Here we are again. We are on the brink of the remembrance of the central event of our faith. Holy Week and Easter shape our understanding of who we are as followers of Jesus Christ more than any other single event. We are, as others have said, Easter people living in a Good Friday world. We are defined by this sacrifice and by this gift of eternity. And it all begins with Palm Sunday.
Well, of course, arguments could be made that it all begins with a baptism and the heavens tearing open that the Spirit might descend like a dove. Or maybe it begins with an announcement in an out-of-the-way synagogue – “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Or does it really begin on a cloud-shrouded mountain of light and glory? Or maybe we should look back at an angelic announcement and claim it began with Incarnation in a back alley of a small town. Or, like John, should we recognize that it began at the beginning, the beginning of all that is, all that we see and know. It was at this beginning that the plan was in place that would culminate in death and Resurrection.
We could argue where it begins until the cows come home. Since I don’t have room for those cows, maybe we should just let it go. Let me start over. The curtain rises on this final act in the divine drama to a palm-strewn parade: Luke 19:29-40.
On the one hand, this might seem like a diversion, not a prologue. This event provides a bright spot in a dark time, a respite from the burdensome journey plaguing the whole company. Maybe this is a Sabbath rest that steels them all for what lies ahead. Maybe it is the calm in the midst of, or on the edge of, the storm. Or maybe it is more.
It is a declaration, this diversionary parade. It is a pronouncement – for these three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he has asked for silence. “Don’t tell anyone,” he would say, “keep your knowledge, your revelation to yourself.” There has been and continues to be a lot of speculation about why Jesus told people not to tell. Some argue that it was reverse psychology. He knew the surest way of getting the word out was to tell people not to tell. That never seemed to be a convincing argument to me. It is too devious, too underhanded. Jesus was an up-front kind of person. That means we have to go by his own explanation—the first one he gave—to his mother no less – “it is not my hour.”
He was concerned about time, about the right time. He was, with his Father, ordering these events in the way that would reach the desired outcome. He had to build the story; he had to design the drama so that we who would come to see and hear would finally understand and accept, so that we would understand that his story is our story. We had to see ourselves lived out in him; we had to find ourselves in him. Too soon, and we wouldn’t hear; too late, and we would have missed it. He had to wait until it was time.
Now, it was time. Jesus had an announcement to make. But rather than sending a memo, rather than posting a thesis on the church doors or writing in fiery letters across the sky, he used the language of the culture. He orchestrated a processional drama, an enthronement scene acted out in the symbols that were a part of the common understanding, and he touched a need or hope that was rising in the hearts of the people. This was why they responded to his announcement so readily.
He arranged for a colt, an unridden donkey symbolizing purity and peace. They waved branches as an acknowledgment of his authority. They threw down their cloaks to cover the road to usher the prince into their midst. They shouted the traditional welcome to a new king: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Given his earlier reticence to declare himself, he was practically shouting now. “Here I am,” he announced, “your king, your prince of peace, your savior.” And they heard it, loudly and clearly. That is why they shouted back, “Hosanna!” which means, “Save us.” Maybe it was mob psychology; maybe it was desperation; or maybe they had an inkling that this indeed was the one who could save them. So, they shouted and pulled branches off trees and threw their clothes into the street as a welcome. They heard.
But the people who gathered weren’t the only ones who heard. Some of the Pharisees (and notice Luke’s careful identification of “some” of the Pharisees – like he is preparing the way for the division that was coming)—some of the Pharisees—heard and didn’t like what they heard. “Keep it down!” they shouted to the self-professed king on a colt. “Shut them up, or there will be trouble.” They had one eye looking down their noses with contempt at the rabble grasping at their palm straws. And the other was cast over their shoulders in fear of Rome who didn’t like any disturbance that they didn’t cause. “Tell them to stop!”
And here is what distinguishes Luke’s memory of this event from the rest. Luke leaves out the “Hosanna” that the other three record. But he is the only one who records this curious response to the plea of some of the Pharisees to keep quiet. “I tell you,” says Jesus, “if these were silent, the stones would shout out!” The necessity of praise is how one commentator describes it, the absolute necessity of praise. When it is time, it is time. The purposes of God will be fulfilled, the only question is, “Will we join in or get out of the way?” “It is time,” says Jesus as he sits astride the humble little colt. It is time for events to unfold, events that can gather us up and carry us to a new reality, a new way of living, a new hope. Or events that we can let pass us by if we so choose.
But choose we must. It is time. Palm reading is a delicate enterprise, but this is our story being told in an ancient text. It is your future, your opportunity. What do you see? Hosanna.