It’s the Sunday before Passover in Jerusalem.
The crowds are out for the festival. Jews from all over the known world – remember, they were scattered in exile a few hundred years prior – are coming to the city. The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, estimates as many as three million people swarming Jerusalem’s streets during this week each year.
Jesus isn’t in the city limits yet, but he’s close, on a road on the northern side of Jerusalem. He rides on a young animal, which might imply one that’s never been ridden before – the way a king would choose their animal. As he enters, people line the street, throwing down garments and branches on the road. This is also a sign of royalty; generations earlier, this was how the Israelites acknowledged that Jehu was taking the throne (2 Kings 9:13).
The people are crying out a word that has become synonymous with Palm Sunday: “Hosanna!” This word can mislead us because it sounds a lot like “halleluiah” to our modern ears. Halleluiah means something like, “Praise the Lord!” That’s not hosanna; hosanna means, “Save us.” Strange, huh? That sounds less like a ticker-tape parade and more like a politically charged event… which might be our first clue that there is more here than what we see at first glance.
Here’s another important detail: Jesus isn’t riding in on a majestic warhorse, but a donkey. This is like the president of the United States coming to town in a 1992 Ford Taurus. What kind of king rides a donkey?
There’s a message here, running underneath the surface level, that no one yet understands.
For now, the people are cheering. They love Jesus! What a celebration! But Jesus is not just parading into Jerusalem; he is heading straight toward his death. As he sits upon his donkey, surrounded by this adoring crowd, does he feel alone? Alone because only he knows that things are about to take a dark turn. Alone because only he knows that this is the beginning of the end.
Alone because only he knows that this Sunday will become “Palm Sunday,” the first day of the last week of his earthly life.
In 2006, I innocently went to see a movie because it starred two actors I like, Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. They’re both funny people, so I thought I was in for a typical light-hearted romantic comedy.
I was very wrong.
The movie was “The Break Up.” While it’s well done, it’s also painful to watch – mainly because the name is accurate. This is not “The Break Up After Which They Got Back Together.” The main characters, Brooke and Gary, break up and stay broken up in that typical heart-wrenching, devastating way. As someone who has experienced a break up first hand (who hasn’t?) I found parts of it to be uncomfortably true to life. Breaking up hurts.
The scene that has stuck with me most takes place at a concert. Brooke, Aniston’s character, gets tickets to their favorite concert. She just kind of throws it out there, casually: “Hey, got these tickets, let’s go together for old time’s sake.” But her hope is that Gary (Vaughn’s character) will meet her there and they will reconnect – maybe this won’t be a break up story after all.
Gary fails to see the significance of Brooke’s offer. He doesn’t show for the concert. Which leaves Brooke there, alone, next to an empty seat. The crowd is going crazy around her, singing and cheering and dancing. For them, it’s the time of their life. Brooke is alone in a crowd, sitting down, looking defeated. For her, this is the beginning of the end.
I haven’t seen “The Break Up” in years. There’s a lot about it that I don’t really remember. But this one image has stuck with me – the contrast of the crowd’s festivities against Brooke’s dark moment. Alone in a crowd.
I’ve felt that way sometimes. Just recently, in these weeks following my mom’s death, there have been times where I’m at some happy gathering and without warning my mind will go to Mom. I’m surrounded by people on the outside, but what I’m feeling on the inside makes me feel alone.
Grief is not the only isolating feeling, though. Worry has a way of loading us down and making us feel alone. We fret over a decision, wondering whether it was right and how it will play out. We obsess over things beyond our own control, trying to get a grip on them by over-thinking them. It goes with us wherever we go, reminding us that we’re different from everyone else because we have this horrible problem to worry about.
Depression works this way, too. Whether situational or clinical, depression isn’t something we can leave at home. Once it’s with us, it’s with us. What’s worse about depression: even when we’re alone at home, depression reminds us there’s a whole world of happy people out there and we are not one of them.
No one else has ever felt this way. No one else knows this pain. Alone in a crowd.
But of course that’s wrong. Others are suffering, just as we are. Others have been through struggles and hurt like this before.
Jesus was one of them.
Imagine him riding through the cheering crowd on his donkey, knowing what is going to happen.
Today the crowd cheers him as their king, but it won’t be long and the tone of those words will turn. He’ll still be called, “King of the Jews,” but the title will be spat at him by a Roman soldier as he’s beaten. It will be hung above his head on the cross, so that all can see the ridiculousness of the claim. You can’t be king when you’re dead.
Today the crowd cries out, “Save us!” They are desperate for his help; they believe in his salvation. But it won’t be long before that hopeful imperative becomes a taunt: “He saved others, but he can’t even save himself!”
Jesus rode on that donkey, alone, through the cheering crowd. He was the only one that knew that this parade was the beginning of the end. And he kept going, straight into what we call “Holy Week”: betrayal by Judas; abandonment by his disciples; condemnation by the authorities; torture by the soldiers. When he died on the cross the mood was very different from this Palm Sunday parade, but also strangely the same: he was alone in a crowd.
If you feel alone, you need to know:
You are not alone.
Not only do many people suffer from the same isolating hurts that you’re feeling, but more importantly, we know that our Lord and Savior felt that way for at least one dark week. There is no suffering so deep that Jesus wouldn’t understand it or wouldn’t want to hear about it.
When we’re in that dark alone place, the isolation can act like a mussel. It can be hard to talk to anyone about what’s going on. Let God be the one person that you can talk to at any moment, and with brutal honesty. Remember Jesus’ cry on the cross, quoting Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We can cry to Jesus from our isolation just as Jesus did to God.
We can pray more than that; we can pray the crowd’s cheer. “Hosanna! Save us! Save me!” Some places are so dark and so alone that God is the only one who can save us. We need to cry our own “hosannas,” but with a twist; we know more than the crowd did.
We know that Jesus saved others;
Jesus did save himself;
Jesus will save us, too…
even from this.