Palm Sunday

John   12:12-16 

12 The great crowd that had come to the Passover festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!’ 

14Jesus 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!’ 

 16His disciples did not understand these things at first (at the time); but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 

John  19:16b-22

 So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”


Does that seem too abrupt?  It does, doesn’t it. What about the parade? What happened to the singing and dancing and happy shouts? What are we supposed to do with our palms of victory at a crucifixion? Let them fall to the ground to be trampled on and forgotten?  Hide them away out of shame and embarrassment? 

John’s gospel is bottom heavy. The first ten chapters cover 3 years of his ministry. The next nine chapters cover one week. It’s been a long week since Lazarus died. Spread out over these six Sundays, we’ve heard about Lazarus, Jesus’ arrest in the garden, the betrayal by his disciples, his trial before Pilate, and the Jewish opposition demanding his death, and we’ve had to skip pages and pages of his last evening with the disciples, his long farewell — but still, now that we’ve arrived at this crux, it seems there should be more narrative, more words to postpone it. The other gospels all have descriptive stories at this point to help us prepare. John doesn’t describe the scene, only the facts.

“They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.”

The reminder that the palms you hold in your hand today become the ashes smudging your foreheads eleven months from now on Ash Wednesday is an appropriate tonal modulation. John doesn’t let us enjoy that triumphant arrival in Jerusalem. It, too is brief— just a single sentence, a bit of psalm 118, a short quote from the prophet Zechariah, and the key line, verse 16: “His disciples did not understand these things at the time; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.”

It’s all been aiming at this: Jesus’ hour, the glorification, the lifting up on the cross, the manner of divine love revealed in this.

We’ll hear his last words on Thursday, see him taken down and buried on Friday, and leave that service in silence, in the dusky gloaming of twilight. 

Jesus’ death was abrupt. In this gospel’s telling, it’s also secretive – the events of the last 6 weeks were mostly held in the cover of darkness – pushed along by the Sanhedrin to get it done before the Passover Feast. They wanted to be able to eat their sacrificial lamb, ritually slaughtered at the temple for the forgiveness of sin. They needed to stay pure, stay apart from death. They had to get this legal affair tied up, and they didn’t want the crowds involved.

So, this is it. Jesus goes from Pilate’s headquarters to Golgotha and the cross, accompanied only by soldiers, four women and one unnamed disciple. Pilate orders the inscription to be written in the languages of the empire. He does what the Jews were unwilling to do. Pilate proclaims Jesus as a king for all the world to see. But what kind of king is this? What of our hopes? What has become of the promise that Jesus is the light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome? He seems overcome.

We want to think that life and death are two separate things. John wants us to see that they are not. They are intertwined. Like most of Jesus’ dialogues that begin on one plane and spiral to some other reality, some other conceptualization, that is how life and death are treated, too. Life and death are manifestations of the same thing: the glory of God. The incarnation of God in human form necessarily requires a death: God’s death, because God took on human flesh. If you believe that, then whether you begin with life or begin with death you’ll end up in God.

Jesus was crucified just outside of the city; and the inscription of his crime was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek for all the world to read. The chief priests tried to get it changed, but Pilate was done with them. The inscription the last twist of mockery. “What I have written I have written, The king of the Jews.” Once again, Pilate speaks the truth without realizing it.

Just six days earlier, Jesus had been in Bethany and called Lazarus out of the tomb. That seems a long time ago now to us. But, the crowd who witnessed Lazarus stumbling out of death into daylight kept talking about it. They came to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover and heard that Jesus was coming.  They took palm branches and went out to meet him, like a hero, like a victorious king, and they shouted “Hosanna! (which means, save us) Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!”  Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, riding into the city in true kingship form as prophesied by Zechariah long ago.

“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”  “This is our scripture,” the disciples would say. “Look, Jesus on a donkey…it’s a sign… of royalty and peace, of God’s favor – our victory has begun.”  Horses and chariots are used for warfare, but the donkey was the assurance of stability, of righteousness and rule. Jesus rode it into Jerusalem holding the reins of peace.

Even the Pharisees felt it – they said to one another, “We can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” Five days later, the world has turned and this king is hung on a cross to die.

What kind of victory are we talking about? Death is not a victory we can recognize, holding these palms in our hands, or at least not one that satisfies our struggle with mortality.

As Jesus passed by, rocking side to side on his donkey, his feet scuffing along in the dust on either side of the little beast, did the palm waving stop and the crowd go silent – suddenly disappointed by this sight? And what kind of King is it that you expect Jesus to be? What powers or protections do you expect faith in him to provide? What insulation from the pain and heartbreak of the world?

This divine and human verb of a God, this Being who is One with the Father remains a mystery in plain sight. We want one who helps us deal with living: one who heals our loved ones and ourselves. One who feeds the hungry real food, blesses the poor with real benefits, inspires governance with real wisdom and compassion, one who saves us from ourselves… because, Jesus came into this life as though this life matters, right?

And then, in John’s gospel, Jesus certainly does suffer, but seems fine with the unfolding of this hour. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  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.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who lose their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. it is for this that I have come to my hour.” Dang. I mean, I like planting seeds and seeing what comes out of the warm, moist earth, but I don’t want to be one.
In the gospel of John, Jesus enters willingly into this hour. He goes willingly into death – it is for this reason that he has come and he seems to know it.  It is to glorify God. But to our eyes and hearts it looks a lot like defeat. It’s not the resurrection that Jesus claims as the glory, but his death. That is the hour this has all been driving toward.

The fallen seed reveals the upside down nature, the profound mystery of Jesus’ divine mortality. We think of life as preceding death; it seems obvious. But Jesus looks at the natural world and says that it is in fact the other way around: Death comes before life, as the seed is buried in order to grow. The source of our life is Jesus’ death.

It is a hidden victory; it’s glory in disguise.  That is the triumph of Jesus’ death – that life comes from it, that we require death in order to fully live. That something in us must die to full live. It is a pattern the disciples finally understand at the end of the story.

Those who make their own self the focus of love lose themselves. If you never move beyond loving yourself, you will live in isolation, lacking what relationship, what true communion with others and with God can offer. To make the ‘self’ the ultimate focus of love, means that you can’t really be yourself, because it is in loving others that you are drawn out. This death of self absorption draws us into the world and the messy, real lives of people and into beauty.  Jesus’ death and resurrection patterns this strange growth in which you find yourself by losing yourself. We come into a place where living and dying become all one, because we are in God.

That is the kind of king that rode a donkey into the city. Not one that charges in with horse and chariot, not one that challenges the power of Rome; but the kind of king that challenges the assumptions of self. One that rules in the heart, and whose power is revealed in acts of service and justice and hospitality and compassion. And who glorifies God in the disguise of daily life and faithful love and even in death.

Hosanna! Save us, good Lord, from ourselves…and Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen