Zechariah 9:9-10, John 12:12-19
March 28, 2010 – Palm Sunday
We’re winding down the season of Lent, and we’re moving into Holy Week. And this is the week that changed the course of history. Think about it. Looking back on this week, which begins with this event we call Palm Sunday, the people of the western world started their calendar all over again. This is now The Year of Our Lord 2010. (And notice, it’s not “The year of the Lord” or “The Year Since our Lord!”)
During Lent, we’ve been looking at the historical Jesus.” And I hope we’ve discovered – or rediscovered – a vision of Jesus that, at the very least, makes us think. Because I believe there are parts of the personality and ministry of Jesus that have been “institutionalized” over the years, and have made “more comfortable.” I hope I’ve made you to think of Jesus in a way that’s more “realistic,” and perhaps more challenging. And I hope I’ve done the same with these stories. They too have become so familiar and comfortable to us that they’ve lost much of their power. I hope they’ve served to “shake us up” a little these past weeks, as they did the people who were in them.
As we look at the story of Palm Sunday, leave it to John to do two things. First, he tends in his Gospel to “fill out” more of the story. He gives us aspects of the event that none of the others do. And he gives us more of the dialogue and emotions of the people involved. I hope you’ll take time this week to read the accounts of Holy Week from his perspective. They are really quite “eye opening!”
Let me start by saying that, for John, the real drama of Palm Sunday actually begins back in Chapter 11, with the Raising of Lazarus. John saw that event as a huge occurrence in the ministry of Jesus. And he saw it as a major impetus for the events of Palm Sunday. And why the other gospels don’t even mention it is one of the biggest mysteries of the bible to me!
I’d like to take you quickly through the sequence of events leading up this day so you can see John’s perspective. And, I think that may help us even more in our quest for the historical Jesus. Let me begin by telling you that one of the things we’re going to see is that Jerusalem and the surrounding area had became more and more dangerous for Jesus and his followers!
As chapter 11 opens, we’re told Lazarus was ill. I hope you remember that story. Jesus delayed going to him, because we know he was going to do more than just heal his illness! When it was finally time to go, his disciples said, “Rabbi, the Jews are seeking to stone you! And you’re want to go back there?” After a little discussion, Jesus shows there’s no stopping him. So, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him!” Those are bold words, aren’t they! But they’re not so bold to us, the readers, because we know what was going to happen!
As chapter 11 ends, we find some very important dialogue among “the Jews.” And remember, that’s how John often referred to the Jewish leadership. At this point, they were told about this amazing miracle, and listen to their reaction. “What are we to do?” they said. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him.” And of course, part of their worry had to do with the rest of that sentence. “and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Do you see their fear? And it was real! They were very fearful of what would happen if things went the way they were going. They were fearful that it would lead to rebellion! And the Romans were very brutal when it came to rebellion! So Caiaphas the High Priest makes this profound (and prophetic!) statement, “Do you not see that it is expedient that one man should die for the sake of the nation?!”
Then, just before chapter 12 begins, John tells us about the people coming to Jerusalem for the Passover. This was an annual pilgrimage for many, and the city was crowded! It was the duty of every Jew to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime. But many came every year! And this year, the word was going around about Jesus. They were saying to one another, “Do you think he will come?” Because they had heard that the religious leaders were going to have him arrested.
As dangerous as it was, Jesus came for the Passover, anyway. And we read this. “When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came.” They heard Jesus was going to be in Jerusalem after all, so even more of them came! And then John tells us something very specific. He says, “They came, not only on account of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” The crowds were bigger that year because of Jesus, but now because of Lazarus, too. To John, that was an important part of the story of Palm Sunday. And then he tells us this. “So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also!”
These people were serious! They were scared by what was happening, and they were prepared to take extreme measures. And remember, they were the law. They had the right to guard the faith, even with extreme measures! The only problem they had was that this Jesus was very popular. And it’s hard to take out someone who’s popular! Ultimately, they didn’t want themselves to be seen as the ones who did away with Jesus. So they were in a very tricky position!
Well, all of that sets up this story for today. The people were there. They were there because as many of them always were. They were there because they heard Jesus was going to be there. And they were there because they heard he had done this powerful miracle. And as he came into the city, they met him, and they did these things we read about and celebrate today. They waved the palms, and started shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel.” Jesus was not only fulfilling the words of Zechariah, but he was also entering the city a king!
Remember, the story of Judas Maccabees. He was the one who led the revolt a couple of hundred years earlier that freed Israel from the Assyrians. And when he entered the city in triumph the people greeted him the same way, with the same words! And the people knew that story! They knew it. The religious leaders knew it, and I daresay the Romans knew it, too. The fear these “Jews” had about rebellion was very real! They knew what the people were saying. They knew they expected the same thing from this Jesus. And watching this scene unfold, they said to one another, “You see that you can do nothing! Look, the whole world has gone after him!” As wonderful as the people thought of this event, they who saw its implications were that much more upset!
Many of the people there saw Jesus as king. And all of the Gospel writers make that clear. And because of that, so much of what happened during Holy Week came down to the tension between the people wanting an earthly king, and Jesus’ claim to be a spiritual king! They wanted their Messiah to free them from the Romans. But Jesus was offering them freedom from their sins! And when they didn’t get what they wanted from him, their cries of “Hosanna” would soon turn to shouts of “Crucify him!” This would all become very serious, very quickly!
Now, that does that put a damper on this celebration today? Does thinking about the end of this week make it hard to remember the joy of this event? I hope not. I hope we can keep that sense of celebration even as we see the larger context. Because the even bigger picture of this is that Holy Week was the great turning point in history. And this is the proper way to start it! Because as it turns out, Jesus was a king. In fact, he was more than a King. And if he only did what the people expected that day, he would have just been a page in a history book. And you would have remembered him only as much as remembered Judas Maccabees! (And how many of you did?)
Instead, Jesus had a greater influence on the history of this planet than anyone ever had! And no one else even comes close! No, he didn’t free the people from the Romans that day, but instead, he would eventually “conquer” the Roman Empire. He became the central figure in what would come to be known as “The Holy Roman Empire.” And his Church would have the greatest influence over the most people ever in history. So from that standpoint alone, this is a totally appropriate parade!
Then, when we think about the spiritual implications of this, it’s even more so. Two thousand and ten plus years ago God himself came to this earth and became one like us. He attracted huge crowds. He made people think about the kingdom. And they flocked to him. And I wonder if some of them even knew why. And the spiritual deliverance he brought was such that it changed all history. From that standpoint alone, this celebration is fitting!
Because of all that, this all comes down to you and me! We’re part of the larger context of Palm Sunday. Otherwise this whole celebration and the whole history of this thing called the Church is just academic. Unless we see our part in all of this, it’s all just “history.” And there’s nothing wrong with history. I happen to like it. But history doesn’t change people’s lives. This is where our Jewish brothers and sisters really get this right. They put themselves into their history. They say the story of their faith is about them, not just those who came before them. And the more I think of this story, it’s the same thing. This is not just a matter of “learning about” something. It’s a matter of knowing we are part of it. Like the God who brought it all about, it’s not a matter of learning about him. It’s about knowing him! The history of this, which we’ve heard today, only serves to make knowing God more real. Or else we’ve just had a wonderful history lesson!
So I ask you today to put yourself into this. Think about these stories during Holy Week. Read John’s account of them. And if you need more reading material, read Matthew, and Mark, and Luke. But as you think about all of this, do so preparing your hearts for the celebration to come! These events changed the course of history. Let them change the course of yours!
Lord Jesus, we bless you, for you are the king. Help us to know you more, draw closer to you this Holy Week and beyond. Help us to know the glory and joy and abundance of your kingdom. For this we pray in your holy and blessed name, Amen.