Where’s the triumph?

Making his way slowly down the road from Bethphage, Jesus heads into Jerusalem, where the city is swollen with pilgrims who have come to the city for the Passover feast. With him are his disciples and an entourage of admirers who had gone to Bethany to see Jesus, the miracle worker, and Lazarus, the miracle man whom Jesus raised from the dead. News of his approach has already reached the city, and with each passing moment, the throng surrounding Jesus grows as people come out to meet him.

The mood is electric, jubilant. Jesus sits astride a borrowed donkey, and some immediately recognize this as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
(Zech 9:9, NRSV)

But even those who don’t know the prophecy quickly catch the spreading fever: This man, the one everyone’s been talking about, the one we’ve seen do miracles and heard speak with prophetic authority — this man Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah, the anointed king of Israel!

Hosanna! they cry, which we would translate as, “Save us!”

But save them from what, exactly?

. . .

Many present-day believers are used to thinking about salvation in largely personal and individual terms. “Jesus saves” — from what? From sin. From condemnation. From death. From eternal hell. And all of that is right, as far as it goes.

But the people waving branches on Palm Sunday weren’t crying out to be saved from their sin. They wanted to be saved from Rome. They wanted to be saved from oppression. They wanted to be rescued out of a long and depressing story of idolatry, exile, and foreign domination, a story in which the Promised Land had woefully slipped from their grasp. It was painful to live in the land God had promised to their ancestors while still under the thumb of the Empire.

Who had the power to liberate the people? Others had tried and failed. But surely the one who could heal the lame, calm storms, and raise the dead could do it. God was obviously with this man Jesus in a mighty way, a way without precedent. Save us, Jesus! You’re the one! You have to be.

We can understand their excitement, the anticipation that great things were about to happen, things of which their ancestors had only dreamed. At long last, triumph was at hand!

That was Sunday. Five days later, their hopes would be dashed.

The gospel writers don’t tell us, but I imagine that some of the people who called for Jesus’ crucifixion had also laid their cloaks before Jesus during the joyous procession into Jerusalem. Their hopes of salvation had been raised — again — but as the week wore on and Jesus willingly gave himself over to the power of the religious establishment and the secular empire, their initial enthusiasm turned to feelings of bewilderment and then betrayal. Jesus was not their Messiah after all, but a pretender, a fake, another false messiah. Let him have his punishment.

Another Sunday would have to come before they could realize their mistake.

. . .

Who among us doesn’t wish to be rescued from something? We call upon God’s faithful love and pray for deliverance. Save! But sometimes, we foreclose too quickly on the story. We see salvation in narrow terms, and look for signs that God is answering our prayer, here, now, in a way that will pluck us out of the sorrow and pain of the moment. And of course, sometimes God does just that, healing and rescuing us in remarkable and miraculous ways.

But not always. Ultimately, salvation is not merely present, but future, not just for us individually today but for all of a broken creation tomorrow. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was “triumphal” against the background of God’s story of salvation, a story that was wider and deeper than the people’s hopes and expectations.

That goes for our hopes and expectations as well. By all means, let us cry out our Hosannas and look forward to divine deliverance. But let us do so with wisdom and the willingness to hold our own happy endings loosely, in favor of the hope of heaven. That is the triumph which Jesus has already won, and which should be the horizon of all our pleas.