Palm Sunday seems like a bittersweet moment for those who know their Bible history and the week that’s coming. Jesus did. Jesus knew exactly where this adulation of the crowds for all the wrong reasons was going. He accepted the accolades, the warm reception to shouts of “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest!” as he rode into Jerusalem on the day we celebrate as Palm Sunday. Hosanna means “hurray” or “hoorah.” It’s a wild cheer of rejoicing, of praise and encouragement for something wonderful that has or is about to happen. And the people had, just as we do also today, expectations.
Yet their expectations were far different than those Jesus came to fulfill. They had high hopes for a new earthly king, someone who would lead them to a new wonderful life and freedom from Roman rule, free from the binds that shackled them from doing what they wanted to and more like what they recalled from hundreds of years earlier, during the glory days of King David, when life was better. They wanted a powerful ruler to make things right for them in their lives, here on earth. They clearly placed their own self-interests first.
We know how the week played out.
We know what happened during the kangaroo courts Jesus was tossed back and forth from that week. We know the injustice that was done, the torture, the abuse, the trumped up charges that Jesus intended to overthrow Roman rule, to subvert the empire–if one was to believe the Jewish leaders, who felt threatened by this carpenter’s son from Nazareth. Jesus knew all this was coming. He dined last week in Bethany with good friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead not long before. And he would dine again soon with the dozen closest followers during the last supper. Jesus had dealt with illness and death and human suffering during his entire ministry on earth, caring for others and raising the dead. Jesus knew the torture and pain about to take place in his life on earth. And he knew what effect this welcome, this misguided celebration of what the people would provoke from the establishment. And that it would lead to be a painful, humiliating death on the cross.
Yes, it’s easy for us with our 20/20 hindsight to label the masses who threw down palm branches and honored Jesus with the equivalent of a first century C.E. motorcade. It’s easy for us to call them naive, foolish, power-seeking, misguided, and looking for something that wasn’t what God wanted or expected from them, but instead seeking fulfillment of their priorities and self-interests. They had a different expectations, their own purposes, not God’s.
I invite you to the second reading for today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
““5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death”
So there we have it.
Jesus did not exploit his position of power and popularity in society. On the contrary, I like what I read from Elisabeth Johnson, a Lutheran Professor in Cameroon: “Having the mind of Christ ought to shape not only the internal life of a congregation, but its relationship with its community and the world. While some may mourn the passing of “Christendom” and the waning influence of the church in society, Paul calls us to relinquish our grasping for worldly power and embrace the role of servant.1 Power struggles and pining for glory do not honor the name of Jesus. Rather, by following Jesus in identifying with the lowly and giving ourselves away in humble service to a suffering world, we honor “the name that is above every name.”
Jesus dashed and disappointed the expectations of the masses that week.
Jesus wound up on the cross on Good Friday, suffering death, not to meet the preferences of the people, but to put an end to death and sin.
Jesus met the expectations God promised so long ago to his people–that he loved his people and would save them from their sin, to make them – as Martin Luther wrote in The Freedom of a Christian made lords over all – free to serve God and neighbor.