Posted on March 21st, 2016
There are people in this country who do not belong. So say the nationalists. They’re angry, and ready to drive these foreigners out. Others have welcomed the foreigners. “The world has changed,” they say, “and we have to accept the new reality.” The parties bicker while the situation gets worse. We once were a great nation, but we haven’t had a leader in a long time: a real leader, someone who can make us great again.
There is a bold man, a strong man who is willing to fight for us. But there’s been near riots in the city, and he’s made the establishment nervous. Many say he goes too far.
There’s another man who has helped the poor. He advocates sharing property, and condemns the rich. Some call him a socialist, or worse.
For many, none of the options seem appealing. They all make us nervous.
I’m talking, of course, about the situation in Jerusalem in mid-March, AD 33. Foreigners have taken over Judea, installing a Roman governor, currently Pontius Pilate. Barabbas the strong man is in prison for committing murder in a rebellion. And now Jesus enters the city, with an army of poor people singing Jewish songs for the inauguration of a king.
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we pray, O Lord!
O Lord, we pray, give us success!
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ps 118:19–26.
So they welcomed Jesus. But their expectation was a political or military victory. He has come for a very different reason: to walk the way of the cross, there atoning for our sins—and invite us to be His disciples, walking too on the way of the cross, not fighting for earthly power but imitating Jesus in forgiveness, patience, and trust in the Father even to the end.
This Holy Week is not only the story of Jesus, but it is your story. We reenact it, in a sense, by things like the procession with palms, not to be creative, but to remind us that we are in the story, that God became man to join us in our plight and lead us through death to resurrection.
When we, instead, think that our primary story is the one told by our politics or March Madness bracket or our personal lusts and predilections, we will fall into pride or despair.
And when despair comes: when we are dissatisfied with every political candidate; seemingly ignored or laughed at by everyone—even at church; when your ailing body gets worse; when the time of despair comes, you go to helpers—lawyers, physicians, pastors, therapists, friends—but what do you do when nothing seems to help, when you say, “No one is coming to help”?
Perhaps you’ve felt that way, as everything falls apart in your family, your career, your health, your soul. I have long mental lists of the things people have told me they’ve given up for Lent – not just chocolate, or meat, but things that cause them to struggle: lusts, addictions, behaviors that harm self and others. The Holy Spirit calls us—calls you, and me—to throw off, repudiate, renounce the things of evil: “Put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Col. 3.5).
And again, “Put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another” (Col. 3.8f). Do you think there will be no consequences? The Holy Spirit expressly says, “The wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience” (Col. 3.6).
So what do you do when you have failed? When you have failed not just in your discipline for Lent, but in your Christian life, where can you turn?
Hosanna! is your word, Hosanna! is your song. It means “Help us, save us now!” The Hebrews turned it into a cheer of praise for a king or champion. It is that for us, and Christians used it in their earliest liturgies. At the communion, the pastor would say, “Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Didache 10:6) We use it this way, but when you are in despair, when you feel the weight of your sins, when you start to think that this world’s problems are the ultimate problems, then maybe we need to get back to the earlier, literal meaning of Hosanna: Save us now! Come and help me!
Sometimes I look at the church and say, “Where is our Luther? Where is our Athanasius? Where is our Augustine? We need a champion to help us.” Or I look at the country and say, “Where is our Lincoln, where is our Madison? No one is coming to help.” And you too may say, as pastors, poets, priests, and politicians fail us: “No one is coming to help.” But that is blasphemy. For the Lord tells us first of all, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.” God uses people as He sees fit – but there is one Savior, one King, one God who became Man to answer our cry of Hosanna, to be our Help when all helps fail, to be our Light when all other lights go out.
If we lived at the times of our heroes, we would have felt the same troubles as now. Luther saw the Western Church collapsing around him; Augustine had to confront the accusation that Christians were responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire; and Athanasius, the great defender of Christian doctrine, was made into such a villain that he was sent into exile; he alone seemed to stand fast for the truth, so that he was called Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.”
Lincoln, one of our great presidents, saw the nation go to war with itself, and for freeing the slaves was rewarded with assassination.
There is no golden age, there is no earthly paradise we can create by working harder or finding the right leader.
But there is a Jesus who answers your cry. He refuses to fulfill the earthly dreams of a people demanding that He make Israel great again. He wins by dying, He lives by bleeding. He forgives even His enemies.
So do you have sins that trouble your conscience? Have you been angry? Slothful? Despairing? Have you failed to love, failed to pray, failed to go to confession? Have you broken your Lenten fast, broken your marriage vows, broken your baptism and confirmation promises?
Your conscience should trouble you: and when it does, O sinner, look to another sin—the Jesus who was made the snake on the pole, the bronze serpent. The sinless One became sin, all of your faithlessness, all your anger, lust, rage is poured onto Him. A sponge was lifted to His lips, but He Himself is the sponge, absorbing into Himself all of your failure, all of your wickedness, all of your sin. All of it. Your sins condemned Jesus. So when you look at the cross, you see their end.
A few years ago, a little girl came to the Ash Wednesday service and received the ashes on her forehead. That night, she washed and went to bed. In the morning, she said to her mother, “Look! My sins are gone!”
We veil the crosses as we go deeper into Lent because our stupidity causes us to miss what is really happening. When we hit Good Friday and the veil is removed, it is the calendar’s way of telling you to look at the cross and say the same thing as that pious little girl: Look! My sins are gone!
Your sins are gone. You are free. Rejoice and be glad, and whenever you are in doubt, whenever you worry, whenever you sin, whenever you despair, you have a word: Hosanna! Help me, save me, dear Jesus! +INJ+