March 24, 2024


John 12:12-16

I've been involved in several parades in my life. I remember my very first parade in the 1960's. It was a Halloween parade, and I was dressed as Huck Finn. I wore a straw hat, fishing pole, corncob pipe, and overalls. Truthfully, I had no idea who I was supposed to be, and I remember seeing at least one kid in a Batman outfit and wishing I were him. The costume idea was more my mom's, and I watched the Batman TV show every week. Despite that, the parade was a lot of fun. I remember waving at the crowds, the band playing with a baton twirler in front, and the pageantry of it all. That first parade was one I'll never forget.

Is that what this procession by Jesus and his followers was, a parade? Or was it something entirely different? For the few of you who have been following the lecture series of John Dominic Crossan, he believes this procession is not a parade but rather a protest during a particularly volatile time in Jerusalem- the festival of Passover. Jerusalem swelled in population from 40,000 to well over 200,000 during Passover. This celebration of liberation from Egypt was a reminder for the people of God they were once again oppressed and longed for freedom from Roman rule. There had been a riot in 5 B.C., the beginning of a rebellion against Roman rule that had to be put down with massive force- thousands of protesters were crucified. There were also several nonviolent Passover protests by the Jewish people- Sit down protests in 4 B.C., 6 A.D., and 26 A.D.

Why did Jesus go to Jerusalem at such a heightened time? Crossan believes Jesus' followers implored him to go to Jerusalem during this huge festival to make a statement against Roman rule and temple collaboration with an oppressor. I think Jesus wanted to go to the center of worship, may have known his fate already, and sought to confront the temple leaders and Roman power and proclaim a kindom unlike any other. Let's dive into this morning's passage to find out more.

Chapter twelve begins with Jesus traveling before Passover to Bethany and the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He travels to be with his friends before confronting the day's powers. During the meal, Jesus is anointed with perfume worth a year's wages for burial. Perhaps Mary was saving it for Lazarus (Whom Jesus had raised earlier from the dead), and she didn't need it for her brother anymore. So she saved it and saw an opportunity to foreshadow what would soon happen at Golgotha. Mary and Martha were part of the crowd of disciples following Jesus. Women were rarely mentioned but were present in the background. They must have heard about his predictions of suffering and death. Perhaps this was Mary's way of honoring her Rabbi and friend before such things occurred.

Just before this morning's passage, we read that the great crowds wanted to see Jesus and possibly Lazarus arriving at the home in Bethany. The great crowd then learns of Jesus' plan to go to Jerusalem the next day. Word spreads to the Passover crowds that Jesus is on his way, and they gather to wait at the city's North gate near the Mount of Olives.

Jesus' entry is a fulfillment of a coming Messiah, as mentioned by the later prophet Zechariah. Zechariah 9:9 states, "Lo, your King comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on the colt of a donkey."

 So begins Jesus' Peasant demonstration: A humble procession featuring the Messiah riding a young donkey, accompanied by fellow peasants coming from the north into Jerusalem. Unlike the other accounts, Jesus finds his own young donkey to ride. He wants to make a statement about who the Messiah is and is not. He does not enter the city on a warhorse. This animal symbolizes humility and peace. The fact he is on a level with the people on this young donkey suggests he is WITH the crowd, not ABOVE them.

I'm sure you are dying to ask, but what about Peter? I thought the whole Lenten focus was on him. You are correct in pondering such a question. However, in all the Palm Sunday stories, none of the four accounts of this story are any disciples named. We can only imagine what Peter may have done as they got ready to go into the city's north gate. I imagine Peter at the front, prepared to lead the procession. As Jesus secures the young donkey, he approaches Peter and says, "Get thee behind me, Peter," with a wink. But, truthfully, we do not know what he or the other disciples did as the procession began.

The gathered crowds now waved palm branches, symbolizing hope and liberation.

They then shout out Psalm 118:26. "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!" Some believe this Psalm was said in the temple every morning and used as people entered the temple during the festival of Passover. The "Hosanna" cheer comes from verses 25 and 26, and verse 27 refers to having branches in hand as one joins in the procession of the one who comes to save. However, notice that our crowd adds one important addition when they praise Jesus: they call him the "King of Israel."

This title threatened Herod Antipas, one of three sons of Herod the Great and a "wanna-be" puppet King of the Jewish people. If the Pharisees had to toe the line with Herod Antipas, who had to toe the line with Rome, this was a problem. Jesus being proclaimed as king threatened this fragile relationship.

Rome was concerned that perhaps a leader of a new movement was coming into Jerusalem during this difficult festival time. The last thing they wanted was trouble. This is why a very different demonstration came from the city's western gate. It represented a different king and kingdom.

The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, entered Jerusalem but was not alone. Pilate, residing primarily in Caesarea by the sea, made an annual show of force during Passover. His parade showcased Roman imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. The sound of marching feet, creaking leather, and beating drums struck fear into onlookers. Pilate aimed to deter any uprising against Roman rule during Passover. Crossan emphasizes that Pilate's procession displayed imperial power and Roman imperial theology. It reminded everyone that Caesar Augustus was not just the emperor of Rome but also the Son of God. There were two demonstrations- one of peace and power, one kindom establishing justice, the other demonstrating power through war, death, and assimilation. Two kings., two kingdoms, and radically different visions for the world collided that day.

As we draw to a close, I want to focus on the expectations of three groups. First, let us consider the crowds shouting "Hosanna." They who gathered had tried making him king back when he fed thousands near Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee. The crowd became enthused and said, "This is THE prophet who is come into the world." John 6:14. They wanted to make him their Messiah right then, but Jesus withdrew. The crowd wanted to make Jesus their kind of king, and he wanted no part of it.

The Passover crowd gathered had a similar notion- to crown Jesus as the conquering Messiah, who would break the rod of the oppressor and free God's people from Roman rule. The crowd wants to anoint their leader, and they are spoiling for a fight. They wanted and expected a revolutionary to overthrow the status quo. Yet Jesus had no intention of being that kind of Messiah.

Theologian Lindsay S. Jodrey writes, "In light of Jesus' death, it becomes clear that this "King of the Jews" was not riding into Jerusalem to secure the geo-political power of the monarchy for Israel. Rather, Jesus came to speak truth to power in both the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious establishment. He also told his own followers the hard truth that "those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:25).

What are the expectations of the disciples at this moment? According to John's gospel, they are confused. "They did not understand these things at first." (John 12:15). Perhaps they still wondered if Jesus would see the power behind the crowds and seize the moment, rule in power with the disciples at his side. A noble steed would have been a better choice if that were true. It was all so confusing. Only in hindsight did it all make sense. It was only by witnessing the Messiah's suffering and death that the correct perspective of this day made sense.

What about us? What are our expectations of the Messiah as we sing hymns, say hosanna, and wave palm branches? We do well to pause and reflect on what kind of Messiah we expect. My guess is that you have experienced more than a few Palm Sundays. You've sung the triumphal entry hymns, waved the palm branches, and shouted Hosanna many times before. As we approach the events of Holy Week once again, what are your expectations of Jesus? I'll pause, and you can consider what kind of Messiah you want. What kind of King do you expect in your life?

He won't embrace our political agendas. He won't rule with a brutal dictator's force or bow to the worship of a nation. He offers to teach us how to love God and our neighbor, work for justice, bestow mercy, and make a difference in the world.

Again, Theologian Jodrey says Jesus is our suffering Messiah, "taking on his own suffering for the good of the world, which is offered as a pattern for discipleship. Like the grain of wheat that dies in order to bear much fruit, those who follow Jesus are asked to consider how our own sacrifices might be for the greater good." May the Messiah we are called to follow give us the courage to be his followers: To pick up our crosses, to bear fruit through works of compassion, and to be willing to sacrifice our comforts so that we might ease the suffering around us. Amen.