When I was a kid, sometimes when I was meeting grown-ups for the first time, they would sing my name to me. I thought it was pretty odd, myself. I mean, even at 7 or 8 years old, I had met my fair share of people, and not once was I tempted to sing their name back to them when they told me what it was. But it was a semi-regular occurrence for a long time. My parents would be talking to someone new, they’d motion me over and say, “I’d like you to meet our older son, J.C.”
And the grown-up would say, “J.C.?” and then they’d start singing: “Hey, J.C., J.C., won’t you smile at me?” So I’d smile, awkwardly, and try to get away as fast as I could, wondering what was wrong with grown-ups and whether it would happen to me when I got older. I don’t know how many times that happened before my mom finally told me that it was the lyrics from a song in the Broadway show, Jesus Christ Superstar. I still thought it was weird to sing to a kid when you first meet him, but at least I knew there was some reason for it.
What they would sing is actually in the Palm Sunday song in the show, which is called “Hosanna,” and Palm Sunday is the moment that Jesus really does become a superstar, in both the show and in Scripture. The crowds have been growing larger and louder for a while now in his ministry, thrilled by his healings, enraptured by his teachings, awed by his willingness to transgress every boundary and custom and standard there is in order to spend time with and care for those whom the rest of society cared nothing for at all.
But this scene on Palm Sunday is on a different level. The crowd is enormous, full of energy and excitement and defiance. Because this event isn’t really about welcoming Jesus to town because he’s a really interesting teacher or even a particularly holy person. In the third stanza of the song in the show, the crowd sings, “Hey, J.C., J.C., won’t you fight for me?” That’s what they really want. That’s why they’ve come out and made such a scene. They want a champion who will fight for them: fight the occupying forces of the Roman Empire, fight the corrupt religious establishment that is willing to collaborate with the foreign occupiers in order to preserve and extend their own power.
The truth is, Palm Sunday is one of the most politically-charged passages in the entire New Testament because of how the crowd understands Jesus. They are recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed One, the one promised in Scripture and sent by God to proclaim God’s Word, to mediate between God and the people, and to rule for God.
But it was the part about ruling for God as a king that they were the most excited about, which they make clear with literally everything they do in this scene. For starters, that’s what the palm branches are all about. In the Greco-Roman world, waving palms was associated with celebrations of victory and triumph; it was the rough equivalent of shooting off fireworks on the Fourth of July today. Similarly, in the Jewish tradition, palms were associated with political liberation: the Jewish history of the Maccabean revolt against another occupying empire, the Greeks, includes a moment where the victorious Jewish rebels enter Jerusalem to loud celebrations and palm branches waving, re-establishing Israel (for a short time) as an independent kingdom before the Romans came.
People often threw cloaks down to make a path for a king to travel on as a gesture of honor. And Jesus enters the city through what is known as the Golden Gate, the gate through which it was said that God’s Shekhinah, the glorious manifestation of the divine presence, once entered the city and would do so again when the Messiah came. It was so associated with the triumphal coming of the Messiah to rule Israel that a later version of the gate was walled up by Muslims when they first took the city in the
9th century so that no subsequent Messiah could arrive through it on their watch. The shouts of “Hosanna!” which literally means, “save us!” are an affirmation that Jesus is a lord and king who can save them. And just in case all that was too subtle, the crowd even changes the words of Scripture to underscore the point, shouting the line from the Psalms as “Blessed is the king [not simply the one] who comes in the name of the Lord!” The crowd is quite literally giving Jesus the royal treatment.
At first, Jesus seems to be enjoying and perhaps even encouraging this behavior. After all, it’s not like he’s getting swept away by the fervor of the crowd against his will. Jesus made some preparations of his own, arranging through his disciples to have a colt to ride into the city. He does this because there is a specific prophecy in the book of Zechariah in the Old Testament that he is fulfilling:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
But notice what that prophecy actually says after the part about the colt. He will cut off the chariot and the war-horse and the battle bow; he will destroy them, not gather ones of his own. He shall command peace to the nations, not simply expel the Romans. And his dominion will be, not from the River to the Sea, which is the traditional definition of Israel, but from the River to the ends of the earth. As Messiah, as king, the royal treatment that Jesus intends to give is ending all war, not starting a new one; it is reigning over all the world, not just an independent Israel. And it is conquering and driving out death itself, not just the Romans. But the people don’t want that and can’t see it; a victorious but violent political scramble for the independence of Israel is about as big as they can think.
Earlier this week I got a message from a pastor friend that said, “So, are you ready for this Sunday? It’s the beginning of the big one; everything has been building to this. I don’t know what I’m going to do when it’s finally all over…” I responded and said yes, I think I’m ready, everything’s lined up and ready to go, as long as our palms are delivered for Sunday. “Palms?” he messaged back; “No, I’m talking about the BIG ONE. The last season of Game of Thrones starts on Sunday!”
He was joking, of course; at least I hope he was. But it also struck me that it’s an interesting juxtaposition for Palm Sunday. The show, as you may know on at least some level, is a wildly popular medieval-style fantasy epic on HBO. As the title suggests, the apparent premise of the show is a series of struggles over who gets to rule the fictional land of Westeros: the so-called game of thrones. But while most of the characters for most of the time think that’s the real issue at stake in the show and spend most of their time and money and focus trying to win the game of thrones, that’s not actually what’s important.
From the first scene of the first episode, we as the viewers know what most of the characters don’t: while the various factions of nobles spend most of the seasons that follow, warring and scheming against each other to try to claim the throne and wield political and military power across the land, the real conflict is slowly unfolding beyond the boundaries of civilized society, as a race of intelligent, evil, and supernatural beings called White Walkers that is preparing to overrun and wipe out all of humanity itself with an army of the dead. The real war in the show is not one noble house against another noble house, but the living against the dead. The real fight is against the power of death itself.
The Palm Sunday crowd wants a king who will play and win the game of thrones. In Jesus Christ Superstar, it’s telling that the next song after the triumphal entry of “Hosanna” is by Simon the Zealot, who leads a soaring, high-energy call for Jesus to get in the game of thrones and win it: “Christ, what more do you need to convince you / That you’ve made it and you’re easily as strong / As the filth from Rome who rape our country / And who’ve terrorized our people for so long? / There must be over fifty thousand / Screaming love and more for you / And every one of fifty thousand / Would do whatever you ask him to / Keep them yelling their devotion / But add a touch of hate at Rome / You will rise to a greater power / We will win ourselves a home / You’ll get the power and the glory.”
To which Jesus responds with a soft and somber solo: “Neither you, Simon, nor the fifty thousand, Nor the Romans, nor the Jews, Nor Judas, nor the Twelve, nor the Priests, nor the scribes nor doomed Jerusalem itself / Understand what power is / Understand what glory is / Understand at all / Understand at all.” While the various factions in Judea are warring and scheming against each other to try and claim political and religious power across the land, Jesus is focused on the real fight: the fight against death itself, which he will wage not with a shining sword in his hand on a battlefield, but with rough-hewn nails in his hand on a cross. And it is a fight that he must first lose in order to win, because there is no resurrection without death. That is the power and the glory that he will get.
And he’s right; the crowd does not understand at all. And they don’t want to. The Palm Sunday crowd does not want that kind of Messiah; this is not the royal treatment they want from or for their Lord. But the truth is, neither do we. I’ve often said that when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, most of us are a lot more interested in him as a Savior than as a Lord. On some level, in some way, we like to shout “Hosanna! Save us, Lord!” Many Christians tend to focus on what Jesus is saving us from: sin, death, separation from God, the powers of this world; meaninglessness, isolation, guilt, shame, fear. But we often ignore what Jesus is saving us for; that’s where Jesus as Lord, not simply Savior, comes in. Jesus saves us for a reason, for a purpose: for love and for service, to follow him as his disciples and be the members of his Body in the world building up his kingdom.
What has Jesus saved you for? That’s one of the most important questions of faith we can wrestle with, I think. And the answer changes with age, with life, with resources and opportunities. But the question remains, because it is ultimately the question of what it means to call Jesus Lord, the question of what it means to you and to us as a congregation to follow him wherever he leads, from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the anguish of the cross to the glory of the resurrection. This Holy Week, listen anew for how Jesus is calling you; for where Jesus is leading you; for why Jesus is saving you. And then follow.
Because “Hosanna! Save us, Lord!” is just the beginning of the royal treatment that we give and receive with Jesus.