‘Hosanna!’ (Matthew 21:1-11)

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One week out from Easter, on a day we know as Palm Sunday, Christians commemorate an event in Jesus’ life which points towards the culmination of his ministry. Jesus entered Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, and as we read in Matthew 21:1-11, a very large crowd gathered to welcome him. they lay their outer garments and tree branches on the road in front of him as Jesus rode on a donkey. Then the crowd acknowledged Jesus as the heir of King David who would come to save them by shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9 NIV)

This word Hosanna has been used in lots of different Christian songs and hymns over the centuries, particularly in those written for Palm Sunday or which acknowledge Jesus as King. But what does it mean? Like a lot of words we can use in Christian conversations, songs, hymns and worship, it can be good for us to give some thought to its meaning and why we use it.

Literally Hosanna means, ‘Save!’ It is used in Psalm 118:25 to ask God to send his Messiah to liberate his people and give them ‘success’ (NIV) in all they did. When the people of Jerusalem used it to welcome Jesus to their city, they were using this ancient term to point to him as the one who would save them by freeing them from tyranny and restoring them as the people of God.

When I think about how we use the word ‘save’ in our place and time, there are aspects to its meaning which can help us understand more about what the word Hosanna means for us. For example, as I wrote this message out on my computer, I will regularly ‘save’ my work so I don’t lose it but can keep it to send out to you. When I go to the beach to swim, there might be a ‘life-saver’ to look out for me and rescue me when I get into trouble. When I go to the shops, I will generally look for specials so I can ‘save’ some money off my grocery bill.

However, most of the time when I hear the word ‘save’ I tend to think about money boxes. These are boxes of various shapes and sizes which we can use to save our money, especially our coins or small change. We save coins in money boxes because they are valuable to us. We save them because we might not want other people in our household from taking them from us. We might also save them because, when we add them to other loose change we have saved in our money box, they become part of something greater than themselves and are able to purchase something more expensive than if they had remained on their own.

The main way Christians often think about being ‘saved’ is going to heaven when we die. I wonder, though, when we sing Hosanna this Palm Sunday, we might be calling on Jesus to save us in ways that aren’t too different from the ways we can save our coins.

Like my coins, when we call Hosanna, Jesus saves us because we are valuable to him. 1 Peter 1:18-19 tells us that God didn’t save us with perishable things like silver or gold, but with ‘the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God’ (NLT). Jesus rode into Jerusalem to save us because we are worth more to God than all the silver and gold in the world. God gives the most valuable thing he has, the life of his own Son, to make us his own because that’s what you are worth to him. When we cry Hosanna, Jesus saves us because to him we are worth it.

Like my coins, when we call Hosanna, Jesus also saves us because he wants to keep us safe. Especially during this time when our church buildings are closed, we’re practising social distancing and we are isolated from each other, it is good for us to trust that Jesus saves us to keep us safe. Whether we are afraid of how COVID-19 might affect us or our loved ones, we are anxious about the future, or feeling lonely and disconnected from others, Jesus keeps us safe by embracing us in his resurrection love and surrounding us with the light of his good news. It doesn’t mean the we won’t have problems or suffering in life, but when they do come, we can be confident that they won’t overcome us and we have Jesus’ resurrection life in us. When we cry Hosanna, Jesus saves us by keeping us safe.

Like my coins, when we call Hosanna, Jesus saves us by making us a part of something bigger than ourselves. Jesus rode into Jerusalem as King, not of a temporary, earthly kingdom, but of the eternal Kingdom of God. Jesus makes us part of his Kingdom which includes all people who are saved from every time and every place. This is the family of God, the body of Christ, the community of God’s holy people, the Christian Church. As we face a period of isolation because of the COVID-19 virus, we are never truly alone. God brings us into community with other believers so we can encourage each other, build each other up in faith and love, strengthen each other and walk with each other until God brings us through this time and we can be physically present with each other again. When we cry Hosanna, Jesus saves us by making us citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, his living, breathing body on earth.

This Palm Sunday, what does it mean to you to be saved? A greater sense of self-worth? Being kept safe from things that might take life from you? Being part of something bigger than ourselves, even while we might be isolated or alone? Or it might mean something different. Jesus rode into Jerusalem as God’s chosen King who comes to us here and now to give us his saving help. Where do you need his saving help in your life?

As we sing Hosanna, Jesus comes to save us all…

More to think about & discuss:

  • When you read this story, what questions do you have?
  • How do you understand what it means to be ‘saved’?
  • When we think about being saved like coins in a money box, what connects more with where you are in your life: Jesus giving you value, keeping you safe or connecting you to something bigger than yourself? Or something else? Explain why…
  • How might trusting that you are a saved child of God help you see what you are going through right now a bit differently?

Looking at the Heart (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

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My message for this Sunday changed significantly since the start of the week. I was going to look at 1 Samuel 16:1-13, exploring the differences between outward appearances and what lies at the heart, the external and internal, in regards to people and what we focus on.

Then things started changing with growing concerns around the spreading of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Australia, and in particular the ban on indoor gatherings of 100 people or more.

Many congregations that I’m aware of are cancelling most or even all forms of ministry that involve personal contact, including regular worship, in order to prevent the spread of the virus. I understand the need to be careful and responsible in our contact with each other to minimize the spread of the virus as an act of love. What is sitting rather uncomfortably with me, though, is the way ‘doing church online’ seems to have become the Christian church’s default option without exploring other ways of connecting together as sisters and brothers in the faith.

If there’s one thing we need right now as we face the threat of the virus is to be building each other up in faith and love so that fear and isolation don’t overwhelm us.

That’s where I start to hear the story of Samuel anointing David in 1 Samuel 16:1-13 speaking into our circumstances. I believe that we have had a superficial perspective of church for far too long. In the culture of my particular church organization, our understanding of church has revolved largely around attendance at Sunday worship, being a member of a congregation and maybe being involved in some committees, rosters or activities in the congregation. When I listen to what Samuel says in v7, I can’t help but view these activities as the outward appearance or function of church.

What God looks at, of course, is at the heart. This includes the heart of what it means to be church.

There are lots of ways people define what it means to be ‘church’ and there is usually something good we can find in most of them. My favourite definition is one that Martin Luther wrote about five hundred years ago, that the church consists of ‘holy believers … who hear the voice of their Shepherd’ whose ‘holiness exists in the Word of God and true faith’ (Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article 13). The way I read this is that whenever God’s people gather around his Word in faith, that is the church.

This sits well with what is written in Hebrews 10:23-25 which says,

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. (NLT)

If there’s one thing our world needs right now to combat and overcome the fear people are experiencing about the COVID-19 virus, it is hope. As the people of God who trust in the life-giving promises of Jesus, we have hope to offer all who need it. The challenge I face pastorally is how to help the people of our church grow in the hope which comes through faith so we can be people of hope, bringing hope to people who have none. Part of God’s solution, according to Hebrews 10:23-25, is to keep meeting together.

Exactly how we are going to do that in these days of limits and requirements of how many and where we can meet will a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. We can meet together around God’s word in faith in family groups, in a few families getting together, in our regular small groups, with a friend or two, or in larger worshiping groups, and so on. Maybe we need to be offering more services which cater for groups of smaller numbers of people meeting together in worship at different times, not only on Sundays but even during the week. How we will do this belongs to the ‘outward appearance’ or the externals that Samuel talks about. Why we gather together, to encourage and build each other so our hearts are full of faith, hope and love, becomes the more important question.

We can look for ways of gathering together in the freedom the gospel gives. It’s significant that when Samuel met David, he saw that David ‘was dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes’ (v12 NLT). God didn’t accept him because he was good-looking, but he didn’t reject him for being attractive either. God was interested in David’s heart and that he trusted in God. Likewise, in our current situation, how we meet together really is an external thing. Why we meet together – to hold on to the hope Jesus gives us, to motivate each other to love and good works, and to encourage each other in difficult times – this is the heart of what it means to be church and what is really vital.

My plan at the time of writing is to ask our congregation who will worship on Sunday how we might be able to gather together in the future. We need to accept that different people will be looking for different ways to connect together around God’s word in faith, according to their circumstances, and to give people the freedom and the opportunities to do that. God is looking beyond the externals to see our hearts, and wants to fill them with faith, hope and love through his Holy Spirit. We will find these as we gather as his church around his Word in faith. Then we will have real hope to bring to the world.

If you have any thoughts about how we can be helping you to gather around God’s word while we watch and wait for further developments as the virus takes its course, please let me know. I really see this as an opportunity to get past what can often be superficial, external appearances of church to really get to the heart of what it means to be the people of God in the world, living with hearts full of faith, hope and love, to bring God’s blessings to everyone we meet.

More to think about & discuss:

  • In what ways do you see people focussing more on the outward appearance than what lies at the heart, or, in other words, on what something looks like instead of what it really is?
  • In what ways might we do that as church?
  • Why do you think God is more interested in what’s at the heart instead of the outward appearance?
  • How might your life be different if you focussed more on other people’s hearts than on how they look or what they do?
  • How might your life be different if you focussed more on your heart trusting God than on what people see?
  • How can our congregation help you through this time to:
    • gather with others around God’s word?
    • hold on to the hope we have in Jesus?
    • motivate one another to love and good works?
    • encourage one another to trust in Jesus?

Standing Straight (Luke 13:10-17)

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The account of Jesus releasing a crippled woman on a Sabbath in Luke 13:10-17 might look like just another healing story when we first read it. However, when we listen carefully to the language Luke uses to describe the event we can find that there is more going on under the surface.

The Synagogue leader got upset with Jesus because he broke the Sabbath rules. About fifteen hundred years earlier, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God gifted his people with a day off each week. This day of rest, known as the Sabbath, was so important that God enshrined it as one of the Ten Commandments – ‘Remember to observe the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy’ (Deuteronomy 20:8 NLT). In order to protect this gift, subsequent generations of Israelites began defining what they regarded as ‘work’ so they knew how not to break this commandment. By the time of Jesus, the gift of the rest day had become an expectation, lost under a complicated system of rules about what a person could and could not do on that day.

The synagogue leader got upset with Jesus because he viewed releasing the woman from her illness as work and so Jesus had broken this commandment in his eyes. Jesus challenged the leader’s understanding of God’s purpose for the Sabbath by pointing to the way he would untie his donkey or ox in order to lead it out for a drink of water. This action was also ‘work’ according to the synagogue leader’s Sabbath regulations.

This is where the language of the story becomes very significant. In verse 12, where the New Living Translation has Jesus saying, ‘you are healed of your sickness,’ the Greek text uses a verb which means more like ‘released’ or ‘let go’. In the same way, the word Jesus uses in verse 16 which is translated as ‘released’ is the same word he uses in verse 15 when he talks about ‘untying’ a donkey or an ox to lead it out for a drink of water. Luke used this language is to tell us that Jesus came to untie or release us from the effects of sin which tie us up, weight us down and prevent us from living in the ways God originally intended for us.

The Synagogue leader was effectively tying people up with rules, traditions and expectations around the Sabbath-day of rest. In contrast, Jesus saw an opportunity on this particular Sabbath to untie the woman, set her free and release her to live the life God intended for her.

When we gather together on our day of rest, I wonder who we more closely resemble? Are we living in the freedom that Jesus gives us through faith to find release from the things in life that tie us up, weigh us down and keep our eyes looking towards the ground? Or are we tied up with rules, traditions and expectations, passing those things that tie us up on to others? As people join us in worship, do they encounter rules that bind them or the grace of Jesus which sets us free?

We all have things that bind us. For some, like the woman in the story, it might be a physical disability which ties us up and prevents us from living the life God intends for us. If that’s the case, the good news of this story is that Jesus has the power to release us from our physical weaknesses and infirmities. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has the power to make all things new, including our bodies. Some miraculously experience this healing and release in this life. Others wait their whole lives for it in faith and hope. Either way, Jesus asks us to trust him because ‘faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us the assurance about things we cannot see’ (Hebrews 11:1 NLT).

This woman’s physical disability also signifies something deeper that can happen within all of us. We can easily get tied up in things like guilt, fear, shame, anxiety, loneliness, other people’s expectations, the need to please others, and the list can go on and on. They bind us in ways that are very similar to the woman in the story because they restrict us and prevent us from living the ‘life to the full’ which Jesus promises us (John 10:10) in the love, joy, peace and hope that God intends for us. The things that tie us up keep us looking at the ground in front of our feet, making us stumble our way through life instead of having eyes that are lifted up to see Jesus in faith and others in Christ-like love. For us to live the life that God promises us, we need to be set free from the things that tie us up so we can stand straight and strong in the love and grace of Jesus.

That’s what Christian community it meant to be about. Our purpose is not to keep people tied up in expectations, human traditions or rules. That was what the synagogue leader was doing. Jesus’ purpose was to release people, to set us free, to give us life in all of its fullness. As a community of faith which carries the name of Christ, our purpose is to be finding and living in the love of God through Jesus which releases us, and then extending that same liberating love and grace to others. For a lot of people who grew up in churches which emphasised the importance of certain behaviours, customs, human traditions and expectations, this is a significantly different way of thinking about church.

But what might our community of faith look like if we understood our purpose as helping people find freedom from what binds them in life through a living and growing faith in Jesus?

There is a lot more going on in this story that just another healing miracle. Through the words of this story, Jesus gives us the promise that he can untie us from whatever binds us in life so we can stand straight, seeing his love and grace and seeing others around us who also need his love and grace. This story also challenges us to think about our own community of faith. How can we be a community where people can encounter the love of Jesus which releases us from what ties us up, so they can find the freedom which comes through faith too?

More to think about:

  • What questions or thoughts do you have about the story in Luke 13:10-17?
  • What are some of the things that can tie people up in life?
  • Has your experience of ‘church’ been more about being tied up with rules or expectations, or being set free through grace and love? Maybe share some examples.
  • What ties you up in your life?
  • Do you think it is possible for Jesus to untie you from the things that tie you up like he did for the woman in the story? Discuss your answers…
  • How might your view of ‘Christian discipleship’ be similar or different if you thought about Jesus calling you to follow him means that he wants to lead you into greater freedom from the things that tie you up in life?
  • How might your view of Christian community or church be different if you saw it more as followers of Jesus walking together into greater freedom through a growing faith in Jesus?
  • You might like to talk with Jesus in prayer, giving him whatever might be tying you up in life and asking him to untie you from it…