This is a sermon for Palm Sunday for a congregation that is observing both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It is based on Luke 19:28-40.
“Hosanna” is a rude word. It’s not a word like “Alleluia!” It doesn’t mean anything like “Praise the Lord!” or “Thanks be to God!” even though we often seem to use it that way. It means something more like “Down with the United Kingdom! Death to the Queen! Destroy the Government!”
If I’d been in Jerusalem on that day when Jesus rode into the city gates and I’d heard the crowd shouting “Hosanna!”, I would have got my children out of there as quickly as I could in the almost certain knowledge that something terrible was going to happen. “Hosanna!” was a call to arms on the part of a restless crowd who was looking for their world to change, even if it had to change by violence.
I want to try to help us picture the scene a bit better.
I don’t how many of you have seen the Old City in Jerusalem - the walled city which would have constituted the city in Jesus’ time? I don’t know for certain how big it is, but my guess would be that maybe the old city is about as big as Weaver’s Wharf plus the pedestrianised shopping area around the Town Hall and Swan Centre.
Now, just to give you an idea of how many people were at Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday, the entire town of Kidderminster - inside and outside the centre of town - has a population of just over 55,000 people. We think that on the day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem that there were between 3 million and 5 million people in Jerusalem who had come to celebrate the Passover. Three million people is just over 54 times as many people as live in Kidderminster today and 5 million people is 91 times our current population.
So imagine 91 times the current population of Kidderminster today all jammed into the area around Weaver’s Wharf and the Town Hall. Imagine that they are all as angry and excited as stirred-up football hooligans and that they are all shouting “Down with the United Kingdom! Death to the Queen! Destroy the Government!” Is there anyone here who thinks that they wouldn’t want to get their children and other vulnerable loved-ones out of town as quickly as possible?
And, as if all of this weren’t bad enough, what if I told you that Jerusalem had survived over 6 political riots every year for the last five years?
Are you beginning to get an idea as to why Pilate was worried about what was going to happen?
We can imagine that the crowd would have seen things somewhat differently from Pilate. With so many people and such an apparent groundswell of support for Jesus as a political leader, I wonder if they felt the same way that the crowd at the Berlin Wall felt on the day that the wall finally came down?
From their point of view, there was a real possibility that morning that the whole miserable existence that the Jewish people had endured for the last sixty years would finally break apart. They expected Jesus to be their saviour. Their political saviour. Had Jesus wanted political power, it would seem that this was a sure-fire opportunity for taking it.
This is Satan’s temptation to become an earthly king being presented to Jesus once more, But this time the temptation comes with all the bells and whistles. This time, the temptation comes complete with adoring crowds ready to worship Jesus and follow him right there and then. As long as he conformed to the model of leadership that they were demanding.
From the point of view of inside the crowd, the adrenaline is flowing, and the opportunity is there to turn the tables on the Romans - to be the rulers at the top of the heap and to obtain vengeance for three generations of Roman occupation and humiliation.
Inside the crowd, there must have been a most extraordinary buzz. Here’s the opportunity to be finally and fully alive. To have a freedom and abundant life that the crowd’s grandparents could only have dreamt about. The Jews could be fully alive and the Romans and their supporters could be dead in slavery as a conquered and subjected people.
Jesus and the Donkey
But Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Or as one American preacher puts it - Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a jackass. I like the double-meaning of this word because everything that Jesus does from this point on is totally nonsensical and idiotic from the point of view of worldly values.
From this point onwards the scandal of Jesus’ mission on earth can be seen in all its stark reality. Because the whole meaning of this story - the march to the cross, and Jesus’ death and resurrection - lies in the way that it scandalises human values. The story goes against everything that “the world” wants and hopes for. This is a story that will give us a new desires and new hopes - the desires and hopes of God.
What is the scandal? Jesus had the ability to choose to wage a violent revolution against the enemies of the people of Israel and, unique amongst humans, he had a sure and certain hope of a military victory. But instead of choosing a military victory, he chose the way to the cross.
He chose to forgive those who saw him as an enemy and who were about to put him to death. And the consequence of his forgiveness was that he was crucified.
Jesus had the choice of certain victory on the one hand or certain death on the other hand and he chose certain death. Because to choose to forgive his enemies meant to choose death.
Forgiveness is costly. And as human beings we know only too well that forgiveness is costly. It might not cost us much to forgive the small sins done against us. With some cost to us, we might even be able to forgive the ‘medium sized’ sins that are done against us. But how do we forgive the really big sins done against us? To forgive the really big sins done against us, something has to die inside us. And this death is costly.
It’s the same thing with God. In order to forgive the way that human sin destroys God’s plan for creation, God had to die. The death of God – the death of Jesus Christ – was the only way that forgiveness could be achieved. If Jesus had chosen to smash his enemies, then there would have been naked justice, but there would have been no forgiveness.
If Jesus had acted in the way that the crowd wanted him to act, there would have been no redemption for the world. By the death of Jesus, forgiveness became a part of the cosmic reality.
Jesus understood that the purposes of God are for life in all its fullness. And so, Jesus chose the sure and certain hope of the victory of resurrection rather than the sure and certain hope of an earthly victory. The cross leads to death, but it also leads to forgiveness and to reconciliation between God and humanity. Jesus was free to choose death because he had faith in the resurrection.
In a few minutes, we will come before the Lord’s table. As we do so, I invite you to think about God’s forgiveness for you and for the whole world. I invite you to meditate on the sacrifice that God made on your behalf. And, I invite you to lay your burdens down as you come into the Lord’s presence.
Prepare to come as a guest to the table of the Lord who forgives us, no matter how costly the forgiveness. Prepare to rejoice in this forgiveness – whether you have already accepted God’s forgiveness or whether you wish to accept it for the first time today.
Prepare to come into the presence of the Lord who loves us so much that he was willing to die for us.