All the events of Palm Sunday are wrapped up in one little word: “Hosanna”.
For ‘church’ people, it’s a familiar word: every time we celebrate communion we join our voices with angels and archangels to proclaim “holy, holy, holy … blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!”
But as familiar as it is, what does “Hosanna” mean?
What, exactly, were those crowds singing and shouting on that morning in Jerusalem so long ago? And, what exactly do we proclaim when we, together with all Christians across time and space, join our voices with theirs?
One Little Word
On the one hand, the answer is simple, though it might change or even challenge how we’ve come to read and picture the Palm Sunday gospel.
First and foremost, “Hosanna” isn’t a shout of praise, or a shout of triumph for a parade through town.
No, “Hosanna” isn’t a shout of praise… it’s a plea.
The Hebrew word הושענא (hosanna), used throughout the Psalms, means “save us”. “Please save us, we beseech you to save us; be our saviour; be our rescuer; please, please, be the one who saves us.”
As Jesus enters Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, riding humbly on a donkey in fulfilment of the sign given by the Prophets, the crowd lines the street, coming out of houses and workrooms and marketplaces to shout “Save us, O Son of David”; “Be our saviour – please be the one who comes in the name of the Lord”; “Hosanna in the highest – please be the one to save us from on high”.
The Palm Sunday scene in scripture isn’t a triumphant throng singing a victory chant: no, the scene is that of a longing, unfulfilled, anxious crowd trusting – hoping – that this Jesus is the one who will save them.
But as we join our voices in their plea for salvation, we have to ask: save us from what?
Save us from oppression.
The obvious answer for those people gathered to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem is oppression. Save us from oppression.
As we know, the entire region was under Roman control, with heavy foreign taxes imposed, foreign soldiers in the streets to keep people in line, and constant political unrest as people and families were divided about the solution to their problems.
It’s this freedom from oppression that was front and centre in the minds of the crowd that day. That crowd really was no different than ourselves – it’s part of our fallen human nature to focus on our own needs, on our own immediate situation rather than seeing the big picture, or how things will end up when the paths we’re on are stretched out across eternity.
They were thinking about the here and now. They faced high taxes and low income. Businesses were held hostage by high-interest loans from wealthy Romans, and the livelihood you worked a lifetime to build could be crushed by a single decision by a government hundreds of miles away. Really, times haven’t changed that much, have they?
The crowd called out from freedom from this oppression: Hosanna, save us, Son of David, our earthly king.
But Jesus was more than they bargained for.
As the anxious, unsettled, oppressed masses gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover – the annual celebration of God’s deliverance of his people, saving them from slavery through the waters of death – the oppression from which Jesus will deliver them on Good Friday goes much deeper than bank accounts, job security, and food on the table.
Yes, without a doubt, all of those matter, but the oppression that Jesus breaks is so much more.
Jesus enters Jerusalem not to fill their bellies or their pockets, not to break the yokes of an oppressive government, but to break the chains of death and hell: to untie, for those willing to let go, the weight, guilt, and shame of sin that weighs down our heads so that all we can see is the decay and squalor of this fallen world.
Jesus hears their plea, he saves them, not by magically wiping away the consequences of the greed and pride of the world around them, but, in the words of the Psalms, by being the one who lifts up our heads, who takes off the blinders, casts off the heavy yoke around our neck, and allows us to look heavenward, to see the big picture as it unfolds, to recognize the blessings of God at work around us, and to praise God for his salvation, as we, too, have been delivered from slavery to sin as we die to self in the waters of baptism.
Save us from oppression, they cry. And he will.
Save us from false religion.
And, as we join our voices in that plea to save us, Jesus has even more in store.
As you read through your Bible this week from Matthew 21 onwards, you see the first thing Jesus does is walk into the temple and overturn the tables of the moneychangers: what we call the cleansing of the temple.
Again, Jesus gave them more than they bargained for. He saves us from false religion.
There’s so much we could say here, but the one point I want to make is this: Jesus saves us from the many ways we find to give ourselves cheap and easy hope by trusting in things that cannot last.
One of the proofs that we are made in God’s Image is that every person alive finds something to worship. We worship our bank accounts, we worship science, we worship family, we worship our image, we worship relationships, we worship mindfulness and positive thinking. But, as Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers; as the holy curtain of the temple is ripped in two as Jesus dies, he shows us that no real and lasting hope is to be found while our heads and eyes remain weighed downward by shame and grief.
No false idol on our level, no matter how good it makes us feel, can do for us what Jesus does when he is lifted up on that tree, and just as Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness, we must cast off our weight and look up if we’re to see His salvation. Finding hope, finding something to hang our trust on in the world around us is like finding the most comfortable armchair on a sinking ship. Lasting hope is found in the one who overcame death and the grave. True religion isn’t made in our image; it’s found in the One in whose Image we were made.
Save us from Ourselves.
But the biggest surprise for that crowd on that first Palm Sunday was something they never saw coming.
“Save us, O Son of David”. “Be the one who saves us from on high”.
Save us… from ourselves.
That’s the drama of this day.
The same crowd that cries for salvation is the crowd that cries “Crucify him”.
The Church, and you, and I, every time we gather, every time we share the Eucharist, every time we sing “Hosanna”, need to realize that we are the same crowd that shouts “Crucify”, that we are the ones who call for his death. We are the fickle crowd that is never satisfied, that is weighed down, chained down by our own sin to only see the decay around us.
And that’s the glory of this week.
The King of Glory emptied himself, and took the form of a slave.
He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
He died to save us from ourselves.
He died that we might take his yoke that is easy and his burden that is light, and lift up our heads and see him on that awful tree, as we cry “Save us”, knowing full well that His love for us held Him there.
Save us from oppression. Save us from false religion. Lord Jesus, save us from ourselves.
And seeing him, seeing his love for us as by death he overcame death, as the grave loses its sting, and the gates of hell could not withstand the Lord of Life Himself: then, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of the Father.
Hosanna. Save us. Amen.
 Zechariah said the Messiah would come from the Mount of Olives near Bethphage (Zech. 14:1-11), and riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9)