9-10)
John’s account says, “they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet [Jesus], shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!’” (JOHN 12:13)
So why doesn’t Luke place “Hosanna!” on the lips of the crowd? Well … perhaps he does, indirectly.
Hosanna is an Aramaic rendering of the Hebrew phrase hosia na—and the original gospel texts from Matthew, Mark, and John all transliterate the Aramaic word, inserting it—verbatim—into their Greek sentences. Luke, however, appears to paraphrase it with the Greek word for “glory”—as in “glory in the highest heaven” in verse 38.
No matter. It seems obvious that hosannas were indeed raised for Jesus as he entered the city gates. But what is this word? What does “hosanna” mean?
Originally, it was an appeal for deliverance. Hosia na means, “please save!” or “I beg you to save!” or “please deliver us!” In temple liturgical usage, it came to serve as an expression of joy and praise for deliverance—whether granted or anticipated. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the words erupted from the Passover crowds.
The ones who shouted “Hosanna” on that day believed that Jesus was God’s Messiah—the “anointed one”—the “Son of David” heralded by the prophets. They hoped that—through him—all their messianic expectations would be fulfilled. For them, hosanna was both a cry for salvation and a recognition that Jesus was able to save.
“Jesus saves!” That’s a familiar proclamation even today. However, we understand it quite differently than the way in which the Jerusalem crowds understood it. They were hoping for a warrior Messiah who would drive the Roman occupiers out of their homeland and restore the Davidic line to the nation’s royal house. Kind of like a political candidate who promises to “make our country great again.”
Of course, they were in for a huge let-down. As Jesus himself kept trying to tell them, he was not going to be that kind of Messiah. The salvation he offered was of a different quality altogether—and the only blood being shed would be his own. As that became clear, the disappointed crowds would cease their “hosannas” and—scarcely five days later—take up another cry: “Crucify him!”
And the rest, as they say, is history. The true nature of Jesus’ Messiahship—and of the salvation he offers—would not start to become clear until Easter morning. And I would suggest that the true “saving significance” of Christ is still being made clear in our time.So what does it mean to say that “Jesus saves”? Or to cry out to him, “Hosanna! Save me! Lord, deliver us!”
What is this “salvation” that Jesus brings?
Over the centuries, much ink has been devoted to this topic—as well as a great deal of heated discussion and even acrimonious debate. The field of theological studies dealing with theories of salvation is called soteriology, and scholars have offered numerous perspectives.
One of these is Anselm’s theory of “substitutionary atonement,” which I talked about the Sunday before last. It is today the dominant opinion amongst Christians, especially in the West. In a nutshell … even though it’s too grand a line of reasoning to comfortably fit in a nutshell … substitutionary atonement holds that Christ met the requirements of divine justice by taking responsibility for our sins upon himself, and dying in our place.
Another view is called the Christus Victor theory. The idea here is that humanity was enslaved by the powers of death and evil, and that Jesus achieved salvation for all by reconciling us with God through his death and resurrection. When Christ returned from the grave, he won the decisive battle in a centuries-old struggle between God and Satan. Which means Jesus was a kind of warrior, after all.
Another one is called “moral transformation” or the “moral influence theory,” which holds that Jesus saved people from sinfulness through his life and teachings. In other words, the struggle for faithful discipleship itself has transforming power. As the believer strives to follow the example and teachings of Jesus, he or she becomes righteous in God’s sight—even though moral perfection is not expected, and mistakes are forgiven.
There are plenty of other salvation theories, plus variations of variations of theories. Personally, I find none of them completely satisfying. Trying to nail down an exactly correct, precise definition of just how it is that Jesus saves us … Well, I think that’s a bit like attempting to scientifically explain love. It is something that always eludes our complete understanding.
But you know when you’re in love, don’t you? It is, ultimately, subjective—and it is the most profound experience that any of us will ever have. We cannot adequately describe it. We may not completely understand it, but it is authentic. We know it’s real because of the effect it has upon us. It utterly transforms us.
I think the salvation Jesus offers is like that, too. It’s like a love affair. It’s like a personal relationship. It binds together those who experience it—and yet, each person’s experience of it is unique.
This kind of touches on what I mean when I say that the true saving significance of Christ is still being made clear today; it is continually being re-discovered in the life of each believer. And it can only be described anecdotally—through testimony, through the telling of stories.
With that in mind, I’m going to tell you three stories. Don’t worry … none of them are very long. A couple of these are stories some of you have heard before. But—as I was reminded very recently—many of you have not.
The first story is one of those you may have heard me tell before—actually, as recently as January of this year.
If you’re one of those who heard it then, I beg your forbearance. I keep using it because I think it’s so powerful. It’s about a young woman I’ll call Susan. When I met her in Kamloops, Susan had been clean and sober for several years. Before that, she had been addicted to heroin, and worked as a street prostitute in Vancouver. In those days, Susan would do whatever she had to do to get money for drugs.
To be sure, from time to time, she would half-heartedly try to stop using—but (of course) without success. Susan told me that a big part of her problem was that she hated her life—and so she could see no good reason for straightening it out.
That is, not until her baby girl was born.
It quickly became obvious that Susan’s drug use had seriously damaged this poor infant. The baby looked normal enough, but she screamed and cried most of the time, and she was very sick all of the time. When Susan saw this, it broke her heart. She had not expected to love this little girl. And she was appalled by the harm she had done.
The infant was, of course, apprehended by social services and placed in foster care. But Susan wanted her daughter back. And so, for the first time in her life, she had a compelling reason to change. She went into rehab once again—but this time, she worked very hard to get well. After that, she joined a support group and made some tremendous positive changes in her life.
To make a long story short, Susan’s child was eventually returned to her. That was many years ago, and that baby girl has herself now grown into a fine young woman. You see, Susan turned out to be a very good mother. If you were to ask her what made the difference for her—what finally made her want to turn her life around—Susan would tell you it was the sight of her newborn baby in severe distress.
In that moment, she found out not only what love feels like—but also what it looks like. Love showed her how terrible her addiction (her “sin,” if you like) truly was. And her love for her child—her own unanticipated love—was what finally brought her to repentance.
As I contemplate her story, it occurs to me that—in a quite literal sense—Susan’s baby daughter became as Christ for her. In her own tiny body, she bore her mother’s sin, and by doing so … she removed it. Susan experienced her daughter’s suffering vicariously—and that transformed her. A case of “substitutionary atonement” if ever there was one!
I think the salvation Jesus offers looks just like that.
Then again, I think salvation looks like a recently-released convict I also met in Kamloops, some years ago. I got to know this man through some outreach work I was doing through the New Life Mission in that city. He was an example of someone who actually did turn his life around while in prison, and was trying very hard to re-enter society—and his faith was a huge support to him as he struggled to do that. One day, he surprised me with something he said. He said, “I don’t want to be a murderer anymore.”
Like I said, that surprised me—in fact, it shocked me. In an instant, I realized two things. First, I realized it had never occurred to me that you could decide to stop being a murderer! I believed a person could repent of wrongdoing and turn from it … but, without ever having thought much about it, I just figured that once you had killed someone … well, you were a murderer. That’s what you were, as if that somehow defined you.
But, in a flash, I also realized that this fellow was a living example of the kind of change the apostle Paul describes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, chapter five, where he writes:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself … in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them … (2 COR. 5:17-19, ESV)
Here, again, is a case of profound transformation through the power of Christ. The one who is in Christ is, indeed, a new creature—a fresh creation. That’s the kind of salvation Jesus offers us. And it does sound like a hard-won victory, doesn’t it?
My final story comes from a conversation I had many years ago with a woman who taught journalism here in Calgary. She told me how, when in her early 20s she was a fledgling reporter in Ottawa, she somehow landed an interview with a very well-known Canadian politician. One day, this man would be prime minister—albeit briefly. At the time, he was minister of justice.
Anyhow, she told me about how this man warmly welcomed her into his private office, where she set up her tape recorder and proceeded with the interview, which lasted well over an hour. Then, when the interview was done, she picked up her recording device … and discovered that she had never turned it on! In her nervousness, she had forgotten to do that.
How terribly embarrassing. And yet, she told me that when this important cabinet minister—this very busy man—realized what had happened, he went out of his way to make light of the situation, trying to make her feel better.
What he did next was unexpected. He invited her to have dinner with him in the parliamentary cafeteria, where he happily re-did the entire interview!
“And,” she said to me, “he didn’t even hit on me!”Something which, apparently, powerful men occasionally do …
Now, I don’t know if my friend the journalism instructor was aware of it, but—by various accounts and his own testimony—this Canadian politician was and is a serious Christian. I don’t think I knew that about him when I first heard this story—but when, later, I learned this fact, I immediately remembered the tale of the young female reporter and her interview gone wrong. And I remembered her words: “He didn’t even hit on me!”
And I thought to myself: at some point, because of his relationship with Christ, this man had decided: “I am never gonna be that guy!”
That sounds like “moral influence” to me. As someone once said, “the difference between an ethical man and a moral man is that, while an ethical man knows he shouldn’t cheat on his wife, a moral man actually wouldn’t!”
At any rate, I guess my point is simply this: when you’re trying to figure out what “salvation” looks like, you need to ask yourself what it looks like in your own life. We have a wonderful Saviour. He may not always give us what we think we want, but always—always—he offers us what we really need. I invite each of you to ponder that, in the week ahead.
That way, maybe—just maybe—come Easter morning, you will discover Jesus rising up in your own heart. And you may find yourself raised, with him, to new and abundant life. May it be so. Amen.
* Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice: “This Jesus Must Die” from Jesus Christ Superstar (1970): “What then to do about this Jesusmania? How do we deal with the carpenter king? Where do we start with a man who is bigger than John was when John did his Baptism thing?” [http://lyrics.wikia.com/wiki/Andrew_Lloyd_Webber_%26_Tim_Rice:This_Jesus_Must_Die]