The crowds that went before Him and that followed Him cried out: “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!” Matthew 21:9
Dear Christian Friends,
Today marks the beginning of a new church year, and the new church season – Advent. Advent is a penitential season. During Lent, we think about Jesus’ suffering and death. During Advent, we prepare for the celebration of his incarnation and birth, but we also think about how Jesus will return again in glory to judge the living and the dead – to take us to be with him forever, freed from this sinful vale of tears.
And so the first Sunday of Advent, we focus on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus’ disciples saw his approach to Jerusalem and clearly had mixed feelings about it. The disciples knew what awaited Jesus there, for he told them openly and plainly what to expect – Matthew tells us earlier (in chapter 16) about this. Peter even rebukes Jesus for saying that such things would happen to him; Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23). When Jesus goes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, Thomas says, “Let us go also, that we may die with Him.” (John 11:16). The disciples seem to be ranging from actively opposing going to Jerusalem with Jesus, to being resigned to going along and seeing what happens, though not expecting it to be good.
But regardless of their feelings, the disciples follow Jesus to Jerusalem. For much of his ministry, Jesus had not sought attention but had gathered large crowds anyway. In some cases, he even told his disciples not to publicize what Jesus had done.
But now the time had finally come to reveal himself, to announce his presence in the most public way possible when the city of Jerusalem would be filled to capacity with not only the normal inhabitants of Jerusalem but also all of those who had traveled to eat the Passover in Jerusalem.
In this environment, Jesus chooses to fulfill prophecy by entering Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a donkey. This is clearly a reference to this prophecy of Zechariah (9):
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
And cry aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king is coming to you; he is righteous and able to deliver, he is humble and riding on a donkey, a colt, the offspring of a donkey.
This has always been understood as a Messianic prophecy. Even the Jews of today, who deny that Jesus is the promised Messiah, have an expression “Messiah’s donkey” which refers to someone who does the dirty work for someone else. To ride a colt into Jerusalem, in particular, is to claim ownership and fulfillment of this prophecy, which is exactly what Jesus was doing.
And it is clear also from the text that this is exactly what the people of Jerusalem understood him to be doing. A large crowd gathers and spreads their garments in front of him; and some cut palm branches down to spread before him. They sing the song that is the focus of our text for today, which echoes the prophecy – the expression “able to deliver” is from the same base word as “Hosanna.”
There is a separate prophecy in Psalm 118 which explicitly uses the term Hosanna in Hebrew, specifically in verse 25:
22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
23 This is what the Lord has done; it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we ask You, O Lord; O Lord, we ask You, send now success.
The “Save us” here is literally “Hosanna” in Hebrew. And this song, which the people of Jerusalem sing to welcome Jesus into the city as they prepare to celebrate Passover, is clearly blending these two prophecies and confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior. He is Righteous and able to Save!
And that was the same crowd that called for Jesus’ execution later that same week.
Maybe the crowds were wishing for a different kind of salvation. Maybe the salvation they wanted was from Rome, and not from their sins?
It is entirely too easy to let the things of this world blind us to spiritual realities. We have just finished what I hope will be the most contentious election cycle in my lifetime in the United States. We pray for and support our national government, whether we agree with all of its policies or not; whether we agree with or admire its head or not. And after centuries of pagan occupation and dominance, it is easy to see how the Jews might have been yearning for independence.
But political independence, freedom, and even the democracy that we cherish so much in the United States are not what Jesus promises. We may enjoy those things, and largely, today we do. But what Jesus claimed by riding into Jerusalem that day on a colt is much more significant and powerful for us.
We have such a hard time seeing it because of the problem itself – and that problem is sin. Ever since Adam and Eve first rebelled in the garden of Eden, we have been subject to the curse of sin. It infects everything around us, including and especially us. It taints what we see and how we see it – it makes us subject to illness and disease and death. And we are not mere observers or victims – we ourselves have participated in this rebellion against God and his Law.
The Law tells us to honor God above all things, but do we? We can have a hard time focusing on Him and His Word for a couple of hours in a week. God’s Law tells us not to disobey the authorities, and do we obey? Maybe, reluctantly, we do. And do we look for loopholes? Do we try to use the system against itself for our own advantage? God’s Law says that we should be content with what we have, but it seems like all the voices around us tell us we need more, we must have more, no matter what it is or how much we already have.
These things are all sins – and God’s Law demands justice, and payment for them. Of course, God’s Law tells us that if we obey it perfectly, we have nothing to fear. All it requires of us is perfect obedience – yet fail in just one point, and it is the same as if we had broken all of it.
And broken it we have. As John wrote, 1 John 1: 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
So, we have sinned. And this, ultimately, is the thing that we cry “Hosanna!” for – we are praying to Jesus to fulfill his promise and take away our sins. He knew, of course, since before the beginning of the world, that we would be unable to earn our way back into God’s good graces. He knew that if it were all up to us, we would come up far short, as we do. We need righteousness, and there is none of us that have the perfect righteousness that is needed to stand before God’s throne of judgment on our own.
And yet, Zechariah’s prophecy says that the King, the Son of David, would be full of righteousness. How is this possible? This Son of David must be God himself, in human flesh, as was prophesied by Isaiah, and also by David himself. The name of the Messiah, “Immanuel”, is “God with us.” David prophesied of his Son, who would be his Lord. And how could David call his son Lord? Only if his son was to also be the Son of God himself.
How can any of this be? We have all heard this repeated so many times, that may be the sheer wonder of it fades a little. These things are not remotely possible, based on the rules of human logic. It is not possible for God and Man to be one person. We do not understand how a single person can be really and truly God, as well as really and truly Man. And yet this is what we believe, and what Scripture tells us, Jesus was and is. And this is why he comes “in the name of the Lord.” And more importantly, this is exactly why, Scripture tells us, Jesus had to be that so that he could save us, and all other people who believe in him, from the guilt of their sins. Paul sums it up very eloquently in his letter to the Galatians 4:4 “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born from a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth into our hearts the Spirit of His Son, crying, “Abba, Father!” 7 Therefore you are no longer a servant, but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”
It is this Hosanna that we sing as we prepare for Holy Communion, as well. He knows our weakness and frailty, and so he has given us a very real and tangible reminder of who and what he is, and what we need from him – his Supper, where we really and truly receive his true body and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.
We sing that Hosanna at the beginning of the communion service, before the consecration, because it reminds us of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem in so many ways – he entered Jerusalem humbly, on a colt, not on the back of a warhorse as a conqueror. He was entering Jerusalem not to conquer it by force, but to lay down his life for us as a sacrifice for our sins. He comes to us the same way in Communion – in love and compassion, offering the full and free forgiveness that he won for us.
As we approach his altar today, let us remember who he is – the Son of David and Son of God, and ask him to remember his promises to us as we entreat him to Save Us – Hosanna! Blessed is He, who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Amen.