[March 29, 2015: Palm Sunday] From the New Jerusalem Bible:
12-13 The next day the great crowd of people who had come up for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took branches of palm and went out to receive him, shouting:
Blessed is he who is coming in the Name of the Lord,
the king of Israel.”
14-16 Jesus found a young donkey and mounted it—as scripture says:
“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion;
look your king is approaching,
riding on the foal of a donkey.”
At first his disciples did not understand this, but later, after Jesus had been glorified, they remembered that this had been written about him and that this was what had happened to him.
17-18 The crowd who had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead kept bearing witness to it; this was another reason why the crowd came out to receive him: they had heard that he had given this sign.
19 Then the Pharisees said to one another, “You see, you are making no progress; look, the whole world has gone after him!”
Before we approach this story, we need to place ourselves within the Gospel according to John. This is the beginning of the final leg of our journey, the conclusion of the Incarnation in Resurrection, when the one grain of wheat becomes many, when our Lord is able to breathe the Holy Spirit into us, having accomplished our salvation. The story of the Gospel according to John has taken us from Jesus’ first sign at the wedding of Cana in Galilee to the raising of the dead man Lazarus in the village of Bethany just outside Jerusalem. Having accomplished that last momentous sign in chapter 11, at the beginning of our present chapter, he is anointed king by Mary of Bethany in preparation for his ascent to the throne of glory, the throne of God.
In the Gospel according to John, when was Jesus lifted up from the earth? The author of the gospel tells us that it was when he went boldly to the cross. The cross was his ascent. When he told his disciples that he was going away to the Father, it was by the cross that he did so. He passed through death and ascended to the Father (as he told Mary of Magdala), and returned with the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who would be his presence within us and among us forever. He was lifted up on the cross to draw all people—even all creation—to himself, to rule and shepherd them forever as their exalted king.
Jerusalem was where it was going to happen: Jerusalem—the place of his conflict, the place that would not welcome him, the place where God’s Temple had become a marketplace that exploited the poor, where Nicodemus felt he had to come to Jesus by night, where his miracles of healing were questioned, where they tried to kill him again and again, and where he not would not let them, until now.
Those who did receive him welcomed him into the city of God, into Zion, where the throne of the Messiah sat waiting. They took palm branches and waved them before him. These were not the people of Jerusalem. These were those who came to Jerusalem with Jesus, as pilgrims, to celebrate the festival of the Passover with their fellow Jews from all over the world. These were people who heard him preach in Galilee and had witnessed his signs of healing and wonder, and the multiplication of the loaves, who appreciated the miracle that he performed in Bethany, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. These, in other words, were his friends. They hailed him as the king of Israel and welcomed him into their city, the city God had given their ancestor David, and where God placed his Name. They welcomed him with the words, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord,” and they cried out, “Hosanna!” which means, save us now.
Jesus had come not to Jerusalem as a king already ruling, like Solomon, but a king like David, whose throne must be won. He had come to conquer and defeat the enemies of God and to make the throne of the kingdom his own. He had come, in fact, to ascend the throne of God, the throne of the kingdom of God—but to do so by conquest. The weapon he would wield was the weapon of his death, the weapon of the cross. That is why in the Gospel according to John he approaches the cross so boldly. No one can stop him. They come out to arrest him but find out quickly that they are not in control. This was his theater. Through his death the prince of the world would be overthrown and he would be glorified. Human nature would become glorified with the divine nature, and, as the firstborn of all creation, the beginning of the resurrection of the dead, he would become king of all and the source of eternal salvation.
In all the gospels, when he entered Jerusalem, he confronted the rulers, those who set themselves up to be in charge of Temple and city, who gave instructions to the people. John’s gospel is the same, though John tells the story in a different way. While they continue to reject him who has come to them as the light of God in the midst of their darkness—John tells us, “they did not believe in him,” and even that “they were unable to believe”—he offers to them a final appeal: “Whoever believes into me believes not into me but into the one who sent me, and whoever sees me, sees the one who sent me. I have come into the world as light, to prevent anyone who believes into me from staying in the dark anymore.”
But for now, on Palm Sunday, his believers, and those struggling to understand (but who want to), they welcome him and cry out, “Save us now, we beseech you! Hosanna in the highest.” Little did they know what it would cost him. Little did they know what he knew, that this was just the prelude to the cross.
Yet Jesus welcomed this acclamation. In another gospel he would say, “I tell you, if these keep silence, the stones will cry out.” He welcomed their praise, just as he welcomed the expensive ointment of nard—the whole bottle—that Mary of Bethany poured on his head to anoint him king. Little did Mary know that she was also anointing him for his burial. And little did the crowds realize that their acclamation of him as king would incriminate him in the eyes of the Romans, and be the charge for which he was crucified. But Jesus knew, and welcomed it. He was game for this fight.
For Jesus’ adversary was neither the wealthy classes of Jerusalem nor the Roman governor. His adversary was cosmic and his fight was internal and spiritual. His adversary was the force of darkness that did not want God, that sought to turn humanity away from God, that kept humanity in a cloud of darkness and stirred their hearts to rebellion against God and God’s creation. His battleground—on behalf of those who crucified him, on behalf of those who loved him, and even on behalf of the silent creation—his battleground was going to be his own soul. He would not allow anyone to take it from him, but he himself would lay it down in death. In love with us all, he would die for love of us; and he would die to win our love, to free our hearts so we would love him.
Do we today welcome Jesus as our king who will fight God’s battle on our behalf? Even though we know that when he rides into Jerusalem he is riding to his death? That is what we are doing today in anticipation of Good Friday. We wave palms of victory before him. He is our king who will win for us eternal salvation through the cross.
We welcome him as king, but do we really? He accepts our welcome, as he did in today’s reading. For when they came to him, he said, “Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
But then he went on to say to them, “In all truth I tell you, unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.” We agree, don’t we? We say, “Yes, Lord Jesus, go to your death, win for us the victory of our salvation, become the king of creation.” We don’t mind as long as he is the one going to the cross and not us. Thank you Jesus, we praise you for that.
But then he went on to say in his very next words, “Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me, must follow me, and my servant will be with me wherever I am.” Are YOU willing to be crucified? Are you at least willing to go to the cross with Jesus, to be with him where he is, even on the cross?
Yes, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who is coming in the Name of the Lord, the king of Israel.” But are we willing to follow him where he goes—to Calvary and beyond? In Lent we acknowledge we cannot. But what is impossible for human beings is possible for God. God’s grace is greater than our weakness. Let us fall on our faces, acknowledging our weakness, and receive his help—and then follow him to Calvary.
We all must think about what this means for us individually. I cannot tell you. You need to ask this question, and find out.