Waving Our Palm Branches and American Flags

How Jesus enters in this Palm Sunday scene is how Jesus enters everywhere.

He comes in a way that is both familiar to us, and is 100% foreign to us. 

This was the time of the year where the city of Jerusalem swelled in size. People came from all over to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles and the Passover.

So we read: 

The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:12-1)

Why Palm branches? They were available. Palm trees abound in that region, so it’s a practical choice. Like in So Cal, we’re probably going to wave palm tree branches too cause they’re everywhere. If we were in the forest I guess we’d have a bunch of pine needles to wave.

But Palm branches are also symbols for victory; they’re the kind of branch you use to welcome royalty. To say, “Hey, we recognize you as a political king and ruler, please come in and help us.”

Palm branches are both practical and political.

They were waving their palms, celebrating a king who could work miracles and who held out so much promise to meet their wildest dreams. Everything they wanted they could get. Political rule and overthrowing Rome, check. Centralizing religious authority, check. Being the haves over the have-not’s, check. Oppression would be no more.

We don’t wave palm tree branches, but are we waving the American flag right now, cheering like the crowds at what’s going on in our country?

Are we so hopeful about our vision for America that we can’t hear the fears and concerns of our neighbors who don’t share our experience? 

I say this humbly, as a pastor of both Bible-believing Republicans and Democrats. I have watched countless eyes well up in tears over what the President says and does. Have you ever watched someone cry? No, not a “snowflake.” A real person who is hurt by what’s happening.

Nationalism or patriotism can be dangerous anywhere. For these Jewish crowds, waving palm branches stood for their solidarity as a nation and the freedom someone like political Jesus could bring them. Delivering them from their Roman oppressor. Fixing their problems.

For us, it’s really easy to band around our political party of choice. Nationalism or patriotism, whether Red or Blue, can easily become a mask. A mask to numb what we really feel about those who are different from us.

Are we so busy waving our flags or proverbial palms, that we avoid doing the hard work of learning about others concerns? Will we listen long enough, going past the virtue-signaling on both sides of the political spectrum to actually hear our flesh-and-blood neighbors over the sounds of digital phantom neighbors? It’s easy to use Conservatism or Liberalism as a palm branch. We can aggressively and simplistically wave our flags and avoid wrestling with the complexities of actual life around us.

Jesus calls us to drop our palm branch causes in favor of a different, better way. The way of Christ.

Stop hating your neighbor. Listen more. Challenge the abuse of power you see around you. If it’s in your own household with how a spouse is mistreating you, start there. Or if it’s in the workplace with sexism or ageism or racism, begin there. Or if it’s in a business or church. Challenge it, start there. Don’t stand for it. Remain silent and still no longer. Throw away your prejudice and stereotyping of people with a different skin color. Show compassion, love your neighbor as yourself. It’s really very simple, and we’re making it all so complicated.

The king the crowds view Jesus as is not the kind of King he actually is.

They may see him as a king, he’s familiar looking—I mean he’s riding in on something, letting us praise him and call him a king. But Jesus views kingship in a way that opposes all of our following and leading. His ways are familiar, but very foreign to us. Let me explain.

See, these people think Jesus will come into their city, rise to power, and save them through killing. He’s going to be more powerful than the powerful. But God’s plan isn’t to gain power; his plan is to lose power and die.

This is worth meditating on.

Do you find yourself looking for ways to trump others?

Do you seek out glory by oppressing others, by being better than others?

Is your life defined by a constant power play—grabbing, taking, domineering, and positioning?

Jesus arrives riding a donkey all the way to the cross. He’s humble, but not powerless. Donkey’s were symbols of royal power. But he’s using his power as a king to do what his people need most. His people don’t need a powerful political conquerer; his people need to be rescued from sin. So he rides and marches toward Jerusalem, to the cross.

Jesus trumps power not through strength, but by willingly entering into weakness; not by fighting but by dying.

And we, as his followers come into this kingdom not by manning up, riding in on our warhorse, but by repenting and admitting our need for King Jesus to rescue us, renew us, and reign over us.

It’s in that name, the name above all names that we cry together, “Hosanna!”

Nicholas Davis

Rev. Nicholas Davis is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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