Sermon April 2 2023 Palm Sunday (Matt 21:1-11) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you know what Hosanna means? It means “save us”.
“Save us, save us, save us” is what those crowds cried out that day, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. Rather weirdly, according to the version in Matthew’s gospel that Janet just read for us, on the back of a donkey AND a colt.
Which to be honest is a little ridiculous. Jesus clambering onto the back of a donkey AND a colt. That are apparently then going to walk alongside each other beautifully and in perfect tandem sharing this unexpected uncomfortable load of a whole lot of cloaks and a grown man – right through a huge crowd of people.
It's not hard to see why artists in every age, when they’ve painted Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, have either gone with Mark and Luke – who say it was a colt – or with John – who says it was a donkey.
No one ever attempts the reproduce the strangeness of Matthew’s version, in which we’re meant to picture that it’s both.
Because it wasn’t. Was it a colt? Was it a donkey? We really don’t know. But it was very much not both.
Because when Matthew wrote up this story as part of his gospel to share Jesus’ life and the events and teachings of his ministry, it’s certainly quite possible that he couldn’t actually remember if it’d been a colt or it’d been a donkey…
And versions of the story with each were clearly already circulating – the versions we get in Mark and Luke, and then in John…
But whether it’s so or not that he couldn’t actually remember, for Matthew this moment in the story isn’t about accuracy. It’s about an opportunity.
Because there is NOTHING that Matthew likes more than a detail in the life of Jesus, no matter how small, that he can tie back to a quote from the Older Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures.
It’s his absolutely favourite thing. It connects Jesus back to the Jewish tradition, to the earlier promises of the prophets. It makes Jesus the fulfillment of the words of the prophets – it makes him the new King David, the Suffering Servant, the promised Saviour, the promised Messiah.
Matthew is a Jewish writer, writing for a Jewish audience, and his focus ALWAYS is on how Jesus IS the one they’ve been waiting for.
And so what did he ride on, for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem? It could’ve been a donkey, it could’ve been a colt – but Matthew sees an opportunity.
Because in the book of the prophet Zechariah, in the Older Testament, in the Hebrew Scriptures, Zechariah says to the people: “Look: your king is coming to you, riding on a donkey AND on a colt”.
And it’s perfect. It’s not about accuracy. It’s an opportunity. Matthew can put Jesus on both – he can shoehorn in that weird uncomfortable tandem combination –
And he’s shoehorned in a whole pack of meaning with it. Jesus IS – overtly, specifically, obviously – presented by Matthew as the new King promised by the prophet, promised by God for God’s people.
The funny thing is, though, that he really didn’t need to work that hard.
The crowd of people that gathers, that lay down their cloaks and wave palm branches in celebration, they recognize Jesus as the new King promised by God for God’s people.
They’re crying out “save us, save us, save us”.
And we usually imagine – and I’ve always imagined on Palm Sunday – that the great irony and tragedy is that they think what that salvation looks like is Jesus crushing the Roman oppressors. Up the revolution, et cetera, et cetera.
But I wonder if that might be unfair. To assume that’s broadly the case.
To assume that after roughly three years of either experiencing Jesus directly, or hearing about him, this great crowd of people –
That includes the disciples, that surely includes at least SOME of those who heard the Sermon on the Mount, that surely includes at least SOME of those who were healed of infirmity, SOME of the multitudes – Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, Mary and Martha, Bartimaeus – whose lives have been transformed by his words and his way –
That they’d have taken the Jesus they’ve known – the teacher and healer -- and done their OWN shoehorning of meaning into him. To such a degree.
To a degree that’s so patently out of character.
Because there’s nothing in the way Jesus has been throughout his ministry up to this point that suggests he’s been secretly harbouring a mighty fist with which he’ll crush the enemy. He literally taught his followers, “LOVE your enemy, do good to those who hurt you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who harm you.”
He’s literally healed a Roman Centurion’s servant. He’s welcomed Nicodemus, an arm of state power. He’s extended his healing beyond his own people to the hated gentile daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman, and he’s located the fullness of “love your neighbour” in the hated Samaritan who stops to help the man who’s fallen among thieves.
So there really is NOTHING to suggest he’s coming in with a mighty fist. Not for anyone who’s been paying attention – and there are MANY in the crowd that day who HAVE been.
For whom suddenly shoehorning into him this notion of empire-crushing power would frankly be bizarre. And inexplicable.
Quite apart from the fact that in terms of biblical symbolism – for those who know their scriptures, as most of them most definitely would have – the King that’s promised by Zechariah, whether he arrives on a donkey or on a colt or weirdly on both –
Is specifically described by Zechariah as a Messiah King who’s humble. Who arrives on whatever he arrives on not to make war, but to usher in a reign of peace. To usher in a reign of security, a lifting up of the poor and those most vulnerable. A reign of fullness of life, and justice, and well-being… for everyone.
That’s the Messiah described by the prophets. The Suffering Servant in Isaiah. The new King in Zechariah. And it’s entirely consistent with everything that everyone who’s experienced Jesus has experienced in Jesus, all the way along.
So I’m not sure they were all shoehorning into him an expectation of violent revolution. Some of them might have been, absolutely. But I think that assuming that they’d ALL suddenly lost focus, had their heads turned by the allure of apocalyptic vengeance against the hated Roman oppressors –
I think it might be unfair. And even to base that assumption in the manifest reality that only a scant five days later those crowds would turn on him, I think that might be unfair too.
They cried out “save us, save us, save us”. It’s exactly what people have been crying out to him from the sides of roads and from the midst of crowds… all the way along.
I don’t think what they wanted was revolution. I think what they wanted was a miracle. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” is what Bartimaeus cries out, hoping for his sight to be restored. “Only say the word, and my daughter shall be healed,” pleads Jairus, stopping Jesus on his way. Even wordlessly, the woman with the flow of blood who grasps the edge of Jesus’ cloak –
All the way along, it’s what people have cried out to him. Save us, save us, save us. I don’t think they were hoping for revolution. I think they were hoping for a miracle.
And they didn’t get one. Not, at any rate, the one they wanted. Not the instant and immediate upheaval of social transformation into the perfection of justice and wholeness and happiness and well-being and righteousness they were yearning for.
They didn’t get that miracle – that epic world-sized version of every healing miracle he’d ever accomplished, every manifestation of God’s amazing power, water into wine and loaves and fishes writ large.
“Save us, save us, save us,” they’re crying out. But what they get isn’t a miracle. It’s a “way”. It’s still ultimately just a way. A way of generous love, a way of responsibility to and for everyone around us and even the people we don’t like. A way of being willing to sacrifice for the common good. A way of humility and peace-making and forgiveness and particular caring for the poorest and the outsider and the rejected.
They wanted a miracle and they got a way. And that’s hard. If we were crying out right now collectively “save us, save us, save us” – it’d be because we want a miracle.
But what we still get is a way. I want great social-transforming miracles ALL THE TIME. But what we still get is a way. God’s Spirit at work in tiny tiny moments of goodness, in incremental changes in our perspective, in shifts in our collective consciousness we barely even notice until they’ve settled into new norms –
God’s Spirit defying any attempts to shoehorn in our demands for Mighty Fists and expectations for revolution. God’s Spirit unfolding God’s Way.
It’s as slow and bumpy and uncomfortable and ridiculous – as a ride into Jerusalem on a donkey and a colt. It’s as steady and unwavering and firmly moving forward – as a ride into Jerusalem on a donkey and a colt. Thanks be to God, who’s with us on the way. Amen.