Written by Pastor Ed
Me & You & an Alternative View
March 25, 2018 Palm Sunday, Lent 6
Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
John 12: 12-16
While going through some of my files I ran across an exam I had to write when I graduated from seminary. It was a page of 12 questions, written by Clarence Bauman, of which I could choose five to write on in a three hour session. I was reminded of one of the questions that I didn’t write on, which read simply, “Who was Jesus and why did he die?” A simple question, but certainly not a simple one to answer, at least not in seminary!
John’s gospel, unlike the synoptics’, presents a rather clear connection between the raising of Lazarus, recorded in John 11, with the plot to kill Jesus. In fact, John notes that the chief priests, the protagonists in John, also planned to kill Lazarus as well, “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:11) It seems that crowds were gathering wherever Jesus showed up, and that was raising alarms among the religious leaders.
But it wasn’t just the crowds. It was also what the crowds seemed to be agitating for, and this isn’t the first time that we read about this in John. Following the feeding of the five thousand in John 6, the crowds began to think that maybe this was the prophet who is to come into the world. But, John records, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:15)
While it is not as explicit in John 12, the inference is clearly the same. Jesus has just performed another great sign, the raising of Lazarus, the crowds are gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, and they hear that Jesus is coming. Perhaps now was the time that this great man would fulfill their longed for dream of a Messiah who would overthrow the dreaded Romans. They had heard that the chief priests were looking for Jesus and Lazarus too. Jesus showing up seemed like the perfect challenge to the authorities.
And so the crowds arm themselves with palm branches, something clearly associated in Maccabees and elsewhere with military victories, and shouting phrases from Psalm 118, a victory song. “Hosanna” “Save us, O Lord!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The militaristic overtones are clear and the people are ready once again to crown Jesus king and proclaim a victory. After all, if Jesus could raise someone from the dead, surely he could work some kind of miracle to take over and rule the nation once again.
At the very least, Jesus can continue to wow the crowds with miracles and fulfill any desires they might have. But Jesus will have no part of it. In the earlier episode, he withdrew into the hills to get away from the crowd. This time that wasn’t an option, and so he tried in another way to quash their expectations, he found a young donkey according to John, and rode into town on the lowliest of beasts. I wonder if the crowds caught on, and perhaps fell silent as Jesus passed by? Clearly, John says, the disciples didn’t understand until later when they reflected back on these events.
And it was after this, as we noted last week, that Jesus begins to speak most clearly of his coming death, certainly not what the crowds were wanting to hear. And again, I wonder, what do we understand from this account? Probably in most churches this morning there will be some kind of procession waving palm branches and singing Hosanna. But are we simply joining in with the crowds hoping that Jesus will be the kind of king we want him to be?
As one commentator said, “This crowd is not the only one to lay their expectations on Jesus. We are happy to wave palms and sing his praises as long as Jesus is our kind of king.” I am frankly amazed and appalled at those who claim that Jesus would only put conservative, white men in power, bar immigrants from any help, threaten military solutions to the world’s problems, and overlook racial and sexual violence. I am afraid that far too many Christians would be standing in the crowd as Jesus rode into Jerusalem with the same kind of expectations as that first crowd did, and when they discovered that Jesus was not about to fulfill those expectations, would have joined the crowd a few days later shouting, “Crucify him!”
John, writing to first century Christians, was clearly pointing out that the Jesus he followed was the one who called people to lay down their lives for others, just as Jesus did. That the Jesus he followed was not a person who lorded it over other, boasting of how great he was, but rather the one who stooped and washed his disciple’s feet and spoke of being a servant of all. John makes clear that the followers of Jesus will not be the most popular people. “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18)
How easy it is to remake Jesus into our image and put our own expectations on Jesus and be confident that Jesus will fulfill our wishes, rather than recognizing what Jesus is actually calling us to be and do. You can theologize about Jesus’ death all you want, but one of the reasons that Jesus died was simply that he failed to fulfill the people’s expectations. When he refused to become their king, as they wanted him to be king, they turned on him and went looking for someone else who was willing to be their hero.
The uncomfortable truth is that the followers of Jesus have done the same thing over and over again throughout the centuries. And one wonders what expectations or understandings of Jesus we now hold that future Christians will look back on and say, “How could they have believed that?” Whenever we make Jesus our national hero or decide that Jesus really didn’t mean what he said but rather would endorse what we believe, then we are joining the crowds on that first Palm Sunday.
Today we enter Holy Week, a week to remember Christ’s death. But for many Christians, remembering Christ’s death is only a personal thing, “Christ died for me.” And that’s true. But John reminds us that Christ died for the world, the cosmos. And Jesus talked about drawing all people to himself. The crowd John sees in his vision of heaven is of people from every tribe and language.
For many Christians, remembering Christ’s death is only about Jesus doing something that only Jesus, as God’s son, could do. And that’s true. But the gospels remind us that Jesus called his followers to also take up their cross and follow. That the way of love is an example for each of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus. That just as Jesus was obedient, even onto death, so we are called to obedience to the teachings of Jesus, and that can be dangerous.
Karoline Lewis says it best in her column for this week.”This is the homiletical key for Holy Week — that this week might actually matter beyond an historical marker. Beyond an anticipated and necessary and yet extraordinary death. Beyond any kind of theological warrant. We go through this week, preaching, living, teaching, being fully aware of the ways in which the Christian faith cannot be reduced to a rather benign and ritualistic belief. Oh no. Holy Week is not procedural but the evidence of power that topples empire. Not status quo but the demonstration of social insurrection. Not rote resistance but the call to habitual revolution and reformation.”
Holy Week calls us, not to join the crowd shouting “Hosanna,” but rather to follow the one who comes riding on a lowly donkey and who speaks of serving others and who willingly gives up his life in order for other to live. That’s the kind of king we worship and whose name we proclaim.