A sermon for Palm Sunday by Pastor Jon Zabell
Lord, save us; Lord, grant us success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Friends in Christ,
Certain occasions seem to require a song. We light our candles at Christmas and sing “Silent Night.” We carry a cake into the dining room on the anniversary of someone’s birth and we sing, “Happy Birthday.” Every Passover there were certain psalms the Israelites just had to sing. One of them was Psalm 118. It was a psalm that helped them remember the way God has used the blood of sacrificial lambs to free his people from slavery in Egypt during the days of Moses (see Exodus 12). It also helped them look forward to the time when God would use the blood of his Son, the Savior, to free his people from sin and death forever.
The day we call Palm Sunday actually happened at just the time when the Jews were gearing up to celebrate the Passover. Now the Savior they’d been waiting for was making his entry into Jerusalem. And since the crowds were in a Passover mood, it made sense that they would use words from a Passover psalm to greet him.
In today’s sermon, we’re going to focus on the words of Psalm 118 that the people quoted in praise of the Savior on Palm Sunday.
Picture the scene. Jesus is sitting on a donkey, riding into Jerusalem. Crowds of people are so excited they need to find something to show their praise for the Messiah. This is the one the Jews have been waiting thousands of years to see. They grab palm branches. “Hosanna!” they shout. “Hosanna!” Ever since Palm Sunday, “Hosanna” has become a word we use to praise God.
But if you want to know what “Hosanna” originally meant, all you have to do is look at Psalm 118, because there you find its English equivalent. It’s right there in verse 25: “O Lord save us.” In Hebrew that’s: “Ho – she – AH – nah…” “Hosanna!”
Let’s go back to that original meaning. For the moment, don’t think about parades and palm branches. Think of a swimmer overwhelmed by large waves and crying out, yelling for help. He didn’t shout for help right away. For a while, he tried to make it on his own. Nobody wants to create a scene. Nobody wants to look helpless. But he has tried everything to stay above water, and he has used up all his strength. The water is overtaking him. In his effort to catch his breath he’s starting to swallow great gulps of salt water, and his head is starting to go under. Now he cries for help.
It’s a word for a believer who finds himself in a tight spot. You’re dealing with more trouble than you can handle. Your faith is floundering. Your hope is limping. Your trust is fading. For a time you shied away from asking for any help - nobody wants to create a scene. But now you’ve tried everything and used up all your strength. The hardships are overtaking you. You’re going under. Despair is beginning to wash over you. “Help!” you say. But it’s not a shout. It’s a prayer. “Lord, save me!” “Hosanna!”
Or maybe it’s not suffering that has you crying out for mercy. Maybe it’s guilt. Maybe you’ve stopped believing the little lies you’ve been telling yourself to get yourself off the hook for the bad things you’ve done. Maybe a hardened conscience has felt the sharp point of God’s double-edged sword, and God’s Word has cut you to the quick. Maybe in spite of your efforts to be self-sufficient and independent you’ve caught a glimpse of yourself in the mirror of God’s holy law and the truth has hit you like a ton of bricks. You don’t have the strength to be holy. You don’t have the spiritual stamina to hold out against the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh. You’re in over your head. It’s been true all along, but you’ve just come to a fresh realization of it. “Lord, save me!” “Hosanna!”
2. Blessed is he who comes…
But look who’s coming! It’s your Rescuer, your King. The crowds quote Psalm 118 once again: “Blessed is he who comes…!” And look how he’s coming. Zechariah the prophet said it would happen this way. Not on a war horse. Not leading troops into battle. He comes to you gentle and riding on a donkey.
At first glance this might not seem like the help you need. When you’re drowning and calling for help would it inspire confidence to see that the only one who hears you is a seagull floating on a buoy? What you want to see is a troop of lifeguards diving in after you, and life preservers flying in from every direction. You want the Coast Guard.
Can this king on a donkey really rescue us? He can! He did! You see, his apparent gentleness doesn’t tell the whole story. This is the Son of God. He’s the one who spoke and creation came to be. He’s the ruler of the universe. AND he was gentle. In fact Palm Sunday doesn’t show just how gentle this king is. You want to talk “gentle”? The donkey was nothing. Jesus was riding into Jerusalem to die. When he arrived he would accept the treachery of his betrayer. He would put up with the trumped up accusations against him. He would let crooked authorities lead him to the cross.
His enemies wouldn’t have called him “gentle.” To them, he was pathetic. “Some Savior! He can’t even keep his own head above water. How can he save anyone else?” They totally missed the point. God’s plan never was to send in a lifeguard to pull us out of the waves, or to toss a life preserver and say, “Grab on.” We’re too far gone for that. God’s plan was to trade places with us.
We can see it already on Palm Sunday. By his humble approach to Jerusalem, Jesus was telling everyone why he was here. “Let me take your place under the waves of suffering and guilt and death. Let me die. And here, you can have my place next to my Father in heaven.”
Don’t let his gentleness fool you. He is your divine substitute. Because of what he did, no enemy can defeat you. No suffering can take you away from him. No sin, no guilt, no punishment can claim you. He already let it claim him.
3. Hosanna, we praise you!
It was fitting, then, that the crowds on Palm Sunday took this phrase from Psalm 118: “O Lord, save us,” and turned it into a word of praise: “Hosanna!” They were greeting their king, and were telling him they were willing to be subject to him in his kingdom. That’s what the palm branches were all about. That’s why they were spreading their coats and garments on the road in front of him. This was the Savior God had promised from days of old. He was finally here. How could they help but praise him?
We can take our cue from the way the worshipers did it that first Palm Sunday nearly 2000 years ago. They shouted and sang. They waved palm branches. There wasn’t anyone there who said, “I’m sorry, I’d love to be a part of this moment, but I’m just not the kind of person to shout. I’m just generally a quiet person.” Nor on the other hand did anyone say, “Hey everyone, listen to what a good shouter I am. If only everyone else participated as well as I do.” It wasn’t about them. Their focus was on their king, and it showed in the way they praised him. Whether in church or at home or anywhere in between, worship always works best when the focus is on Christ.
Not that the first Palm Sunday crowd was perfect either. The excitement, the faithfulness, the shouts of praise would soon disappear. Where was this crowd five days later at Jesus’ crucifixion? They were hiding. They were afraid. They’d been there Palm Sunday, but it didn’t last.
That’s all the more reason for us to pay attention to the words of the people on Palm Sunday. Think about this Passover Psalm that the Jews used to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The waves of sin and suffering in our lives are too much for us. On our own we’re sunk. On our own we have no chance of success. “O Lord, save us! O Lord, grant us success!” But the same expression has now become a word of praise: “Hosanna!” It’s a perfect word for the king who rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It’s remains a perfect word to say to the King who now rides into our hearts and lives by his word and sacraments. In fact, have you noticed? We tend to sing it just when we’re about to take communion: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The victory has already been won. The Passover Lamb has painted his blood on the frame of your heart. If you can’t find a palm branch to wave, you can use whatever else is close at hand: your attitude, your thoughts, your plans, your words, and your actions. Your whole life can be a celebration of the victory you already have in Jesus Christ, your Savior and your King.