Living Water Community Church - Sunday Worship
Jn 12.12-19 - “The True Light Was Coming into the World”
This morning I want to look at Palm Sunday in light of the whole story of John’s Gospel. But before we do that, I want us to become a little more involved in the drama. So we’re going to do a little call-and-response. Stand up, and repeat after me:
Blessed is the coming one! Blessed is the coming one!
The one who come in the name of the Lord! The one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the king of Israel! Blessed is the king of Israel!
Now everyone can take a seat.
The second paragraph of Jn reads:
The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was created by him, but the world did not recognize him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. But to all who have received him--those who believe in his name--to these he has given the right to become God’s children. (Jn 1.9-12)
This is how John begins his Gospel story of Jesus’ life. Why does he begin this way, with these words? More importantly for us today, what do these words have to do with the story we’re celebrating today, with the Palm Sunday crowds going to meet Jesus as he comes to Jerusalem?
The world did not recognize him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. Jesus, who John calls the true light, was coming into the world. But the people living in our world, they refuse Jesus. They don’t welcome him; they turn him away. How does this fit with the crowd waving palm fronds on the road to Jerusalem?
I should admit: Palm Sunday’s always left me a bit confused. The church spends the six weeks before Palm Sunday identifying with Jesus’ approach to the cross, during Lent. We find ways to simplify our lives, to leave room to reflect on them; we fast; we mourn as the tragic shadow of the cross stretches out over us. But then, just before the end of this quiet season, there’s Palm Sunday--and we’re out singing in the streets, breaking out the party favors, shouting down the house. It’s only five days later when we’re back to mourning and contemplation as Jesus dies on a cross. Palm Sunday doesn’t seem to fit very well.
The world did not recognize him.
Let’s listen closely to the way John tells the Palm Sunday story. Maybe we can hear what he says.
The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took palm tree branches and went out to meet him. They began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who come in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” But Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion! Look, your king is coming seated on a donkey’s colt!” (His disciples didn’t understand these things when they first happened, but when he was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about him and that these things happened to him) (Jn 12.12-16).
The story begins with a large crowd. Jesus doesn’t deal with the crowd very often in John. Jesus is much more of a face-to-face in this Gospel. He deals with people one-on-one, not mobs. There’s Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, a paralyzed man beside a pool in Jerusalem, a blind person by the side of the road.
The only other place the crowd takes centerstage in Jn is back in chs 6-7. The question we need to ask is, “How does Jn want us to think about the crowd?” What happens in these chapters shows us Jn’s opinion. In ch 6, Jesus takes a few loaves of bread and two fish and miraculously makes a meal for more than 5,000 people. That same night, Jesus walks across the lake to a town on the otherside. The next day, the crowd chases after Jesus around to the other side of the lake, and when they find, they try to trick him into making another meal for them. Jesus sees their real motives and responds, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you won’t have eternal life.” The crowd can’t stomach this kind of commitment, so they quit following him.
In ch 7, Jesus goes to a festival in Jerusalem--a different one from the one we’re reading about in ch 12. When Jesus begins to tell the crowd that he is the one sent from God, the crowd cries out that Jesus is demon-possessed. So what should we think about the crowd? What does Jn want us to think about the crowd?
Now, this isn’t a statement about the evils of “mob rule” or of “herd mentality.” John isn’t saying that Jesus is just for the extremists, the true believers, that Jesus is too good for the masses. No, completely the opposite. John says, God loved the whole world in this way: He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the people who live in the world, but that they should be saved through him. Jesus is the one sent from God, the one who loves people sent from the one who loves people. He wants to bring them into God’s good life.
What then is John saying about the crowd? He is saying, The true light was coming into the world. He was in the world, but the world did not recognize him.
The crowd hears that Jesus is about to arrive into Jerusalem city for the Passover festival. The crowd rushes out the gates and up the road to meet him, in the same way they’d meet a king or Roman dignitary. They’re waving palm branches, cheering Jesus on. People waved palm branches in that day to celebrate national holidays--like the big festivals in Jerusalem or a military victory. And the crowd is shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord--the king of Israel!”
Hosanna. It’s a cry that comes from the Psalms, Ps 118 in particular, a psalm that was sung in the liturgy of the big religious festivals in Jerusalem. In Hebrew it means, “Please deliver us!” But for the crowd in Jerusalem, it probably meant something closer to “Hooray! Whoopee! Or, in the vernacular, Woot.” Over time, words that we repeat over and over can tend to lose their meaning. It’s like when we say “God bless you” after someone sneezes. Are we really invoking divine blessing on the person? No. We’re just saying what people normally say. I think that’s what Hosanna means in the mouth of the crowd. It’s a party cheer, a hip-hip-hooray. The crowd doesn’t recognize what they’re saying.
I suspect what the crowd really means to say was what they add to Ps 118. Ps 118 says, Hosanna! (Yahweh, please deliver us!) . . . Blessed is the one who comes in Yahweh’s name! The crowd adds, “Blessed is the king of Israel!” You can see what they’re really excited about. Back in ch 6, after Jesus makes the meal for thousands from one family’s lunch, the crowd tries to mob Jesus and force him to become their rebel king. They want Jesus to lead an army to overthrow the Herods, Pilate, even Caesar. They want a powerful king, a miracle-working king. John writes, When the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, “This is certainly the New Moses who is to come into the world.” Then Jesus, because he knew they were going to come and seize him by force to make him king, retreated again up the mountainside alone (6.14-15).
Psalm 118 says, It is better to take shelter in Yahweh than to trust in princes. The crowd says, “This is the king that we want to trust in.” After all, Jesus can turn water into wine, make a feast from next to nothing, and even, the crowd had heard, raise a man who’d been dead for four days. This is the kind of king they want.
The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, but the world did not recognize him.
Tell me, is Jesus a king? (Yes.) Is Jesus savior? (Yes.) Do we see the face of God in Jesus--is he God? (Yes.) So what does the crowd get wrong?
John writes, But Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it. This doesn’t seem like quite the prophetic act. But as often as Jesus is loud and dramatic in John’s Gospel, he also is often surprisingly understated. For each time he chases merchants out of the temple, he also quietly instructs some servants at a party to fill up some thirty gallon jars with water. For each time he makes a crippled man walk, he humbly asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. Even his raising of Lazarus begins with a simple two day layover in another town. Finding a donkey to sit on is another understated prophetic act.
The people want a warrior king, a messiah with sword drawn. Jesus sits down on a donkey. Not a warhorse. He doesn’t ride up in a chariot. He sits down on a young donkey.
John continues, just as it is written: “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion! Look! Your king is coming, sitting on donkey’s colt.” John quotes the Hebrew prophets. He quotes Zechariah to explain what Jesus is doing. In a vision of Yahweh’s great intervention to set the world right, Zechariah cries out, Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! Look! Your king is coming to you: he is righteous and victorious, humble and riding on a young donkey, the foal of a female donkey (9.9). But listen to how Zechariah continues: I will remove the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be removed. Then he will announce peace to the nations (9.10). No warhorse. No battle bow. No chariot. This is not the warrior messiah that the crowd is waving their palm branches for.
But even more important than whether there are bows and arrows or guns and bullets in this vision, what Jn really wants us to see is who is sitting on the donkey. Who is this king who comes riding up on a donkey? In Zechariah’s vision, this is Yahweh! This is God! Yahweh is the one riding on the donkey. Yahweh is the one who brings peace to Israel and to the nations.
Jesus hears the crowd’s Hosanna shouts, he sees their waving palm branches, and he chooses to find a donkey and sit on it. It’s hard for us to fully understand--to recognize--what Jesus is doing. John tells us that Jesus’ disciples don’t immediately understand what Jesus is doing. John says, His disciples did not understand these things when they first happened, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about him and that these things happened to him. The crowds definitely don’t understand. A few paragraphs later, at the end of ch 12, Jn gives the final verdict about the crowd: Although Jesus had performed so many miraculous signs before them, they still refused to believe in him.
John says that the disciples understand only after Jesus is glorified. Glorified. This is a strange word but an important word in John’s Gospel. For Jn, Jesus is glorified on the cross. Way back in ch 3, Jesus points this with a pun on the words “lifted up.” It means both “lifted up” as in “exalted,” but also “lifted up” as in “hung up on a cross.” Somehow, in some way that leaves us as puzzled as the disciples, Jesus’ greatest glory is his humiliating criminal execution on a Roman cross.
The disciples only begin to understand Palm Sunday in light of Good Friday. This is our story too. We can only understand the shouts of Hosanna, the waving palm fronds, the donkey, the prophets in light of a cross. As Jesus sits on a donkey on the road to Jerusalem, he has a choice. The crowd wants a king, a good king. They want the kind of king who rules with justice, who protects the poor and feeds the hungry, who can make crippled people walk and blind people to see, who can even raise the dead. There is a lot of good in what they’re cheering for. True, this kind of king will need to overthrow the current rulers--those godless Romans, those corrupt Jewish religious leaders. The crowd looks and sees a king riding in on a white horse to set the world right.
We look forward, and what do we see? We see a man in the middle of a crowd, sitting on donkey. If we look with understanding, what stands in front of us? We see a cross. This is what Jesus sees.
It is tempting to hear this passage as another sermon about peace. And peace is here. Jesus sets aside the politicized cries of the crowds and chooses a donkey. But what Jn wants us to see is not just that Jesus is nonviolent, that he refuses to draw his sword and lead the charge as warrior messiah. What Jn wants us to see is the kind of king Jesus in fact really is.
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel! There is a way the crowd is more right than they know. Jesus is the one who came into the world, the one sent from the Father. The true light was coming into the world. And Jesus is king. As the prophet Zechariah tells us, Yahweh is the one sitting on a donkey, Yahweh is the one who brings peace. He does not do this with warhorses or chariots or battle bows. He does this by suffering.
After Jesus enters Jerusalem, Jesus begins speaking to the crowd. He says, “Now my soul is greatly distressed. And what should I says? ‘Father, deliver me from this hour’? No, but for this very reason I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. . . . Now is the judgment of this world; now the evil ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself (Jn 12.27-28, 31-32). Jesus is glorified on the cross. Yahweh is king from the cross.
On our corner, what does this mean? The true light is coming into the world. We are more often than not part of the crowd. At best, we’re like Jesus’ disciples, still working our way to understanding why Jesus does what he does. Like the crowd, we have a picture of what Jesus must be doing on this corner--what it would look like for him to ride in on a white horse to this corner where bullets break the meetinghouse windows, where warm weather sparks fights between our kids. Like the disciples, we think we understand Jesus’ peace, but his language about suffering and glory and his Father leaves us confused. What do we make of this king on a donkey?
What about our homes? We find such brokenness in our relationships, in our hopes, in our hearts. We disappoint ourselves. We get angry. We feel lonely. We worry about money. We each have a picture of what Jesus should do in our lives--how he should sweep in and save--Hosanna! Please, deliver us! But where we want to see the skies part, where we want God to come down and change everything, there we see Jesus, sitting on a donkey.
Where is this God-man on a donkey going? This isn’t a very inspiring sight. Surely he can’t be leading us to glory. Is this the one we want to cry Hosanna to, to cry “Deliver us!”? Yes, he is our deliverer. Yes, he is Yahweh with us. He is our one and only king. Yes. Even though we know where he leads--that glory is a cross, that he rules by suffering. He is the true light; he is the one who shows us the way; in his face we see God.
Only when we see the cross can we shout Hosanna. Only when we have seen Good Friday, can we celebrate Palm Sunday. Only when we believe in his name--trust him, trust that he is good, trust that he is God and brings us to God, even in the midst of our violent and painful circumstances--only then do we recognize we become God’s children.
The True Light has come in the the world! Stand and shout with me, “Hosanna!”