The Last Week

Matthew 21:1-17
Palm Sunday
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Holy God, pour out upon us the spirit of wisdom and understanding that, being taught by you in Holy Scripture, our hearts and minds may be opened to know the things that lead to life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

What if this was your last week of life? Do you ever stop to think about that? Probably not unless you have a terminal illness. Most of us live as if death does not exist, and when it comes to someone we love, we don’t just grieve, we feel cheated, as if this were not a natural thing – life and death. We don’t even like to spend much time thinking of Jesus’ death, though through it, we are saved.

Jesus, being the perfect union of divine and human came into Jerusalem with some measure of knowledge that he was approaching death. Perhaps he did not know exactly how and when he would die, but there is a sense in which he drives the narrative, not the powers and authorities and certainly not the disciples.

In Jesus’ last week, he experiences what we experience in suffering and death. People rallied around him, treating him royally, embracing him. Then when things got really tough, he was largely alone. They intended to go with him all the way to death. They really did. Peter pledged he would. But they could not, would not. It got too scary, as it does for most of us, trying to care for the dying.

I’ve been reading a book given me by Gretchen, “The Art of Dying” by Rob Moll. He says our modern culture has grown increasingly uncomfortable with death, as we moved it to institutions. People died at home, including many children before the development of antibiotics about 75 years ago. Dead bodies were prayed over in overnight wakes in homes, in preparation for funerals. The grieving were expected to wear black for a significant length of time, before the community gave them permission and encouragement to get back to normal, to reintegrate into life again.

The church taught the practice of dying the good death. Christians related their death to faith in Jesus Christ, and found comfort in knowing he suffered and died, and was raised from the dead. They could readily call on Biblical images to reassure themselves of God’s power over death.

Listen to this newspaper obituary from 1817, “She died in the full assurance of faith. The candle of the Lord shone upon her head. Death had lost its sting. She walked over the waters of Jordan…shouting the praises of redeeming love.”

Before we read the story of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem, his welcome by the crowds and his confrontation in the temple, let me challenge you to go all the way to the cross with Jesus this week. Don’t deny him, betray him, abandon him this week. Suffer with him. You know the end of the story. Walk it with him.

Now let us both hear and participate in the Palm Sunday story from Matthew:

Matthew 21:1-17

1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives,
Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them,
"Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied,
and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.
3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, "The Lord needs them.'
And he will send them immediately."
4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them,
7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.
8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road,
and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
"Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?"
11 The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple,
and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.
13 He said to them, "It is written, "My house shall be called a house of prayer';
but you are making it a den of robbers."
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.
15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David,"
they became angry 16 and said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?"
Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read,
"Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself'?"
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

New Revised Standard Version

Around the world there will be many different Palm Sunday sermons preached on many different aspects of this story, but I want us to focus on just two today:

First, let’s think about the primary plea of the people “Hosanna!” It means save us. It is a Hebrew word, used 209 times in the Old Testament – save or deliver us. Funny enough, most of us hear it Hosanna to the Son of David and it feels like praise, which it is. But we mistake it for being synonymous with another Hebrew word, Hallelujah (which parsed means literally, Praise We God) but Hosanna is really a plea, a prayer, more than it is praise.

In the last weeks of my father’s life, he was in the hospital , suffering from TIAs and heart trouble, after surviving a serious cancer diagnosis for several years. My mom and I would take turns sleeping in the recliner in his hospital room, and all night he would call out, “Help me.” Usually, he said, “Help me, Peggy.” When he got to the end, “He was calling to the Lord, “Help me, Lord.” There was nothing we could do.

Hosanna means “Help us.” There is an urgency to this request, “Save us now!” There is a prayer-like quality of humility, “We beg you to help.” There is also confidence in the prayer, as if to say, “We know you are our Savior” Hosanna occurs 6 times in the New Testament, all associated with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

What was so offensive to the scribes and Pharisees is that the human cry for divine help was being addressed to this man, whom they considered to be a scofflaw. He was breaking all their religious rules , ignoring their authority. Second, let’s think about the primary plea of Jesus to those in the temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” My friends called Peace, whatever we do as a church, we should be doing by, in, with and through prayer. We should have the same dependency on our Savior as we see in that faithful crowd, who though they may have misunderstood the kind of kingdom Jesus was bringing, still knew that he was the One to whom they should depend.

And the ones who got it wrong were the ones who thought they knew how to please God, how to be religious, how to save themselves without listening to God, Jesus Christ, in their midst. The humble people who knew they needed help were the ones who appreciated Jesus. The self-confident leaders of the people found him a challenge to their system.

Jesus wanted his house to be a house of prayer. So we spend time in prayer (Word-Share-Prayer) in every gathering of Ministry Team, lest we become like the Pharisees and scribes, thinking we have all the answers. We spend time in prayer as a staff, lest we move forward with religious matters, failing to consult Christ, the Head of the Church. We spend time in prayer in worship and at home, because prayer is at the heart of remembering that God is the creator and we are the creature.

Prayer, understood as intimacy with our Savior, is the goal of our life. Why else should we have to suffer, but that it gives us opportunity to turn toward what we need most – prayer, dependency on God. So we utter “Hosanna. Help us, we pray.” My sister is nearly two weeks out from her difficult Crohn’s Disease surgery. Having lived with pain and nausea for a long time, she reflected on prayer. Why should God want us to pray for one another? God knows what we need. Her answer is this: God wants us to learn to depend on one another, even as we depend on God for our comfort, healing, strength or renewal.

Eugene Peterson says, Prayer is suffering’s best result. “In prayer, God’s anger is neither sentimentally glossed nor cynically debunked, but seized as a lever to pry open the door of redemption. The sufferer, by praying, does not ask God to think well of him or her, but asks that God will enact redemption, building in them “fruits consistent with repentance” through Jesus Christ who suffered and died for all. (Acts 26:20)

Back to the book, “The Art of Dying”…one of the things we see, if we give ourselves a chance, is that the dying have much to teach us about God. Because they themselves are closer to God in their suffering. Many people describe an experience of the thin place, the place where heaven and earth draw close together, when they sit with someone dying. Is it not somewhat ironic that the crowds are crying, “Save us” to the one who is close to death? They had seen his love, his miracles, his power. They did not know he was dying, but they saw in him the potential for new life, though they knew not how it would come. We read the story knowing he’s dying and knowing that in his dying there is new life.

Today we sing Hosanna, “Help us, Savior.” Next week we sing Hallelujah, “Praise Ye the Lord.” And in between, we remain have courage in our own suffering and share in the suffering and even death of others, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. Life is prayer, and prayer is a dependency on God that says both Hosanna and Hallelujah.

Help us, our Savior to sing your praise, to know you are the Lord, even when we and others suffer. Remind us in this Holy Week of the courage and steady resolve you had in taking on our death and transforming it. By your Holy Spirit at work in us, may every week of ours be like the last week.. May we find the strength and faith to cry hosannas and sing hallelujah, no matter what kind of suffering or death we face. Amen.