Palm Sunday March 29, 2015 John 12: 12-19
Rev. Catherine Purves
They didn’t understand. The disciples didn’t understand the events of Palm Sunday – the singing, the shouting, the donkey, the palm branches – they didn’t understand all these things that happened to Jesus until later. It was certainly a grand entrance, so grand that it didn’t go unnoticed by the Pharisees who were already plotting the downfall of Jesus. The crowds were jubilant. You could almost taste their expectation. Something was going to happen, and this dramatic entry into the holy city of Jerusalem was the beginning of it. But the disciples didn’t understand, not yet. Do we understand the significance of this event and this day in the life of Jesus?
You know, or maybe you don’t know, that there are very few things that appear in all four Gospels, very few. John is usually the odd man out. He includes things that no one else has, and he omits things that everyone else has. John skips, for instance, the Last Supper, and he substitutes instead a foot washing. John includes no Christmas stories. Neither does Mark, for that matter. But here is one occasion when John joins Matthew, Mark, and Luke in telling the Palm Sunday story, although he does put his own particular spin on it. All four of the Gospel writers obviously thought that this grand entrance was somehow crucial to the life and significance of Jesus.
Why do you suppose that was so? And while we’re wondering about that, let’s think about why John told this story in the way that he did, leaving out some details, and weaving in extra information that seemed important to him. Maybe these things will help us to understand what the disciples didn’t understand until after the events of Holy Week and Easter, Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost.
The first and most obvious way in which John breaks ranks with the other Gospel writers is that he says nothing about the advanced planning for this event. The disciples aren’t sent off on a secret mission to obtain a donkey. They are not told what to say in order to placate the animal’s owner. They do not set the stage for this grand entrance. In John’s telling of the story, the disciples are simply observers who don’t really understand what’s going on. According to John, Jesus approached the city on foot in the midst of a great crowd of pilgrims who were also going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. These were joined by others who came out of the city to meet Jesus, waving palm branches that they had cut from the trees and shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!”
It was then, John tells us, that “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.” The whole donkey thing appears to be a response to the crowd’s shouting and waving of palms. That’s different. It’s almost as if the donkey was an afterthought, but clearly an intentional act on the part of Jesus, and perhaps one that was intended to correct a misunderstanding of what this grand entrance was meant to signify, a correction that the disciples didn’t understand until much later, a correction that John wants us to mark and remember carefully. When Jesus makes a grand entrance in our own lives, John wants to make sure that we are welcoming the real Jesus.
Now here is something that you may have never noticed before. John is the only Gospel writer who mentions palm branches. Really! Matthew and Mark say that the crowd cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Luke doesn’t say anything at all about branches, palm or otherwise. Only John is specific about this, and that is because it explains how the people in that crowd were misinterpreting this grand entrance of Jesus.
About a century and a half before Jesus was born, there was a national hero named Judas Maccabaeus. He was a patriot and a revolutionary. The people loved him, because he stood up to their current occupiers and oppressors, the Seleucid Empire, which had forbidden Jewish worship and had desecrated the Temple. Employing guerrilla warfare, Judas and his brothers had eventually driven the pagans out of Jerusalem, reclaimed, purified, and rededicated the Temple. This event is what Jews still celebrate on their holiday of Hanukkah. But here is why that is significant: after their great military victories, the returning heroes were welcomed by cheering crowds waving palm branches. Ever since then, palm branches became a symbol of national triumph and military strength. The symbol of palms was even imprinted on coins as an act of defiance against foreign domination.
You can see now why on Palm Sunday, the people in the crowds surrounding Jesus cut down palms and waved them. They were hoping for another national hero, someone who would save them from the powerful domination of Rome. Quoting the words of Psalm 118, they shouted, “Hosanna!” which means “Save us, O Lord!” and they proclaimed, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” but then they added something more when they cried, “Blessed is the King of Israel!” That wasn’t even in the Psalm. The crowds wanted another Judas Maccabaeus to lead a revolt against Rome and to win their independence. How much more wrongcould they have been, thinking that Jesus was that man.
They didn’t understand. Even the disciples didn’t understand. Do we understand? Or do we too want someone to fight our battles for us? Are we looking for a hero, someone powerful and patriotic that we can look up to? Who do we really want Jesus to be? Are we ready to welcome the real Jesus?
John, alone, also tells us why the crowds were so drawn to Jesus. It was because of a spectacular miracle that, again, only John writes about. The people who traveled with Jesus were the same ones who had been with him when he raised Lazarus from the dead, and those who streamed out of the city to meet Jesus were people who had heard about that sign. The act of calling someone from the tomb was certainly an act of raw power, and in that world (not so different from our own) power was everything. Here was, apparently, a power that could defy disease, end suffering, and defeat death. What could possibly stand in his way? And so they celebrated the power of the one they hoped would be their nation’s hero, their victorious king. But they had misunderstood the sign of the raising of Lazarus, and they did not understand who Jesus really was.
That is why the donkey was so important. The crowds had gotten it all wrong and even the disciples didn’t fully understand. Jesus was not like Judas Maccabaeus. He wasn’t going to be a warrior king; he was coming in peace. And his rule would not be established by earthly power or military strength; it would be won through sacrifice and death. If he wanted to make a grand entrance as a warrior king, he would have ridden a war horse. Since his grand entrance was that of a suffering savior, he rode on a donkey, the symbol of a king who was coming in peace. But the crowds were too caught up in their own frenzy of need and expectation to read that sign, and even the disciples didn’t fully understand until much later.
On this Palm Sunday morning, do we understand? Jesus has made a grand entrance into each one of our lives. Do we really understand who he is? Or are we hoping that he will be someone who can solve all of our problems, someone who can make our pain stop, someone who is bigger and better than all of the other powers in this world that are squeezing the life out of us? Do we really see him as he is and know who he is, or are we, like those crowds, trying to make him who we want him to be? These palms that we have all been waving so joyfully are really a challenge to us, a potent symbol of all of the ways in which Jesus has been misunderstood through the centuries. What do we really want from Jesus? And is that what he came to give us?
These are tough questions, because none of us can claim to fully understand Jesus, any more than we could claim to fully understand God. But we can try hard not to misunderstand Jesus, because that’s dangerous. Keep in mind that the crowds who were waving those palms were the same crowds that, just a few days later, would cry, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” That was the destructive power of their disappointment when they didn’t get the Jesus they wanted.
Let us be clear and let us understand that Jesus came to Jerusalem to die. His grand entrance, a king on a donkey, did not lead him to a throne or to earthly power or to death-defying acts of liberation and victory. His grand entrance led him to a cross and a tomb, to unimaginable suffering and death. As followers of that king, we cannot avoid those things either. But that king, that Jesus, will lead us through them. We will suffer, we will sacrifice, and we will die as he did.
But here is the true meaning of that sign of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is that death does not have the last word. While we cannot escape death any more than Lazarus could, we can see beyond death. We can begin to understand the meaning of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. We can then begin to understand the Jesus who made that grand entrance riding on a donkey. He was coming to suffer and die for us. He was and is stronger than death, but he submitted to death; he willingly suffered. He walks with us in our suffering; he walks with us to the tomb. But then he calls us from the tomb into newness of life, just as he called Lazarus. Next Sunday, the tomb of Jesus will be empty. That was the kind of king he was. When Jesus makes a grand entrance into your life today, how will you welcome him?