On Palm Sunday one hundred fifty-five (155) years ago, the beginning of the end of the American Civil War occurred when General Robert E. Lee, Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, general of the United States Armies.
|Lee Surrenders to Grant, American Battlefield Trust|
For the American people who had long prayed for salvation from the carnage of war and the fracturing of families and country, this beginning of the end of the bloody conflict was a sign to many that God had finally answered the prayers of the nation. For the war now coming to an end was the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil.
It had torn this country apart, killed 620,000 Americans, still more than any other war in American history. By comparison, the number killed in all other conflicts on this or any other soil combined stands at about 640,000 according to battlefield.org. With the ending of the Civil War, the North prevailed – though no one really won in this conflict.
Still, the events of Palm Sunday 1865 brought cause for celebration, even jubilation, and hope for the future.
We began our worship this morning with the traditional Palm Sunday processional gospel – though of course, due to the trials the day there was no procession or parade here today. Yet, we remember the triumph, the celebration and the hope of that first Palm Sunday – the day of Jesus’ triumphant procession into Jerusalem.
Chaos and confusion filled the air as people waving palms shouted, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” which means, “Save us! Save us!” and other people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Presumably, those making up the crowd along the road that entered the city were among those who had followed Jesus during his journey to Jerusalem.
They make up some of the crowds that the we read about in the Gospels, to whom Jesus has addressed his teaching and preaching all along his journey to Jerusalem.
Others may be among those for whom Jesus has performed miracles and healing. They have heard him say that God is enacting God’s saving grace for them, and that God will set them free from the power of evil.
They believe Jesus’ message that God, full of mercy and abiding in steadfast love is sending a liberating ruler for them. Some believe Jesus to be a great healer and messenger sent from God. Finally, God has answered their prayers and pleading for liberation.
Others claim that he is a prophet from Galilee, sent by God. More are simply caught up in energy of the mob and join the procession.
As they enter the city, they are joined by throngs who have gathered there for the festivities of the Passover. Many of these have not heard of Jesus and have had no former contact with him. Others have likely heard of him but don’t really know who he is or why the crowds follow him so.
The Pharisees have decided that he is a danger to the peace between them and the Romans. Caiaphas, high priest charged with controlling the Jews and keeping the peace of Jerusalem is one of those who fear that Jesus will stir up the Jews and threaten the peace.
And so, while some are shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David,” others are questioning, “Who is this?” and yet others are plotting to destroy him.
Just who was this Jesus, who comes into Jerusalem riding on the back of an ass draped with cloaks, with more cloaks spread upon the road before him as if he were royalty, riding into the city upon a champion steed?
He looks royal and yet his accoutrements are humble – for what kind of king would ride a donkey? He is receiving a royal welcome with the waving of branches of palm and myrtle, and shouts of acclamation, even as the question, “who is this man?” echoes along the road.
As news of Lee’s surrender on Palm Sunday 1865 spread, and one by one other confederate brigades and armies also surrendered, there was a sense of relief and jubilation, yet by the end of the week, whatever joy had been found or felt was shattered – by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln five days later. The country as a whole was cast into mourning and the future was once again uncertain. How quickly things change.
Following the first Palm Sunday, somewhere around the year 33 AD (CE), came a week that was utterly confusing. No sooner had Jesus entered the city in triumph, than he began agitating the religious authorities, overturning tables, criticizing their behavior, cursing fig trees, casting judgment on the nations, and predicting the destruction of the temple. Finally, at the end of the week he is arrested and tried and five days after the triumphal entry, he dies upon the cross.
Followers of Jesus fall silent and go into hiding. Even those who have been closest to him, who have declared their unending love for him, and belief in him, deny and abandon him in the end. Indeed, how quickly things change.”
The shouts of “hosanna” – “save us” are muted in the horror of the crucifixion as the taunting call, “save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” echoes down the hill.
“Hosanna” is not a word that we normally use in the course of our day, or ever really, but today as a church around the world, we sing out our hosannas. But when we consider the meaning of the word – “save us” – what it is that we are asking God to save us from today?
At this point in history, April 2020, the answer that rises to the top probably seems pretty obvious: coronavirus. As we live into yet another week of ever-stricter guidelines and stay-at-home orders that now affect the entirety of our state and many other states and countries around the world, we are praying for the healing of the afflicted, the eradication of the virus, and comfort of those who mourn: “Save us, Lord, from COVID 19”.
We pray that God would save our lives, save our families, our jobs, our businesses, our communities, our church and the economy: “save us from destruction”.
We pray that the world might return to “normal” sooner rather than later.
We pray for the most vulnerable among us, made even more vulnerable by the reality of an unprepared for, non-curable, invisible menace.
These are just the latest in a long list of things from which we could cry out to be saved, just as the people who have gone before us have asked God to save them from the trials and tribulations of their time,.
In every age we have a pretty good idea from what we need to be saved and we think we know how we should be saved. We expect Jesus to come and make it better. With hope and trust, we cry, “save us” and wait, watching for signs that God has heard our prayer and the answer is coming.
Yet still we find ourselves afflicted by greed, beset by illness, vulnerable to death. Still, we find ourselves in endless conflict – in our relationships, our politics, our sense of justice, our economics, and with the environment.
Into this reality, Jesus comes, not as the conquering king expected both then and, in a sense, even now. He is not the military leader they thought they needed, but a humble servant king, riding on a donkey.
He came as one who would bear our pain and brokenness up the cross. He came as one who was born, lived, suffered and died in solidarity with the whole hurting and beloved world. He came to save, but not in the way they imagined or the way we expect to see.
On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus accepted their hosannas and praises, knowing his friends would betray him and the crowds would turn on him. Jesus accepts the way they honor him as king, even knowing that the only crown he will wear will be made of thorns. Jesus “rides on, rides on, in majesty” as the old hymn goes, not counting himself as equal to God but emptying himself, so that he may be filled to overflowing with God’s love, and then shed that love on us.
I recently read this Palm Sunday scene being referred to as the “glittering sadness.” Isn’t that a perfect description? For even as we imagine the jubilation of the crowds, we cannot help visualizing the reality of the cross: The cross upon which Jesus dies, for us; the cross from which his body is taken for entombment; the death from which he rises again, in glorious victory over evil, sin, and yes, even death.
The people in the crowd didn’t get it. They didn’t understand who Jesus truly was or what he would do for us.
The Pharisees and Caiaphas feared his influence and misunderstood him. The merchants and moneychangers at the temple, and those who came to worship there didn’t get what his beef was. Even his disciples didn’t fully understand who Jesus was and how his death fit into the promises of God until after his death and resurrection.
Jesus is the emissary and embodiment of God’s love for the world: the understanding and the misunderstanding, the faithful and the unfaithful, the repentant and the unrepentant. Jesus is mercy for the believer and the unbeliever, the ones who greet him as “Son of David” and “Messiah” and the ones who taunt him as he hangs upon the cross.
The glittering irony is that Jesus came to be love and in love, he died for the sake of all of us. In Jesus, God comes to us to be with us and for us through whatever we suffer or experience – illness, brokenness, pandemic, fear, loneliness – all of it.
He comes to us and bears with us in mercy and love beyond our imagining or understanding, shattering our expectations and assuring us of life and love everlasting. May this reality be our comfort and the force that accompanies us through this Holy Week and all the way to Easter. Amen.