The Takeaway from Palm Sunday
I can tell the popularity of a new expression in the world when it starts showing up in church. When I hear someone wants to "take something off line," or "it's in my bucket list," or "let's put a pin in that," I know that expression is well-worn in the world. Around 2006 the expression was "takeaway." What's the takeaway from a meeting, a report, a plan? In other words, what use to be the synopsis, summary, or in the military, the bullet points, became the takeaway. So what's the takeaway from Palm Sunday? The palms, the cries, the donkey, and the sighs.
The palms are an obvious takeaway from Palm Sunday. You'll literally take them away to your homes to put behind crucifixes, crosses, and pictures of Jesus as reminder of this day all the way till Transfiguration Sunday. Though today has been called Palm Sunday for centuries, of the 4 Gospels only John specifically mentions palms. But he does so emphatically. He says, "They took palms of the palm trees and went out to meet Him."
Why so emphatic about the palms? Palms were on Jewish coins from 140 BC to 70 AD sometimes with the inscription "the redemption of Zion (Morris, 584). In 164 BC palms were used in the rededication of the temple. In 141 BC Simon Maccabeus made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem and palms were used as a national symbol of victory (Kiehl, 28-29). So greeting Jesus with waving palm branches could have been like our greeting political or military figures with waving flags, but I don't think that's why John mentions them.
John notes the palms because John has seen them before. There are only two places in the New Testament where palms are mentioned: here and Revelation 7:9. "I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands." John is emphatic that the palms he saw in heaven were at Jesus' entry into Jerusalem because he wants us to connect those washed white by the blood of the Lamb with Jesus' triumphal entry.
The first takeaway is the palms; the second are the cries, "Hosanna." This has been a takeaway for the church since the first century AD. (Given, 2010). We sing this in the Communion liturgy in the Sanctus. "Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna.Blessed is He, Blessed is He, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord." Then we repeat Hosanna' 3 more times. Hosanna' means "save I pray." We welcome the Lord to our altar with the same cry they welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem. We welcome Him with wild, almost ecstatic, pleas to save us. This would be clear to you if in the relatively short Sanctus we cried out, "Save we pray, save we pray, save we pray" twice.
Both our cries in the Sanctus and their cries in the streets of Jerusalem, cite the reason for our pleas for Jesus to save us. He's the Messiah and our king. "The One who comes in the name of the Jehovah" is a title for the Messiah since the Old Testament. And the crowd calls Jesus "King of Israel." In the Sanctus, we use an Old Testament designation for Jesus' kingship "Lord God of Sabaoth," that is "Lord God of armies." We in 2013 AD and they in 30 AD hymn Jesus as the One who has the power and the mission to save us, so rightly we cry "Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna."
What's the takeaway from Palm Sunday? The palms, the cries, and the donkey, a young one at that. Have you seen a picture of a man riding a small horse with his feet almost touching the ground? Humorous, right? Why not take the donkey away then? Why is it a takeaway when the Romans called Christians asinarii ass drivers' (Wenzel, 570)? Why is it a takeaway when already in the 3rd century Christians were depicted worshipping a crucified man with an ass's head (Evangelism in the Early Church, 174)? Why is it a takeaway when up till the 19th century Christians in some Muslim countries were only allowed to ride asses to humiliate them (Keil- Delitzsch, Zechariah, 335)? Why in Germany do Christians take a wooden ass as part of the Palm Sunday processional (Study of Liturgy, 461)? Because the ass points out what kind of Messiah and King Jesus is, and why do I say ass' instead of donkey'? Because I'm hoping you might taste the humility of Jesus riding in on a small donkey.
Up till now Jesus has not made a point of calling Himself Christ or acting like a king. That's because the people were looking for a Messiah and king who would deliver them from the Romans, free them from servitude, and establish an earthly kingdom. Today Jesus accepts them calling Him Christ and king. He tells no one to be quiet. He doesn't slip away from the crowd. After all He is the Messiah; He is their King. Yet He rides a donkey to show He isn't the kind of Messiah or King they're expecting.
He won't throw the Romans out for their crimes against the people of God. No, He will be thrown into jail for crimes He didn't commit. He will not hold the Romans or the Old Testament church leaders guilty for the sins they committed against almighty God. No, He'll confess to be guilty Himself of their sins, my sins, your sins, and even your sins. Although Jesus is guilty of no crimes, no sins, no failings, no wicked thoughts, no secret sins, He won't defend Himself against false charges because He can't if He is pleading guilty of the sins of the world. Although Jesus has the power in His little finger to cast the Devil out, He won't because if He denies the Devil his due, the Devil will have a right to come for you.
The people didn't realize all this at the time. John tells you not even the disciples did. Only after Jesus had been glorified did they realize what was really going on. They didn't see the whole picture. They didn't understand the real significance of the palms, the cries, and the donkey, but you do. You who have been to heaven with St. John and seen those who've died victorious in the blood of Christ carrying palms takeaway the truth about the palms. You who cry every Sunday for your Messiah and King to come again in His Body and Blood to save you takeaway the truth of the "hosanna" cries. You who know the donkey doesn't carry Jesus to the Roman palace but to dark Gethsemane, to being arraigned, rejected, crowned with thorns, and sacrificed under God's damning wrath takeaway the truth that the donkey indicates the hard, horrible, humble way Jesus will conquer.
So the takeaway today is the palms, the cries, the donkey, and the sighs. The sighs from Jesus' enemies are important. They really think they are losing. Some of them had been plotting for years to murder Jesus and He's getting away. I want you to takeaway their sighs, so you might get a sense of what zeal, what joy, what relief they beat upon Jesus, spat upon Him, and ridiculed Him on the cross. This was such an unbelievable turnabout from what they were expecting. Of course the real turnabout is on them and on Sin, Death, and the Devil because in Jesus' "loss" they really did.
The Pharisees say to one another either "You see" an indicative or "you must see" an imperative calling others to see what is really going on. You can't tell from the Greek. It could be either; I think the Holy Spirit means both. Some of the Pharisees did see and some were slow to see. Either way it's about seeing the details. There are 10 different verbs for seeing in the New Testament. This one calls the person to be a spectator of something. It indicates careful observation of the details. This is the word that would be used for a general watching a military parade as opposed to a non-military person. The general knows what to look for. The Pharisees are pointing out to each other: "Uh-oh Jesus is playing the Messiah and the King card."
Yes He is, but not the way they or the crowd thinks. Still takeaway today the sigh of the Pharisees at what they see and even more so takeaway what they say about what they see. They say, "This is getting us nowhere." I think J.B. Philips' translation catches it better: "There's nothing one can do!" This is truer than they know. Death will overwhelm Jesus' soul in Gethsemane, but nothing will prevent Him from lasting until He has paid what you owe for every single sin. God's wrath against your sins will press down on Him so painfully that it will bring blood from His sacred head. Yet that won't stop Jesus from draining dry God's cup of wrath against the world's sins.
Takeaway this sigh from Palm Sunday: There's nothing one can do. Jesus will be the King and Savior of sinners even though He will have to go through literal hell to do so. If Sin, Death, and the Devil couldn't stop Him, don't think the weight of your sins, the shame of your sins, the pain of your sins can stop Him either. But that's what you're doing when you walk around as if your sins are not quite paid for, not really forgiven. When you do that you make out of one sin, two. You have your sin and then you have the sin of thinking that Jesus didn't do what He said He did: pay for your sin. You have the sin of thinking your sin or sins did what no one else could do: stop Jesus from being the wrath removing sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Takeaway today the rest of what the Pharisees sigh. "Look how the whole world has gone after Him!" This is true. The whole world goes after Jesus in one way or another. Some go after Jesus in a hostile way. They pursue and persecute Him. They attack Jesus every possible way. Others go after Jesus in faith casting their sins, their cares, their life on Him. Go after Jesus this way. Go with Him to the Upper Room where He will give His Body for Bread and His Blood for Wine for you to eat and drink for salvation. Go after Jesus to Calvary's mournful mountain where you will see not only what your sins cost but what God is willing to pay to save sinners. Finally go after Jesus to the tomb and rejoice to find it not only empty of Jesus but of Death itself.
What's the takeaway from Palm Sunday: Take away the palms, the cries, the donkey, the sighs and leave your sins, your guilts, your fears, your shames, and even your death. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Palm Sunday (20130324); John 12: 12-19