Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 ; Matthew 21:1-11
In the front of the sanctuary at my church this morning, there is a gate. Gates keep things out that are supposed to be kept out; they keep things in that are supposed to be kept in. Things can happen when gates are left open. I remember waking up one early morning to cows grazing on the grass outside my family’s mountain cabin. Someone had accidentally left the gate open, and the cows got into the yard. Some gates are short and decorative. Some fences and gates are tall and the wood slats are so close together you can’t see through. Gates serve a purpose, and gates tell us about the owner of the property.
One gate where people would stand before being allowed to enter was at the Temple in Jerusalem. Here in Psalm 118, we read the plea of the psalmist, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” And the response comes, “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.” There’s something about getting to go inside the gate – something about receiving permission to go beyond that barrier – that brings us in, draws us close, and lets us into the most beautiful of places.
The mountain cabin I mentioned before was a place where we could go and spend time with extended family. When the white picket gate on the porch swung open, there was excitement. There was joy. There was love and family. That open gate meant you belonged. And, when the mountain house was sold out of the family, the last time we closed that gate, it was as though we closed the gate on all our memories, all our time there, on the joy. It felt so final.
Similarly, my grandpa’s door had a sound when it shut. There was something about the way the deadbolt was set up in that door, along with the brass knocker that was on the front, that caused it to jingle just a little when the door would shut behind you. If I close my eyes and listen closely, I can hear that sound even now. After my grandpa passed away, I could almost hear it in the way his door closed when I left that it would be the last time I heard that sound again. Perhaps you have a memory like this one, a memory of a place where you were loved and welcome – a place where you belonged. Gates keep things out; and gates keep things in.
Two of Jesus’ disciples went and found a donkey and a colt. The Lord needed them. They brought them to Jesus, and Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. Soon, Jesus would be betrayed and handed over to death. In not many days he would face mockery, accusations, beatings, and pain. But on this day, he turns to face Jerusalem. He moves deliberately toward the cross. As he rides in on a donkey, a crowd of people surround him and begin shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Hosanna! O save us! Hosanna! Save us, Son of David! Often we portray Palm Sunday as a day of celebration. But, it’s not all joy and fanfare. We lose some of what it all means when we read the word “Hosanna!” It sounds like rejoicing – but it was a cry for help. “Hosanna!” means “O save!” The people are longing for a Savior, and they believe that Jesus is the one who has come to deliver them from oppression. We see the people laying their branches before Jesus, rather than binding them to the horns of the altar. They believe they are about to be set free. They are clinging to that hope. They are shouting out to Jesus, “Save us!” And, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that the whole city was in turmoil.
We know that Jesus didn’t overthrow the Roman government in the way people were hoping. Instead, as Psalm 118:22-23 tells us, “The stone that the builder rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” Salvation didn’t come in the form of a governmental overthrow. Salvation didn’t come wielding a sword. God’s redemption didn’t come as a mighty warrior dressed in perfectly sculpted armor. Salvation came in the form of humility, in the form of obedience – in the form of a suffering servant. Salvation came in the form of a great reversal – death, so that we might live.
This week as I was reflecting on Psalm 118, I kept coming back to verse 21: “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.” As I read over this verse several times, I kept thinking about Jesus standing outside of Lazarus’ tomb. I could picture Jesus weeping. He was greatly disturbed a second time, and came to the tomb. He asked that the stone be taken away. Martha tells Jesus that it is hopeless, and removing the stone would be embarrassing because of how long Lazarus has already been dead. It’s into this emotional turmoil, into this situation that seemed hopeless that Jesus looks upward and says, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. Sometimes our shouts of “Hosanna!” are joyful praise. Other times all we can do is quietly whisper “Hosanna!” over the chaos in our lives as an act of protest. We need a Savior. O save us, Son of David! Save us, Jesus!
There is something deeply primal and human about calling out for help. Anne Lamott, in her book Help, Thanks, Wow writes, “Sometimes the first time we pray, we cry out in the deepest desperation, ‘God help me.’ This is a great prayer, as we are then at our absolutely most degraded and isolated, which means we are nice and juicy with the consequences of our best thinking and are thus possibly teachable.”
I think all of us know deep down that we need a Savior. We may keep ourselves busy, or distracted, or try to remind ourselves of all our redeeming qualities, but when push comes to shove, we know we need to be saved – from our pain, from our struggles, from heartache, and even from ourselves. When we cry out with our Hosannas, sometimes we are doing so with joy. Sometimes we are truly recognizing Jesus as our Savior, and seeing what God has done for us. Other times, we are so overcome by our need, that we are pleading with God to save us. Sometimes Hosanna looks like hands lifted high; sometimes it looks like tear-stained cheeks.
The very interesting thing about the Revised Common Lectionary this year is that Psalm 118 is the selected psalm for both Palm Sunday and Easter. At first, I found this strange, but the more I’ve wrestled with it, the more amazing I have found it to be. “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.” How different this looks to us on this side of the cross.
This Sunday, we see Jesus heading to Jerusalem with a throng of people shouting at him to save them. We see Jesus move closer to the cross where he will do just that – make a way for us where there hadn’t been one before. We see the gate opening just a little bit…and we know that soon it will be flung open wide. The cross is the gate of salvation – the place where we enter in, know we belong, that we are loved, and where we can be made whole. “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. “
This week, I listened to the Moonshine Jesus Show Lectionarycast where they discussed the Matthew text for this week. Even though I knew this in my head already, something happened in my heart when I heard it said out loud. As Jesus heard the people shouting for him to save them…didn’t he know that many of those same people would be shouting “Crucify him!” just a few days later? And even though he knew he would be deserted and betrayed and despised, he still rode into Jerusalem on that donkey. He still made his way to the cross. He still lived an obedient and sinless life all the way to a bitter and shameful death. This Sunday is one of profound tension – festive palm branches, and cries for salvation. The whole city was in turmoil. So often we feel that way too. Shouts of praise mixed together with cries for salvation. Hosanna! O save us, Jesus!
So…here we stand, with the gate up front. We are getting ready to walk along the difficult road of Holy Week. Many of us have experienced difficulties and hardships this week. Tears have been shed. Worried thoughts have raced through our minds. Anxieties have been high. Others have experienced profound joy. Laughter has been shared. Thoughts of gratitude have welled up inside. The gate of salvation – the cross – has room for all of these things. Gates keep things out, and gates keep things in. Gates tell us something about the owner. This gate is built with love, sacrifice, and service. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This gate has room for all of us, and it opens to invite us in.