Words Worth Hearing: Hosanna!

Preached by Michael Cheuk, March 29, 2015
Taken from Mark 11:1-11 (NIV)

Today is “Palm Sunday” and our New Testament passage from the Gospel of Mark has often been labeled in most Bibles as Jesus’s “Triumphal Entry.”  Jesus’s entry has the feel of a victory parade, like welcoming soldiers home from World War I and II, like celebrating the winners of the Super Bowl. Indeed, this parade of Jesus had many of the features of the triumphal processions that took place in the Roman Republic and Empire around the time of Jesus.

In ancient Rome, a Triumph was a civil ceremony and religious rite held to celebrate publicly the success of a military commander who had led Roman forces to victory in the service of the state. In order to have a triumphal procession in your honor, you had to be a Roman magistrate, who won a major land or sea battle in your province, killing at least 5,000 of the enemy and ending the war.

On the day of his public celebration, the Roman general wore a crown of laurel and the all-purple, gold-embroidered triumphal toga that identified him as near-kingly or near-divine. He rode in a four-horse chariot from the Triumphal Gate to the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, processing through the streets of Rome adorned with garlands and lined with people shouting, “Io triumphe,” which means “Hurray, for the Triumph!” In this procession, the honoree would be accompanied by his army, his captives, and the spoils of the war. At the Temple of Jupiter, he would offer the spoils of his victory and sacrifice his captives to the image of Jupiter. Thereafter, he would be described as the “man of triumph” for the rest of his life.[1]

Granted, these triumphs mostly took place in an era before the birth of Jesus. However, according to scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, during the time of Jesus, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria, would regularly enter into Jerusalem leading a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. While technically, this procession was not a Triumph in the classical Roman sense, it was a display of Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology. It was a powerful reminder to the subjugated Jews that they were under the rule of Rome. That reminder was especially needed during Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire.[2]

So, at the beginning of this particular Passover festival, two parades entered Jerusalem. One entered from the west from Caesarea, led by Pontius Pilate and his soldiers, exerting their presence and reminding the people of the power of Rome. The other entered from the east from Bethphage and Bethany, led by Jesus and his disciples. For a long time, I assumed that the triumphal entry of Jesus was just a spontaneous occurrence. Only recently I notice that Jesus gave very specific and detailed instructions to his disciples to prepare for his arrival. Either Jesus could foresee what was available to him in the next village, or he had made prior arrangements. Either way, I don’t think there was anything accidental about this parade. Jesus was very deliberate in the way he entered the Holy City.

On this particular Passover, many of the Jewish pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem placed their expectations of a powerful Messiah onto Jesus. They were ready for their version of the ancient Roman Triumph, to celebrate publicly the success of a military commander like King David, who would lead the Jews to victory over the Romans. On the surface, it looked like Jesus was going to meet their expectations. Sure, it was only a cut-rate version of a Roman triumphal entry, but to a subjugated people desperate for a deliverer, it was close enough.

However, if you look carefully, Jesus took the people’s expectations and turned them upside down. Instead of riding on a four-horse war chariot, Jesus rode on a colt or a donkey. Jesus wasn’t accompanied by an army, only by a ragtag group … some fishermen, a tax collector, suffering women and men who’d been healed of diseases, ordinary women and men whose lives were changed by Jesus. When Jesus finally entered the Temple in Jerusalem, he didn’t make any sacrifices, he didn’t proclaim any declarations or slay any enemies. The Gospel of Mark described the scene in the most anti-climactic way: “Jesus looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”

The discrepancy in these details did not bother the crowds. In their joy, they followed the tradition of the Roman Triumph by adorning the road with branches – perhaps of palms and garlands – that they had cut in the fields. They also laid down their cloaks on the path for this man of triumph. Instead of crying out “Io Triumphe!” these Jewish peasants and pilgrims cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Originally, the word hosanna meant “save, now!” But by the time of Jesus, hosanna became a general shout of adoration and praise. Many truly adored and praised this man. They had high expectations of Jesus. He would bring them victory and usher in a powerful, political kingdom like their father David. And so with exuberance and joy they cried out, “Hosanna! Hurray! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Of course, not all Jews were exuberant and joyful. There were the Sadducees, wealthy Jews who welcomed the Roman occupiers and were in turn rewarded with positions of power. Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem had all the marks of a political insurrection, and the Sadducees could not afford a peasant uprising. Then there were the Pharisees, devout Jews who decried Jesus as a heretic and blasphemer who threatened their cherished religious traditions. In the Gospel of Luke (19:40), some of Pharisees along the processional path demanded that Jesus rebuke his disciples for shouting “Hosanna!” To them, Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!”

In a world where, on most days, many people struggled to make ends meet, suffered the pain of loss and death, felt the weight of oppression, they needed a day to celebrate and to feel hopeful. Therefore, on this day, no one would hush the “Hosannas!”; no one would censor the crowds. Jesus knew that very soon, another crowd would turn against him, and this “Man of Triumph,” would turn into the “Son of Man” and be delivered into the hands of those who would kill him. Very soon, Roman soldiers would place on Jesus not a crown of laurels, but a crown of thorns and a purple robe, and mockingly call out, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Very soon, even Jesus’ own disciples would flee and disown him. Very soon, instead of sacrificing his captives to the image of Jupiter, Jesus himself would be sacrificed while crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those days would come soon enough. But not on this day. On this day, let the celebration take place. The crowds might not truly know what they are celebrating, but on this day, not even Jesus was going to stop them. Not on this day.

It’s easy to fault the crowds for being so fickle. It’s easy to fault the disciples for being so faithless. Where were their “Hosannas” when Jesus was betrayed? Where were the supportive crowds when Jesus was falsely accused? Where were the disciples when Jesus suffered humiliation? When he died on the cross? But we must remember that they had not yet experienced Easter, like we have. We have the advantage of knowing how this story will end. While the crowds cried, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David,” we are a people who know that the upside-down Kingdom that Jesus was ushering in would be one where the first will be last, and the greatest, the least. We are a people who know that God surpasses all our expectations. We are a people who know that God’s victory will come through Christ’s suffering and death, so that the “Hosannas!” of Palm Sunday must go through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday before arising to the “Alleluias!” of Easter Sunday.

We’re usually pretty good at going from the “Hosanna!” of one Sunday straight to the “Alleluia!” of the following Sunday. But here’s the question: “How can we live a ‘Hosanna- filled’ life between Sundays, through the Maundy Thursdays and the Good Fridays of our lives?” Where are our “Hosannas” when life, other people, and even God do not meet our expectations?  How do we offer adoration and praise in the midst of the pain and tragedies of life? That’s why on this Palm Sunday, “Hosanna!” is a word worth hearing, not from God to us, but from our lips to God; not just on Sundays, but every day in between.

Several years back, Ann Weems wrote a poem called “Between parades.” She writes:

We’re good at planning!
Give us a task force
and a project
and we’re off and running!
No trouble at all!

Going to the village and finding the colt,
even negotiating with the owners
is right down our alley.

And how we love a parade!
In a frenzy of celebration
we gladly focus on Jesus
and generously throw our coats
and palms in his path.

And we can shout praise
loudly enough
to make the Pharisees complain.
It’s all so good!

It’s in between parades that
we don’t do so well.
From Sunday to Sunday
we forget our Hosannas.
Between parades
the stones will have to shout
because we don’t.[3]

 

During this week, let us not forget our Hosannas.

On this day, we shout “Hosanna!” to welcome Jesus who comes as our Messiah not just to rule over others, but to upend our expectations, and transform and rule over our lives.

In the next days, let us shout “Hosanna!” to welcome Jesus who comes as our Savior not just to save us from our enemies, but to save us from ourselves – our sin, our faults, our prejudices, and our fears.

On this Thursday, let us shout “Hosanna!” to welcome Jesus who comes as our Deliverer not just to take us out of suffering, but to enter into our suffering by delivering his body and blood to strengthen us on the journey.

On this Friday, let us shout “Hosanna!” because even when we have forsaken Jesus in his time of need on the cross, Jesus will not forsake us in our time of need.

On this day, and every day, let us shout “Hosanna!” because Jesus Christ is worthy of our adoration and praise.

Amen.

 

[1] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/606065/triumph and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_triumph

[2] Marcus Borg, John Dominc Crossan, The Last Week: The Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem, Kindle Edition, Loc. 145-152.

[3] Ann Weems, Kneeling in Jerusalem, (Westminster, John Knox Press, 1993), p. 76.