Series: Lent

Palm Sunday Symbols

March 24, 2024 | Peter Rowan

Passage: Luke 19:28-44



Palm branches swaying, cloaks being thrown on the ground and shouts of Hosanna in the air. All of these things that took place on that first Palm Sunday during our Lord's "Triumphal Entry" were asking Jesus to be a savior and a king of their liking, establishing their nation, doing away with Rome and having an Israelite back on the throne. They wanted the cosmic yes-man in their court. How similar are we today? Maybe especially in an election year, we want Jesus to back our causes. But in that short first Holy Week that same crowd's voice went from "Hosanna!" to "Crucify him"! Why? Quite simply, because he is the Savior and King that we need, but often the one that we don't really want. He is savior and king in a way that demands our total allegiance to him, rather than his allegiance to us and our wants and desires.


This is a beer glass. It’s a glass from the brewery in Moab Utah. I actually didn’t get it there. I got one just like it there, but that one broke. Soon after Melise and I were married, we were in our kitchen of our first rental home and the glass dropped to the floor and shattered. And I started balling, like weeping. And here is my new wife trying to console me over a broken beer glass. Maybe I was overreacting, but it wasn’t just a glass. Fifteen years ago next month my youngest brother Ethan flew out from Seattle to St Louis. I was finishing up at seminary and he came out for my last week of exams. We went to a Cardinals game, we went this amazing place called City Museum, we packed up my car and drove back West. Then we camped for the week. We camped in all of the National Parks in Utah. And when we were camping in Utah we stopped at the Moab Brewery and I bought this glass. That was my souvenir from the trip. So when it broke, well, all kinds of emotions came up. It brought up for me the reality that my brothers live all the way across the country, that time like those were not likely to happen again. Melise found this glass for me a gave it to me for my birthday that year. 


We live in a world full of symbols. A glass isn’t just a glass. A ring is not just a meaningless piece of metal. The sounds “Hate” are not just sounds, not are the sounds “love” just sounds. Symbols do. They act on us and we act through them. 


So, when a crowd gathers outside of Jerusalem and yells “Hosannah!” “Save us!” something is being done, something is being asked. When a crowd gathers together with palm branches outside of Jerusalem, they aren’t just thinking, “Well, this will be fun!” When they lay they cloaks down in front of Jesus as he rides the donkey into Jerusalem, they aren’t just trying to make sure the donkey’s feet doesn’t touch any dirt and get dirty. These are symbols, these are gestures, they are packed with history and with meaning and in doing these things they are asking something of Jesus, they are saying something about who they believe Jesus is and what he will do.


In Luke these last couple months we’ve been seeing how often it is that Luke wants us to ask who we think Jesus is. Who is he for us? Who is he for me? And who is he for you? 


And the events of Palm Sunday ask us the same thing. What do we make of Jesus? 


The telling of what is known as the Triumphal Entry happens in each of the gospels. All of them want us to know this story. But in some, like John, there are only Palm branches. In others, there are branches and cloaks. I want us to just sit with these two symbols and ask what do we do with Jesus?


Palm Branches


It’s kind of fun, right? It’s fun to change things up, to start our service in the social hall and march around the building, waving our Palm fronds, singing and shouting “Hosannah!” It’s fun. But it has a history and I don’t just mean a history in our church or in the worship of churches on Palm Sunday. It has a history for the Jewish people. To grab palms and wave them, was to join your voices with the others who had gone before you grabbing palms and waving them.


Palms were a symbol of victory and a symbol of Israel’s national hopes. It was a nationalistic symbol. 


You may know that there are some books that are in a Roman Catholic Bible that are not in protestant Bibles. A couple of those are 1st and 2nd Maccabees. It tells the story of what is known as the Maccabean revolt (which happened because the Seleucids were suppressing Jewish customs and laws). Anyway, in both of those books, palms were used in celebration of the restoration of the Jewish temple. It was a way of saying, “We fought them and we won! We got what we wanted!”


Beyond this, palms were stamped on Jewish coins when the Jews were revolting against the Romans. 


To wave the Palm branch was to say, “Here is the one who is going to give us what we want - our national freedom!” This was their heart’s desire. They shouted part of Psalm 118, “Hosannah! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” But then they added to it, “The King!”


They wanted Jesus, as long as he would give them what they want.


I want you to think about that. 


They wanted Jesus, as long as he would give them what they want. 


And it’s not like what they wanted was bad. What was bad was that they only wanted Jesus so long as he would give them what they wanted. 


We waved our palm branches. We did. And what were we saying in doing that? Give us what we want, Jesus! 


Give us pretty hair - or at least some hair! Give us good friends. Give us the food we want, the job we think we deserve, the spouse of our dreams, kids that listen to everything we say, the politician we want in office, the public policy that we think we need. Give us what we want, Jesus! 


You see, as a Pastor friend of mine told me, “Everyone is ready to receive Jesus as long as it means a place in the sun.”


Everybody wants a Jesus that supports what they do, and what they think and how they want to live. Everybody wants that Jesus. Everybody wants the cosmic yes-man. Everybody wants God to say, “I’m on your side.” 


And when we wave our palm branches we are saying, “We do the same thing!” We are just like them. Just give us what we want, Jesus. 




We just read this wild story from 2 Kings 9. This was telling about a really bad time in the history of Israel, when kings forgot about God and did whatever they wanted, they led Israel away from God. And God, through Elisha and one of his servants, anoints Jehu as the new King, and when he does this he tells him that he is going to be the one who brings judgement on Israel. And as Jehu is anointed for this task of bringing judgement on Israel, we heard, “Then in haste every man of them took his garment and put in under him and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, “Jehu is King!”


Cloaks have a history too. Cloaks are a symbol too. Here is a story of a King of Israel being anointed and declared King and cloaks are put beneath him will all yell, “Our King!” But that King was anointed to bring judgement on Israel. 


So what do we make of that? 


What do we make of him? 


What do we make of Jesus? What do we make of a King who comes in judgement? 


Palms and Cloaks.

 A do-what-we-want crowd and a king who comes in judgment. 


The crowd wanted a King. They wanted a King who would restore what they wanted. They wanted a King who would give them their heart’s desires. But in order to do that the King also had to come in judgement. 


Here’s the thing, unlike the story of Jehu where he goes and assassinates King Joram to help restore order to Israel, here with Jesus, he is both the King who brings judgement and the King who bears the judgment.  


Symbols. Many symbols say more than we even know. And the palms and the cloaks of that first Palm Sunday spoke of a saving and kingdom that was for greater than anything that first crowd knew and it is far,far more than any of us know. 


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Series Information

This series includes Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter.

Other sermons in the series

April 02, 2023


How does a crowd go from shouting "Hosanna!" to shouting "Crucify Him?"...