The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” —Matthew 21:9
Our journey through the wilderness, a time marked with loss and self-denial, is coming to an end. Palm Sunday approaches, and our anticipation grows because, in a few short days, we’ll celebrate the impossible: the resurrection of a man killed by the Roman Empire. We read this story, a story filled with waving palm fronds and cries of Hosanna, knowing the eventual outcome. We know this crowd will soon turn their backs and call for the head of the one they, only one week prior, hailed as Messiah. Although, we’re not to that part of the story yet.
However, as we begin our exit from the wilderness, spilling into the euphoric streets of Jerusalem, there’s something we need to admit. Something painful. Something embarrassing. Something true.
We are the crowd.
This is uncomfortable for us to admit. After all, it’s easier when it’s those people, in that Scripture passage, all those years ago. It’s easier when it’s them and not us. As we read the story of the crowd celebrating Jesus as he rides in on a donkey, we know that this celebration will be short-lived. We know the cheers will turn to boos. We know the palm leaves will be discarded in favor of fists and whips, and we know the cries of “Hosanna!” will change to “Crucify him!”
The question we must ask, then, is what changed? This crowd witnessing the arrival of the Messiah had their minds set on what that arrival meant. This Jesus of Nazareth would be a king and usher in a kingdom that would topple Rome. Jesus would establish a new Israel, and his reign would release them from underneath the thumb of the vicious Roman Empire. Jesus would establish the Jews once again as a light on a hill, a beacon in the darkness, and an empire stronger than any other. Soon, the ecstatic crowd believed, it would be the might of Israel, not the might of Rome.
And so they cried, “Hosanna!” “Save us!” “Restore us!” “Make us great again!” A king arrives. Our day has come. Our king is here.
The problem was, Jesus wasn’t what they expected. Jesus wasn’t what they’d built their hope upon. Jesus wasn’t the general they believed they needed. Jesus wasn’t a mercenary they could control.
The King had arrived, it’s true, but Jesus didn’t come to overthrow Rome. Instead, this King came in order that he might die—willingly, sacrificially, and unceremoniously.
The crowd could not accept this as the way of a king. Kings don’t lose. Kings aren’t losers. Kings are winners. They squash opposition. They overcome obstacles. They overthrow tyrants. They destroy empires. They conquer through sword-wielding, money-heavy, politically driven power. Kings get stuff done, and we pity any who get in their way.
As soon as they realized Jesus wasn’t who they were expecting—that he was more lamb than lion and that the only blood he was willing to shed was his own—they turned on him.
Jesus—the one riding through those gates on a donkey—was not that kind of king. And, if we’re being honest, at least according to traditional metrics, he made a pretty lousy messiah too. What sort of king invites us to turn the other cheek, or to love your enemy and pray for your persecutors? What sort of messiah tells us the last will be first, and the first, last? What sort of ruler creates a kingdom for the depressed, brokenhearted, sick, peacemakers, and merciful? Jesus was not the one they expected.
The crowd didn’t know how to handle this reality. As soon as they realized Jesus wasn’t who they were expecting—that he was more lamb than lion and that the only blood he was willing to shed was his own—they turned on him. “This man cannot be our king. He will not be our king. Crucify him!”
We haven’t changed much since then, have we?
Palm Sunday is a reminder that we don’t know what to do with Jesus. It reminds us that—after the euphoria and the excitement, after the miracles and the beautiful worship experiences—we’re not always sure if we’re willing to walk to the cross with this Jesus of Nazareth.
Christ is saving us from ourselves, and he’s willing to go to the cross to do it.
Yes, we have a beautiful moment of Hosanna, when we realize grace has welcomed us—yet how quickly we cry, “Crucify him!” when we realize the cost. We shudder when we realize Jesus has come to open the windows and shake out the rugs, to welcome the refugees and moral outcasts. We’re far more comfortable with a Messiah who will make us rich, or a Prophet who will make us popular or wise. We prefer a King who promises power and political influence. Truth be told, we’re most comfortable with a Savior who doesn’t ask too much and stays away from the closet doors. We’re comfortable with a surface-level Christ and a Messiah who plays by our rules.
It’s hard work, this Jesus-led kingdom. It’s messy and painful and leaves us feeling as though we’re losing ground, not taking it. Palm Sunday, though, is about a truth the crowd didn’t understand, and one we often forget too: Christ is saving us from ourselves, and he’s willing to go to the cross to do it.
May we remember, as we sing songs of Hosanna, that we’re the crowd. May we be honest about the fickle nature of our faith, and may we remember, through our celebration and our aggression, through our grasping for political power and theological isolation: Jesus is saving us from ourselves.