Who Is This?

Gardening in the Wilderness #6

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Palm Sunday/A • April 5, 2020

Matthew 21:1-11

Puxsutawny Phil is a Pennsylvania groundhog who is supposed to signal spring. But in my world, it’s Next Door Neighbor Andrea. Andrea loves working ground, making things grow. She cuts our lawn because she likes lawn mowing and hers just isn’t enough. Andrea has a garden next to our driveway and she’s out there getting plants going, when I’m still avoiding the open air because of the cold. That means it’s spring.

Except this year, of course, it isn’t. Andrea is a physician’s assistant, a courageous woman who’s working and risking to help people who are sick. Nothing is the same this spring; we’re all being rearranged like rocks falling down a mountain in a landslide. I hardly know what to pray except perhaps the oldest prayer of all: “Save us”.

Today is Palm Sunday. a curious celebration that remembers Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. In North American churches, we wave palm leaves. We do that despite the fact that palms don’t actually grow around Jerusalem; if, as some gospel accounts say, people cut ranches and laid them down, they were cutting some other kind of branch. But we do palms. Sometimes we just hold onto them; like to throw them around, I like to get people to wave them. I insist that everyone shout “Hosanna!”. More than once, when I didn’t feel the shouting was loud enough, I’ve made people do it again, sometimes even a third time, just to get the volume up. You could do it now; in fact I’m going to pause while you do it. Ok: now louder: “Hosanna!”.

‘Hosanna’ isn’t a word that often comes up in conversation. When someone shoves their phone in front of you with a YouTube video and says, “Look at this”; most of us don’t yell, “Wow, Hosanna!” No, ‘Hosanna’ is pretty much saved up for this one day, one morning, every year. So let’s make the most of it. One more time, this time really loud, stand up, put your arms up and shout, “Hosanna!” We don’t need palms: Matthew says, “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road,” so you could take off your shirt or sweater and toss it on the ground and shout “Hosanna!”.

What does it mean? If you’ve been going to church for a while, this isn’t the first time you said it, first time you heard it. What does Hosanna mean? What are they shouting? Simple: “Hosanna means “Save us”. The crowds are shouting the very prayer many of us are praying today: “Save us!” Shouting it at Jesus means you know he’s your savior.

The whole story is shaped around this prayer. It starts out at the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives was believed to be where the Messiah would appear. The part about the donkey and the colt is also from Zechariah; he said,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. [Zechariah 9:9]

So Jesus starts from the place of salvation and acts like a savior and people are shouting, “Save us! Save us! Hosanna”. It’s a parade of salvation.

Imagine this parade It’s hard to be anything but silly on a donkey. And Jesus certainly isn’t wearing expensive clothes. It’s almost Passover; people from all over are streaming into Jerusalem for the celebration. The paths up to the city are crowded. Jesus and his followers and friends aren’t the only ones on the road. Those are the ones seeing him for the first time, those are the ones throwing shirts—“cloaks—down and cutting branches. It’s a sign you recognize this man as something special.

But this isn’t the only parade that day. There’s a much bigger one on the other side of the city. There, a Roman army contingent is entering the city. They’re preparing for Passover too, but in a different way. Passover is a time of high passion in the city, the whole story is about liberation from foreigners and some people are going to get inspired enough to make trouble.

So an army contingent is marching in to keep order. At the head of that parade is a leader on a horse, looking regal; after all, he represents the emperor, the Lord of the known world, whose title is “Son of God”. That’s right: ‘Son of God’ wasn’t just used about Jesus, in fact, using this term for Jesus is one of the things that got Christians in trouble. So over there is a much more impressive parade. I’m sure they had people cheering, I’m sure they had people selling souvenirs and food and it was a good time.

You have to choose: you can’t be a part of both parades; which one are you part of today? Are you still impressed with the trappings of power?—or are you ready to shout Hosanna—save us—to the one who comes in the name of the Lord. There are always people riding high horses, looking regal. Jesus doesn’t look like that. But he’s the one coming to save us. That’s what people saw that day. At the end, it says, “…the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” [Matthew 21:10f]

The gospel of Matthew is dominated by one question: Jesus ask, “Who is Jesus” Palm Sunday is an answer. Who do you say Jesus is? Are you ready to say he is truly the one come to save us, the one God sent? You don’t need a palm for that, you just need your heart; you don’t need to go to a parade, you just need to follow on the way with him.

Right now, many of us feel overwhelmed. We know what makes sense: stay home. At our house, we’ve had a pesky squirrel coming in our garage and crawling up in the overhead; I didn’t need experts to tell me to shut the door and keep her out. But some religious leaders and some politicians amazingly don’t seem to understand that just because it’s fun to get together, we need to stay home. I don’t know how they’d ever manage a pesky squirrel.

But I know this: staying home doesn’t make us feel better because we feel out of control. Isn’t that the best time to turn to God and simply pray, “Save us”? —and then determine to be part of that salvation.

Out on the water, there is a word that gets immediate attention: “Mayday”. When you hear Mayday on the radio, you stop what you’re doing, everyone does, and you listen. It’s actually a legal requirement but that’s not why you do it; you do it because you’re human and out there another person needs help. Maybe it’s someone close by, so you look, if you actually see them, you go help out. Maybe it’s distant, so you stay off the radio, because staying off the radio, doing nothing, is how you help.

When we stay home, we help. When we stay home and pray for others and let them know, we help even more.

“Hosanna!”—that’s today’s word—that’s today’s prayer. Some are like Andrea, called to go do things. Some help by staying home. Palm Sunday is a parade. When we join in praying, “Save us” and then become part of the answer to that prayer, we join the parade, we answer the question, “Who is this?” How are you answering it today?