On the Ancient and Echoing Cry for Help
March 28, 2021
John 12: 12-19
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
The sixth Sunday in Lententide, the full moon, and the first day of Passover.
Today’s sermon is titled On the Ancient and Echoing Cry for Help. This is an odd title for a sermon, I know. I changed it five times and still came back to this one: On the Ancient and Echoing Cry for Help. This title conjures sadness and desperation; it carries an ominous tone. This is not the way I like to start a sermon. This is Palm Sunday and we usually strike a rather joyous tone. After all, the minister is so relieved that the palms arrived on time, there are usually children delighted to have something to hold in their little hands, and it can be quite entertaining to watch the other adults trying to figure out what to actually do with the palm once seated in the pew, taking care not to poke one’s neighbor or to drop it on the floor, but it doesn’t really fit anywhere and it’s a bit awkward. Remember? That’s how it would be in a more normal year.
Our year has been a lot of things, but normal is not on the list. The circumstances of the past year have moved us to a place where, perhaps more than ever before in our lives, we can relate to those Hebrew people who, the scriptures say, were “shouting” at Jesus. They were shouting “Hosanna!” I, for one, have never given much thought to this word “Hosanna.” We read that the people shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord- the King of Israel!” I have always assumed that “Hosanna” was shouted with jubilation and adulation; I believe I have been mistaken.
This week, I learned that “Hosanna” is a Greek translation of a Hebrew word ,הושיעה נא (hôšîʿâ-nā) that has two parts: יָשַׁע- “yasha” which means “to save or deliver” and אָנּאָ – “anna” which means “please, I beseech.” Even in Arabic we find a similar translation of the word ʾōshaʿnā ܐܘܿܫܲܥܢܵܐ meaning “save, rescue.” Jesus entered Jerusalem and the people shouted, “Save us! Please, save us!” It is an ancient and echoing cry.
Behind the people shouting would have been the Roman centurions, stationed all over the city to “keep the peace” which is just a polite way of saying, “keep the people under control.” The Roman forces were far outnumbered as the Hebrew people gathered in the thousands to celebrate Passover. They gathered to remember how they had been spared from the deadly plague that swept through Egypt and claimed the lives of the youngest Egyptians. The people gathered in the city where their temple still stood, against all odds, as a testament that not all hope is lost. Living under foreign occupation and an unfair tax burden was crippling for them, but in this celebration of Passover they remembered that God had protected their ancestors from the plague; it had, literally, passed over them. This plague convinced the Egyptian king to finally release them and Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery, out of bondage, and out from under oppression. In making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, the Hebrew people were not only remembering, they were also sending a message to the occupying Roman forces: “We are still here. We are still many. We are not free now but we have been freed from slavery before and we hope to be freed again.”
The people would also be remembering another iconic figure entering Jerusalem 200 years before. Judas Maccabeus, nicknamed “The Hammer,” liberated Jerusalem from another occupying power, the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids had come from the north and west, invading Jerusalem, taking over the temple, erecting a statue of Zeus and killing Jerusalem residents by the thousands. Judas Maccabeus led the rebellion that defeated the invaders. Judas Maccabeus was welcomed into the city with palm branches and jubilant celebrations because the people had been freed and their temple had been restored and reconsecrated. The palms became a significant symbol of liberation when Judas Maccabeus, after he was made King, embossed all coins with an image of a palm branch so the people would remember.
The people remember. And there is good reason now to hope again for liberbation, for freedom, for a savior. There were rumors circulating that, just a few days before, a man by the name of Lazarus had been raised from the dead just a few miles outside the city. I can almost hear the people saying to one another, “Who raised him from the dead? Was it a prophet? Could it be the Messiah we have been waiting for for thousands of years? What perfect timing it would be, right here at Passover, for the Messiah to come and free us from the Romans, just like Moses freed our ancestors!”
The people shout, “Hosanna! Deliver us! Save us!” The Roman soldiers hold more tightly to their weapons. The Roman Governor watches warily as Jesus passes by the temple. Something must be done, the governor decides. “We told you so,” said the Temple Priests, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” But in a few days, something will be done. The prophet will be arrested and questioned. The prophet will not speak, will not defend himself. He will be found guilty of blasphemy, guilty of claiming to be God. He will be murdered, like so many other prophets before and since. Jesus will go willingly to his death and he will tell his disciples, “it was for this hour that I have come.”
The people were hoping for a king to save them and they were disappointed. Jesus will not drive out the Romans; he will drive out a different kind of oppressor. He will drive out fear in the hearts of thousands of his followers who would be persecuted in the centuries to come. He will drive out judgement and hatred in the hearts of billions that over the millenia have truly followed his teachings, teachings that call for love of one another and love of God above all else. He will drive out our fear of the future in all of our hearts today, and tomorrow, and forever and ever each time we can shift from worry to trust, for even in the darkest of times there is love. Jesus died to prove to us that love is stronger than death and in this season we pause to remember.
As we take pause, we hear that the ancient and echoing cry for help is ringing still; ringing from those who have lost loved ones to gun violence, ringing from brothers and sisters all around the world who have no idea when they may have access to a vaccine; ringing from those desperate to make a living wage; ringing from those who are sick and tired of being seen for the color of their skin instead of the content of their character; ringing from those who flee impossible conditions in the country of their birth in search of security and opportunity.
In closing, it seems appropriate to end with a few moments of silence…silence in honor of a love so limitless that not even death could overcome it…silence that allows the voices of those still crying for help to be heard…
“For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Amen.
God of Grace, we pray for Your healing light to shine on us this morning. May our bodies and our minds and the depths of our souls be illuminated by Your brilliance. With You working in and through us, we are limitless; help us to love with a divine love that leaves no room for fear. Help us to access knowledge beyond our knowing, so that as we follow Christ we carry His wisdom within us. May we be the peace that overgrows violence. May we be the caring that overgrows apathy. May we be the welcome that overgrows isolation. God, we pray your healing light upon our world and upon every brother and sister in the family of humanity. In sensing our worth as recipients of Your love, may we become more able to love one another. Through this prayer that Jesus gave us, hear our voice as one church, united in Your service…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Frederich Buechner: “And now brothers and sisters, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without Him is the real death, that to die with Him the only life?”
Theologian William Carter links Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem with the creation of peace in the following quote: “Jesus enters into a deadly situation without force or protection. He gives himself without reservation…as a sign of God’s vulnerable love. This is the means by which God creates peace.” This is the means by which God creates Peace! Listen to this one more time. “Jesus enters into a deadly situation without force or protection. He gives himself without reservation…as a sign of God’s vulnerable love.” What can this mean for us? I think it is this: we are called, like Jesus, to enter into the unknown dangers of our future, and to give of ourselves without reservation as a sign of God’s vulnerable love. This is the means by which God creates peace, in us and through us.
So as we face the unknown future and our own inevitable death, we are served to remember how Jesus rode into what seems like a hostile and dangerous city on a young colt, not on a high horse. As we face judgements and accusations, we are served to remember how Jesus gave of himself without reservation, asking God, even as he hung on the cross, to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” As we face our deepest fears, we are served to remember Jesus as a sign of God’s vulnerable love, and know that nothing we are called to face will be greater than what Jesus endured.
The people led by the Maccabees are waving palms after reclaiming the temple through slaughter and bloodshed. In contrast, Jesus and the martyrs reclaim the living temple, not through shedding the blood of others, but by shedding their own blood. The heroes of the Maccabees are military fighters. The heroes of the Church are the martyrs, the spiritual fighters. Jesus is offering a choice on Palm Sunday: the way of seeking freedom that leads to the misery and horror of warfare or the way of freedom that leads to the cross and resurrection: the victory of love over evil. The Hosanna-shouting crowds in Jerusalem wanted the way of the Maccabees, but Jesus says to his disciples, “Follow me, take up your cross and follow me.” There is life and victory and freedom beyond the cross, but for the Christian in the fallen world, there is no way around the cross. There is no Pascha without Holy Friday.