April 05, 2017
By John Nelson.
Scripture: Matthew 21:9-11 (NRSV)
The 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!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Hosanna means help. “Save, we pray!”
Palm branches mean Triumph. Jesus had become more of a “king” than the king. He brought what no king had brought before. They didn’t shout, “Hail, Son of David!” Instead they called, “Save us, Son of David!”
The crowd saw hope riding past them. A little, perhaps, like pressing in to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X; the way the searing speech of Arundhati Roy and Adrienne Rich strips away layers of falsehood to honor what is most vulnerable, most human.
But Jesus was more: human categories no longer fit him. Matthew says it: he declares Jesus rode on a donkey and a colt, making the prophecies of Zechariah come true. This is the heart of Palm Sunday: the promise of the prophesies, come true; the promise of God, humanized, near enough to touch.
Sunday is Passion Sunday, too. Perhaps you’ll hear the story in its entirety in church. If not, I encourage you to read it — Matthew 26:14–27:66 — a story with saving power. Be forewarned: you will reach the end not quite the same as you were when beginning.
Perhaps your change will come through hearing something unfamiliar: in the midst of all those familiar details, a phrase or a person that jumps out from the story in a new way — like Pilate’s wife, who dreamed a warning that might have saved Jesus, or the slave of the high priest, the only one whose blood was shed in Gethsemane, or the cataclysm that followed Jesus’s last breath, when not only the sacred curtain of the temple was torn in two, but the bodies of saints who had fallen asleep were raised, to wait in suspended, pregnant expectation for the resurrection.
The sacred story becomes a mirror that tells more truth about you than the brightly-lit looking glass where you encountered yourself this morning. You meet the part of your self that believes, and the part of your self that doesn’t. The part of you that finds it symbolic and interesting that the temple curtain was torn, but not very likely a real occurrence. The part of you ready to see another human being as entirely enemy. You see your selves, a little more clearly: the selves that satisfy us and the selves that we hide from.
The story puts us there, in the crowd that watched Jesus of Nazareth, that strange wandering rabbi who upset so many people and filled so many with passion. We are among those who scapegoated him, and we are among those who wept when he took that dreadful walk to Golgotha.
The story changes us when we read it closely, especially with companions. It takes us, just as we are, and confronts us together. Waiting for relief from despair. Waiting for someone to see our souls and love us as we are. Waiting for life, and love, and laughter, and new hope. Waiting, together, for the hope of the ages to arrive — and holding one another, in heart-rending belief, when even eternal hope dies on the cross of humankind’s inhumanity.
God, on this day of hosannas and of horror, help me remember that you are large enough to contain my hope, my joy, my fear, my despair — with room enough for the passion of every fellow creature and all creation. Lead me through this Holy Week with “Hosanna” on my lips: “Save us, Living Word of God!” Amen.
The Rev. Dr. John A. Nelson is pastor and teacher of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, MA, an innkeeper, and an occasional writer for the UCC's StillSpeaking Devotional.
April 05, 2017