I don’t know when it was. And I don’t know where it was. But some day, somewhere, I was eating in a restaurant on the third or forth floor of a building. I looked out on the city. There wasn’t anything special about the view. Except for one building a few streets down. The wall was bright blue. And painted on that wall in big white letters the words “Jesus Saves.” Judging by the point I was at in my life—I was religiously skeptical at the time—I probably rolled my eyes. There those Christians go again. Trying to rescue me from hell again. Thanks but no thanks.
Between now and then, however, I have become a Christian. But I’ve always wondered what this actually means. What does Jesus save us from? What does Jesus save us for? How does Jesus save us? If at all?
Our scripture passages today are all about this. They’re all about salvation. In fact, our first hymn began with the word “Hosanna” meaning “Lord save,” or “Lord, rescue us now!” Which comes from the words from the crowd. Jesus is riding in to town on a donkey. The people shout “Hosanna!” “Lord, save!” they shout, and “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel.” Jesus has been teaching, healing, and raising the dead. And now Jesus is about to be made royalty. Kind of like in Robin Hood where Good King Richard arrives to take the throne back from his tyrant brother, John, to restore peace and harmony. And now he’s pretty much marching in to town with the crowds ready to install him as their rightful king. This is how Roman emperors used to march into places they conquered. And this is what they expect from Jesus, too. They expect him to conquer the Romans and deliver them from hundreds of years of foreign oppression. This is Jesus’ victory march. No one can stop him now.
The story is playing out just as it should. Everything is on the up and up, Jesus is on a roll. But it doesn’t play out the way it’s supposed to for Jesus. Just as he seems unstoppable, they do stop him.
Jesus ends up betrayed by one of his closest friends. He’s abandoned by most of his others. He’s turned over to the Romans, the foreign occupiers, as a traitor and disturber of the peace by his own people. He’s beaten. He’s tortured, he’s spit upon. But the worst part is the way they just make fun of him. How they mock him. Remember how the crowd was amped up and waving palm branches. Remember how they declared Jesus the King of Israel on his way in to the city. Well the Romans make fun of him, they mock him by weaving him a crown for him out of thorns. They dress him in a purple robe, the colour of royalty. They parade him in front of the crowd, and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor says “here’s your king!” You can imagine the laughter as well as the jeers. The crowd replies “crucify him, crucify him, we have no king but Caesar!” And on Pilate’s orders, they nail Jesus’ hands and feet to timber, set him high on a hill. Above him they nail this sign that reads “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” One more finally mocking jab. And then they leave him to die.
If you think about it, it’s kind of strange way for a story to go. But we don’t tend to realize this. Those of us who have been raised as Christians, or have lived our lives in at least a nominally Christian culture, don’t recognize how strange this story is. This is satire. If you think of it, it’s actually kind of a letdown. Kings don’t look like this. Kings aren’t captured. Kings aren’t put on trial. Kings aren’t executed. Because if you’re a king and this happens to you, it means you ain’t a king no more. Crucifixion is a criminal’s death. This whole scene is satire. An ancient version of a Saturday-night live skit. Like when Donald Trump is shown to be less-than-presidential. Here, Jesus couldn’t be any less royal. Once crowds shouted “Lord save.” But here Jesus is the one who needs saving.
Today, Palm Sunday, is huge let down in that way. Because what began as a lively celebration turns in to a humiliating failure. A triumphant victory parade ends in utter defeat. Waving palm branches traded for tree trunks. When you think of the phrase “to save the world” what do you think of? Jesus’ contemporaries hoped for the overthrow of their Roman oppressors. We picture the overthrow of communism (or capitalism), or something called “radical Islam.” Terrorists foiled before they can set off the nuke. Or the bad guys get beat and peace, truth, justice and democracy are restored and reign forever. Chemical weapons and airstrikes. This is the strangeness of this story that we who hear this story year after year seem to miss. Jesus doesn’t accomplish anything like that at all. The crowd calls out to Jesus “Lord save.” Jesus suffers. Jesus calls out to the crowd “I’m thirsty.” Then he dies.
By any way of measuring things, the Palm Sunday parade is complete disappointment. Because Jesus falls short. By a long shot. No “mission accomplished” banner for Jesus. I mean, even his followers knew this. As soon as he was arrested then crucified, all of his (male) disciples deserted him. Jesus doesn’t save anyone from anything in any way they expected. By all measures Jesus is no Savior. He’s a complete failure. He couldn’t even save himself.
But if you jump back to the Palm parade, there’s this fascinating line. Where it says that Jesus’ disciples stood at the sidelines at the Palm parade. But they didn’t actually understand what was happening. There was more to this event, there was more to Jesus than meets the eye. Something they didn’t understand, it says, until he was “glorified.” In John’s story, Jesus is “glorified” on the cross. Looking back on it the whole thing in the light of the resurrection, this lightbulb goes off for them. They finally get it. They get how Jesus saves. At the palm parade they expected a rightful king to have a jewel-covered crown placed carefully on his head. Instead, Jesus was crowned with jagged thorns. They thought Jesus was on his way up to have a golden scepter placed in his hand. Instead the palms of hands are pierced with nails. They thought he was on his way up to take his rightful seat in a gilded golden chair. Instead his is a throne of wood, and his coronation takes place on a cross. According to John, on the cross Jesus trades all power for powerlessness and is crowned king. The disciples don’t fully understand the Palm Parade until his glorification, until his crucifixion. This is salvation itself unveiled.
We live in a world that believes that it will be saved by violence. By bloodshed. By the defeat of the enemies of what ever our cause may be. Whether it’s chemical weapon attacks, suicide bombs or airstrikes. Whether we are enlightened modern people or not. Liberal, or conservative. Christian or otherwise. Ever since the first murder, the spilling of Abel’s blood by Cain. As a species we have believed that peace, justice, and all of those good things will be won by the right people gaining power from the wrong people and holding it. That good will triumph by forcibly stamping out evil. But the scriptures teach us that in Jesus Christ God brings salvation to us and the whole world. Paul in his letter to the Colossians writes that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Not by not by killing the bad guys, not by vanquishing his enemies, but by giving his life in love for them. Jesus saves not by settling all the right scores but by shattering vengeance with incredible acts of love and forgiveness. Jesus saves by giving of himself completely for the world, and giving his life over to the will of God to the point of death.
They didn’t know it when Jesus rode in to town, but in Christ on the cross God would win a mighty victory not in military might. But in complete vulnerability, self-sacrifice. And death. They didn’t know it at the time, they didn’t understand this at the Palm Parade. But when Jesus was glorified they finally understood. I didn’t understand it when I looked out that restaurant sign and saw those words. But looking back now I understand. This is how Jesus saves. Christ comes not just to save us from a fiery afterlife, but comes to save us in this life. Comes to save the world as it is. Jesus saves us from ourselves. From the mess we’re in. Human being against human being, one retaliation after another. Playing out on the global scale, playing out in our everyday lives. In the cross he puts an end to it all. Jesus saves not by spilling the blood of others. But by shedding his own. In the words of Paul’s letter to the Colossians: Pouring out his life for the sake of the world. To transform it. To make it new.
This is how Jesus’ works. This is how God saves the world, the only way it will be saved. Through self-offering, through self-empyting. Through self-sacrifice. Through self-giving love. Jesus has paved this path out of the way things are. And we can experience this salvation here and now by taking up the cross and following in his footsteps. It means that we don’t have to repay each other evil for evil. It means we don’t have to be enslaved by anger and hatred. It means we can be freed from our petty grudges, our bigotries, and our selfishness. It means we can forgive instead of being consumed by our pasts, by poison and pain. Because “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
Brothers and sisters, this is how Jesus saves. God in Christ has paved this path for us to become whole new and different people living in a whole new and different world! So wave your palms! Shout hosanna! And cling to that old rugged cross for dear life!