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There is something about parades that attracts us. Last Sunday, when Christie and I were stranded in Philly, we were struck by the fact that on an absolutely frigid afternoon, a parade was going on - Philadelphia's 238th annual St. Patrick's Day parade (since 1771 they have been doing this). Why last Sunday? That was eight days too early - TOMORROW is St. Patrick's Day. It was explained to us that this was a BIG event, and it has always been held on a Sunday, and since today (the Sunday closest to St. Patrick's Day) is also Palm Sunday, it was decided to have it last week. The marchers were FREEZING, but no matter. A parade is a parade. The show must go on.
As we encounter our text, we find another parade. It was Passover time and the Holy City was jammed. It was like the mob at Times Square on New Year's Eve or Mardi Gras in New Orleans prior to Katrina. Jammed. A mad house. Pilgrims from all over the known world. Roman chariots and Roman charioteers riding back and forth. And the kids? You know they loved all the commotion.
The reputation of Jesus had already spread. Just before this, Jesus had produced the mightiest miracle ever - he had raised Lazarus from the dead. Then, on the way into town, he had healed two more men, blind men, and they were now able to see. Word about such things travels fast, so everyone wanted to see what trick was next. The crowd wanted to see more miracles. They wanted to see the healer in action, this mighty wonder worker. "Hey sanna, ho sanna, sanna, sanna, hey sanna, ho sanna sanna sanna, ho sanna, hey sanna..."
I am sure it was exciting. As you Bible scholars know, and as you who listened carefully to the reading from Matthew's gospel are aware, there is no mention of palms here. Matthew along with Mark simply say that people cut leafy branches from trees and put their garments in the road. (1) Luke just talks about the clothes (2) - an ancient version of rolling out the red carpet. Actually, only John's Gospel mentions palms in connection with Jesus' arrival. (3)
Whether or not palms would have been involved would have been a big deal for that first century parade crowd. The palms would have brought to mind a story from their heritage - the Maccabees - and for many there that day, this would have been even more of a draw than the opportunity to see a miracle-worker. Judea was a political hotbed at the time of Jesus, just as it is today. There were serious people in that crowd. They were looking for a revolution.
If you want a modern counterpart to that ancient day, remember the television pictures from Pakistan last fall. The exiled leader was on her way back to the homeland after years away in England. There was a mob at the airport; there were thousands more along the route into Islamabad. People had been warned to stay away - too dangerous. The government could not guarantee protection (as if they had any intention of giving it anyway). Benazir Bhutto was coming home. Musharraf would be put in his place, democracy would take hold and the nation would be saved. That is the way it was on that first Palm Sunday.
There was a mass nationalistic fervor stirring. People thought back to 200 years before, during the reign of the brutal Antiochus Epiphanes, the Pervez Musharraf or Saddam Hussein of his day. In 167 B.C. Antiochus precipitated a full-scale revolt when, having already forbidden the practice of Judaism on pain of death, he set up, right smack in the middle of the Jewish temple, an altar to Zeus and sacrificed a pig on it. Hard to imagine a greater slap in the religious face to good Jews.
Stinging from this outrage, an old priest named Mattathias rounded up his five sons, all the weapons he could find, and a guerrilla war was launched. Old Mattathias soon died, but his son Judas, called Maccabeus (which means "hammer"), kept on, and within three years was able to cleanse and to rededicate the desecrated temple.
But the fighting was not over. It would be a full 20 years more, after Judas and a successor brother, Jonathan, had died in battle, that a third brother, Simon, took over, and through his diplomacy achieved Judean independence. That would begin a full century of Jewish sovereignty.
Of course there was great celebration. "On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered Jerusalem with praise and PALM BRANCHES, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel." (4) So says the account in I Maccabees - a story as well known to the crowd in Jerusalem that day as George Washington and the defeat of the British is known to you and me. During the period of self-government that followed, the Maccabeans minted a victory coin, with palm branches on it.
On this day of Jesus' arrival into town, there had already been thirty-two political riots in the past five years, an average of six per year. Jerusalem was a partisan tinderbox ready to go up in flames at any moment. With hundreds of thousands of faithful pilgrims in town who ALL hated Rome, you get a sense of the situation.
Knowing the history allows us to read the minds of those who were waving the branches. The palms were no benign symbol of rejoicing. They were a political statement. We have no comparable symbol in our country, but if you can imagine the United States under the domination of a foreign power, and what it might mean to display the American flag in such circumstances, you might have some idea. (5) These folks were going out to meet Jesus in hopes that he was coming to crush and remove another great enemy. Welcome, warrior king! Hail, conquering hero! "Hey sanna, ho sanna, sanna, sanna, hey sanna, ho sanna sanna sanna, ho sanna, hey sanna..."
But the hosannas would soon halt. The conquering hero that they thought Jesus would be did not materialize. A leader, yes, but not the kind they had envisioned.
Some years ago a book was written by a noted American historian entitled When the cheering stopped; the last years of Woodrow Wilson. (6) As we might expect, it is the story of President Wilson and the events leading up to and following World War I.
When that "war to end all wars" was over, Wilson was an international hero. There was a great spirit of optimism abroad, and people actually believed that the earth's last war had been fought and the world had been made safe for democracy.
On his first visit to Paris after the war, Wilson was greeted by cheering mobs. No one was more popular. The same thing was true in England and Italy. In a Vienna hospital a Red Cross worker had to tell the children that there would be no Christmas presents because of the war and the hard times. The children did not believe her. They said that President Wilson was coming and they knew that everything would be alright.
The cheering lasted about a year. Then it gradually began to stop. It turned out that after the war the political leaders in Europe were more concerned with their own agendas than they were a lasting peace. At home Woodrow Wilson ran into opposition in the United States Senate, and the League of Nations that he had supported was not ratified. Under the strain of it all the President's health began to break. He suffered a stroke and in the next election his party was defeated. So it was that Woodrow Wilson, who barely a year earlier had been heralded as a modern day Messiah, came to the end of his days a broken and defeated man.
It is a sad story, but one that is not altogether unfamiliar. It sounds strikingly similar to the accounts in the gospels. Charismatic leader, wildly popular for a time, then things change. Why? How did the shouts of Hosanna on Sunday transform into the shouts of crucify him on Friday? Why did the hosannas halt?
People have their own agendas. Those who lined the parade route that day looking for more "magic" were disappointed - no more food for thousands, no more sight for the blind, no restored limbs for the lame. From this moment on through Calvary, there were no more miracles.
For those who were looking for a conquering hero, one who would throw off the oppressive yoke of Rome, they too were disappointed. With this Jesus there would not be insurrection but resurrection.
Twenty centuries later is it all that different? We still want to make Jesus into the Messiah of our agendas. The bumper sticker says "Christ is the answer," no matter what the question. If there is cancer or heart disease or illness of any sort, Christ is the answer. If a marriage on the rocks, Christ is the answer. If the kids are out of control, Christ is the answer. If it is difficult making ends meet, "name it and claim it" (the prosperity gospel) say the TV evangelists - Jesus wants you to be rich; Christ is the answer. If we are Republicans, Jesus is a Republican; if we are Democrats, Jesus is a Democrat. If we are independent, Jesus is too. "I want to serve Jesus...as an advisor."
This weekend, the news has been full of stories about how Sen. Barak Obama is having to repudiate some things his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has said from his pulpit at Trinity United Church of Christ in suburban Chicago. In a sermon on the Sunday after 9/11, Wright suggested the United States brought on the attacks. "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye," Wright said. "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost." In a 2003 sermon, he said blacks should condemn the United States: "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme." (7)
Tough words. Well, of course, Sen. Obama is going to repudiate such remarks because he knows, as we all do, that Jesus, in his heart of hearts, was an American, and he would never criticize anything about this country, or not much anyway. Would he?
We have to admit that we too want a custom-made messiah, just like those folks along the parade route in Jerusalem, so many centuries ago. They did not get one then and we do not get one now. Why did the hosannas halt? Under the circumstances, who can imagine that they would have continued?
We know what came next. Calvary. Crucifixion. But that was not the end of the story. As the ancient hymn that the Apostle Paul quoted in his letter to the church at Philippi has it, "he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!" We know that. so sad.
But Paul continued: "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that 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."
Well, now. "Hey sanna, ho sanna, sanna, sanna, hey sanna, ho sanna sanna sanna, ho sanna, hey sanna..." There is more to this story. I guess the hosannas are not halted after all.
1. Mark 11:8
2. Luke 19:36
3. John 12:13
4. I Maccabees 13:51
5. The Immediate Word, http://store.sermonsuite.com
6. Gene Smith, (New York : William Morrow, 1964)
7. Nedra Pickler, "Obama denounces pastor's 9/11 comments," Associated Press, 3/14/08