How We Got to Be the Daughter (and Son) of Zion: A Homily for Palm Sunday Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 2 April, 2023.
Readings: Liturgy of the Palms Matthew 21.1-11, Isaiah 50:4-9A; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11
“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you” (Mat 21.5)
Today is a day full of contrasts. It’s a journey that begins in triumph and ends in seeming tragedy. We began our worship by reenacting the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as a king. It seemed like the old promises were coming true, that a royal rescuer descended from King David would return to save his people. Matthew knew these old promises well. He quotes the prophet Zechariah, that the king would return “humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zech 9.9), but Matthew was also thinking of another promise made by the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah also predicted the return of the king, but he imagined it as a kind of mystical royal wedding. The bing as bride would come to the desolate wasteland of Jerusalem, “the Daughter of Zion”, marry her, and rebuild her: “as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you” (Isa 61.4). This marriage would be salvation for the inhabitants of Jerusalem:
“They shall be called ‘The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord” (Isa 62.11).
Which brings us to the question that I imagine every congregation asks on Palm Sunday: what happened? The crowds who greeted their king with shouts of “Hosanna” or “Save us!”, the cry itself an echo of the Psalms (Ps 118.25), soon turn on him. Soon these crowds will cry “Crucify him”, “Give us Barrabas”, and “We have no king but Caesar!” These are not the cries of a “Holy People”, but rather the opposite.
Almost everything that happens in the Passion Narrative is a betrayal of Jesus. Judas betrays Jesus for money. The religious leaders betray the promises of the prophets for an easy time under Roman rule. Pilate betrays an innocent man for political reasons. The disciples betray their teacher for fear. The crowds betray every healing and teaching that Jesus has given them .. for what?
The betrayal of the crowds is perhaps the hardest thing to understand in the passion stories. How could they go from Hosanna to Crucify, from Hero to Zero? Is it because of human fickleness? Is it because mobs are easily manipulated yet? Is it because they are wicked?
Isaiah prophesied that when the King marries the Daughter of Zion, her people “shall be called ‘The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord” (Isa 62.11). Maybe the simple answer is that the people aren’t yet holy. W all know that every betrayal and evil described by Matthew can and does happen today. Non of this is news. Humans, left to their own devices, tend to th wicked. This is why Jesus must go to the cross, so he can take our sins with them. Love must conquer hatred. Words of forgiveness must be spoken. The power of tyranny must be exposed when the stone is rolled back and the tomb stands empty in the light of Easter Sunday. All these things must happen.
And what of us, we who have just spoken the words of the crowds, as congregations do on every Palm Sunday? Why must we be made to also say “Crucify him!” and “Give us Barrabas”? Is it because we are also wicked? Or is it to remind us that we were wicked?
The old hymn says it well.
The Church’s one foundation
is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
she is his new creation
by water and the Word.
From heav’n he came and sought her
to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her,
and for her life he died.
Every Palm Sunday we speak the words of the crowd to remind us of who we were and how far we have come. We know that we can fall away, that we can still betray Jesus in a thousand ways, through casual cruelties, through neglecting our faith, through putting our own needs first. Yet, we remember our calling, we remember our new creation, and we remind ourselves that Christ went to the cross to save us and to make us new.
Every Palm Sunday, our cries of “Hosanna”, “Jesus save us”, are cries of need mixed with hope and joy, for we are the church. We journey to the cross with Jesus, in gratitude and in sorrow, to remind ourselves of the price he paid so that we might call ourselves “The Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord”. Amen.