Salvation, on God’s terms (Palm Sunday 2015)

I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
— Psalm 118:21-26 (NRSV)

Photo by Cameron Lee
Photo by Cameron Lee

In churches everywhere on Palm Sunday, we can expect choruses of “Hosanna!” to be raised.  The word is taken from the Hebrew text of Psalm 118:25; above, it is translated as “Save us, we beseech you!”  The songs we sing echo the shouts of acclamation given to Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (e.g., Matt 21:1-11), in fulfillment of ancient prophecy (Zech 9:9).  At last! the cries proclaimed.  Our Messiah, the anointed son of David, has come to free us from our godless oppressors, to restore our inheritance!

On the face of it, a cry for help might seem like a strange thing to shout in praise.  The psalm, however, is a song of thanksgiving for the goodness and faithfulness of the God who can be trusted to save his people; moreover, Jesus himself receives the words as an expression of praise (Matt 21:15-16).

But what kind of praise is it?  One can only guess what the people in the crowd were thinking.  Surely, some must have known the prophecy from Zechariah, and some may have been thinking of previously dashed messianic hopes.  Others may simply have been caught up in the excitement, following the crowd without fully realizing what they were saying or doing.

One has to wonder: how many from each group later agreed that this apparently failed Messiah should be nailed to a cross?  The story of Palm Sunday can be taken as a cautionary one, for we know that today’s groundswell of infectious, triumphant enthusiasm can flip over into disappointment, hate, and derision tomorrow.

It is right and good to give God our thanks and praise; in worship, we should sing our hosannas with gusto.  But whatever we may wish to be saved from when we cry out to God for help, what we receive is salvation on God’s terms, not ours.

On this day — on every day — may what the Lord has done be marvelous in our eyes.  Even if it’s not what we would have expected.