Sometimes we repeat phrases that we’ve learned from others, often without knowing how these phrases originated or what they really mean. My dad used quite a number of them. One was “How about that, Redlegs fans?” I didn’t know what the phrase meant literally, but my brothers and I understood that, when Dad said that, he wanted to call our attention to something he’d done which he thought we should be impressed by.
As an adult, I used it myself when I was similarly proud of myself and was looking for some applause. The first time I said it to Marc, though, he gave me a puzzled look. This was understandable because what I actually said to him was, “How about that, Red Lakes fans?” That’s what I thought my dad had been saying all those years. But, Marc is a Cincinnati native, so he knew that the phrase was used by a local radio announcer about the Cincinnati Reds. Clearly, I’d gotten the gist of the phrase, but I’d missed its actual meaning.
I thought about that when I was teaching the Sunbeam Preschoolers about Palm Sunday. They came to Bible Time with the palm leaves they had cut from green construction paper. They sang a song of Hosannas and Hallelujahs. They waved their leaves and shouted “Hosanna,” which I explained to them means “God save us.” But, even though they can shout “Hosanna” and maybe even remember its definition, it’ll be a long time before they really understand what they’re saying—what they’re asking. Maybe we’re still trying to understand it ourselves.
It’s uncertain what the crowds surrounding Jesus intended when they shouted out that day on the road to Jerusalem. We can pray for God to save us in any number of ways, from any number of perils. But, it’s a pretty sure bet that the salvation they wanted wasn’t the salvation they needed, or the salvation Jesus offered. We may not be so different.
Jesus and his followers had been on the road to Jerusalem for some time, and the followers had been both amazed and frightened by some of the things Jesus had been saying. Jesus had tried to prepare the Twelve for what was coming, but even they still weren’t getting it—that his kingdom wouldn’t be one of earthly power and that its coming would be the occasion of his suffering and execution. Their lack of understanding stood out in sharp relief when James and John asked that Jesus seat them at his right and left hands once he was in charge, stirring up a fair amount of anger from the other ten. Just before our story for today, Jesus had performed what would be his last healing miracle when he restored the sight of Bartimaeus.
When Jesus and his followers neared the villages of Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Jesus sent two of the disciples into the village for a colt. He was very specific in his instructions, even to the point of anticipating what they should say if they were challenged. The disciples use their cloaks to create a padding for Jesus to sit on, and he gets on the donkey and begins to ride. The crowd gets excited about what they see and they begin to treat Jesus as the earthly king they believe he could be—spreading branches and their own clothing on the road before him. The excitement grows and the crowd begins to sing, “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!” God save us.
We usually picture this event as one with all of Jerusalem coming out to meet Jesus, but we don’t know how big the crowd actually was. Certainly, Jesus wasn’t one to exaggerate crowd size for his own benefit, and apparently it wasn’t big enough for the authorities to intervene. But, it included people who had been following him. It likely picked up more people as they neared Jerusalem, since Jesus’ reputation as a healer and teacher was well-known by then. There likely were people making their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. Then there are always people who will join a crowd just to be part of the action.
There’s no evidence yet that the crowd has identified Jesus as the Messiah, but they’re certainly looking for one. They were looking for a military leader—a general who would lead them in battle to oust the Roman occupiers. They were looking for a political king who would restore the Jewish nation to the prominence and prosperity of David’s and Solomon’s kingdoms. They were looking for a liberator—someone like Moses, who would free them from Roman oppression in a new Exodus, a desire which must have felt more urgent as they prepared to celebrate the Passover. Although what they’re shouting is literally a prayer for salvation, their Hosannas are shouted not in prayer to God. They’re shouting in joy and acclamation and hope for the man who just may be the one they’re looking for.
The colt he rides recalls the words of Zechariah when the prophet says, “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will 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.”
The psalms the crowd sings acknowledge Jesus’ arrival as a sign that the kingdom of David is coming. They’re an affirmation of the message Jesus had been preaching: that the kingdom of God had come near. The clothing the crowd spreads before Jesus are akin to the garments spread before Jehu, when he was anointed to become king of Israel, before he eliminated the family of Ahab and the followers of Baal in a series of bloody and gruesome attacks.
But while Jesus is the Messiah the crowd needs, who will bring the salvation they need, he’s not the Messiah they think they need. He chooses to ride a donkey, a symbol of the peace described by Zechariah, but it won’t be a peace achieved by military conquest of nations. It will be a peace between the people and God, achieved by God’s grace. Jesus will rule, but he’ll rule over a faithful people that returns to God. His dominion will be from sea to sea, because no place is outside the dominion of his Father, and all that is his Father’s is his as well. He won’t be clothed in expensive robes and a golden crown, seated on an elaborate throne. His purple robe will be mockingly thrown on him by jeering soldiers. His crown will be made of thorns. And his glory will be revealed on a cross.
When we sing our Hosannas today—when we sing “God save us”—what are we praying to be saved from, really? Like the crowd around Jesus, there are many who pray for salvation from injustice and the systems that prop it up, here and around the globe. They pray for salvation from poverty and violence—from hellish conditions in their home countries that drive them to seek refuge elsewhere. Here and abroad, they pray for relief from pain and hunger and homelessness and danger to their children.
If we’re fortunate enough not to need saving from those burdens, what do our prayers for salvation sound like? We may pray for salvation from the ailments of body, mind, or spirit. How many of us have prayed for release from illness and pain, from addiction, from spirits troubled by anxiety or sadness, either for ourselves or for someone we love?
Or, like the crowds around Jesus, we may pray for salvation from political bodies and movements that we believe are threatening our way of life. The most dramatic evidence of this is the abundance of conspiracy theories that suggest that if we can just be saved from “those people” or “that plot,” all will be well. Prayers for this kind of salvation too often mean that we want things to get better or at least stay the same for ourselves, with little concern for the needs of others. This salvation looks like victory over those whom we oppose.
I think, if we’re honest, we rarely ask God to save us from what we really need to be saved from, and that’s our sinfulness. We need to be saved from all those things in our lives that oppose God’s will for us and the world. I hope that you regularly examine your soul to identify the sin in your life, but if you need some help, this advice from John Wesley’s mother Susanna is as useful today as it was in 1725: “Take this rule, whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things, in short whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.”
The good news is that Jesus has already done the hard work of atoning for our sin. In our Lenten Bible study, we explored the a variety of ways to understand how his entire life, including his death on the cross, did that for us. But, we still need to pray our Hosannas. We still need to pray for God to save us, because the salvation that Jesus secured for us requires a response from us. We need to pray, “Hosanna, God save us by opening our eyes to the sin in our lives and by strengthening our will to refuse it.” “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
There’s more good news. God doesn’t merely save us from something; God saves us for something. God doesn’t merely save us from what we are; God saves us for what we can be—a new creation, heirs with Christ, members of his body. We are saved by the divine intervention of God in Jesus for a relationship of peace and joy and trust in God, empowered to be the ones who carry on Jesus’ mission in the world. We are saved to be the people who bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.
When we pray “God save us,” it’s not a prayer just for ourselves. It’s a prayer for the world. It’s a prayer for all those who labor under the conditions that sin creates, whether it’s their own sin or the sin that infects the systems and structures of our society. When we acknowledge our own sin and turn from it in response to the salvation we’ve been given, as we become the people God has created us to be, using our individual gifts in the service of God’s kingdom, we become agents of change that can begin to rid the wider world of its sin as well.
The people who surrounded Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and shouted “Hosanna” didn’t realize what kind of king they were welcoming. They didn’t yet understand what kind of salvation he would bring. But we do. We know that we have been saved, and we know the one who saves us. We know what we’ve been saved from and what we’ve been saved for. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we know the power of that prayer, “Hosanna, God save us.” As we move through Holy Week to Easter and beyond, let us make that prayer our own. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young