The people asked, seeing the commotion: who is this? Others answered: Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet. He is mighty in word and deed, they explained. “How so?” came the response. (The people of Jerusalem had seen this story before – a so-called prophet does great in the minor leagues, among the small towns and villages, but is no match when he gets to the biggest city around.)
No, this prophet is different – Jesus does more than talk, he acts too! He makes the blind see and the deaf hear and he casts out demons from the possessed. He’s also taught in a way that has never been seen before. This man, I tell you, is a prophet!
With the news of this prophet, the citizens of Jerusalem, the city of cities, the place where it was thought that God would begin the kingdom that would last forever, come out to get a glimpse of the next big thing. They chant, they sing, they lay down palms.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, they yell!
They place cloaks and palm branches on the side of the road – the sign of recognizing royalty.
The more religious among them probably remember the line that Matthew uses to describe Jesus’ entrance: “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you.’” Right in front of everyone’s eyes, religious history is happening.
This scene has the atmosphere of a carnival: Matthew says that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, “the whole city was shaken.” Our translation doesn’t really do the description justice, however, because the word Matthew uses in Greek suggests what happens when there is an earthquake. In other words, when Jesus enters the city, the foundations of everyone are shaken: not so much the buildings, but the lives of everyone: Roman occupiers, faithful Jews, the religious leaders, and even the lukewarm.
Yet by the end of our liturgy, Jesus the prophet will become Jesus the criminal: we will shout, “We want Barabbas instead!”
In the beginning we hear, “Hosannas to the King.” This changes to the mocking label “The King of the Jews” above the cross.
The crowds shout, “Here is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” – that quickly changes to “If you are the Son of God, save yourself!”
And perhaps, worst of all, the palms strewn on the ground, change to nails in the hand and feet, and a lance through the side.
What happened? The truth is: I – don’t – know.
This really is the mystery of evil that we confront today – we stare it face to face. It’s an experience we all know in our lives – things go from great to terrible in an instant. We’re on top of the world and then there is misfortunate. We know just how things are supposed to play out and then we’re diagnosed with an illness. We find a relationship that works and then we’re betrayed. We are in line to get a promotion and then instead we’re downsized.
But this isn’t the whole story – and it’s not for one – and only one – precise and enduring reason.
The people who cheered Jesus – the crowds who saw him – as he rode into Jerusalem were dead wrong. Completely and totally wrong.
He wasn’t Jesus the prophet.
He is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.
And that is why today – Palm Sunday – isn’t about the palms, isn’t about the Hosannas, and isn’t about what the city of Jerusalem said about Jesus. No, it’s about what God has said about all of us – each of us – both individually and as a community. God tells us, time and time again, even to the point of death on a cross that we are deeply and enduringly loved.
For the rest of this liturgy, let’s remember the good news and through Easter – the best news of all – that God loved us first, God came to us – and sent us more than a prophet – God sent us himself.
Hosanna to that God in the highest!