• Gareth Hill

Coats, crowds and hosanna! - the sermon text

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

A Chinese artist's view of the Triumphal Entry, from the Christ We Share image collection.

I've been recording short sermons as we go through the Coronavirus pandemic. This is the text of the Palm Sunday message.

Matthew 21: 1-11

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.’

This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet:

5 ‘Say to Daughter Zion, “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’

‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’

‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’

11 The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Coats, crowds and calling out Hosanna!

Who knew a coat could be subversive? It hadn’t occurred to me before that a coat was such a symbol of resistance.

In these days of fast fashion it’s apparently not unusual to buy something, wear it once and then dump it though my own wardrobe includes well-worn stuff that goes back years!

In Jesus’ day a cloak was an important protective covering and most people would only have one. In fact there was an old Hebrew rule that if you sued someone to get them to repay a loan and took everything including their cloak, you had to return it to them each night so they wouldn’t freeze to death (see Deuteronomy 24: 12-14).

Think of your best coat. How willing would you be to put it on the ground, especially if it was to be ridden over? What if it is your only coat?

Why are we starting with coats this week? It’s certainly not the first symbol we think of for Palm Sunday. I can’t recall a single service where the congregation have spread their coats on the ground to mark Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Palm branches, yes. Paper coloured to look like a palm branch? Often. But coats?

Perhaps it’s because we we’ve heard the story of what’s called the triumphal entry into Jerusalem a few too many times and we think we know what it’s about.

Surely it’s the crowd hailing Jesus as Messiah and some people got a bit carried away trying to create a red carpet for him.

No, it’s much more powerful than that.

Matthew doesn’t tell us that all of these events happened around the Passover Festival but it almost certainly was. The crowds would have swollen to many times the normal population and the occupying Romans would have posted extra troops on the streets.

Passover, after all, celebrates Israel’s deliverance from captivity, and occasional outbreaks of sedition attended the season. This meant, the Passover season brought crowded and somewhat tense conditions.

The Roman army would have processed from the Western entrance to the city - a demonstration of Imperial power and a warning to the citizens not to get any clever ideas of rebellion.

In ancient Rome there was a way to placate the gods. Citizens would spread fine cloths on couches and put them in the streets to make the gods welcome. They would do it at times of crisis and also during Triumphs, when a conquering general marched through the city showing off his captives and trophies.

You get the picture? While people expect a display of Roman power a second procession begins - not in the West of Jerusalem but the East, coming from the Mount of Olives.

As Jesus comes into the city riding on a donkey rather than the Emperor’s warhorse, the crowds welcome him like a god or a conquering hero. This wasn't a preacher's welcome. It was a welcome fit for a king or a god.

Matthew tells us the crowd hailed Jesus as the Son of David in fulfilment of prophecy, which is Matthew’s constant underpinning of his story. He quotes the Old Testament book of Zecariah:

‘Say to Daughter Zion, “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”’

New Testament Professor Greg Carey on the Working Preacher blog says we need to understand the triumphal entry in this context: Jesus is entering Jerusalem as King and knowingly initiating conflict.

Not so much gentle Jesus meek and mild.

Carey says that while Matthew focuses the action on Jesus as if his actions disrupted the entire city and everyone could see what he was doing, that could not be the case. Ancient Jerusalem, with its grand temple, was far too large and its streets too narrow for even a processional parade and a Temple demonstration to gain more than street-level attention.

However it is Jesus who initiates the action, Jesus whom the crowds acclaim, and Jesus for whom the priests and elders are waiting the next day (21:23).

Carey adds: ‘Indeed, Jesus is not innocent victim -- at least, not in the sense of being passive. Having condemned corruption in the Temple, he initiates hostilities with the Temple authorities (21:46). But Matthew delays that sort of conflict for later in the story, focusing for now upon the royal acclamation Jesus receives. He does not come with weapons or armies, although he does bring crowds. He is David’s Son, come to claim his throne. The question for Matthew’s readers and hearers is: now that we have acclaimed Jesus along with the crowds and the children, will we continue in this way as conflict escalates?’

The symbolism then of coats and cloaks is one of personal identification with the one who rides in over them. Who do we serve? The one for whom we make way. And what do we call out? The crowd here are shouting:

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’

‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’

‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

They are hailing a Saviour. Hosanna is not a cheer, it’s a plea for help, for someone to “save us”.

As Jesus is surrounded on all sides, mirroring the phalanx of soldiers who would have surrounded a Roman conquering hero, the cry goes up: “Save us. In God’s name, save us!”

In the Hebrew Bible, ‘hosanna’ is used as "help" or "save, I pray" (Psalms 118:25).

Jesus quoted Psalm 118 when he told the Parable of the Tenants: the ones who killed the vineyard owner’s servants and his son.

The Psalm says:

22 The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;

23 the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes.

24 The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.

25 Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success!

26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

So the crowd call out to Jesus and identify him as Saviour.

What do we cry ‘hosanna’ over?

To be saved from Coronavirus?

What is our declaration in this difficult days?

We could ask to be saved from the pandemic or from facing some of the desperate difficulties. But that would be selfish, wouldn’t it, especially when people we know, or know of, have had to deal with illness and even death. I led a funeral this week for a family who had to say goodbye to their loved one with no friends to support them - just 10 of us in the crematorium. I have another next week.

Surely the proper question is what are we being saved for?

In the past week I’ve seen countless signs of life and hope: windows with hand-drawn rainbows in them as signs of hope; whole streets coming out to clap for carers; cuddly toys in windows to cheer us all up; declarations online that send love and prayers to others.

As yourself: ‘who am I for this week?’

What is the contemporary version of laying my coat on the muddy ground for Jesus to ride over?

Where can my prayers and grace-full actions open the way for Christ to be known by my neighbours?

Lord, save us! Hosanna! Amen.

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