Behold, Your King is Coming – April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday
Zechariah 9:9-10, John 12:1-19
April 5, 20-20
I was in a bit of a quandary this past week. Your Session voted that we delay the celebration of Easter this year. They went with the idea that we wait until after the coronavirus crisis is over and we’re able to worship together again, and then celebrate Easter. And I think that’s a good idea! So, my problem is, what do I preach about in the meantime?
You see, today is Palm Sunday. This is the beginning of Holy Week. Next week is Easter Sunday. And yet, who knew what was going to happen this year! And now we’re not going to celebrate Easter till later. And we’re not sure how much later. So, do you see my quandary? What do I preach about until then?
Here’s what I was thinking. We do Palm Sunday this week. Because, whether we actually “do the Palm Sunday things today or not,” it’s still an important event. It’s still the start of Holy Week. And it’s what happened immediately after the story we talked about last week. You’ll see that in just a bit. So next week, I’ll mention Easter, and maybe talk about it a little. But I think I’ll wait on doing an actual “Easter Message” until we’re all together for that celebration.
So, after thinking about different scenarios, I thought the best thing to do, in the time we’re waiting, is to focus on the stories of Holy Week. It was actually a very eventful week between Palm Sunday and Easter, and we rarely get to talk about very much of it. Because we usually end up talking about the parts of the week that happened on the days of that week we meet for worship – Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then of course Easter. But what about the rest of the week? What was happening with Jesus in between the time he entered Jerusalem, and when he was arrested and crucified?
So that’s what I’m going to have us look at in the coming weeks. That’s the plan for however long we will have between now and the time we’ll celebrate Easter together! Maybe we can think of this as an “extended Holy Week.” And we’ll see where that takes us.
So here we are, then. This is Palm Sunday. This is the day we celebrate what has been called Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” That’s what it says in our Bibles in the heading at the top of the page. And much has been said about what happened that day, and what it all meant.
Up until now, the crowds who came to see and hear Jesus had grown larger and larger. And not only had the crowds grown, but so had the hope Jesus was giving them – hope that he possibly was the Messiah, and, as the one traveler said on the road to Emmaus, “Hope that he was the one who would redeem Israel.” That’s what they th0uoght. And they were excited about it!
Where we picked up our reading for today, Jesus had come back to Bethany, to the home of Mary, and Martha, and their now resurrected brother, Lazarus. Remember that story? That’s what happened right before this. And when the people – the crowds – heard he was in Bethany, they came out to see him. And this is where John’s perspective makes this story even more intense. As I said last week, John always gives us a different perspective. He gives us more of the dialogue, more of the emotions, and more of the story. And the “more of the story” he gives us, in this case, is Lazarus. John tells us “When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came, not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.”
As I said last week, the story of Lazarus was a turning point in the story of Jesus. It was the “last straw” for those who opposed him. His claims to be Messiah, even the Son of God, were all coming to a head. Already his popularity with the people was becoming too overwhelming, too scary, and too dangerous in the eyes of the religious leadership. But now, between the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, and the raising of Lazarus, it had become too much.
John tells us just right before this passage, that they had already determined that Jesus had to go. Now they decided that Lazarus had to go, too! As we just read, when the “great crowd of the Jews” came out to Bethany, they came, not just to see Jesus but also to see Lazarus. And here’s the next verse. “So, the chief priests planned to put Lazarus also to death, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” Do you see how Lazarus was at the center of this whole event? Again, I don’t know how the other Gospel writers don’t even mention him. But let’s not worry about that for now. Let’s focus on what happened next.
Because next we have this, the “Triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” We have this procession, this mass of people moving together into the city. And that’s the image I get here. We all have our mental images of these stories. Mine has changed a little over the years. I used to see this as being like a parade. Jesus coming down the road with his disciples, with the people – the spectators – lining the sides of the road, shouting their Hosanna and waving the palms. But lately, I’ve been getting a different picture. I’ve been seeing this as a huge mob, because there were huge mobs around Jesus! And this mob was moving together as a big wave of people approaching Jerusalem, with Jesus in the center on the donkey, with palms waiving all around him and people shouting. And I think that’s a more dramatic scene. And it’s an even more disturbing scene, for those who were worried about this Jesus – worried about what he was doing to the people and to the nation! They were worried because, that day, the crowd was ready to make him their king!
That’s what we have here. I see this as being like a Superbowl parade in its excitement. But even more than that, I see it being like the end of the big game where the hero is lifted up and carried on the shoulders of the crowd as they move as a big mob together. That’s the excitement of this day. That’s what I picture. And at the same time, I see a look of shock and horror on the faces of the Priests and the Pharisees, and they’re saying to one another, “This has to end! We have to do something about this guy!” I don’t think they were very far away, as they watched this scene unfold. And I think maybe people could hear them. Because John tells us what they said. They said these despairing words. “You see that we can do nothing! Look, the world has gone after him.”
I hope you see this as the dramatic scene that it was! And remember, to their credit, those priests were not worrying about nothing. Because, don’t forget the Romans! Make sure you put them in your mental image of this. I’m sure they were there that day, too, watching all of this! It’s easy to get caught up in all the “Jesus and the people” part of this, and forget them. But the Romans were there! And of course, they would play a huge part in this as the week went on. And the fear that the religious leaders had about them was very real! If we go back to chapter 11, John lays that out for us. After the raising of Lazarus, they gathered the religious council, the Sanhedrin. And in that council, they said, “What are we to do? If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
That was a very real fear for them! Sure, they didn’t like the threat Jesus posed to their way of life, or to their religious tradition, either. But they also feared for their nation! And that was a very real fear! And it was so real, that the high priest, Caiaphas – a name that would figure prominently in the trial of Jesus – said to the council something that John saw as an “unwitting prophecy.” Caiaphas said, “Do you know nothing at all? You do not understand that it is expedient that one man should die for the people, that the whole nation should not perish.” If you think about it, that was what was at stake that day. And whether Caiaphas meant it or not, Jesus would die for the sake of the people!
So, this event was a watershed moment for the whole life and ministry of Jesus. I would say that this Palm Sunday event meant everything to the people who were there that day! To the people in the crowd, this was their king. To the Pharisees this was their downfall. To the Romans, well, they were standing by sharpening their swords…
So, we have to ask then, what is it to us? Is it everything to us? Does it help us to focus in on who Jesus was and is? Does it put us into his story? Or are we just observers? Are we just the “readers,” people who, yes, have the best perspective, but who still think this is “just a nice story?” Is that us? Are we just onlookers? Or are we participants?
I want to close by asking what I often ask on Palm Sunday. With all we’ve been talking about her, with the mental imagery of this dramatic scene in our minds, with this watershed moment laid out before us, who is this Jesus to you? He was being hailed as King that day. But is he just a king? Or is Jesus your king? That’s what makes all the difference. That’s what makes this important in our lives. Otherwise this is just a nice story!
There are many things around us today, many voices in our world that would discourage us from following him as our king, maybe even make us fearful. Do we listen? Do we heed those voices and draw back from Jesus? Do we stand on the sidelines and just watch this scene? Or are we part of it, waving our palms, and shouting “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
Eternal God, help us to think of this story for today, and to know that Jesus truly is our King. Help us to think about our allegiance to him. Help us to have the courage and the grace to follow him, and to rejoice in his kingdom in our midst. For we pray in his name, Amen!