Jesus Sets Us Free to Save Ourselves: a sermon for Palm Sunday – Matthew 21:1-11

palm brsIn our parish, on Palm Sunday our liturgy stays with the commemoration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Trusting that our members will join us on Good Friday, we have not adopted the practice of rushing to the Passion of Christ. This allows us time to linger over our Hosannas. Our worship began outside with the reading of Matthew 21:1-11, followed by a procession of palm waving, hosanna cheering congregation. This year I changed the first reading to the story of Jacob’s wounding during a wrestling match with God in Genesis 32:22-31, followed by an feminist interpretation of Psalm 118, and the Gospel text John 12:12-15. I am indebted to Michael Morewood’s book “Is Jesus God” for the inspiration behind this sermon and to John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg’s “The Last Week” for the historical details. 

For previous Palm Sunday sermons click here, here, or here

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us! Save us! Save us! Save us from who? Save us from what? Save us for what? What is all the shouting about?

Two millennia ago, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, when Jesus mounted that donkey it was pretty clear who needed saving from who; it was clear what they needed saving from and it was fairly clear what people longed to be saved for. The people longed for freedom: freedom from the brutality of their Roman rulers, freedom from the ravages of poverty, freedom from the strict oppression of their religious authorities, and freedom from the fear of illness and death. Life among the conquered peoples of first century Palestine was cruel, oppressive, impoverished and filled with fear and suspicion. Whatever hope of deliverance there was all too often false hope. Among the oppressed there are always calls for revolution and the conquered people of first century Palestine had seen more than their fair share of wanna-be saviours.  Some of their young people had fallen prey to the incitement of the Zealots and in youthful, exuberant, impatience had taken up arms against their Roman oppressors. Some of their neighbours had betrayed their own people and taken up whatever crumbs the Romans were offering, sold their souls and become collaborators, lining their own pockets at the expense of their own people. But far too many people had given up and given in, settling for whatever life they could eke out under the cruel regime hoping against hope, that someday, someone, somehow would come along and save them from the horrors of life. And so, they longed for the good old days; The days when their people and not the Romans dominated the land, the days when one of their own was king. But not just any king, they wanted a king like David; a king who would ride at the head of their army full of pride and power and conquer all their enemies. The elders, the wise ones, pointed to the past and heralded David as a Messiah; an anointed one; anointed by God to lead the people. How they longed for such a messiah to rise up among them and lead them; lead them to victory against all their foes and save them from their miserable existence. One by one, they’d hear these wanna-be messiahs, these trumped up saviours, call the people to rise up. But they knew, with each successive saviour, there was no hope that they could triumph over the mighty Roman army and so over and over again, they hunkered down, waiting and watching, longing and hoping for the one who could save them.

Then along comes Jesus a wayward worker from up in the hill country. He doesn’t look or sound like any of the would be messiah’s except maybe John the Baptist, but everybody knows that John is religious fanatic, shouting down by the river and calling people to turn from their way of living and turn back to the ways of God. Religion can’t save anyone. Just look at the Sadducees and the Pharisees why they’re in cahoots with the Romans; as corrupt as the day is long. Why would we return to religion? What good can those priests, preachers and fanatics possibly do us when they can’t even take care of the synagogues or the temple; they’re a bunch of corrupt collaborators who’d sell their own souls for a whiff of power.

But the word on the street is that this Jesus fella is different than John the Baptist or any of the other religious fanatics. Sure he talks a lot about God, and the reign of God and he’s always talking about money; but what he says is different somehow. And sure enough from place to place, town to town, person to person, this Jesus breaks through all the nonsense that’s flying about the place with a message that makes sense somehow; a message that sounds like good news, a message that offers hope, a message that offers life as apposed to merely existing, a message that calls for peace not through war or violence, but through justice. A message that calls people out of themselves, beyond the cruelties of the day, toward a new way of living in the world; a way of trusting that there is more to life than meets the eye; a way of knowing that they are part of something so much bigger than they had ever hoped or dreamed; a way of understanding who they are and whose they are. A way of knowing their God that is intimate and tangible. So, as the news spread and people began to hear bits and pieces of the news about Jesus, they began wonder. And when the news came that Jesus was approaching the city, they felt the hope rising in them once more and a whole lot of people made their way to the outskirts of the city to take a look for themselves. They half expected him to ride in triumph into Jerusalem. After all, it was almost Passover and the place was full of pilgrims, the timing couldn’t be better for an uprising. If he really were the Messiah, the anointed one, the one sent by God to lead the people, to do battle with their oppressors and free them from the cruelty of their lives, well surely he’d make an entrance worthy of a hero. They certainly weren’t expecting an ass; or the colt of an ass. While some in the crowd shouted, “Hosanna, save us!” and meant it, I’m sure there were others who shouted their hosannas with more than a hint of sarcasm; as if this itinerant preacher, riding in on a donkey stands a chance against the Imperial Army of Rome! What exactly was this guy trying to prove? What was this Jesus trying to say?

I wonder how many in that crowd understood? If they’d heard anything of what Jesus had been saying for the past three years they might have guessed that Jesus idea of a saviour wasn’t exactly the same as the people’s idea. Jesus knew that violence was not the way to freedom. The reign of God would not be ushered in at the point of a sword. Justice was the only way to peace, justice for the poor meant freedom for the oppressed and the oppressor alike. Justice was the way. Justice was the way to peace. The mighty Romans had their Pax Romana; peace through victory; conquer the people, secure the land, enforce the law with violence, terrorize the people if you have to, but maintain order and then you will have peace and prosperity for the conquerors. As for the conquered, well as long as you tax them up to the point that they can pay, and keep them afraid of your might, they’ll tow the line; and if they get out of line; punish them swiftly, publicly and brutally so that every one knows not to mess with mighty Rome. Pax Romanna: peace through victory.

Against the mighty power of Rome, Jesus comes riding in on the colt of an ass. No white steed for Jesus. Some of the people understood what he was saying and they welcomed him like a conquering hero; waving their palms as if Jesus was about to lead them to victory; knowing all the while that the way of Jesus was dangerous. Others misunderstood Jesus, and waved their palm branches hoping against hope that Jesus had some plan up his sleeve to save them from the mighty Romans; some secret army ready to ride in behind him and conquer their oppressors. But I suspect that there were some in that crowd who waved their branches and shouted their hosannas mocking this so-called Messiah, knowing all the while where this madness would lead.

So, what about you? Why did you come here today? Why did you wave your palm branches and shout your hosannas? Who or what do you want to be saved from? What do you want to be saved for? What does freedom look like to you? What kind of salvation do you expect from Jesus? I know for centuries after the stories of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem were first told, the church that was created in Christ’s name has been telling you from what, from who and how you need saving. But most of what the church has been teaching about salvation was written by men who had a particular view of creation that bears precious little resemblance to what you actually know of creation. This is not the Middle Ages. We all know that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. We know that there is no heaven up there in the sky and that there is no hell down in the bowls of the earth. Most of us know that God is not some big daddy up in the sky, waiting around to interfere in our lives. So, what exactly do we need saving for?

In the past 100 years we have learned so much about creation. We know that Adam and Eve were not the first people on earth. We know that evil did not enter creation because Adam ate that apple. We know that we weren’t born terrible wicked sinners as a result of original sin. We also know, I hope, that any god who would demand a blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin is no god worth worshipping. For what kind of god would require the death of that god’s only child in order to forgive? So, if Jesus did not die as some sort of sacrifice in our place; if Jesus isn’t the one sent to save us from eternal punishment so that we can live happily ever after up in heaven, then what are we shouting hosanna for?

As scientists begin to penetrate the mysteries of the universe, and historians reveal more and more to us about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, theologians are beginning to express salvation in new ways. Looking back at the life of Jesus we see a person in whom the Spirit of God which permeates all of creation, came to wonderful expression. As we examine the life and teachings of the man Jesus we are uncovering more and more about what Jesus actually taught about the Creator of all that is and ever shall be and an image of God is being revealed that exposes all our images of God as the idols that they are; far too small to contain all that God is. At a point relatively late in his adult life, Jesus of Nazareth became a man with a mission; a man prepared to give his heart, soul, mind and body, to what he saw as the greatest commandment; the commandment to love. Jesus was consumed by this commandment to love, insisting that love was the very Spirit of God in him and in us. Jesus message of love was not some bland proclamation of being nice to one another or being good. The kind of love that Jesus sought to bring to expression was the love that lies at the very heart of God. Jesus believed that his understanding and insights about God and life would be good news for people. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus proclaimed his conviction that the very Spirit of God was upon him, driving him to proclaim good news to the poor, to bring freedom to the captives, to bring sight to the blind and to set free those who were downtrodden. Jesus saw this powerful kind of love as the key to what in Greek is called the basseliea of God, the reign of God, or the kin-dom of God. Jesus believed that his contemporaries were burdened by wrong ideas about God and were looking for their experience of God in all the wrong places.

Jesus recognized that one of the biggest hindrances to the incoming reign of god were the ingrained ideas and images which prevented people from believing that God was close to them. The mistaken idea of this far off God led the people to be fearful of God. Again and again, in preaching about the reign of God and in sharing his conviction that God was not to be feared, Jesus tried to undermine the barriers to believing the good news that he wanted to share. Jesus pointed to the clear, unmistakable signs of God’s presence in order to relieve people’s fear of God. Jesus made it clear that when people act or see others act with mercy, goodness, truth, compassion, justice that they are loving just as God loves and that in those loving acts the Spirit of God is in their midst. Jesus urged people to see the connections insisting that to live in love is to live in God. Jesus identified, and wanted his listeners to identify, basic human interactions such as visiting one another, clothing the poor, caring for the needy, being ready to forgive, feeding children, overcoming cultural prejudices, respecting women, loving one’s neighbour as oneself, and being wholeheartedly generous as the “rule” or reign of God. Here in this reign of God is where all people would be able to recognize and name the presence of God’s Spirit in our midst.

Jesus preached that the “poor” have a special insight into God’s reign. Jesus made it clear that there is no easy path to ushering in God’s reign. It demands a kind of love that is all consuming; a commitment to peace, a readiness to forgive, a generosity beyond selfishness, the risk of persecution. Jesus proclaimed a way of being neighbour to those in need that called upon his followers to take the hard road while accepting a job description that calls for large, loving, generous hearts. The kind of salvation that Jesus is offering is freedom from the offerings of our culture; freedom from our obsession with our own needs; freedom from greed we would harbour, freedom from hatred, freedom from the injustice we would perpetrate, freedom from violence we would inflict…the salvation that Jesus offered and continues to offer is the freedom to embody the Spirit of God which is love. Jesus is offering us the freedom to save ourselves. Jesus is pointing a way of being in the world that proclaims: If you want to discover God’s presence in your life, be a peace-maker, forgive, be generous, be compassionate. There is no other way. Jesus was trying to help people who actually live this way to name and be aware of God’s Spirit active in their actions. For Jesus, the presence of God’s Spirit is evident in human interactions of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, sharing, working for justice, respect, joy, working for peace. When you do these things, you know God’s Spirit is here in you. Jesus called people to recognize and name the active presence of God’s Spirit in our midst.

When we look back at what Jesus taught, proclaimed, lived and died for, we can see the kind of salvation that Jesus offered and continues to offer. In Christ salvation is being set free from images, ideas, and practices that bind us into enslavement to a distant, overseer God, being set free from the fear of God, being set free from divisions that divide people and set them against each other in the name of religion, and begin set free from thinking and acting as if we had no personal authority to promote justice, truth, and the action of God’s Spirit in our world.

The salvation that Christ offers challenges all of us to take responsibility for the emergence of God’s reign into our world, in our time and in our relationships. Jesus life, death and resurrection reveal to us the truth that when we live in love, we live in God and God live in us.

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Do we have the courage to accept the salvation that Jesus offers? Do we have the courage to live in love, to live in God so that God may live in, with, and through us? Hosanna! Let it be so! Hosanna!


Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!

The Salvation of Jesus is yours!

Live in love

Live in God

Let God live, in, with, and through us?

Hosanna! Let it be so! Hosanna!






3 thoughts on “Jesus Sets Us Free to Save Ourselves: a sermon for Palm Sunday – Matthew 21:1-11

  1. Pingback: Marching in the Wrong Parades – A Palm Sunday Sermon | pastordawn

  2. A powerful and insightful sermon. Just found it in a search the significance of Palm Sunday. Much appreciated!

  3. Oops…please fix that post to say “in a search of the significance of Palm Sunday…” Thank you.

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