Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Some of you will remember we began this year together by verbing our way into the gospels. For any kids who are listening, a verb is just an action word – a word like run, jump, wave, dance – a verb is something we do. So while you were in Sunday School downstairs we were reading Bible stories upstairs, focusing on all of the action words. And we found that whether we were reading stories about Jesus, stories Jesus told, or even lessons Jesus taught (as in the Sermon on the Mount), paying extra attention to those kinds of words helped us better understand what the Bible was trying to teach us.
When it comes to Palm Sunday, though, it turns out we’ve had plenty of practice focusing on the verbs, just because we’ve acted out the story so many times. Imagining ourselves as the crowd welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, we’ve paraded around the sanctuary (a stand-in for the streets of the holy city) and waved our palm branches. Think back over the verbs in the story we just heard from John’s gospel and consider how well we’ve done at all this verbing on Palm Sundays past. The crowd comes and hears that Jesus is coming. Check! They take palm branches. Check! They sing and shout. Check! We even say the same words they said, words that point us back to our first text from Psalm 118: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
It interests me, though, that the most important verb in the whole story doesn’t immediately come across as a verb in our English versions, because it’s usually left untranslated. And that’s the Hebrew word Hosanna. You may have said and sung the word Hosanna often enough on Palm Sunday that you easily associate it with this day. But it’s important to know that it’s not just an exclamation like “yay!” In fact, we’re verbing in the imperative, telling someone to do something, or in this case pleading with someone to do something, because the word Hosanna literally means “save us!”
That’s what the crowds were shouting as Jesus made his way into Jerusalem. They weren’t just celebrating him, applauding him, cheering him on. They were crying out to him: Hosanna! Help us, Jesus! Save us! They laid down their cloaks and waved their palm branches because they believed he had the power to make a difference in their lives. That he could get them out of the mess they were in. That he could turn things around for them and usher in a better day.
Which makes Hosanna the perfect word for our Palm Sunday celebration in 2020, doesn’t it?
Help us, Jesus! Save us! All over the world today people are making that same plea. Not only in the original Hebrew, Hosanna, as we sing the traditional hymns for Palm Sunday. I bet that cry is being lifted in every other human language too right now as the world makes its way through this crisis: Help us, Lord. Save us. You have the power to make a difference. You can get us out of the mess we’re in. You can turn things around for us and usher in a better day. May that day come quickly. Save us, Lord. Hosanna.
Of course, the other dynamic about the Palm Sunday story is the way Jesus defies our expectations, and not just because he rides into town on a little donkey instead of on an enormous horse or in an impressive chariot.
We who know what comes next in the story of Holy Week know the crowds didn’t really get it that day. Jesus’ triumphal entry led not to his overthrow of an oppressive government, not to the end of all their problems, but to his own arrest and then to his death. Even the 12 followers closest to Jesus didn’t see it coming, in spite of all the times he’d tried to explain it to them. They wanted Jesus to save them on their terms, on their timeline. I wonder how disappointed they were, heartbroken even, that he didn’t live up to their expectations? That he didn’t give them exactly what they asked for?
Still, to hold a giant, impromptu parade in Jesus’ honor, four days before the Last Supper, five days before the cross, seven days before the stone was rolled away from the tomb? Little did they know just how right they were to honor Jesus in such a dramatic fashion. God used the crowds that day to mark a historic moment that was exquisitely appropriate and deeply true, in spite of their lack of understanding.
Hosanna! Save us! Jesus would, of course, just a few days later, in a victory that looked an awful lot like defeat, on the cross.
Hosanna! Save us! Jesus would, of course, just a week later, in another triumphal entry that upended all expectations. That time involving an empty tomb.
Hosanna! Save us! Jesus would, of course. And he did. And he does.
We may not be saved in the ways we ask or expect to be saved. We may not be saved in the timeframe we’d wish. And, sadly, we know there will be grief and pain along the way to that day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Between now and then we won’t understand why life is so fraught with danger and disease. We’ll long for it to be otherwise. But rest assured God’s saving love wasn’t depleted in the events of that first Holy Week. God’s got endless stores of love to pour out on us, no matter what this unsettling time brings our way.
And those of us itching for Easter know resurrection hope can pop up in the most unlikely circumstances. I’ll bet you’re seeing it too. Light shining in the darkness. Good news in the midst of the bad news. Good news even because of the bad news. Children of God embracing hope, embracing life, embracing kindness and compassion. Children of God prompted by this pandemic to act in heroic ways from places of sacrificial love.
Hosanna! Save us, Jesus!
He did. He does. And he will. Amen.