Sermon text: Mark 11: 1-11
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of a colt and in Mark we read, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.” Now, as we celebrate Palm Sunday we follow suit with our shouts of “hosanna!” and our skinny little palm fronds that we told into crosses. But why? Why palms? What does it all mean? How did it all start?
Like with most things in the New Testament we begin out search in the Old Testament, but there just aren’t many strong connections to tree leaves and parades. There’s a small connection to the Festival of Booths, but it’s fleeting. If we keep searching into the inter-testamental time period, what is known as the Apocrypha or the Deuterocanonical Books, there is a fun connection in the books of Maccabees.
In 1 Maccabees there is a story following the Jewish Capture of a Greek fortress during the Maccabean Revolt. This was a time in the second century BCE when Israel fought and won their freedom against the Seleucid Empire. 1 Maccabees 13 states:
The enemy troops in the Jerusalem fortress still could not go into the country to buy food, and many of them starved to death. Finally, the survivors begged Simon for peace. He agreed, then ordered them to leave the fortress, so he could remove everything that made it unclean according to their religion.
On the twenty-third day of the second month in the year 141 of the Syrian Kingdom, Simon led his soldiers into the fortress. They carried palm branches and praised God with all kinds of songs and musical instruments. God had completely crushed their powerful enemy! Simon decided that a joyous festival should be held on this same day every year. He strengthened the wall on the side of the temple hill that faced the fortress. Then he and his troops made the fortress their headquarters.
So here we have soldiers carrying palm branches as part of a victory parade after the defeat of an enemy. Later, in 2 Maccabees there is another story during the rededication of the Temple, the holiday that is now known as Hanukkah. 2 Maccabees 10 states, and this is a longer excerpt:
The Lord led Judas Maccabeus and our troops into battle, and they recaptured the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Then they destroyed the places where the foreigners had worshiped, including the altars they had built in the public market.
Judas and his followers made the temple an acceptable place of worship once again. They built a new altar for sacrifices and started a fire on it by rubbing flint rocks together. After this, they offered sacrifices for the first time in two years. They burned incense, then lit the lamps and brought out the sacred loaves of bread.
When all of this was done, the troops lay face down on the ground and prayed, “Our Lord, please don’t let us suffer such terrible troubles again. If we should ever turn from you, don’t correct us so harshly. And please, never again hand us over to these foreign savages, who insult you.”
The dedication of the temple took place on the twenty-fifth day of the month — the same day of the same month that the foreigners had made the temple unfit for worship. We celebrated a joyful festival for eight days, and it was just like the Festival of Shelters. In fact, while our people celebrated, they kept remembering the recent Festival of Shelters, when they were forced to roam the hills and live in caves like wild animals. But now they walked around carrying sticks decorated with twisted ivy and holding up branches, including some from palm trees. They sang hymns and thanked the Lord for making our holy temple clean again. Afterwards, everyone decided to make this a yearly festival for our whole nation.
Again, there is another palm branch parade related to a military victory. This is why scholars and pastors always wonder if the crowds expect the same thing from Jesus. Judas Maccabee kicked out the Greeks, can Jesus do the same with the Romans?
Is this why they are shouting hosanna? Hosanna, although a shout of oy and celebration, means save us, rescue us, help us. What exactly did the crowd want Jesus to save them from?
As we worship, as we contemplate palm branches and say hosanna, what do we expect? Certainly, we’re not connecting through the guise of military parade. We’re not asking Jesus to kick out the empire. In fact, we live in the modern-day equivalent of empire since we are the only superpower country left. Besides, Jesus already demonstrated that he wasn’t interested in political and military power. So what makes us say hosanna? Where do you need saving? How can Jesus rescue you?
If I see a connection between Jewish zealots of the Maccabean Revolts and the hopeful crowds waving branches before Jesus and ourselves, it’s that we all need saving. We all cry out hosanna because we’re trying to avoid pain. In ancient times that meant expelling the foreign governments who are dominating your people and causing strife. In modern time we cry hosanna because there are a plethora of ways we face pain and we need our savior to rescue us.
What would you have given to be rescued from these past 12 months? How many palm branches would you gather for the Messiah? How many garments would you bring from your closet to honor his procession? It has been a year of pain, for all the reasons we are familiar with. But after the parade procession disperses, and after the palm branches wither and the hosannas dissipate into the ether, there was disappointment. Disappointment that extends all the way back to the Jerusalem streets of old.
Because, for all the times we begged for rescue, for all the times we prayed for miracles, for all the times we waited for the Holy Spirit to stir up solutions, we were not rescued in the ways we wanted. The pandemic was not stopped in the same way that the Romans weren’t shown the door.
Of course, this goes beyond Covid to all the other times we’ve said “hosanna” only to be met with silence and pain. Every time we’ve buried a friend, every time we’ve received a diagnosis, every time we’ve helplessly attended to a sick relative, every time our bodies have disappointed us, every time we’ve lost a job, or a relationship, or a life changing opportunity, every time life has reaped pain instead of joy, we look to Jesus like that first century crowd and say, “Why aren’t you doing what we want you to do?”
Sometimes I forget, sometimes we all forget, that Jesus isn’t Superman. Sometimes we don’t want a savior who will raise from the dead, we want one who will never die in the first place. We don’t want a messiah who will suffer with us, we want one who will prevent it all from the very beginning.
However, at the end of this parade we see the truth of the real Messiah, not just the one we’ve conjured in our minds. Jesus suffers, and so shall we. Jesus is not saved from pain, and neither will we. Jesus will die, and odds are we will too. But this real, earthy, gritty, sweat and blood Messiah accompanies us, and every time we cry Hosanna, save us, rescue us, Jesus promises that there will be life on the other side of pain. He promises that he will be there every step of the way. AMEN