David A. Davis
March 28, 2021
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To say that Palm Sunday in John is an understatement is, well, an understatement. In our collective study of the Gospel of John these last weeks of Lent, it has been noted more than once that unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John tends to linger in scenes and long conversations: the Wedding at Cana, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the Last Table Discourse, and Jesus’ High Priestly prayer that itself spans an entire chapter. The traditional Triumphal scene comes in John in four verses. And that might be generous. The brevity must explain why in twenty years of preaching on Palm Sunday from this pulpit I have tackled John exactly once.
Here in John, it is not really a Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem at all. It’s not a grand entrance when Jesus has been back and forth to the city all through this gospel. When you keep reading in John, the procession doesn’t end up in the temple with Jesu turning over tables and kicking out the moneychangers. John took care of that way back in chapter two. In John the crowds aren’t going ahead of him and following him. Not much movement here. It is not just the disciples gathering around. In fact, it is not all that clear that the disciples are doing any of the shouting. It seems like the crowd is shouting “hosanna” and the disciples, according to John, were wondering what on earth was going on. “They didn’t understand at first”. There is also no spreading of cloaks along the ground. On the other hand, John is the only gospel that labels the leafy branches as palms. So, John does get a PALM Sunday shout it.
Notice where the reading started this morning. John’s crowd didn’t come out just to see Jesus. They wanted to see Lazarus too; the one Jesus raised from the dead. The crowds went out to meet Jesus and Lazarus because they had been there when Jesus called out Lazarus from the tomb. The other gospels describe the whole city of Jerusalem being all stirred up or in turmoil. Not so here in John. A great crowd was in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The Passover crowd combined with the crowd that came to see Jesus and Lazarus. That’s what made the Pharisees nervous. “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
Those crowds “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!” The King of Israel. The crowds don’t shout “the King of Israel” in the other gospels. Here in John, the crowd moves toward Jesus, they go out to meet him before he moves at all. They come with shouts to the King of Israel. The crowds, the world going after him, it’s a movement of a different kind in John. It has less of a parade feel and more of a political rally feel. The crowds, wanting to see Lazarus, counting up all the signs in John (water into wine, healing the official’s son, a paralytic rises to walk, loaves and fishes, walking on water, a blind man sees, Lazarus raised from the dead). He must be the king. He’s the king of the world!!!
Think of the hundreds of collective Palm Sunday experiences you and I bring with us this morning. It is a veritable Palm Sunday buffet of memories that mix together. For some, Palm Sunday memories take them way back. For others, maybe more Nassau Church memories in this room; like those years when the parade just got stuck because of the crowds! Expectation, anticipation, and assumptions all tossed into our sacred imaginations about the Palm Sunday narrative: the Triumphal Entry, Jesus riding along with his jaw set, his sight determined, his suffering in view, his death imminent. Hosanna in the Highest. All Glory, Laud and Honor. The crowds can’t be silenced. The rocks themselves are set to sin. And Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. His own death march. A slow, but steady inevitable climb toward the hill of Golgotha just beyond the city walls. Yes, the narrative is set and it is set deep within everyone of us.
It is set, that is, until Jesus in John throws it all out of whack. Until Jesus clogs up the works. Until Jesus messes up the show. Until Jesus disrupts the parade. Jesus didn’t start the parade in John. Jesus never sends his disciples ahead to find a colt or a donkey. There is no fetching of the animal and telling the owner “the Lord has need of it.” Jesus found a donkey and sat on it. Jesus is not the event planner here. He is the event disrupter. No, Jesus doesn’t start the procession. He stops it before it gets going. The crowds came out to meet him, to wave royal palms, to shout “hosanna”, to anoint him King of Israel and Jesus went to look for a young donkey and sat on it. One New Testament scholar translates John’s Triumphal Entry couplet like this: “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!’…BUT…Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.”
When Jesus found that young colt and sat on it, it was as if Jesus was being as stubborn as a young donkey could be. If the disciples didn’t understand, think about what the crowd was thinking. They came out ready for a coronation. With shouts of “hosanna” and branches waving, the crowd was ready, not just for a parade, they were ready for a movement. “He’s the king of the world!” But Jesus stopped, went and found a donkey and sat on it. Actually, with a close reading of John, one might conclude that Jesus and the donkey never went anywhere. Jesus didn’t start the parade. He stopped it before it got going. And he did very little to move it along after that. Jesus sat on that donkey refusing to go any further and pointed to the cross. The whole parade stops in John and the gospel turns toward Jesus glorification, his hour that has come, his suffering, his death, his resurrection, his ascension. Or as Jesus says to Andrew and Philip, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
The parade stops but the chapter continues in John. Jesus tells the crowd of his pending departure. “The light is with you for a little while longer…while you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” And then, according to John, in what seems like a way to put an exclamation point on stopping the parade, Jesus “departed and hid from them”. He went and hid! He hid from the crowd that wanted to make him king. Jesus was just fouling up the parade, he was fouling up the whole movement to anoint him king, King of Israel, king of the world.
The crowd was looking for a king, the disruptor Jesus went and sat on a donkey. The crowd sang praise to the victor, the disruptor Jesus taught again about his death. The crowd was looking for another sign, another miracle (just one more! just one more!). the disruptor Jesus told them the sign to come was the cross. The crowd craved a theology of glory, the disruptor Jesus gave them a theology of the cross. The crowd yearned for a narrative of victory and power. Jesus, ever the disruptor, gave them a narrative of suffering and servanthood.
For those of us who think we have Jesus all figured out, for those of us who know the Lord we want, the Lord we are looking for, the Lord we expect, come Palm Sunday and Good Friday and Easter, those of us who know this part, thank you very much…John’s Jesus, well, he disrupts. He disrupts not just this biblical narrative chiseled so deep but the dominant narrative that shape how we see the world, how we view ourselves, and we see or don’t see others. Jesus ought to be a disruption. Jesus ought to throw of the equilibrium of all your understanding that goes way back. Jesus ought to shake up your theological imagination and your perception of the Lord of Life, your whole sense of what is right and expected when it comes to the things of God. Jesus has it all twisting and turning inside until you find yourself once again facing the cross this week. Jesus’ cross, his self-emptying love, his redefinition of victory, and his transformational display of weakness rather than power. Come to the cross of Christ again this week and allow the Spirit of truth to anoint, question, challenge even the most deeply embedded theological narrative and convictions. Jesus may not be present in the flesh sitting on that young donkey, but in his physical absence all his disruption continues. Or at least it ought to in your life and mine. Consider it a Palm Sunday disruption.
When the perception of Jesus has been built on the power of positive thinking and success and counting every blessing, a Jesus as a life coach kind of approach that may work for years until a diagnosis, or a job loss, or a crushed relationship, or the death of the love of your life…Jesus stops and offers to walk a different way of strength in weakness and comfort in suffering, a different way toward the cross.
When the perception of Jesus shapes a Lord of power and strength and heavy-handed assurance of victory in the world and political movements that ravage the poor, demonize the other, lift up some and push down many, and sow discord rather than peace, falsehood rather than truth,…Jesus stops, turns another way, and yet again heads toward the crows where power comes in weakness and love is lifted up and the wisdom of God seems as folly to you and to me.
When the perception of Jesus so miraculously forms that Jesus agrees with every held opinion one can have: politics, policy, current events, when the Savior of the world has become op-ed writer extraordinaire leaving one always nodding yes…Jesus has already stopped to find a donkey and he moves toward the cross inviting humility, openness, and a little less self-assuredness among those who would follow along the way.
When the perception of Jesus calcifies or misconstrues the gospel in a way that elevates self over others, deadens the ears to the cry of the oppressed, blinds the eye to see the suffering of others not born with privilege or power and shapes some misguided concept of a divine right of being because of nationality, or skin color, or gender, or orientation, or generational wealth or even the practice of faith…Jesus stays there on that donkey, refusing to participate in a movement that distorts his gospel and denies the image of God in all people. And he points to the cross again and again and again. Jesus didn’t start the parade in John. He disrupted it and headed to the cross.
Turn toward the cross with Christ the Lord this week.
When is the last time Jesus disrupted the expectations, the anticipation, and the assumptions that you bring, that inform you, that shape you and your life in him?