Palm Sunday: Marching for Jesus

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John 12:12-16

One of my earliest memories is Paul Harvey’s voice on the radio. I can’t tell you much about many of the stories I heard or any of those final, key things that Paul always held back until the end of a story, but I remember the way he would sign off, with the show’s title: “I’m Paul Harvey, and now you know the rest of the story.”

When I started to look at this John passage from Palm Sunday, I happened to notice that, in true Paul Harvey style, that John had indeed left off the rest of the story until the end, but that wasn’t included in the Gospel reading, so here you go.

Jesus came into Jerusalem with palms waving, sitting on a donkey. You’d expect the son of God to come in on a mighty steed, but nope: young donkey.

(Side sermon: I’ve heard it said that during this whole parade, the donkey must’ve thought it was pretty special — like the whole thing was about him. We can get like that when people start complimenting us for the things we do for Jesus, but I’ve heard it said that when we do that, we’re like the donkey, and we’d do well to remember: we’re not the show. We’re just the asses that get to bring in Jesus. Moving on.)

So Jesus comes in on a donkey and is greeted with palms, but have you ever wondered exactly why they gathered? I’ve always assumed that it was because of his popularity spreading through the city, then people told other people that he was coming and then everyone gathered. At least in John, though, that’s not the whole story, and this is obviously before social media could be used to gather thousands of people in mere hours. The book of John continues where we left off:

So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to tell everyone about it. It was because they heard that he had [raised Lazarus from the dead] that the crowd went to meet him.”

They weren’t just gathering to hear a teacher. They were rallying because the whole city of Jerusalem had heard by then that he had brought a dead guy back to life.

The Israelites by this point in history were becoming a desperate lot. They were under the thumb of powerful Rome, searching for anything that might give them hope. They were a small people living in a land occupied by a superpower. Since long before the Romans, they had lived in a land that was prime real estate to say the least: a series of key ports on the Mediterranean Sea and good land for farming.

As a small people, they held their own, but biblical history shows us that they also often got conquered. In the time of Jesus, they lived in an occupied land under an often cruel superpower.

By the time Jesus is born, the very DNA of the Israelites is crying out for hope. Literally.

Hosanna, after all, comes from two roots meaning “Save us, we pray.” And calling Jesus “the King of Israel” when Rome ruled the land? Needless to say, that was some provocative political speech.

We’ve got a lot people in our own world shouting “Save us!” these days, from the students and supporters who gathered for the March for Our Lives yesterday, to those around the world who have lived in their own war-torn lands for too long.

We’ve got people shouting “save us” because they are afraid of domestic and foreign terrorism, war with North Korea, racist violence of all kinds, sexual harassment and assault, right down to being afraid of the other political party being in or taking control. We’re not unfamiliar with the sentiment. We, too, are crying out to the powers that be to be saved. And sometimes, we hold rallies and marches, too.

It’s notable on Palm Sunday that this where the people of God had found themselves in their long history: rallying together in the streets, calling out “Save us!” to a poor, homeless teacher born to a carpenter who rode in on a young donkey. The only particularly exceptional thing about him to this crowd, as far as we know, is that rumor had it that he had called a dead man out of his tomb and given him back alive to his family. So they gather together, and they march. For new life, for new hope, for a chance to be saved.

“Hosanna! Save us, we pray!”

We are not unfamiliar with rallies and marches. People of all political persuasions and none have been known to rally and to march. At their best, if the cause is worthy, they can clear the way for new hope, new energy, new life. But marches and rallies are never an end in themselves. It is not enough to simply gather and cheer. Marches and rallies are a beginning.

Palm Sunday, naturally, is no different. Palm Sunday was a march for Jesus. And it was only the beginning.

This, of course, is only the beginning of the story of Holy Week. To get to the rest of the story, I’ll need to see you on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. I certainly understand that life happens and people are busy, but if you’re able and you’ve never done so before and even if you have, live this story with me. Come an experience the rest of the story. Experience what happens after everyone goes home from the rally.

You’ve already held an actual palm in your hand and laid a garment down before Jesus. On Thursday, come feel water on your feet and taste bread and wine and remember that fraught night when Jesus shared a last meal with his friends. Pray with him in the garden. Hear him betrayed. On Friday, attend the service that serves as his funeral. And come to the tomb when the sun sets on Saturday to see heaven meet earth as the whole history of earth spins on its axis and the fire of new life is kindled.

What I have said every single year I say to you now: forget you know the ending.

Just as we do not how all of this turns out, whether in our lives or in our national story, Jesus’ friends who came into Jerusalem with him did not know what they were in for, either. They had no idea as they walked through the streets of Jerusalem to cheers that their beloved rabbi would be dead by the end of the week.

Though many churches try to brighten up Good Friday by referencing Easter, I refuse. Because the disciples went away sad and confused and hopeless that day. When our loved ones and friends die, we walk away from their graves sad and confused and hopeless. If Jesus’ death was not a real death, there’s nothing to celebrate next Sunday.

So here’s your invitation: make time this week, if at all possible, to join in the Story — especially if you never have before. Because liturgical Christians don’t just read about Jesus. We see his story, taste, touch, and hear his story. Because it is the story that tells us who we are and what we’re supposed to do here.

And it is Jesus’ story that informs Christian people what hope for new life might be possible in our own world, in our own lives, and in our own movements.

Hosanna! Save us, we pray!

As we prepare to walk through this story again this year, let us go to the table and receive food for the journey.

Because these shouts, this march, this joyful day of hope — this is only a beginning.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story. Amen.

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