Scripture Reading: John 12:1-36
Today being Palm Sunday, this is the day we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It’s also the beginning of Holy Week and the road to the Cross. And as we listen again today to the crowds shouting “Hosanna!” and see them throwing palm branches on Jesus’ path, it’s hard to believe many of these same people, five days from now, will be shouting “crucify him!”
So how did this crowd get from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!” in five short days?
In a big-picture sense, it’s because it is entirely possible to follow Jesus, to be excited about Jesus, to talk about Jesus, and even to quote prophecy, and still not be hearing what God is saying.
Let me give you an example from our own time, to help set up the story. There’s a church – not a Protestant church but a church – that started about 150 years ago, that teaches only 144,000 people are going to reign with Jesus in the next life. This belief comes from the Book of Revelation, where it says, “with [the Lamb] were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (Revelation 14:1)
The prophecy is true. But the interpretation is in error, because it fails to take into account other Bible verses that say things like “the righteous shall live by faith” and “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The Bible sometimes calls this kind of mistake a ‘lack of faith’ and sometimes a ‘worldly point of view’. The Bible doesn’t say this kind of mistake will keep a person out of heaven – God can forgive all kinds of sins – but the mistake needs to be corrected at some point. And the correction can be painful – both for God and for the people who made the mistake.
We see a similar kind of mis-interpretation of scripture in the story of Palm Sunday. There’s a disconnect between how the crowds understand the events that are unfolding, and what God is trying to accomplish. There’s a worldly point of view, and a heavenly point of view. And these two viewpoints are on a collision course… with Jesus right in the center.
So I want to try to describe these two viewpoints, to help us to see and experience what the people saw and felt on that first Palm Sunday.
The worldly viewpoint is the easier of the two to understand, because we’re human. From the point of view of the crowds, excitement has been building around Jesus for the past few years. It started in Galilee when Jesus changed the water into wine at a wedding, and grew a little later when he feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fish, and at the same time Jesus started teaching in the synagogues, and he was so much better than all the other teachers. The people loved him, and Jesus’ following kept getting bigger and bigger. Jesus was a hero of the people.
And then in the last few weeks leading up to Palm Sunday, Jesus restored the sight of a man born blind. Nobody had ever done a thing like that before! And then he brought Lazarus back to life. These were clear signs of the Messiah: this was exactly what the prophets of old said the Messiah would do.
People started to whisper to each other: “Can he be…?” “He must be…” but they were afraid to finish the sentence out loud because the Pharisees said anyone who said Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. And partly because they could scarcely believe it: the Messiah had actually come in their own time? Was it possible? But Jesus was fulfilling every prophecy about the Messiah. He had to be the one.
And up to that point the crowds were right. They were reading the prophecies correctly and interpreting correctly.
Where the crowds went wrong was in how they interpreted the nature of God’s kingdom. Jesus once commented to Pilate “my kingdom is not of this world” – and that’s the part of the prophecy the crowds missed. The Messiah’s kingdom comes from God, not from earth.
For example, if we wanted to make Jesus president, in order to make him president we would have to make Jesus lower than he is. But the worldly point of view doesn’t see that; the worldly point of view says “We need to make Jesus king. Of Israel. Right now.”
And this is not the first time the crowds have made that mistake. Back in John chapter six, after Jesus fed the five thousand, they wanted to make him king right then, but Jesus refused and slipped away.
In today’s reading, though, Jesus does not slip away. He knows the crowd’s desire to make him king will advance God’s plans, so Jesus takes the lead in organizing the event. As the excitement builds around him, huge crowds come out to Bethany to see Jesus and to see Lazarus. And as Jesus climbs onto a donkey and heads toward Jerusalem, the crowds go ahead of him, laying palm branches, and cheering and saying “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel”.
The crowd is bearing witness to Jesus all over the city – spreading the story of what Jesus has done … and the whole city of Jerusalem is coming out to see who this is. There has not been such a feeling of hope and promise and joy in Jerusalem for hundreds of years. The people are convinced that finally the Romans will be put in their place and everything is going to be set right.
This worldly point of view is so close to the truth, and yet so far. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the rightful king. Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for. But the kingdom of God is so much bigger than Roman-occupied Israel. The worldly point of view is too narrow to understand what Jesus is doing. It lacks vision; it lacks God’s input; and it’s on a collision course with the heavenly point of view.
(I should mention briefly there is a third point of view in play, which we could call the completely faithless point of view. This is where the chief priests and Pharisees fit in. The chief priests and Pharisees know that Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies. At some level, though they won’t admit it, they know Jesus is who he says he is. But if Jesus is the Messiah, then all of them are out of jobs… and they’re not going to let that happen. So they decide Jesus needs to be done away with, before all these people start believing in him.)
So the worldly point of view is often rooted in honest misinterpretation. The faithless point of view is rooted in out-and-out rebellion against God.
By contrast to both, the heavenly point of view is what Jesus sees. Trying to see this story through Jesus’ eyes is not easy for us everyday people, but as his friends we owe it to him to at least try to understand where he’s coming from.
So let’s look at the story again through Jesus’ eyes. As we begin today’s scripture, Jesus arrives in Bethany to visit his friends Lazarus and Martha and Mary. Jesus knows he only has a few more days left to live, and he has come to spend one of his last days with people who love him.
And Lazarus hosts a dinner for Jesus. In our day, the tradition of hosting a dinner for a friend has almost become a thing of the past. People don’t entertain like they used to, with fancy dishes and the real silverware. But somewhere in our memories we can remember what it was like to gather for a dinner not just with family but with an honored guest and maybe three or four families packed into the dining room – all who knew each other and enjoyed each other’s company.
This would have been a dinner like that. Lazarus reclined at table next to Jesus. Martha served up the food. And then Mary came in at one point to say ‘thank you’ to Jesus for giving them their brother back. She breaks open an expensive bottle of perfume – they say it was worth about a years’ wages – and she pours it over Jesus’ feet and then wipes his feet with her hair.
As she does this, Jesus feels a feeling of relaxation and peace and well-being. The perfume is made out of nard, which is famous (even today) for its ability to soothe and relax the emotions. It was also very strong-smelling and the smell filled the house, and that relaxed feeling was shared among everyone present…
…everyone, that is, except Judas, who is upset and says the perfume should have been sold and money given to the poor. (John tells us Judas would have liked to have had some of that cash for himself.) But Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone, because what she’s doing is in preparation for his burial.
Did Mary know this? Did she know she was anointing Jesus for burial? Bible experts disagree; but in the translation of this verse that is closest to the Greek, Jesus says “against the day of my burying hath she kept this [perfume].” It’s an old English way of saying Mary anticipated the need.
And then Jesus says something that has been badly misinterpreted through the centuries: “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” These words have been used as an excuse for not serving the poor, or as an excuse for giving to the church while people outside the church go hungry, or worse. This is NOT what Jesus meant. He meant, as one commentator put it:
“There will always be opportunity to give to the poor. There will not always be opportunities to care for those you love who are close to their deaths. Pay attention to the things that are important.”
That’s what Jesus is getting at.
(Side Note: It’s interesting, three of the four gospel writers show a connection between Judas’ decision to betray Jesus, and this smelly perfume moment at Lazarus’ house. Was it Mary’s generosity that got to Judas? Or was it Jesus’ defense of her? Or was it the loss of money that sent Judas running to the chief priests? I don’t think we’ll ever know… but I do think it’s important to realize: the kind of love and passionate, open-hearted generosity that Mary showed to Jesus often provokes reactions from others that bring to light the secrets of their hearts. It certainly did that night.)
So back to our story. This last banquet with friends is a time of joy and love and relaxation for Jesus – not that he’s forgetting his mission, not at all – he’s appreciating and enjoying the people who he has come to earth to save.
The next day, Jesus needs to start setting in motion the events that will lead to his crucifixion. He needs to fulfill prophecy by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. So he sets out from Bethany and walks to Bethphage with the disciples. He finds a donkey, and a crowd starts to find him, and together they go a little further to the top of the Mount of Olives.
As the crowd reaches the Mount of Olives, Luke says in his gospel “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” [But as Jesus] “came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:37-42 edited)
Again, we see this juxtaposition between the worldly viewpoint – focused on Jesus’ power – and heaven’s viewpoint, which grieves over a lost city. While the crowd rejoices, Jesus weeps.
Jesus then rides down the Mount of Olives, through Gethsemane, across the Kidron Valley, and up the Temple Mount to the temple in Jerusalem.
Shortly after Jesus arrives at the temple, the disciples come to him saying there are some Greeks looking for him who want to see him… and Jesus recognizes yet one more sign that his time has come. His death and resurrection will open the door for all people of the earth, including the Gentiles, to be God’s chosen people. The prophets predicted the Messiah would be a “light to the Gentiles” – and now this is coming true. So Jesus replies, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
He goes on to explain to the disciples that if he does not die, then God’s plan will not be fulfilled. Think about it: if Jesus does not die on the cross – if he allows the people to make him king right then and there – his worldly kingdom might last for his lifetime, but then he would grow old and die and history would eventually forget that there was ever a King Jesus.
But if Jesus dies on the cross, he steps out of history and into the eternal kingdom. Jesus will ransom God’s people from death and bring the promise of God’s forgiveness to every people in every age – a beacon of light and hope for all generations.
Jesus knows before he dies that his death will accomplish God’s perfect will. So Jesus invests his life – and his death – where he knows they will have the greatest return for the Kingdom of Heaven.
And Jesus reminds his disciples that his servants must do the same thing, follow the same path. Jesus says: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (Jn. 12:26)
As Jesus looks ahead to what this last week of his life is going to bring, he says, “What then shall I say? Father save me from this hour? No; for this hour I have come. Father, glorify thy name.” And God answers from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
Speaking about the cross in front of him, Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:31-32)
This is the heavenly point of view.
But the crowd is stunned when they hear these words. This isn’t what they had in mind at all. This wasn’t what the Messiah was supposed to do. The Messiah was supposed to be king and take charge, he wasn’t supposed to die! They answer, “We have heard from the law [that is, reading the prophecies] that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?” (John 12:34) (Being ‘lifted up’ meant death on a cross.)
After all the weeks of Jesus telling the disciples, “I’m going to die, I’m going to Jerusalem to die…” they finally hear him. But now they’re confused. How can this be, when the Messiah is supposed to reign forever?
Jesus answers, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light…” (John 12:35)
And that’s where the story ends for today. Jesus visits the temple, then heads back to Bethany for the night, with the disciples, leaving this huge crowd wondering what just happened and where did their king go?
The story continues on Thursday.
For us today, let me just suggest three things we can take home with us.
First, this story reminds us that what God is doing, and what we expect God to be doing, can be very different things. This is one of the reasons why Bible reading and prayer are so important. The more we take time to listen to God, the more we’re aware of what God has in mind, and the less likely we are to find ourselves at cross purposes with God.
Second, we need to be talking to God about our spiritual legacies. When Jesus faced the cross, he was thinking about us. He knew his actions would mean salvation for generation after generation of people who had not yet been born. And Jesus calls his followers to think ahead in the same way. How will our lives touch the generations that come after us? And I’m not talking about money here… although we certainly sit here today in a building that is a legacy from the generations before us. But our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents gave us so much more than just this building. They gave us a faith, and they gave us family and friends, and the results of all the work they did, and the lives they touched. How will we honor what they have given us? And what will we leave for the next generation? How will God be glorified in the way we live and in the way we die? This is something to talk to God about in prayer, asking God for the honor of giving glory to His name.
And finally, during this Holy Week, spend time with Jesus in a personal way, like Mary did. Look for ways to show our love and thanks personally to Jesus. Setting aside all the theology and the ‘churchy’ stuff we do, think about what Jesus means to you personally, as your friend? Tell him this week how much he means to you.
May you and yours have a blessed Holy Week and a joyous Easter. AMEN.
Scripture: Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord– the King of Israel!” 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 17 So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. 18 It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. 19 The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.
36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/9/17