On Palm Sunday we tell the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago, with people strewing palm branches before him. We call this Sunday "Palm Sunday" because of the palm branches. A hymn often sung on Palm Sunday, which is more than a thousand years old, begins: "All glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer, King, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring!" There are many difficult words here that we need to understand, if we are to know what we are celebrating on Palm Sunday.
Glory means "honor and praise," "laud" comes from a Latin word meaning praise, and honor means to respect someone very much. So when we say "all glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer King" we are praising and expressing our highest respect for the person, who is our Redeemer King. Today, we might use words like "awesome" and "cool" to express the same idea.
The Redeemer King is so awesome and cool, our hymn tells us, that children are singing "sweet hosannas" to him. The word "hosanna" comes from a Hebrew word, "hoshi’a na" which reminds us that the people in the story we heard this morning are living in Jerusalem where Hebrew is understood. Psalm 118:25 begins with the word "Hosanna" which means "O save!" or "save us!" The children are singing praises to the Redeemer King, who is awesome and cool, because they hope he will save them.
And that's the key to what "Redeemer King" means. "Redeemer" means "Savior" or "one who saves us." And by saving us, we mean the one who brings us closer to God. Sometimes we feel far away from God, like we feel separated from our parents when we’ve been angry with them or they've been angry with us. If we say we’re sorry, or if they say they're sorry, we feel closer again, and we feel better. Jesus is our Redeemer King, because he "says" for all of us in his life and death that we're sorry for being angry with God. We can feel closer to God, and know that God loves us, even if at times we get angry with God.
The story of what we call Palm Sunday is good reading. Jesus is approaching Jerusalem. He sends disciples to find a colt, which is waiting for him, and then he mounts and rides into Jerusalem to the acclaim of crowds spreading cut branches and their cloaks before him. In Mark’s account he enters Jerusalem and the temple, looks things over, and retires for the night before returning the next day to drive out the money-changers.
In the gospels of Matthew and Luke he drives out the money-changers immediately after entering the city at the head of a triumphant procession. Luke’s gospel contains one other significant difference. As he enters Jerusalem, Jesus stops and weeps for the fate of the city. In the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus goes to Jerusalem only once, at the end of his ministry. But in John’s account he goes there many times and enacts his "symbolic destruction" of the temple the very first time.
I call his act a "symbolic destruction" of the temple, because it is an attack on the temple itself. It is not merely a cleansing of corruption from the temple. Under Jewish law the money-changers are not doing anything wrong. They are not necessarily cheating the people. By selling animals without blemish for sacrifice and by changing foreign money into Jewish shekels, they are helping Jews keep the commandments of the law of Moses. Jesus doesn't say this is wrong.
Jesus enters the temple and all three synoptic gospels report that he quotes from the prophets: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56:7) and "But you have made it a robbers’ cave." (Jeremiah 7:11) Isaiah’s text does not involve criticism of animal sacrifice in the temple. Chapter 56 begins, "These are the words of the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right; for my deliverance is close at hand . . .." (Isaiah 56:1) The prophet proclaims that all those who keep the sabbath and the will of God, including "foreigners who give their allegiance" to God and keep the covenant will be received in the temple. "There offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." (Isaiah 56:6-7).
The prophecy of Jeremiah, however, is judging temple worship because of the hypocrisy it represents, when the leaders and the people do not do the justice that the LORD requires. We read in the book of Jeremiah:
"This word came from the LORD to Jeremiah. Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there make this proclamation: Hear the word of the LORD, all you of Judah who come in through these gates to worship him. These are the words of the LORD of Hosts the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, that I may let you live in this place. You keep saying, ‘This place is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!’ This slogan of your is a lie; put no trust in it. If you amend your ways and your deeds, deal fairly with one another, cease to oppress the alien, the fatherless, and the widow, if you shed no innocent blood in this place and do not run after other gods to your own ruin, then I shall let you live in this place, in the land which long ago I gave to your forefathers for all time."
"You gain nothing by putting your trust in this lie. You steal, you murder, you commit adultery and perjury, you burn sacrifices to Baal, and you run after other gods whom you have not known; will you then come and stand before me in this house which bears my name, and say, ‘We are safe’? Safe, you think, to indulge in all these abominations! Do you regard this house which bears my name as a bandits’ cave? I warn you, I myself have seen all this, says the LORD." (Jeremiah 7:1-11)
In the gospel stories Jesus enters the temple and quotes Isaiah and Jeremiah, as he destroys the operation of the temple by disrupting the work of the money-changers. The gospels portray Jesus as taking up the ancient prophetic attack against worship as a substitute for justice and compassion. He is not attacking Jewish worship in order to promote Christian worship. He is attacking religious hypocrisy and promoting a living faith in God.
The strange story of Jesus cursing a fig tree may make this clearer. Jesus looks for figs on a tree that only has leaves, and curses it when he doesn’t find any fruit. The text notes that "it was not the season for figs," but this makes it very odd for Jesus to become angry. When Peter remarks that the fig tree cursed by Jesus has withered, Jesus replies: "Have faith in God." (Mark 11:22) Jesus urges the disciples to trust in God and assures them that such trust will bear fruit. "I tell you, then, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours." (Mark 11:24) The story refers to the fig tree as a metaphor for the church. If it does not "bear fruit" through its ministry, then it will wither and die.
In the teaching that immediately follows this story, Jesus emphasizes the importance of the fruits of faith: "And when you stand praying, if you have a grievance against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you the wrongs you have done." (Mark 11:25) Temple worship is no substitute for justice, and praying to be forgiven for our wrongdoing is hypocritical unless we have forgiven those who have wronged us.
Palm Sunday is a triumphant celebration in the life of the church. But we are not celebrating the triumph of Christian worship over Jewish worship, or the triumph of the New Testament over the Old Testament, or the triumph of Christianity over Judaism. We are tempted to read this meaning into the gospel accounts of Palm Sunday, especially in John’s gospel because it refers to the adversaries of Jesus as "the Jews." It is a tragic fact that Christians have turned the cross around and used it as a sword against Jews, because Christians have believed that the triumph of Jesus was over the Jews who rejected his message.
For centuries Easter week has been a time when Jews remained indoors in order to avoid being persecuted by celebrating Christians. This is a shameful example of the withering of the church and its lack of the fruits of faith, which require justice, mercy and forgiveness.
The one who drove the money-changers out of the temple, quoting the prophets to condemn the hypocrisy of worship without justice and compassion, would drive Christians out of their churches, were he to come today and find Christians celebrating their triumph over Jews!
Palm Sunday is a celebration of the triumph of God in Christ, not of our triumph as Christians. As always, in our worship we begin with our confession of sin and then receive the good news that we are forgiven by the love of God in Jesus the Christ. This is the triumph we celebrate on Palm Sunday. We sing "all glory, laud, and honor" and "sweet hosannas" to "our Redeemer King," knowing that if we have faith in God, live justly, and forgive those who have wronged us, then we will be forgiven the wrongs we have done.