FOR PALM SUNDAY this year, many Lutheran congregations read from the Gospel According to Saint John. This is done within the context of the Procession of the Palms. The words of scripture are thus read during the first worship moments, wherein we of the church note a graceful occasion in the ministry of Jesus. During the event, as well, we do a work termed as the “Blessing of the Palms”. The blessing is followed in the remaining service by the later full reading of the Passion of Our Lord. This later text is central to our worship experience, for it describes the fullness our Lord’s passion for our salvation. Therefore, today for the sake of setting the stage for these observances, we concentrate on the words of blessed John. The gospel reads. . .
The next day a great crowd who had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
And Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it; as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”.
His disciples did not understand this at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that this had been written of him and had been done to him.
The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.
The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him.” (John 12:12-19)
The New King!
From the last decade of the first century, the final form of the Gospel of John related the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem for the “Feast of the Passover”. The feast commemorates the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb that was killed for each household that hid behind closed doors as the wrath of God lay judgment upon Egypt. Historically, the blood of the lamb was placed above the doorway of each enslaved family, so that God would “pass over” them and the plague would not harm them.
As Jesus went toward Jerusalem for that year’s Passover celebration, he was headed toward the gate of the city and a crowd met him. They swept him up with them and began a joyous parade, treating him as he was a conquering hero or victorious monarch (see 1 Maccabees 13:51). The throng thus welcomed him as they would a returning “King of the Jews”. According to the gospel writer, this sweeping event occurred as response to his raising of Lazarus from the dead.
This scene is scripturally presented elsewhere (Mark 11:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11, and Luke 19:28-40), but our author in John shortened the account and provided us with an interpretation of the event. This lay in the declaration that Jesus was the new King! Some analysts say that in the late first century, John deliberately heightened the accent placed upon our crucified Lord’s royalty in order to demonstrate Jesus’ enduring lordship. The Resurrection had occurred and time marched on for the persecuted church. In the latter portion of the first century the original disciples were fading away from the scene due to age and death, and what was told by them needed to be gathered by their hearers. All needed to be written down.
The accent thus shifted from the earlier Markan telling of our Lord’s crucifixion as made for the payment needed over against our sinfulness, but rather here was focused upon the crucifixion and the Resurrection. It seems that John thus emphasized our Lord’s death and the glory of his victory over death. This is truly seen clearly, for in the final decade nearest the turn of the first century . . . persecutions continued to rise greatly against Christians across the Roman Empire.
John thus portrayed Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem in similar fashion to the other gospels. Like the other gospels, he noted that Jesus rode into the city on the back of a young donkey. This very act is historically symbolic. You see, the spontaneous act of the believing people gathered on that day, witnessed about Jesus as someone chosen by God to rule Israel. Thus in John, our Lord was hailed as the Messianic King! This emphasis was made, though the meaning of that title was not understood by those gathered around Jesus on that wondrous day.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:9-11)
The crowd thus sang “Hosanna!” as they went along. Originally the saying was a shout that meant “Deliver us please!” They hoped Jesus would deliver them and Israel from worldly, evil powers. Indeed he would, but not in the way they assumed.
By the time of this writing in John’s text, however, the meaning of the cry had changed for the church. The Christians by then wholly claimed the work of salvation as an activity that was done, once and for all time. Therefore the shout became one of high praise! Jesus, the Messiah… the Christ... had eternally saved them!
Those Christians in the early church already knew that they had been saved from the death penalty caused by their sins. They knew that each of them, being the baptized of God… had already been delivered. As evidence we point to the original meanings. Originally, at the time of our Lord’s entry into the city, we find roots of their faith in the procession in the psalms…
Save us, we beseech thee, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech thee, give us success!
Blessed be he who enters in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord. (Psalm 118:25-27)
We find also that palms were used for procession during the Feast of Dedication, which celebrated the building of the Jerusalem temple. Thus used by some at the time to note Israel’s nationalistic hopes, the approach of Jesus as King of kings, took on pretense of welcoming a Messiah who would conquer foreign invasion and drive opposing powers out of Israel. But the salvation that God provided to us in Jesus was not that he was a centering national ruler. Salvation was offered by God, through Jesus Christ. He had come to the city in the same way as God had appointed Israel’s ancient judges, who rode to office for the tribes of Israel on the back of a donkey. However, this man Jesus, was god’s only begotten Son. He was the one sent into the world for us and for our salvation.
The Old King and the New…
Historically we know that after freedom from Egypt was provided by God and the yet-to-be nation’s desert wanderings of Israel were past, the nation was sent to drive out the perverted powers of Canaan. As the scriptures revealed, however, the call to drive out the pagans was not fulfilled. Instead, the nation of Israel became polluted. As the servant nation of the day, the Hebrews did not exercise the divine and holy will. Intermarriage of Judaism and pagan beliefs prostituted the nation. And so we find the same environment exists with the church today.
Therefore, we of the church are called to particularly note Jesus’ mode of entry into the city. Rather than being mounted on a great horse such as occurred when Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem riding a lowly donkey. He rode a poor man’s beast of burden! In this ancient tradition, John and the other writers found truth. The scriptures contrasted the power exerted by conflict and war, set over against the power of God which was exercised in lowly servitude. Jesus was held up before us to be an example, as the true Messiah… a Servant King! Consider this… he washed our feet teaching us so to be servants. He fed us his body and blood so that we can live forgiven and feed the Word of salvation to others. The centrality with the gospel story is thus not in the procession as victory parade, but the inability of his followers to see that the fulfillment of his mission involved his death upon the cross.
John thus portrayed for the emerging and growing church of the first century, that Jesus had consistently pointed the way forward even as he rode into Jerusalem. The church was thus revealed by the Holy Spirit to be called to rise up as servants to others in future history. We are to rise up in spite of, and possibly because of… oppression and evil powers working within the world. Naming that we are Christians, we continue the work that our Servant King had finished upon the cross. We, the church, through the power of the Spirit become the body of Christ.
This was the recognition missed during that famous procession. In keeping with the confusion of the day the followers of Jesus missed his true salvation message. His purpose was not to save the Jewish nationalism, nor the temple. Those that followed him faithfully saw that after the crucifixion and Resurrection, both the human and divine nature of the Servant King became known to them. Then, at Pentecost the Holy Spirit clearly taught them just what our Lord’s being the “King of kings” really meant. This, I consider to be John’s central message. Jesus came that those who would believe in him might be saved. He alone is our Redeemer!
So it is with the church of today’s world. We find principalities and powers in the world yet fight for power and control. And like the Pharisees, they lament that the gospel proclamation cannot be quenched nor destroyed, try as they might. As we hear of troubles and terror caused by power-hungry forces prowling in lands around the globe, those who attempt to stamp out the lives of Christian martyrs shall find that they perform a futile task. Jesus is King of kings!
The flow of history rests in the hands of our Creator. Jesus is our Deliver from the powers of death and evil. Thus we hear in this cry a flow that exists far beyond even our own understanding.
Brother and sisters in Christ, this good news comes to us written from across the centuries. Thus we join the cry… “Hosanna, Hosanna… blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
By the power of the Holy Spirit given to the church, we have faith which is to be active in love. This is what the “Procession of the Palms” reveals. Declare the good news of God’s redemption of us through Christ Jesus, our Lord. We of the church now gathered in the confusion of a modern age, may in the tradition of the ancients… yet lay the meager branches of our lives freely before him. This is indeed the faith of the people of God.