It was the palm branches that made this day unique, and then again, it wasn’t.
For centuries, the church has memorialized today, the first day of Holy Week, as Palm Sunday because of the palm branches and cloaks that the people spread out before Jesus entering Jerusalem.
The Gospel writers tell us a crowd gathered, gushing with excitement, and lined the road in front of Jesus as he slowly rode into the city. As he made his way, one step at a time by the beast of burden on which he sat, a sort of carpet was being sewn together ahead of him.
And according to the Pharisees, this was a problem.
But actually, it wasn’t the palm branches that were the problem so much as what the people were saying.
Hosanna, which means “save us now.” “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”
If you will, turn in the front of your hymnals to Psalm 118, starting at verse 19:
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we pray, O Lord!
O Lord, we pray, give us success!
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
29 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Remember, it is Passover week. This is the Psalm hymn appointed for the week for the people. They know it just like you know your favorite Palm Sunday hymn or later on this week Good Friday or Easter hymns. There is even some suggestion that this would have been the hymn sung by the disciples as they leave the upper room Maundy Thursday and go to Gethsemane.
Without doubt, this rambling crowd in Jerusalem, taking its cues from Psalm 118, is declaring Jesus to be the Messiah. That’s why the Pharisees tell Jesus to stop the madness. Do you hear what they are saying? They think you’re the Messiah come to save us. Tell them to shut up.
Jesus doesn’t stop them though. In the three other gospel accounts Jesus even asks them about verse 22 and directs that this Psalm is about this day and week: What then is this that is written: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
What it all meant, they didn’t quite yet know. Really most people didn’t. Not even those who were gathering the victory proclamation of the palm branches. They were right to shout hosanna, from the Psalm verse 23 “save us we pray, O Lord,” but for most it was misplaced salvation. Salvation from Rome, salvation from sickness, salvation from hunger, salvation from disease, salvation that provided the best for today. But for most, it was not salvation from sin, death, and hell. They wanted another exodus, one that expelled the Romans and gave them back control of the Promised Land. It was after all Passover week.
The sounds of the crowd this Sunday — this Palm Sunday — would later be betrayed by the sounds of their stony hearts. “Blessed is he!” would soon become “crucify him!” Truthfully, in a way, there is something nauseating about today. Today our Lord rides on to die, today our Lord rides on to be bound with cords as a sacrifice.
The Pharisees and the people had their problems, and so do we. If we know our hearts apart from grace, if we could listen in on this crowd, we’d hear our shouts along with theirs. We’d hear our praise, hollow as it were, and then, by Friday, “ashamed we’d hear our mocking voice call out among the scoffers.”
Today, as we do each week, we will sing the same song as the gates of heaven are opened, “hosanna, save us now, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest.” And so He does, He rides on to die, He goes forth give us His body and blood which gives us life and salvation. O give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!
Today is a parade, a procession, as we journey with Christ to the cross. It’s a whirl wind of a week. Weeks come and go very quickly but this week Jesus goes through celebration, betrayal, crucifixion, and hell itself for your salvation. It is indeed the most holy of weeks. It is the Passion of our Lord who rides on this day in majesty to die. This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.
The palms are victory proclamations, but victory proclamations that come in death to save us. For Palm Sunday’s victory is given that which we receive and recall now from St. Mark’s gospel, the Passion of our Lord, as printed and parted for you in your bulletin… (Mark 14 and 15)