Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
March 16, 2008
Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I love the Greek word for “Shout!” (krazo). It covers so much ground — both the peaks and valleys of our lives. Sometimes we shout in joy, as in the birth of a child or when they make their first goal at a team sport. Sometimes we shout to get help, like the two blind beggars who shout (ekracan) to Jesus on the road out of Jericho back in the previous chapter, “Kurie Elehson!” (Lord have mercy!) Sometimes we shout in anger at a cruel betrayal, as the disciples did when the soldiers arrived at Gethsemane. Sometimes we shout in hatred as the crowds did before Pilate who called out “Crucify him!” Sometimes we shout in pain, as Jesus did from the cross, “God, why have you forsaken me?” Sometimes we shout in grief, as Jesus’s mother and the other women did at the foot of the cross, as Jesus did last week when he used that same Greek word (ekracan), to shout Lazarus from the tomb. And sometimes, as the crowds did that first Palm Sunday, we shout “Hosanna!” That shout is more than a word we use once a year in worship to launch the children on their little circular march around the sanctuary with the palms. It is more than a shout of praise to God. It comes from the Greek word hosanna, is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase “YASHA NA!” meaning "save us now."
The Jewish high priests would wave green branches and process around the altar shouting YASHA NA! HOSANNA! during Sukkot – The Feast of Tabernacles, or “Booths.” That holiday remembers the terrible 40 years the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters made of branches. We Christians remember that time during Lent, our 40 days in the darkest “wilderness” of the church year, where we are invited to voluntarily impose upon ourselves spiritual disciplines to draw us closer to the Spirit of God – as Jesus did when he went out into the wilderness to pray at the beginning of his ministry. The way of transformation is often through that place of emptiness and trial – that may make us want to shout with frustration and pain.
Remember the steep and dangerous road on which the Good Samaritan finds the man who was beaten and robbed? That’s the road Jesus had just hiked with his disciples from Jericho toward Jerusalem the day before. Jericho, near where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, you are 900 feet below sea level. So climbing up to the Mount of Olives was about 13 miles, with an elevation gain of more than 3500 feet – it was a hike any guidebook would rate as “strenuous” or “most difficult.” Out West I used to use Yosemite as a comparison, because our church went there on our annual spring retreat. Have you ever been there? The hike from the Yosemite Valley floor all the way up to Glacier Point, it’s a hike of 8 miles and a rise of 3200 feet, but it’s so difficult that few hikers ever try it. The Mount of Olives is another 30 feet higher, like a 25 story building.
In Connecticut terms, that’s like pretty close to the 14 miles it would take to walk from Southbury to our church here in Brookfield, only once you got here you’d still have to climb the stairs to the top of the Empire State Building … 2 ½ times!
You can see why Jesus and his disciples would be so happy to arrive at their friends’ house there in Bethany – Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’s house – on the upward slope of the Mount of Olives, on their journeys from Galilee. They could rest before getting up the next morning and going the remaining 2 miles into Jerusalem, which meant climbing the rest of the way over the Mount of Olives, and then down into the Kidron Valley and back up again to Jerusalem. It’s about a mile up and over the mountain to the site where scholars believe the village of Bethphage might have been, where Jesus borrowed the famous donkey and her colt. It was down toward the dark and shady side bottom of the valley at the half-way point, where there was water. Legend has it that it was the farmtown that supplied all the lambs for sacrifice at the Passover in Jerusalem – a powerful irony then that it’s a stopover for Jesus on his way to the cross.
And the descent into that shady valley – Kidron means “dark” – held another irony. When David wrote of “the valley of the shadow of death” in Psalm 23 he might very well be writing of the Kidron – since people believed Zechariah’s prophesy that “great and terrible the Day of the Lord” would come from the east, down from the Mount of Olives, so the hillside was thick with tombs of Jews who wanted to be close when the day of resurrection came. As a hike it was still challenging too – another 600 feet down and 500 feet back up to Jerusalem (again like walking down 50 flights of stairs and then back up another 40 or so). It’s no wonder pilgrims to Jerusalem sang those “Psalms of ascents” – you need some real inspiration to keep going that far.
So with all the shouting as they marched down the mountainside, it must have been a truly awe-inspiring scene, literally one of Biblical proportion. The political and religious leaders of Jerusalem there at the Temple Mount – those corrupt officials and hypocritical Pharisees – would really have heard Jesus coming that first Palm Sunday morning. Matthew implies that Jesus probably wanted to have this effect, because he says what Jesus did – with the plan to ride in on the donkey – “was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet.” Jesus knew his arrival would be a real threat to the authorities – he knew his life, and those of his friends, would likely be in real danger. So the crowd’s shouts of “YASHA NA!” were as much a threat as a cry for help.
Those shouts of the crowds saying “Hosanna!” or “Save us, Son of David!” was like cheering David on his way to Goliath. Against the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire, Jesus was going like a Passover Lamb to slaughter. But the children were cheering with hope, because God’s Messiah, and the promised “Day of the Lord,” was drawing near. Liberation was at hand. If you want to imagine the shouting that day, don’t think of our half-awake church school kids wandering through the sanctuary. Think Gen. Charles DeGaulle leading the parade through Paris on Aug. 25, 1944. It was the “Day of Liberation!” It’s no wonder they call it “the greatest story ever told.” It was worth shouting about – this hero riding into town to and to get right up in the faces of the self-righteous religious establishment, preaching a Gospel of justice and mercy and peace.
Palm Sunday was just the beginning of those boys getting themselves into real trouble. You notice the first thing Jesus does when he gets to town is go to the Temple and throw the money-changers out, turning over their tables. No longer is he the “son of man,” an ambiguous term from Daniel that gave him some wiggle room against charges of blasphemy and treason. As the crowds shouted, “Hosanna, Son of David!” he was being anointed as God’s Messiah. His message was out there in public, and it was to open up Jesus to a world of danger, pain, and suffering that week. The passion texts of Matthew are far from “easy listening.” The entry into Jerusalem turns the volume up on the Gospel – way up. And that might make us a little uncomfortable.
A lot of people, I know, avoid church between Palm Sunday and Easter. If you’re one of those, I know how you feel – I wouldn’t mind taking next week off myself! It’s just so awful, we think – why dwell on it? We might prefer to skip straight to Easter. We might prefer to switch channels from the depressing betrayal of Maundy Thursday, to switch channels from the R-rated violence of Good Friday. We do that with our lives all the time. My friend Penny, who just had her first baby on Transfiguration Sunday, just before Lent (she said she gave up sleep for Lent!) said she finally had to confess to her doctor what she was doing with the birth videos she was supposed to watch. She didn’t mind watching the couple prepare the nursery and take childbirth preparation class. She didn’t mind seeing them arrive at the hospital and begin labor – but once all the panting and shouting began, she’d fast-forward to the end, where there’d be the cute new baby. But the problem with that approach is, it’s like a white bread and mayonnaise sandwich. It’s not too tough to swallow but there’s not much nutrition in it either.
Don’t you sometimes hunger for a real and meaty experience of God? When those people shouted, “Hosanna, God help us!” they were roaring like lions with their hunger for salvation. We need to remember to take our shouts of desperation to God. Don’t we sometimes have that urge to shout, “Hosanna, God help us!”? Last week the weeping Jesus drew Lazarus out of the tomb and into New Life with a mighty shout, a “magalh ekraugasen” of his friend’s name, “Lazarus!” When we cry out like that, God comes riding down into those Kidron Valleys of our lives, those valleys of the shadow of death, to find us and bring us back out. We cry out and God comes to save us.
When do you most want to shout, “God help me!”? Sometimes we need God most in the most ordinary moments of daily peril. When I was the stay-at-home mom of two toddlers, those hours around sunset, I liked to call “the wailing hours.” Sometimes when my husband would arrive home, I couldn’t even hear him come in over the screaming. “Hi, honey,” I’d say [waving across the room]. “Welcome to the cave of the damned!” Many of us are at risk of being sucked under by the whirlpool of this world’s stress. Many of us are enchained by illness, grief, or addictions. Many of us feel buried under financial burdens, or worries about our children. Many of us have jobs we hate, or marriages that are crumbling. It’s at those times we want to shout, like the crowds following Jesus through that dark valley, “God help me!” At times like that, we need a Savior like this hero Jesus of Matthew – the “sweet Jesus meek and mild” of our Sunday School days just won’t cut it.
Don’t you read the newspaper sometime and just want to raise it toward the heavens and shout, “Hosanna! God help us!”? I know I do. This world is so broken – we need God to save us, now more than ever. But we are Christ’s church, and we bear the light of hope – we have been entrusted with the Good News of God’s love and mercy. The principalities and powers, the forces of evil, are strong, but Jesus Christ is stronger, and when we cry out, he comes to save us.
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Yasha Na!”
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.
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