Have you ever noticed that if you look at a familiar word or object over and over long enough, that it seems like it doesn’t make sense? There is something about diving deeply into a subject that takes you outside the way you have always seen it and brings you into a new dimension of understanding. It can also coincidentally, take you into a space of looking at yourself in a new way because generally speaking the things we notice outside of ourselves are reflections of what goes on inside us, which is why we notice them at all. It’s all about us! In any case, repetitive activity sensitizes you to new thoughts and new ways of seeing. You can do this with simple familiar things, like your own name for instance. Take a moment to close your eyes and think about your first name. Repeat it in your mind and let it roll over your tongue in your mind’s eye. You don’t have to say it out loud, but you can if you want to. Just say it over and over and see if you can notice a shift in how you hear it or how you feel about your very own name.
Now, please pick up the palm you have been given this morning and take a close look at it. Notice the color and even the hue gradations of the different parts of the palm frond. Feel the texture of it and smell its natural fragrance. It is just a palm but think, what is a palm anyway and why do we hand them out every Palm Sunday? I have been taking them home for decades but afterwards I don’t really do much with them, however palms are marvelous things when you do some looking into them. For those of us who love to visit Florida, California or the Caribbean, one of the attractions is getting away from the snow and stark vegetation to see the beautiful green palms everywhere. Did you know, there are over 2500 species of palm trees and they are found from deserts to rainforests and some are not actually trees at all but shrubs. Palm trees have a history with humans as old as the first societies. The date palm was commonly used in Mesopotamia for food and Romans gave palm branches as a symbol of triumph to the winning champions of games and wars. Palm trees are important religious symbols found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Quran and in the New Testament.
Appropriately, we celebrate the multitudes of beautiful green palm vegetation on Palm Sunday while we observe and recognize Jesus’ triumphant ride into Jerusalem only one week prior to his Crucifixion. Palm trees have been utilized for centuries and so it is somehow fitting that a nurturing, enduring plant would be associated with the ministry and most important event of the great nurturer, Jesus. The Gospel from Matthew says:
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him 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!’
This was indeed an honor for Jesus but why? Why did the people in Jerusalem think of Jesus as “blessed” and as “the son of David?”
Let’s start with the meaning of the word Hosanna. Hosanna is a “joyful Aramaic exclamation of praise, apparently specific to the major Jewish religious festivals (especially Passover and Tabernacles). Originally an appeal for deliverance (as in) ‘please save’ hosanna came into liturgical usage to serve as an expression of joy and praise for deliverance granted or anticipated. When Jesus came to Jerusalem for his final presentation of himself to Israel, the expression came readily to the lips of the Passover crowds. In the Bible, the expression hosanna occurs only in accounts of that (particular) event. According to Matthew, the crowd that accompanied Jesus that day shouted ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ (21:9) and the Gospels of Matthew (and Mark) conclude the people's cries with ‘Hosanna in the highest’ (claiming) Jesus as God's anointed one from the house of David of whom the prophets had spoken and through whom they hoped that all their messianic expectations would be fulfilled. However misguided their particular expectations may have been, their actions underscore the theme of the Gospels that Jesus is indeed the promised son of David through whom the redemption announced by God's prophets has come. In him the age-old cry, ‘Lord, save us,’ (became) the doxology, ‘Hosanna,’ which equals: ‘Praise God and his Messiah, we are saved.’
Some Christians believe the Prophet Zechariah in Hebrew Scripture foretold the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem in this way:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion (Israel) Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
It would seem that from Zechariah’s time to the last days of Jesus, prophets foretold and people were hoping for peace on earth. It still has not come has it? The ancients were tired of the endless wars and land grabs that were all too common. The people of Jerusalem were genuinely happy to see Jesus and believed he would bring them peace and a better life. So, what happened? How did things become so bad for Jesus after that triumphant ride? Where are we today? Is the world more peaceful now? If you read about the terrible slaughter and maiming of people including little children by chemical weapons in Syria on Tuesday and the strikes on Syrian military facilities Friday morning, you know that we still have a long way to go. In my opinion it is unconscionable that the death of innocents was turned into a political football. Children died. Skin and lungs burned. What kind of a world do we live in that turns such a tragedy into political posturing? I have grown weary and exasperated by government people who call themselves Christians and wear the label like a protective cloak. I am exasperated with radical conservative Christians claiming to be the only true Christians. History is filled with self-righteous people of faith who divide us in the name of God. Would some have us all do what they would do rather than what we believe Jesus would have us do? No thank you.
But back to the story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem. How do you think he personally felt that day? Was he happy? Proud? Did he himself feel he was a king? Did he like the praise? Or was he skeptical and afraid for what was to come? Was he fully aware of what was about to happen to him as the week worn on? Some theologians say yes and others say no. I would urge you to read the Bible yourself and read different commentaries on this passage to come to your own conclusion. One thing is certain, there is no one alive who was there at the time and we can only go by what the writers of the Gospel and what academics tell us. Depending upon which version of the Bible you like and whose commentary you read, you are likely to retain that view. But you know, I believe you can’t beat doing your own thinking about it based upon your own life experience. While you are reading and meditating on this scripture, think “how would I have felt in Jesus’ circumstance that day?” “What would it be like for me to ride into Worcester on a donkey and have everyone cheer me on, wave palm branches and spread out their coats for me? It would have been pretty heady stuff. Turning to Psalm 118 which we read, there is a similar reference to the day saying,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. Palm Sunday is all about the jubilant welcome and praise of Jesus to come and save the world from the evil pervasive in government, in the marketplace, in the lack of sanitation and in the poverty people endured. I would like to think the world is a better place than that now but even though 2000 years have passed, are we still balking at his teachings? The cheering Jerusalem crowd were everyday people like you and me yet within a week’s time their cheers turned to jeers for the man they hoped would be king. The question to ask as we wave our palms and rejoice in the lord is; how are we complicit in the downfall of one with a message so good, so pure and sacred? How do we turn our complicity into virtuousness in order that we might further Jesus message of peace in the world? It’s a new way to think of Palm Sunday.