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Sunday Worship 24 March | Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11 (NIV)
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion,    ‘See, your king comes to you,gentle and riding on a donkey,    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Over the last couple of years, we’ve considered the story of Palm Sunday from an historical perspective, comparing it to the procession that would have brought Pilate into the other side of the city at pretty much the same time, and the procession that returned to Rome l after the destruction of the temple three decades later. We saw that Jesus made a very different kind of entrance - not with the spoils of war but with the people willingly laying down their cloaks, not on a chariot or even a war horse but on a borrowed donkey, not to participate in the practices of the temple but to challenge them. These differences led us to ask which procession we want to be a part of.

It’s good to have that background still in our minds, and if you want to explore those historical details further, you’ll find those previous reflections on the blog, but for this morning I want us to focus on the shouts of praise from the crowds that accompanied Jesus. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

“Hosanna” really means “save us”, but here it seems to be shouted in adoration. So how did this cry for help also become a cry of praise? Perhaps because the crowds knew by experience or reputation that Jesus was a teacher and healer, that his words and actions had shown themselves to have saving power. He had made the leper clean. He had transformed the heart of a tax collector. He had offered a glimpse of a different way of life in which the peacemaker and the meek were blessed. The crowds knew that this man could change everything, that he could save them, and they adored him for it.

I wonder if “hosanna” is the cry of our hearts today? We know the stories but do we too believe that Jesus can save us? And I'm not just talking about being saved in the way that people use that expression to talk about the moment they found faith. That personal experience of recognising the need for repentance and realising the promise of redemption is hugely significant, but salvation is so much more than that.

When the leper was made clean, they were restored to their community, and there was an opportunity for everyone to think differently about who was in and who was out. When Zaccheus realised the error of his ways, he gave back what he had cheated and more, changing the fortunes of those around him and challenging the practice of other tax collectors. When Jesus spoke of a kingdom built on different values, he did not just lift up the peacemaker and the meek, he made that kingdom possible for everyone. No wonder whole crowds turned out to praise him!

Sometimes the world can lead us to despair but I really do believe that Jesus can save us. I believe that his words and actions continue to have transformative power because they continue to show us better ways of living. I believe that his presence in the church can be a force for blessing in the world. We can take up the cry of “hosanna” because we can praise Jesus for all he has done and all he is doing to save us. But we must also understand that if Jesus showed us a better way then it is up to us to take that better way. Like the leper, we must return to our communities with a story to tell. Like Zaccheus, we must allow our experience of Jesus to transform our hearts and put that change into action. Like the peacemaker and the meek, we must live differently in the world. So let us cry “hosanna” and then ask “what do you need me to do?”

I want to offer one more brief reflection, because we have thought about the words of the crowd, but what does Jesus say? The answer is not very much. In Matthew’s telling, he explains the arrangement with the donkey to his disciples, but then nothing. He is equally silent in Mark and John. He does speak in Luke, first in response to the teachers of the law who tell him to silence the crowds, but then only to emphasise the voices of the people by saying that if they did not praise then the rocks would cry out, and second to lament over Jerusalem, but here his words seem to be an aside intended for the city rather than those around him. There is no grand speech or sermon that accompanies the triumphal entry, no rallying cry for the revolution.

What ought we to make of this? I wonder if perhaps Jesus felt he had already said what needed to be said, and the rest was up to the crowds. They would praise him and they would condemn him, and so the passion would take its course. It foreshadows his silence at his own trial and on the cross, where only a handful of words are recorded. It also comes back to the point about us not just hearing Jesus' words but acting on them. So much of Holy Week is about how the people respond to Jesus, and it is an invitation for us to choose how we will respond. 

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