Springfield Grace UMC
March 29, 2015
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
A few weeks ago, our group from Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference traveled to the Holy Land. We were not able to walk down the hilly Palm Sunday route. Had the pavement not been wet and the footing slippery, we would have had that distinct privilege, real and imagined. As Mark’s text implied, dozens if not hundreds of people lined the route and shouted Hosanna. An unridden colt had been obtained for Jesus. Garments were thrown upon the beast of burden for a saddle. Branches of Palm Trees were waved by hand or thrown on the street honoring Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. Whether people led the colt or followed it, sounds of Hosanna echoed loudly in the street. In recent days, I discovered that Hosanna has another meaning other than the one we traditionally emphasize namely celebration, affirmation, joyful like the 100th Psalm or majestic like Handel’s Messiah whose most famous piece is Hallelujah. We’ll talk about both. First, let’s talk about the familiar Hosanna.
When I was a child, we paraded up, down and around the aisles of the church in our Sunday best. “Tell me the stories of Jesus” was sung enthusiastically as parents and visitors smiled and watched us. Never did we know the importance of Palm Sunday. But, we heard the word Hosanna often. Hosanna meant something good, celebrative and desirable.
When my local church included children in worship, they exemplified the practice of our Lord. Remember when some parents brought their children to Jesus for him to lay hands on them. Using stern voices, his disciples tried to stop the children from coming to Christ. They figured the Master did not want to be bothered. Rebuking his disciples, Jesus said “Let the little children come to me and forbid them not, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Our Lord celebrated, affirmed and embraced the children; then the children went on their way.
Interacting with Jesus was just as important to the adults. While the children enjoyed his love and care for them; the crowd looked forward to a future with abundant life - a life they knew not. After all “Jesus was blessed.” Plus, he came “in the name of the Lord.” Apparently, the crowd has seen good things result from those who came in the name of the Lord. Preparing the way of the Lord, John the Baptist had a great impact. Folk converted to Christ in droves. Agreeing to be the mother of Jesus when she was a virgin and would conceive by the power of Holy Spirit; Mary demonstrated the power of her faith in God. “Let it be to me according to your word (Gabriel); for nothing will be impossible with God,” she said. In the three year ministry of their Master, the twelve learned to do ministry at the feet of the ministry of the one we call Lily of the Valley, bright and morning star, the fairest of ten thousands. As pastor of Grace and Kumler UMC, Bob Freeman preaches on everything from Fried Green Tomatoes, Faith that will not shrink, to Jesus Saves. Bob Freeman comes to this congregation in the name of the Lord.
Quite frankly, Jesus parading down the streets of Jerusalem in the name of the Lord is no small matter. Time and again, the citizens of Jerusalem had seen parades. Most of the parades were military. Over the centuries, the Holy City had been attacked 26 times and razed 13. In other words, she had been conquered by a rash of Kings and their armies. To let the citizens of Jerusalem know about the new boss; the new military leader paraded down Jerusalem streets dressed to the hilt in military garb followed by a huge entourage of soldiers, captives, and the spoils of victory. For fear of getting on the wrong side of their new conquerors, citizens celebrated conquerors in order to survive.
What a contrasting sight our Lord made. He had no huge army. Nobody was dressed to the hilt in military garb. No spoils of victory or captives accompanied our Lord. Someone might say, twelve mighty men followed him and a few by-standers got caught up in the moment. Yes, the crowd shouted Hosanna. However, the twelve disciples were a pitiful sight compared to the power and might of conquering armies. Aboard a colt and dressed in plain clothes, Christ represented the best our Lord offered the world. You can’t tell the book by the cover. Maybe the crowd was operating out the belief “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) Maybe the crowd is rejoicing over the fact that this Jesus acted like the long expected Messiah. Maybe they were counting on the Master working some bigger miracles than healing the blind and the lame along with those who hungered and thirsted.
Had Jesus purposely kept secret his method for overthrowing the Romans? If so, his devotees quietly asked themselves, what can an unarmed Jesus do against the power of Rome and the Sanhedrin? How could Jesus’ non-violent strategy prevail? How could a new day ever happen with Rome and the Sanhedrin in place? A new day was as possible as emptying the Pacific Ocean with a spoon. How so? Rome ran the city and the country with an iron fist. And the Sanhedrin ran religion in Jerusalem with an iron hand. Yet, the crowd seemed to be of one voice. “Hosanna, celebrate, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Were they remembering and being nurtured by the faith statement of a young girl asked to be the mother of God, “for nothing will be impossible with God!”
Remember the idea launched by the late President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson titled it The Great Society. Like Martin Luther King Jr., the President dreamed of an America free of “poverty and racial injustice.” Though Johnson’s dream never resulted in elimination of poverty or racial injustice, America saw a few positive results in education, medical care, crime prevention and unemployment. Notions of The Great Society were never fully embraced by America. Yet, remnants of Johnson’s Great Society crafted in 1964-65 still remain. Have you ever heard of Medicare and Medicaid?
When the crowd shouted “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David, Hosanna in the highest heaven” or when what I’ve labeled as the second Hosanna surfaced; people were not celebrating. According to one commentator, the crowd was actually shouting “I beg you to save” or “please deliver us.” Why the cry for salvation? Some of them knew their biblical history. If Israel kept God’s covenants, God promised Israel that she would always have a successor of David on the throne. The crowd believed that Israel had finally met the expectations of God. Jesus came out of the house of David. Reality said differently. For nearly 500 years, Rome occupied the Holy Land. Worse still, life under Roman rule had been miserable. And the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem and environs wanted deliverance. Hosanna they cried aloud. “Jesus, we beg you to save. Please deliver us.”
Like Lyndon Baines Johnson, they dreamed of The Great Society. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jerusalem hoped for the coming of “the beloved community.” Non-violence and a better life for every family were desired outcomes. Politically speaking, the Jews wanted King David’s ancestor namely Jesus Christ to be king, no one else. Jewish culture and religion would take center stage. If this new kingdom occurred, Rome would be kicked to the curb. So people were shouting Hosanna all the more inspired by the dream of freedom from Rome. Again, shouting the second hosanna, the people were not celebrating. Instead they pleaded for Jesus to save them from the oppressive rule of the Romans. “Save Lord. Save now.”
“Freedom ain’t free” goes an old saying. Neither is salvation. Why say this? Does the Palm Sunday crowd really want salvation or Jesus to deliver them? Would they rather wave the palm branches in a feel good moment? If they do, salvation is not in the palm branch. Freedom ain’t free. Salvation ain’t free. Work and witness is ahead for those who desire salvation. In the Old Testament II Chronicles 7:14, God says “folk who follow him must “humble themselves, pray, seek God’s face and turn from their wicked ways,” in order to hear from heaven, receive forgiveness from sin and heal the land.” Salvation costs. In the New Testament, salvation still costs. “If any want to become my followers,” says our Lord, “let them deny themselves take up their cross daily and follow me.”
When I preached several weeks ago, yours truly mentioned Congressman John Lewis accorded the privilege of introducing President Barack Obama for the 50th Anniversary celebration of Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was the march for voting rights for African Americans down south. This high privilege had nothing to do with Lewis’ 28 year tenure in Congress or being the recipient of a gaggle of honorary doctorate degrees from prestigious universities like Brown, Emory, Connecticut and Harvard. Even his status as the highest ranking Democrat or being a native son of Alabama did not earn him the privilege. The privilege was extended by President Barack Obama because of the nature of Lewis’ sacrifice. Bottom line, John Lewis led the Blood Sunday March 50 years ago.
A lieutenant in Martin Luther King’s non-violent struggle for civil rights, John Lewis nearly lost his life on Bloody Sunday. Police fired tear gas on marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Then, a police baton fractured his skull. Lewis almost died. Now 75 years young and baldheaded, the marks of that club can be seen on his head today. Along with numerous others, Lewis’ willingness to suffer, to lay down his life for a good cause, i.e., the nature of his sacrifice led to the historic Voting Rights Act. Calling for voting rights had to be followed up by action. Otherwise Civil Right Hosannas meant nothing.
Last but not least, Mark’s gospel paints one more graphic picture of Palm Sunday. While the noisy crowd shouts Hosanna, Jesus falls silent as Silent Night. He can’t celebrate. Easter has not come. He can’t save. It’s not time for the crucifixion. So Jesus waits and thinks a thousand thoughts looking forward and back. Call it contemplation.
Looking back, I wonder if our Lord is thinking about good times with his Mom and Dad. Joy and sorrow touch his spirit recalling stories about his birth and lying in a manger, the Wise Men, the flight to Egypt, family life in Nazareth, his Dad’s carpentry shop, getting lost and left behind at the temple and his quick retort to scolding parents “he was about his Father’s business.” Does he look back on his first sermon in his hometown synagogue? Folks who know him try to kill him. They hate his sermon because he claims a connection with God. Jesus wonders about the twelve. When the going gets tough, will they hang in with him? We know the answer. I know Jesus worries about his aging Mother. Who will take care of her? His Dad had already ‘scaped to what we call the Church Triumphant. I imagine our Lord remembering like one songwriter, “Precious memories how they linger, How they ever flood my soul. In the stillness of the midnight, precious sacred scenes unfold.”
Looking forward, Jesus sees himself like a man on death row awaiting the electric chair, the gas chamber, the firing squad or a lethal injector. Good Friday was coming. And he is the sacrificial lamb. Our Lord cannot get out of his mind that one of the twelve will betray him -that all of them will cut and run. The chief priests and scribes will condemn him to death. Left to do the dirty work of crucifixion, the Roman soldiers will mock, scourge and spit on him. And the cross will finish him off.
There is something else Jesus cannot get off his mind. Death by crucifixion would not have the last word. His Father is a Promise Keeper. I can imagine Jesus smiling about what’s gonna happen after Good Friday, Easter is a coming. Early Sunday morning just a little while before day; he’s gonna get up from the grave with all power in his hand. The stone will be rolled away leaving nothing but an empty tomb, a risen Christ and Paul’s words to the Corinthians. “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is they sting?” Jesus Christ is shouting Hosanna in his heart about the victory to be won. The salvation of the world, your salvation and mine will have been won. On that, I can shout Hosanna. Hosanna. Hosanna. Amen.