Today is Palm Sunday, the day that marks what is often called Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Many of us, as children, remember the Palm Sunday church services we experienced growing up in which we waved palm branches singing Hosanna. There are a few ironies of about this. If we take up the song of the children of Israel on this day, we make a profound mistake about the nature of Christ’s lordship. The songs of Hosanna that the children of Israel greeted Jesus with when he entered Jerusalem, far from being a moment for us to celebrate are tragic failures of comprehension. When the children of Israel sang “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” they failed to understand Christ’s lordship. Palm Sunday is not a day of triumph for Jesus, it is a day of temptation. Temptation to be the sort of Messiah that Israel wanted. The kind of Messiah who would bring about the kingdom of their own hopes and dreams. Their joy in anticipation of the coming of David’s kingdom was a hope that Jesus came to dash.
We often comment, with raised eyebrows, how incredible it is that the same crowd which welcomed Jesus with the cries of Hosanna could bring themselves to, a mere week later call for his crucifixion. How, we wonder, could they so clearly see his lordship on Palm Sunday only to make a great reversal and call for his crucifixion on Mandy Thursday? We scoff and wonder at their wishy-washiness and inconsistence.
To look at the matter in this way, however, is to make a profound mistake about what is really going on here. It makes perfect sense that the Jews would call for Jesus’ crucifixion, given the kind of lordship he came and presented. Almost immediately upon his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus began to dash the hopes that had called forth the cry of Hosanna. He comes to the Temple, immediately after his entry into Jerusalem, looks around and leaves. He does not proclaim the coming of the kingdom that they longed for. He does not install himself as the Davidic heir. He leaves and goes outside the city, to fellowship with his friends in Bethany. In the days that follow Jesus pronounces judgment after judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple. He comes, not to fulfill, but to dash the hopes of Israel.
The cries of Hosanna are cries from a people who believe that God is coming to address and satisfy their needs and hopes as they define them. When Jesus comes to such a people he comes, not to fulfill their hopes but to dash them to pieces. This is the bad news of the Gospel.
We commonly associate Palm Sunday with Holy Week. However, this is, in one sense a profound mistake. Palm Sunday is the last Sunday of Lent, not the beginning of Holy Week. Lent is our remembering of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem, his journey of suffering servanthood, of obedience, of humility. Lent begins with Christ’s temptation in the wilderness and ends with his entry into Jerusalem. This is of profound significance for the story of Christ’s wilderness temptation is parallel to Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The triumphal entry is the apex of Satan’s temptation that is put to Christ in the desert. Here, in Jersusalem, amidst the cries of Hosanna, the hopes of all Israel cascade down on Christ, calling to him, beckoning him to be the answer to Israel’s yearnings as they define them. On Palm Sunday the people of God beg God’s Son to be the kind of God they most desire, the kind of God they most long for, the kind of God they need.
Christ comes to dash such hopes, to extinguish and transform such desires, to redefine our lives and our longings. He comes to replace our infantile and self-centered hopes with a vision of the fullness of God’s love. Christ comes, not to fulfill our hopes, but to dash them. He is the great disturbance, the ultimate interruption. What we learn on Palm Sunday is that we cannot even hope in God rightly until we allow God, revealed in Christ to define for us what the promises of God truly are. We are, all of us, bound and inclined to find in God’s promises the answers to our desires as they stand. We all think that God’s salvation will mean the fulfillment of our desires as they stand and the removal of all things holding us back from that fulfillment.
Christ comes to dash such hopes. Christ comes to destroy such desires.
Palm Sunday is not a day of triumph, but a day of awkward, sad, pitiful failure. It is a day that reminds us that God’s salvation can never be defined in advance by us. What we think salvation means for us and our lives may be, and almost always is, the opposite if the gift God wants to give us.
Christ came to dash the hope of Israel. Christ continues to come to us, through the Spirit to dash our hopes ever and again. And this is cause for great rejoicing. We are set free in Christ from our infantile hopes, our selfish longings, our misguided yearnings. We are set free from the tyranny of our own desires. Christ comes, not to satisfy our hopes, but to transform them into something altogether new.
The bad news of the Gospel on Palm Sunday is that God will never be God on our terms. He will never be the answer to our own, self-defined questions. God comes to us in Christ and demands that we abandon our questions and instead answer his. And God’s question to us in the Gospel is simply this: “Who do you say that I Am?” Who do you say that the this one—this man who lives life wholly for others, who makes himself nothing, who does not regard equality with God as something to be held onto, who empties himself, who though he was rich, for our sakes was made poor, who having loved those who were his own, loved them to the end—who do you say this person is?
This is what the world is presented with in Christ. Jesus was a man who lived a life so utterly full of agape, of self-expending, other-regarding love that it culminated in him giving up his very life for others. This is what we see in Christ: a love that so utterly abandons itself to us, so thoroughly lavishes itself on us that it ends up empty, dead, and forsaken. This is who Jesus is. The question of the Gospel is what we have to say about that. Who do we say that this one, who loved infinitely is?
The answer the church has given, sometimes with stammerings, stutterings, and fanciful qualifications has always been that this one, this man who lived wholly for others is God and that therefore this infinite love is the future of all things. But for us to say yes to this one, for us to admit that the one who emptied himself is God, we must submit ourselves to the severe mercy of having our hopes dashed. This is the lesson of Palm Sunday: that only when we have our hopes dashed by the wholly other reality of Christ’s person are we set free into the life of shalom which God promises.
Palm Sunday is a reminder to us that God came, not to fulfill our hopes, but to bring them to nothing, and that by so dashing our hopes he has done exceedingly, abundantly, beyond all we could ever ask or think.