"The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”" John 12:12-13
Today’s reading is taken from John 12, where we find Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In the previous chapter, we read of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead which intensified the Pharisees plot to kill Jesus. This miracle urged the Pharisees not to just want Jesus dead, but also Lazarus. This was due to the risen Lazarus acting as a living testimony to Jesus’s power over death. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead was His final miracle before His passion and acted as the perfect smokescreen for what was to come in a matter of weeks. It was this miracle which led to Jesus having a large scale following.
As many of us will know, Jesus’ triumphal entry took place on what has become known as Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Jesus’ resurrection where Christian’s celebrate the beginning of the culmination of Jesus coming to save the lost and secure their salvation. Palm Sunday marks the start of what is often called “Passion Week” or “Holy Week”, the final seven days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Today’s reading records the expectation that the crowd had of Jesus as he travelled onto Jerusalem. This expectation impacted the crowd’s behaviour, more specifically what they did and what they said.
What they did – We are told in today’s reading that the crowds laid down their cloaks as well as palm leaves in anticipation of Jesus’ arrival. By spreading their cloaks on the road, the people were giving Jesus the royal treatment, which was afforded to King Jehu (son of King Jehoshaphat) at his coronation (2 Kings 9:12). In many lands in the ancient Near East, it was customary to cover in some way the path of someone thought worthy of the highest honour. This was done with Palm branches, as in the ancient world they were a sign of victory, triumph, peace, and eternal life. The palm was sacred in Mesopotamian religions, and in ancient Egypt represented immortality. A palm branch was awarded to victorious athletes in ancient Greece and was one of the most common attributes of Victory personified in ancient Rome. In Jewish tradition, the palm is one of the four plants carried for Sukkot (the feast of tabernacles), a time of joyous celebration where the Israelite's celebrated God’s continued provision for them in the current harvest and remembered His provision and protection during the 40 years in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:40).
What they said – The crowd greeted Jesus with the word “Hosanna” a plea for salvation. The word hosanna finds its roots in two Hebrew words; yasha (“deliver, save”) and anna (“beg, beseech”) there the word hosanna means “I beg you to save!” or “please deliver us!” When the Jewish crowds said, “in the highest,” they were invoking heaven’s blessing on them and the salvation that Jesus was bringing. To paraphrase, the shout of the crowd was: “Save us, our Messiah, who comes to fulfil God’s mission! Save us, we beg you, as you take your rightful throne and extend heaven’s salvation to us!”
The way the crowd responded to Jesus’ arrival demonstrated their awareness that He was their rightful King, as He was a descendant of David and He came in the name of the Lord. Those who had gathered knew the spiritual and political significance of what they were doing and were still willing to do it. The crowd was not full of rulers, nor great men or women of any religious or political authority, but regular people like you and I who believed they had encountered the Messiah.
At the time, the crowd found themselves in a metaphoric pandemic of their own. The virus of Roman rule impacted them spiritually, politically and economically. Can you imagine being in the land of your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses etc. but ruled by an Empire whose religion, laws, culture and ethos were different to yours? The arrival of the promised Messiah influenced their behaviour, to the extent that they were willing to behave in a way which could have long term ramifications on their freedom and status.
Fast forward over 2000 years, and we also find ourselves in a pandemic with a virus which is affecting everything we do. It has caused death, illness, redundancies, abuse and the list goes on. My question today is simple. How has this virus impacted your behaviour? What have you done? What have you said? Have you demonstrated your Christian witness just like the crowd did at Jesus’ triumphal entry? Have you checked on those who you know are vulnerable? Volunteered to support the emergency services or even sent a message of encouragement and hope via one of your social media platforms? It is my prayer, that while we find ourselves in this season of lock-down, we will draw upon the grace that fell on the crowd on the first Palm Sunday and do something or say something which will act as a witness to the Messiah, the one who while we were still sinners, defeated the power of sin so that we may have eternal life. Say it, do it, mean it.