A day of hope

Good morning, Friends!

Today is Palm Sunday – the Sunday before Easter.

It’s a big deal in a lot of places. In some countries, everybody takes off the whole week before Easter for all kinds of special services. They have parades and processions, Passion plays and re-enactments. Some churches fast on Good Friday or have an all-night vigil on Saturday and a sunrise service on Easter morning.

A lot of churches have a foot washing ceremony on Thursday, to remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. Other churches have a solemn tenebrae or “shadow” service where they turn off all the lights and extinguish all the candles for three days. All the decorations come down, and everything is draped in black to remember the darkness of the three days when Jesus was in the tomb.

A few years ago I was part of the chorus that sang Handel’s Messiah at Easter time, which is one of the greatest pieces of music in the whole world. We started rehearsing for it in January, and practiced for three hours, twice a week. It was a huge time commitment, but it was worth it to be a part of singing that wonderful music.

In a lot of country churches still today, people get baptized in the creek on Easter Sunday. They did that in the early Christian church, too. People would stay up all night on Saturday, praying and fasting and reading the entire gospel, and get baptized on Easter morning.

When I was growing up, we always got palm leaves at church on Palm Sunday. Everybody took their palm leaves home, and kept them for a year. Some people wove their palm leaves into a small cross. Our family always tucked them over the mirror in our bedrooms.

Then, the next year, we would bring our palm leaves back to church, and they would burn the palm leaves and use the ashes to mark our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

So, people celebrate Easter and remember the Resurrection in all kinds of ways – with music, with drama, in art, in worship, with fasting and prayer, in private reading and public events.

Palm Sunday didn’t really get started as a Christian tradition till almost 300 years after the first Easter. Remember, for a long time under the Roman Empire, Christianity was illegal, so the celebration had to be in secret.

Many of the early Christians were poor people or slaves, and the Easter message back then had more to do with Passover and with freedom than it does today. If you were at the bottom of society, you could hardly imagine that the Son of God would lay down his life for someone like you.

More than anything else, Easter meant hope for these people – hope of freedom, hope of heaven, hope of a better life.

I want to read to you, from Matthew’s gospel, the story of how Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday.

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Zechariah:

“Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

– Matthew 21:1-11

Why was it so important that people welcomed Jesus that day?
Why do we remember that incredible parade, all these years later?
Why was Jerusalem such an important place?
What were people thinking? What was in their hearts?

We need to remember that the people of Israel had been knocked down, not once, but many times. They had tried to stand up against invasion, had been defeated, had been turned into slaves and deported.

They came back from exile, and they had a civil war with their cousins, the Samaritans, a civil war that left both groups scarred for generations. Then they were invaded again, by Alexander the Great, who tried to erase the entire Jewish religion and culture.

They fought back, and won their country again, only to lose it to corruption and compromise.

All through these hundreds of years, the city of Jerusalem was the symbol of their hope. It was the city of David, the shepherd boy who rose to be king, who defeated the enemy giant Goliath and brought peace and safety they had never known.

David’s son Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, and began a tradition which lasted almost a thousand years. As long as people of faith prayed at the Temple, as long as people brought their sacrifices there, the Temple was the place where God dwelled. Jerusalem wasn’t just the nation’s capital, but the center of the world.

Jews who lived inside the country were expected to come to Jerusalem three times a year for the three great festivals. If you lived in another country, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was the high point of a lifetime. Pious Jews around the world saved their money so they could afford to be buried in Jerusalem when they died.

Whoever controlled Jerusalem, controlled the country, and the hearts of Jews everywhere in the world. The invaders and the emperors all knew this. They knew that this was how they had to stay in power. They knew that if they lost their grip on the Holy City, they would lose the whole country.

The biggest festival of all was Passover – remembering when God freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. God protected them and passed over them, when the angel of death killed all the first-born in the land.

They left Egypt, and when Pharaoh hardened his heart and tried to recapture them, God made a way through the middle of the Red Sea so they could walk through to the other side. When the Egyptians tried to follow them, the sea came roaring back, and Pharaoh and all his army were drowned.

That’s Passover. They celebrated it, every year, to remind themselves of God’s deliverance. Even during the long years of exile and defeat, they remembered that God had helped them before, and that God could do it again.

That was the situation on Palm Sunday. The city of Jerusalem was crowded beyond imagination, as pilgrims came flooding in. The city, which normally had a population of about 50,000 – about half the population of High Point – grew to more than a million. Twenty times its usual size!

“Crowded” doesn’t begin to describe it. Think about the biggest parade you’ve ever been to. Think about the biggest concert, the biggest protest march, the biggest sports event. Then multiply it. Think about Market Week, and make the crowd fifteen times bigger. That’s what Passover was like. They were sleeping on the streets, on the rooftops, in every square foot of the city.

It doesn’t talk about it in the Bible, but we know from other sources that the Romans always put on a big military parade every year at Passover. They brought in thousands of extra troops, hundreds of chariots, marching into the city. They had big drums, flags, and trumpets to impress everyone.

The Romans always came marching in by the gate on the west side of the city. When Jesus arrived, he came in on the other side of town, through the east gate.

You could hardly find a bigger contrast. When the Romans put on their parade, they brought every weapon, every drum, every trumpet and every soldier they had. When Jesus showed up, he rode on a donkey. Not a war horse, but a mamma donkey, with its baby trotting along behind.

The Romans threatened to do away with anyone who opposed their rule. Jesus came in peace, bringing healing and forgiveness and freedom everywhere he went.

Jesus didn’t come as a conqueror. He came as one of their own. He spoke their own language, he knew their Scriptures, he worshiped and prayed their way. He knew their burdens, he shared their pain. He loved them. He was one of them.

Even the palm branches they waved that day were significant. When the Jews had won their freedom for the very last time, 200 years before, the last time that Jerusalem was a free city, they had waved palm branches over the heads of their leader, Judah Maccabeus and his army as they came marching in, as they cleaned the Temple and restored it.

We don’t have palm branches here today, but how many of you have ever done the wave at a sports event? Come on, I know most of you have! Even Quakers can do the wave if we try.

[Pause while we did the wave several times, adding in cheers and “Hosanna!” – you really had to be here for the moment]

So, Palm Sunday was a big day. People’s hopes were riding high. As Jesus and his donkey came into the city, people in the crowd shouted, Hosanna!, which means, “Save us now!”

“Save us now, Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! May our prayer be heard all the way up in the highest part of heaven! Save us now!”

I remember, years ago, Joyce and I were living in Boston when the Pope came to visit for the first time. We lived a block away from Boston Common, where the parade was going by. My wife went down to watch with the crowd. I stayed up in our apartment to watch it on TV, because I don’t like crowds and I knew I would see it better on TV.

Even a block away, when the crowds cheered, the windows rattled. I put my hand on the thick masonry wall, and I could feel the wall shaking. That’s how loud it was! The news said that a quarter of a million people were there to see the Pope.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, almost ten times that number of people were there to see him ride in. Can you imagine the cheering? Can you imagine the noise?

The religious leaders were frightened, and they told Jesus to quiet the crowd. Jesus told them, “If these people were silent, the very rocks and stones would cry out!” (see Luke 19:40, Habbakuk 2:11)

The stones of the city walls, the stones that held up the Temple, the stones of all the houses, the stones that paved the streets – would shout with joy and hope if people had stayed home.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed are those who lived to see this day! Blessed are our people! Blessed is our nation again! Instead of oppression, freedom! Instead of injustice, equality! Instead of poverty, a new chance! Instead of violence, peace!”

The big thing to remember on Palm Sunday is that we’re welcoming Jesus. We’re reminding ourselves of who he is – the Son of God, the Savior, the Prince of Peace.

When Jesus came on Palm Sunday, he came bringing all the good things God promised:

  • He came bringing healing – of body, mind and spirit
  • He came bringing forgiveness – the forgiveness of all their sin and brokenness
  • He came bringing faith – the absolute trust in the love and mercy of God, faith that God is already here, that God is always at work.
  • Jesus especially came bringing hope – hope to a people who were beaten down and burdened, hope to people who hardly even knew how to pray any more. Hope means believing even when you can’t see, trusting in God even when it’s dark all around you.
  • Jesus came bringing love – the overflowing, abundant love that was in his own heart
  • He came bringing peace – a peace that comes from accepting other people, from taking people as they are, a peace that blessed every home he visited and every person he spoke to
  • He came bringing salvation – helping people to let go, to turn around, to be free of their chains, free of their fear, free of their past.

When Jesus came into town on Palm Sunday, people shouted, “Save us now, Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! May our prayer be heard all the way up in the highest part of heaven! Save us now!”

Last week I came across a wonderful prayer, written by a Greek Orthodox Christian many years ago. He said,

“Let our souls take the place of the palm branches they waved and the clothes they laid down, as we join in their song: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. . .” (St. Andrew of Crete, circa 700 AD)

As we settle back into the quiet now, let’s begin our week of prayer.

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