How Can We Sing Hosannas?
By The Rev. Alex Stevenson
When I was a child growing up in a Methodist Church, I knew of three religious holidays. These were Christmas, Easter, and believe it or not Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday was the time that we sang the song which went:
“Hosanna, loud hosanna
the little children sang,
Through pillared court and temple
the lovely anthem rang.”
That song also says that “the children sang their praises the simplest and the best.”
My Sunday school teachers took their cue from that song’s description of children singing. In Sunday school we would make palm branches from green construction paper and march all around the church singing and shouting “Hosanna, hosanna” as if we were in that crowd on that first Palm Sunday. Once a local farmer even brought us a donkey to touch and sit on. So when that song was sung in worship, all the children could see the pillared courts just as they were pictured in our Sunday school books, And each of us could imagine, “waving the branch of a palm tree high in my hand,” and singing “Hosanna, hosanna! Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”
This is a Christian education success story. You see, we knew about Christmas because of Santa Claus. We knew about Easter because of the Easter Bunny. But we knew about Palm Sunday because of Jesus.
All in all, Palm Sunday is a very important holiday for the church. It is a time when Jesus’ disciples hailed him as King. It is a chance for us as disciples of Christ today to acclaim Christ as King.
But there is a danger in the way we worship on Palm Sunday. It is the danger that we will forget why Jesus came to Jerusalem to begin with, and as a result we will forget why we sing hosannas. Often times we sing hosannas on Palm Sunday and then we sing “Christ the Lord has Risen Today” the very next Sunday. The events of Good Friday are not on our personal religious calendars. Oh Jesus death is mentioned. It is not that we completely ignore it. We just move past that fact as quickly as we can to get to the resurrection.
The problem is; we don’t like to dwell on unpleasant things. Sometimes we don’t even admit to ourselves that unpleasant thing exist. When I was in college I had a bright red button with bold black letters which said, “Stop Torture.” I had gotten it from a political rights group. It was part of their campaign to stop torture in foreign countries. One day, out of the blue, someone asked me if I was part of the animal rights group on campus. I said no and gave them a puzzling look. He said, “I saw your button and thought you might be. I said, “It means stop torturing humans.” Then he gave me this strange look and said, “No one is torturing humans.”
We don’t want to admit the pain and the unpleasantness of life. We would rather close our eyes to it the way we do in a scary movie. We allow ourselves to think that people torture animals, but we don’t allow ourselves to think that people torture humans. As a result we often overlook those who are suffering and in pain. There is something to be said for accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. But when it causes us to overlook those in need, the ones God is calling us to help, the lost, the hungry the sick it runs contrary to God’s purpose.
Because of this tendency to overlook the negative we sometimes overlook Jesus’ suffering and death. We get all caught up in the joy of singing praises to Jesus as he triumphantly enters Jerusalem. And we forget that Jesus came to Jerusalem to die. So when we get to holy week we put our hands over our eyes. And say the to person next to us, “Tell me when it is over.” It may be unpleasant to think about, but Jesus did die. People drove nails through his wrists and feet. The nailed him to a cross. Jesus experienced terror and pain. What’s most important is that he experienced that pain as an atonement for our sins and for the sins of the world. Jesus’ death is a fact of our salvation that we must never overlook.
So, how can we joyfully sing hosannas in the face of Christ’s suffering? The people in our story seem to have been grossly ignorant of the facts. If they had known, as we do, why Jesus came to Jerusalem, they would not be singing a song of triumph. You see, they thought Jesus would come in and take over the state. Right before this Jesus had to correct his disciples for thinking that his kingdom would appear immediately.(Luke 19:11) The prophets had said the Messiah would come riding on a donkey. So when the people saw Jesus on that Donkey, they though he was coming to lead an uprising. They thought he would ride right up to Herod’s palace and sit on his throne. Then he would order the Romans out of his newly established kingdom. The crowd was partially right. Jesus was and is the Messiah. But they expected a Messiah who would rule and earthly kingdom.
Jesus didn’t come to Jerusalem to sit on a throne. Jesus came to Jerusalem to hang on a cross. He said so to his disciples several times. He told them plainly. He said the son of man must suffer and die. How can we see ourselves shouting with those people? How can we joyfully sing their song? After all it was Jesus’ suffering that saves us.
It makes me want to say, “How dare we sing hosannas in the face of Christ’s suffering!” But I realize that I am saying the same kind of thing the Pharisees in our lesson said. The Pharisees tried to keep Jesus’ disciples from singing hosannas back then. Can we try to stop Jesus’ disciples from singing hosannas today? The Pharisees said, “Jesus how can you let them do this? They will blaspheme! Stop this crowd, silence them! Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”
What did Jesus say? He said “If these were silent, the stones themselves would shout.” If the voices of humans will not shout: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” then God will give the stones voices and they will shout. By the will of Almighty God who made both voices and stones, hosannas will be sung and Christ will be proclaimed as King! Mere human that I am who am I to stand in the way of the providence of God!
So what are we to do? Should we revert to our old ways of overlooking Christ’s death? Should we forget Good Friday and wipe it off our religious calendars? Can we; forget why Jesus came to Jerusalem and just blend in with the crowd of misled pilgrims? Can we blindly yell “Blessed is the King who comes to sit on Herod’s throne”?
How can we? How is it possible for us to sing hosannas on Palm Sunday when we know that Christ’s passion is just down the road. Perhaps a clue to this answer is in, of all places, the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Near the beginning of the opera Jesus is riding a donkey into Jerusalem. The people are singing Hosannas. And they are saying, “Hey J.C., J.C. won’t you fight for me.” Then the Pharisees tell Jesus to make the people stop and he tells them that if they were silent the stones themselves would sing. When the crowd starts singing hosannas again they are singing, “Hey J.C., J.C. won’t you die for me?”
Maybe we should celebrate the fact that Jesus came to Jerusalem to die. That is precisely what the Bible tells us to do. Paul wrote, “(Christ) humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”(Philippians 2:8-11) In other words Jesus is worthy of praise precisely because he went to Jerusalem to die.
This is not just an approach to Palm Sunday. It is an approach to all of life. Jesus’ suffering was necessary to win our salvation. Once we open our eyes to the suffering of Christ we see him as Lord more clearly than before. Every knee shall bow and all shall shout “Hosanna!” because he died. In Christ we can look at suffering and see something beautiful. So look at the suffering around you. Open your eyes to it, as unpleasant as that may be. Then hand it over to God. And God in Christ will turn that sorrow into shouts of joy.
Copyright 2008, Alex Stevenson. Used by permission.