“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Palm Sunday is the Gospel lesson read at the beginning of the service from the twelfth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: palm branches. That is what you have in your hands; that is what you carried into church this morning, singing that magnificent hymn. Palm branches. St. John is the only one to tell us that the crowds waved palm branches that day. Matthew and Mark mention branches, but they don’t tell us what kind of tree. Luke doesn’t even bring up branches at all. Just think, without John this day would probably be called ‘donkey Sunday’ or ‘coats on the ground Sunday’ or something else ridiculous like that. Instead, thanks to John’s attention to detail, we have Palm Sunday, and you are sitting here a week from Easter with palm branches in your hands. Have you ever stopped to wonder why? I mean, it does look a little ridiculous to the cars passing by for all those Lutherans to be standing around carrying palm branches. I guess the easy answer is that we have palm branches because the people who met Jesus that day had palm branches. But that doesn’t really answer the question. Why did the people of Jerusalem think it was a good idea to cut down palm branches and meet Jesus?
It wasn’t because they are pretty, or because palm trees just happened to be growing along the road Jesus traveled on. No, the crowd was quite deliberate in choosing palm branches to greet Jesus, because palm branches are an Old Testament symbol of victory, used to celebrate triumphant or popular rulers. When the people cut the palm trees and welcomed Jesus, they are demonstrating with their actions that this Jesus of Nazareth is their coming king. They cried: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel!” Jesus is the coming one, the one long promised, the Messiah, the king. He has come to His people in their time of need; He has come to the Holy City to save it. This is all happening just as the prophet Zechariah had promised: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” With palm branches in hand, Israel welcomes her king into her city in victory.
And what a victory this is! The crowd has heard of the miracles of Jesus, many have even seen His great signs; they know that this man has great power, such as no one has ever seen. John tells us that it was the most recent miracle of Jesus that had the people worked up into a frenzy. “The crowd that had been with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised Him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet Him was that they heard that He had done this sign.” This man even raises the dead! Who else could He be than Israel’s promised Messiah, her king? The prophecies of the Old Testament seemed to be unfolding right before their eyes, and so they shout in the words of Psalm 118: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel!” ‘Hosanna’ is the word that comes to their lips in this moment of triumph. Hosanna. We speak this ancient Hebrew word during the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, but do we know what it means? ‘Save us, please!’ The crowd knew that Jesus had raised up Lazarus, they knew that He was their coming king, the one promised of old, and so they shouted, ‘Save us, please!’
But they had no idea what they were saying. They call for salvation, but they didn’t know what they needed saving from. For them, the raising of Lazarus was simply a demonstration that Jesus was their king, and their cry of ‘Save us, please- Hosanna!’ was a plea for deliverance from political oppression. They wanted their nation freed from the shackles of Roman oppression; that is what they celebrated that day. Today, you and I celebrate Jesus as well; we acclaim Him as our coming king. Like the people of Jerusalem, we even wave palm branches as a sign of victory. But what do we want Jesus to do for us? What use is He to us? Is Jesus only a friend, someone to get you through the week? Is He simply a status symbol, someone you hold to because that’s what others expect? Is He only a coach, who motivates you to get things done yourself? As this most holy of weeks begins, examine yourself. Find out exactly what you need Jesus for. It isn’t bad luck, corrupt government, nosy neighbors, family conflicts, or even disease. These are all just symptoms. Your problem is much deeper, and it is much worse: you need salvation from sin and death. Your problem is that you are sinful, and your problem is that this sin leads to death. You don’t need a counselor, a coach, a buddy, or even simply a king; you need a Savior. You and the crowds need victory over sin and death.
But if the crowd misunderstood what Jesus had come to save them from, they had no clue how this victory would be won. They expected Jesus to bring political freedom, but they failed to notice that He wasn’t riding a great war-horse; instead, He sat on a humble beast of burden. “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’” The donkey is a sign of humility; Jesus rejects the signs of power that the people would expect. He is the coming one, and He comes in humility. The donkey is also a sign of peace; those who seek peace in the Old Testament often are riding on the back of a humble donkey. Jesus is a king, all right, but not the kind of king that anyone expected. No one that day understood the kind of king Jesus was, nor the nature of the victory He would win; not the cheering crowds, not the religious leadership, not even Jesus’ closest companions.
John tells us that Palm Sunday only became clear to the disciples when they looked back: “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about Him and had been done to Him.” The crowds celebrated victory on Sunday, but the victory would be won on Friday in a way they never would’ve expected. They didn’t know what they needed salvation from, and so they had no idea what the cost would be. But Jesus did. He left the humble donkey behind, walking the rest of His triumphal march with the instrument of victory upon His back. Lining His path was no longer the cheering throng bearing palm branches, but a violent, bloodthirsty mob shaking their fists. He had come to win the victory, to answer the cries of the people, ‘Save us, please! Hosanna!’ and this victory, this salvation, would only come through His death.
The greatest need of the people who met Him on Palm Sunday in rejoicing and victory was not political freedom, it was freedom from sin and death. The greatest need of you and me, who entered this sanctuary in rejoicing and victory, with palm branches in hand, is not a better life now or tips for the week, it is salvation from sin and death. That is why Jesus went to the cross, to deliver you from sin itself and the penalty for that sin. His victory was to be won over sin and death, and that victory could only be won through His own death on our behalf, His own death in our place. As we watch Jesus walk up to Golgotha’s bloody hill, we cry out, ‘Save us, please!’ “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
On the first Palm Sunday, the crowd ran out to meet Jesus because a man who was dead was now alive. Lazarus had been called forth from his grave by the mighty voice of Jesus; what better reason is there to cut down palm branches and celebrate the coming victory of their king? And the crowd was right. There is a connection between the raising of Lazarus and the victory of Jesus, though not in the way they thought. The raising of Lazarus isn’t simply a demonstration of the power of this coming king, it is a preview of His victory. This last and greatest sign of Jesus, celebrated on Palm Sunday, points to what will happen a week later, when the one who died bearing our sin rose again in victory. The tomb couldn’t hold Lazarus; it won’t hold Jesus. He was called forth from His grave, having accomplished salvation, having won the victory, having borne your sin to the cross and having destroyed it there. That was the victory that the crowds celebrated on Palm Sunday, whether they realized it or not; victory that was won on the cross and sealed with the empty tomb. Today, we too celebrate this victory; the palm branches are for celebrating the defeat of sin and death.
The tomb couldn’t hold Lazarus; the mighty voice of Jesus broke its hold on His friend. The tomb couldn’t hold Jesus; God accepted His sacrifice on your behalf and proved it by raising Him from the dead. The tomb won’t hold you; because Jesus won the victory for you through the cross and empty tomb, your grave will be opened on the Last Day; the mighty voice of your Savior will call on you to come out. You will rise as Lazarus did, but with one difference. Lazarus would die again; but as Christ was raised never to enter the grave again, so you will be raised never to taste death forever. That is the victory that we celebrate with our palm branches this day, and we will celebrate that victory with our palm branches forever. John saw this in his vision, recorded in Revelation chapter seven: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” We wave our palm branches today and forever in victory, the victory that Christ won through the cross and empty tomb, the victory that means our resurrection and an eternity spent with our King, our Savior. In His holy and precious name, Amen.