People in many churches like praise music. They like the sound of celebration, rather than sadness. This seems natural. Who wants unhappiness? Give us joy over gloominess any day.
Such people love to hear the songs of the crowd at Palm Sunday. Were they singing or shouting? It does not really matter. Either way, the Evangelist Saint Matthew tells us that “the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Praise music, right? Well, not really. Sort of. Sort of not.
“Hosanna to the Son of David!” To understand this, we have to understand the Hebrew word Hosanna first. Many people think that “Hosanna” simply means something like “Praise God!” It was often used that way, but that is not what it means. Hosanna translates as “Please save us now.” That does not sound like praise, but a cry for mercy. Save us! We are in trouble! This cry for help was addressed to the Son of David, the promised Messiah. He would sit on David’s throne forever and establish an eternal kingdom.
Hosanna is an appeal by helpless peasants to the King. We cannot save ourselves. We are doomed. But You, promised King, can save us. Please save us now!
Is this praise music or not? It really is, but not the kind of praise music that many people expect. How can a cry for mercy be a song of praise? Because the highest praise we can give to God is to confess His saving works of mercy. Simply saying, “I love and praise You God, because you are so awesome and great!” means hardly anything at all. Yes, He is those things. But that is not a God who necessarily saves anyone. His true greatness is found in His steadfast love. It is found in His faithfulness to keep His promises. He kept His promise to David that his Son would sit upon his throne forever. That Son is Christ, the embodiment of God’s mercy in human flesh.
So we praise God best by confessing His mercy. But His mercy is not completed in every way yet. More mercy is yet to come. Christ has come for us and created His kingdom by shedding His Blood. He has set the eternal foundation of eternity by rising from the dead, so that all who trust in Him will be raised to immortality. So we will live in the perfect heaven and earth forever. But that is not here yet. In this veil of tears, we still struggle and suffer.
So we call out to Christ to come once more to raise all the dead. This will signal our exit from this world of trouble, and our entrance into eternal bliss.
When we call to the Son of David in our present trouble, He also helps now. “Come save us!” we cry, and in answer He comes among us. The Son of David speaks His saving words to us. He speaks peace to our troubled souls. He helps by giving salvation to us in His Divine Service.
Asking Him to come save us is the essence of true praise music. We confess that we are in need of saving, and we confess that He is the only Savior for men. That is high praise indeed.
Second, the crowds called out, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” This is a quote from Psalm 118, which begins and ends with the refrain, “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.” Notice how praise is spoken in terms of mercy, as it did with the word, “Hosanna”, which is a word also used in Psalm 118.
Who was the Psalmist thinking of when he wrote the Psalm? Was it the priests who approached the Temple of God? The house of the Lord and the altar are mentioned immediately after He wrote, “Blessed is He who comes.” Yet not only the priests, but also Christ, the great High Priest, went up to the Altar after these words. He went to the Temple, and soon cleansed it with a whip and overturned tables. Did the Psalmist see these things? Perhaps, but it is not important. The crowd sang or spoke these words as Christ approached Jerusalem. We know that the great fulfillment of these words is in the Prophet from Nazareth who rode in on a donkey. Any other fulfillment must be a pale shadow compared to Him.
Christ the King comes in the Name of the Lord, that is, the Name Yahweh. The Angel of the Lord who spoke from the burning bush identified Himself with this Name. “I am that I am,” He said to Moses. This is the Name Yahweh. Christ is one with the Father and the Spirit. Christ is Yahweh the eternal God who keeps His covenant promises with Israel. He comes in His own Name, the Name of the Lord.
What did He come to do? The Psalm goes on to say, “Bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” Christ came in the Name of God to be the sacrifice for sin, slaughtered upon God’s altar of judgment for the sins of the world.
Did the crowd realize all this? Not all of them, surely. But it does not matter. The words they spoke or sang are God’s words. God’s Spirit gave them the right things to say. So their praise song again contained words calling for God’s salvation upon sinful humanity by sending the right One to be the sacrifice. This is not modern praise music, but true praise music.
Thirdly, the crowds said, “Hosanna in the highest!” I already talked about the meaning of Hosanna. Here the crowds called for salvation from the highest heaven, seeing redemption as heaven’s design, not man’s. The One who was coming was fulfilling the divine plan to bring atonement to earth.
We confess the same thing in the liturgy of the Sacrament. During the Supper, the Body and Blood are here, on the Altar. We anticipate and desire His coming to comfort and strengthen and (especially!) forgive. So we sing to Him, “Hosanna in the highest!” We need His help in this valley of the shadow of death. “Save, O Lord!” we cry, and He answers by coming to help us.
As the crowds anticipated His arrival, we anticipate His coming by singing the highest praise we can: “Save us weak sinners, Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Instead of having our praise flow from our heart’s creativity, we let it flow from our deep need as sinners, and from our Lord’s graciousness. We call upon Him who has promised to come, so we are praising His faithfulness in keeping His promise. “Do this,” He says of His meal. We do it, and He gives His Body and Blood, as promised. His faithfulness is the completion of His promises of mercy.
But our heart’s creativity would try to point to how loving our heart is. “I love You so much, Jesus!” That should be true. We should love Him with all our heart and mind and soul. But pointing to how much we love is not praise to God, but praise for our heart. Instead we should point to our need. We should point to His mercy. We might say, “I love You so much Jesus BECAUSE You gave Yourself for me, a poor, helpless sinner.”
That is the kind of praise music the crowd sang for our Savior as He entered Jerusalem. They sang before Him, but we sing after Him. He has already come for us, yet we sing His praise for what He has done, and what He is yet to do.
In Advent, we discipline ourselves in this feeling of anticipation and desire. Christ is yet to return, and we earnestly want Him to. Christ also returns often in Word and Sacrament, so we eagerly anticipate His arrival in His house.
In the same way the Old Testament people anticipated and desired His coming. The fulfillment of their desire was the Babe of Bethlehem. They had to wait, as we also wait. The Lord will come in His time, which is not our time. So we learn to wait.
God keep us patient as we await His coming, and keep His true praise upon our lips. Amen.
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