Hosanna – Save Us!
March 29, 2015
The word “Hosanna.” We think of it as a word of praise—an equivalent, maybe even a synonym, to “Alleluia.” Since early Christian times, it has been used in that way. But the word’s origins go far deeper.
Let’s look back at Psalm 118 for a moment—the Psalm from which we read earlier in the service. Verse 25 of Psalm 118 says the following: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord.” In ancient Jewish tradition, the Priest would process around the altar during certain feast days while this verse was being repeated. Save us. Save us. Save us. These two words in Aramaic sounded like this: hoshi ‘ah na. Over time, those words were conflated into hosha ‘na, which was then transliterated into “hosanna.” In the same way that people today no longer remember that our phrase “good bye” was a conflation of the prayer “God be with you,” so too the Jewish people had long forgotten that the word “Hosanna” was not just an enthusiastic way of saying “Hello;” it also was a cry for help.
On that day when Jesus was riding from Bethany to Jerusalem, the crowd may have thought it was shouting a jubilant greeting; whether they realized it or not, they also were calling out, “Save us!” “Save us!”
Depending on who you were and the context you were coming from, you could listen to those words and hear it differently. If you just happened to be out and about that day, you would simply join in the shout as an exclamation of praise.
But if you were politically active, you would hear that cry as a cry to be saved from the oppressive rule of Rome. If “Hosanna” was the cry you uttered that day, you were taking a chance; Rome was pretty sensitive to any hint of trouble. The roads throughout Judea were littered with crosses showing the destiny that Rome promised to those who would dare to take them on.
There may have been a hint of crying out against social oppression. After all, Jesus had announced that he had come “to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18). That message wasn’t received any better then than it is today. Think back to the days of the Civil Rights marches in the United States—men, women and children marching down the streets with arms linked together, singing “We shall overcome.”
If you were a Scribe or a Pharisee, you would be on high alert. Not only because of the religious implications; you didn’t want anything to upset the uneasy peace that reigned in the country. Rome could be merciless; but its wrath was generally kept in check, as long as you didn’t cause any trouble. Luke’s Gospel tells us about a Pharisee watching the parade who was so concerned that he asked Jesus to tell the people to keep quiet. Jesus replied, “if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40).
I doubt that very many heard or shouted “Hosanna” as spiritual cry. I doubt that many, if any, raised their voices—pleading with God to bring reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace to the hearts of humankind.
Hosanna. Save us. Words that may have welled up from deep within them, just like the groanings of the Spirit that cry out on our behalf when we cannot utter words of our own. (Romans 8:26). Save us. Whether they meant, “save us from Rome,” or “save us from ourselves,” or “save us from sin,” it is a cry that resonated deeply within the hearts of minds of those who were marching and those who were throwing their cloaks down on the road and those who were waving their palm branches.
But our God is a God of surprises. The Jewish idea of “save us” seems to have been completely different from what God had in mind. After all, this notion of the Suffering One who gives himself to safe the many was part of ancient Jewish prophecy. Long before, the prophet Isaiah had written:
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
Jesus would later tell them, “my kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36). They shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Mark’s Gospel records three different occasions in which Jesus foretold his crucifixion and resurrection. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:33-34). You can’t be much clearer than that!
Save us. That was exactly what Jesus had in mind, but the crowd didn’t understand. It seems so ironic that just a few days later, a crowd—perhaps some of the same people, although we don’t know that for sure—but a crowd will cry out again before Jesus, but this time with the words “crucify him, crucify him … crucify him!” (Mark 15:13-14). Little did they know that their cry to “crucify him” was part of God’s plan to answer that first plea that they had not understood; for God used the tragedy of crucifixion as part of His plan to save us.
Our world today is very different. We have progressed so far in so many ways; and yet we still need saving. If Jesus were to ride in a procession through the downtown mall in Charlottesville, we may still cry out, “Hosanna.” Would we realize, any more than did those people along that road from Bethany to Jerusalem, what we were saying? Would we understand what we were asking for?
Perhaps. But I fear that most of us, if not all of us, would be oblivious to the way God, through Jesus Christ, had offered Himself to save us. Even today, two thousand years later, I can only stop and gaze in awe and wonder at the One who was “wounded for my transgressions and bruised for my iniquities.
O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighted down,
now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown:
how pale thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish which once was bright as morn!
What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.
What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.
On this Palm Sunday we, too, cry “Hosanna.” Save us, O Lord. Help me to give up my own selfish notions of how you will do this. Open me heart to receive your precious gift.
Jesus Christ does save us; but He also extends an invitation to us—asking us to walk with Him, to follow Him, all the way up a hill called Calvary. And He invites to take up our own crosses as we follow Him.
Are we … am I … willing to travel along with Jesus, to follow him to a nearby hillside? Am I willing to take up my cross and follow Him?
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11
 Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on Palm Sunday.
 Craig A. Evans, “Hosanna,” in Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Gen. Ed., The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: D-H, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 894.
 M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 153
 Mark 8:31; Mark 9:30-31; Mark 10:32-34.
 Anon. Latin; trans. by Paul Gerhardt, 1656, and James W. Alexander, 1830. Printed in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 286.