And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. Matt 21:9
For a few moments this morning I would like us to reflect on the variety of people we have found described in the accounts of the first Palm Sunday which we have just heard read. Our Lord has just performed the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead, and in our Orthodox tradition we kept yesterday as Lazarus Saturday. Now he turns towards Jerusalem where he wishes to keep the Passover, indeed where he knows that he will become the true Passover for us all.
There are the crowds who have accompanied him from Bethany, where he had been staying with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Bethany is not far from Jerusalem, and we can easily imagine that everything had rather ground to a halt in Bethany and the villages round about when Lazarus was raised from the dead. Now the villages were emptied of men and women, old and young, and everyone who could walk was making their way to Jerusalem with Jesus. Then it was suddenly there ahead of them as they crested the brow of a hill. The crowd starts to take up the messianic songs from the Old Testament, and excitement builds. Is this the day that the Messiah will be revealed in Jerusalem? Is this Jesus, the prophet and miracle worker the one they have been waiting for? Will the Kingdom of God be revealed right here and right now.
Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. What did these excited and enthusiastic people know? Was their enthusiasm enough to carry them through the trials that were to come? Many of them would gather again in a few days time and shout ‘crucify him, crucify him!’ They had seen a miracle and expected an earthly kingdom. When things didn’t turn out quite as they expected then they all too easily rejected our Lord. This had happened before, when the Lord had given some teaching that was especially hard to bear, the crowds who enjoyed the spectacle, the excitement, the miraculous food would all too easily drift away.
On this Palm Sunday, we are entering into the same timeless events. Our Lord is approaching the time of his Passion. The most important event in the history of the whole universe is being made known again in our own lives and time. How are we engaged in our pilgrimage with Christ? Perhaps we are among those who go before him and behind him, strewing our cloaks and coats, and branches of palm on the road. But we will need more than enthusiasm. We have all met enthusiasts, not only in the church, but in all sorts of situations. They are the sort of person who goes overboard about something for a brief while. If it is gardening which takes their fancy then they might well go out to Homebase or B&Q and spend hundreds of pounds on tools and plants. But a couple of weeks later, it is likely that their garden will have just a few holes in it, perhaps with one or two rather wilted and sad looking plants in them, but the interest will have waned in proportion to the amount of physical effort which was required to actually make a difference in the garden.
It is all too easy for us to be enthusiasts, rather than enthusiastic. We might want to pray, so for a while we go overboard, collect books about prayer, insist to ourselves that we will follow the prayer rule of the most dedicated hermit. We know how it works because we have probably all experienced this temptation to one degree or another. And being motivated by enthusiasm alone we find that like the seed planted in stony soil, at the first sign of difficulties we give up and end up worse than we started. This was certainly the case for the crowds following Christ on the first Palm Sunday. Is it possible to imagine that some of those shouting, ‘Hosanna’, could also shout, ‘Crucify him!’ yet they did. Their enthusiasm was not enough, because enthusiasm is essentially rooted in our own emotions and our own self-will.
But there were others who were there that day. The disciples had been with our Lord through thick and thin, and though they were undoubtedly buoyed up by the crowds accompanying their Lord and Master to Jerusalem, I wonder if they were not a little wary. They had seen the crowds come and go before, and they were well aware that the Pharisees were determined to put Jesus to death if possible. Indeed we get a sense from the Gospels that the disciples spent much of their time not quite sure what was going on. On many occasions the Gospel writers say, ‘they had not understood’, in relation to some event which only came into focus after the death and resurrection of Christ. The disciples had come to some understanding that Jesus was the Christ, and so even more than the crowds they had reason to shout, Hosanna, as they approached the city of Jerusalem. But when Jesus was arrested, and then crucified they had even more reason to be devastated. Yet we know that in the midst of their despair they will find hope and renewal when the risen Christ comes to them. This is a joy which the great crowds who shout, Hosanna, and then shout, Crucify him, cannot experience.
The disciple has learned that things are not often easy. The disciple has learned that the Christian life must often be lived with a degree of confusion and ignorance of the way forward. The disciple often stands at the foot of the Cross, not sure what is happening and how it fits into God’s plan, but somehow holding on, through thick and thin, to a fundamental belief that God’s will be done in God’s way and in God’s time.
The disciples gathered around Christ as they approached Jerusalem, did not understand all that was happening. And this is often our own experience. We can be sure that the way ahead will cause us to be sometimes confused, sometimes even fearful and doubting, but this way of discipleship through endurance and perseverance is the only way to experience the joy of the risen Christ being mysteriously and suddenly present among us.
Those to whom Christ revealed himself at the first Easter were not those who shouted Hosanna the loudest on Palm Sunday, but those who entered the city with him, having a sense of foreboding and even dread in their hearts. He appeared to those who had remained faithful to him even when things had been darkest. It was to those who endured that he brought light and life.
As we seek to enter into the celebration of this Palm Sunday let us do so, not with a human enthusiasm that will fade, but with a true spirit of discipleship that is willing to face each difficulty which the Christian life will lay before us, so that we may find ourselves passing through the sorrows of Good Friday to the joys of Resurrection morning.