Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Hinge of History-- a Palm Sunday Sermon (John 12.12-19)

Have you ever had a really amazing week? A week when all kinds of unexpected things happened, some good, some bad? Let me tell you the story of my college graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1974. The week had gone well, and it was time for the graduation. My grandparents were driving up from Wilmington for the big day. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain, and so the graduation would have to be held in Carmichael Auditorium which only held 8,000 folks. Picture a lot of soggy people crammed into a small space, including a bunch of us in hot, sky-blue robes. And in the process of the torrential downpour, my grand-parents were in a car accident, and Granny ended up in the hospital in Raleigh.

They never made it to graduation. This was not merely unexpected, this put a damper on the whole experience. Suddenly, what promised at first to be a day of great celebration degenerated into a disaster. A day of accolades turned into a day of anxiety and doubts and life-threatening events. As things turned out my grandmother would be fine, but you get the picture. Sometimes things can start out exceedingly well, and then quickly devolve into disaster. As Bobby Burns the great poet from the U.K. once said—‘the best laid plans of mice and men, oft go astray.’

I often wonder exactly what sort of reception Jesus expected when he entered Jerusalem riding on the back of a young donkey. What did he foresee would happen to him that fateful Passover week in A.D. 30? Did he see the horrible end of that week from the beginning but went through with it anyway? Did he know he was courting disaster to enter a city of some 600,000 Passover pilgrims and suggest he was a messianic figure, when the Roman legions were on alert against just such an eventuality and ready to pounce at any sign of a disturbance? Inquiring minds want to know.

Earlier in the Gospel of John we have these words “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in him. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them for he knew all people. He did not need human testimony about them, for he knew what was in their hearts.” (John 2.23-24).

It won’t do to suggest Jesus was na├»ve. He knew very well the wickedness humans are capable of. No, he entered Jerusalem on a donkey on that April day in A.D. 30 with his eyes wide open. In fact he entered Jerusalem precisely today--- April 1rst! And it was no April fool’s day for him. It was a day of great and genuine celebration, as we shall see. There were great hopes that he was about to restore Israel to its rightful sovereignty over its own land. The moment seemed propitious, the timing perfect, the atmosphere fraught with excitement, and people were shouting Hosanna—Blessed is the King of Israel, according to John’s account.

Two interpretive clues are important here. Jesus had never before, so far as we know, elevated himself above the crowds of listeners, disciples, pilgrims. Secondly, the Synoptics tell us that this riding on a donkey was pre-planned by Jesus. One of his Jerusalem disciples was solicited to borrow the animal with no more than the laconic “the Master has need of it”.

Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He was riding into town on a donkey, just as David has insisted be done with Solomon, to make clear he was the next king of Israel. But it is more likely Jesus chose this prophetic gesture not because of historical precedent but because of a prophecy in Zechariah—“Rejoice greatly daughter of Zion! Shout daughter of Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding a donkey, on a colt a foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim, and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea” (Zech. 9.9-10).

Notice this peacable king does not come into town driving a Hum V, or riding on a war charger as a conquering hero. He comes to declare peace for the world, not war on the Romans. And here is a profound truth--- Jesus did not come to meet either his earliest followers expectations or ours. He came to meet our needs.

Oh but the expectations were exponential. They were off the chart. The waving of palm branches is significant, because this is what was done when the Maccabees those great war heroes had recaptured Jerusalem in the second century B.C. The people wanted to see Jesus as the conquering hero like Simon Maccabee, but Jesus’ choice of steed, and Scriptural allusion augured something else altogether—a king of peace, a kingdom of non-violence, a kingdom where self-sacrificial suffering and martyrdom not killing was the means of salvation and redemption, a kingdom where the swords will be beat into plowshares and we shall study war no more, was what Jesus had in mind. Jesus did not come to meet the people’s expectations, he came to meet their needs.

The cry Hosanna (see Ps. 118.25) seems to in fact be a plea in Hebrew meaning “Save Now!”. The crowds were crying out for a particular kind of political liberation it would appear on the spot, but Jesus had another idea in mind entirely of what made for peace, what made for pacification of our warring madness, what made for liberation and redemption. The real enemy was not Romans or Greeks, or foreigners in general. The real enemy lurked within the hearts of every fallen person—it is called sin.

The Gospel of John is full of irony, and one of the ironic remarks in our text for today states “at first his disciples did not understand all this.” That’s putting it mildly. Jesus warned them repeatedly that he was going up to Jerusalem to suffer many things, be killed and on the third day rise, but they apparently saw him as the conquering hero, and were too busy singing “I love a parade” on this day, caught up in the pageantry and acclamation to understand what was really going down. It was only after Easter that they really understood what Jesus was doing on that day. They were acting more like the ‘DUH-sciples’ than the wise followers on this day, and indeed for much of this week.

The week begins in triumph and seems to end in tragedy with Jesus on a Roman cross. The week begins with accolades but ends with accusations. It begins with praise and ends with perjury. It begins with great expectations and it ends with expectations shattered as two disciples on the road to Emmaus leave town saying “we had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel—notice the word ‘hoped’—past tense. The crucifixion had destroyed that expectation. The week begins with hope and ends with mourning and despair. The week begins with disciples pledging allegiance to Jesus and ends with them betraying, denying and deserting him left and right.

At the beginning of the week the Pharisees were having an anxiety attack and exclaim “see the whole world has gone after him!’ By the end of the week they could say the whole world had apparently deserted—left him along on a cross even exclaiming to God “My God, my God, why have even you forsaken me!” What a difference a week makes. Apparently some of the same people who were praising and blessing Jesus at the beginning of the week, were cursing him and saying crucify him at the end of the week. And what does this tell us about fickle and sinful human hearts?

Oh we love winners. Losing stinks. We love heroes, failures need not apply for our adoration. We love parades and razzmatazz and being dazzled and entertained. We are less keen when we are called to self-sacrifice. But what if the only way to win the decisive battle against sin and evil doers came not by killing your enemies, but by loving them and giving up your life for them? What if Good Friday, rather than Palm Sunday best expresses God’s way of dealing with human wickedness and sins? What if Palm Sunday was just the prelude to Good Friday, and the choice of animal showed that Jesus came in peace, and was establishing a peaceable kingdom?

In his profound diagnosis of the human condition at one point in his ministry, Jesus said this—“what comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All of these evils come from inside and defile you.” (Mk. 7.20-22). You see Jesus had to do something about our sin sickness. The human heart needed a heart transplant or at least a heart transformation. The gravest problems we face in life are not caused by things that come at us from outside the borders of our country. The gravest problems come from within the borders of our hearts. And Jesus died on that Friday so that the hearts of human beings could be cleansed of their sins, and so they could live the same sort of loving and self-sacrificial life that he lived, setting an example for us.

The pivot or hinge of human history, the moment when the tide was turned in the war on sin and evil, did not come on Palm Sunday. That moment came when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and then rose again on Easter morning. Good Friday was D-Day in the war against sin and evil, and Jesus dealt with it not by fighting fire with fire, not by returning violence for violence, for he had warned that those who live by the sword die by the sword. No, he dealt with the sin and evil problem by absorbing in himself the punishment for such wickedness, paying the price for our sin, atoning for it, and thus he was able to offer forgiveness for sins. Indeed on the cross Jesus even prayed for his tormentors saying “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Jesus overcame evil with good.

And let me be clear, a crucified Jesus without the resurrection accomplishes nothing when it comes to sin. Unless Jesus died, atoning for sins, and rose again so he could send his Spirit to transform our hearts, we would receive no benefits from that death. Indeed, it would be an unmitigated tragedy, not a triumph at all.

And thus it was that the turning point in all of human history in the battle against sin and evil came not on a battle field but by an act of capital punishment exacted on Jesus. It came by suffering and dying for sin, not by riding into Jerusalem in a grand parade and proclaiming “we have victory and peace in our time”. Jesus was the man who came to Jerusalem to die for each and everyone of us, for all sins, once for all time.

But this raises the question--- what has been or will be the turning point in your life’s battle against sin and wickedness? What should it be? Surely the beginning of the new era for you must be the day when Jesus enters your life pouring his cleansing love into your hearts so that you may be new creatures in Christ. This may come in a quiet moment and without fanfare. It may come privately and with no recognition. It may come at the unlikeliest of ways, and at the unlikeliest of times. It will come when you completely surrender to God’s will as Jesus did on that day called Good Friday.

Who could have guessed that that death on Golgotha would forever change the course of human history? The cross tells us—that real change in a life, in a world, in a human life only comes through self-sacrificial love, surrender to the will of God. May you lay down your arms and be embraced by his arms sometime this week, and may you lay down your arms and take up your crosses, and follow him this week above all weeks.



Shea said...

I think the church needs to celebrate easter with the same intensity, if not more, as we do lent! This is the ressurrection! This is the launch pad of the new creation!
Thanks for this blog. This is just what I have been thinking.

Jim said...

I really liked that.
Found a typo: "apparently deserted—left him along on a cross even exclaiming"
might it be "alone"?
Love your blog and am in the middle of the novel.

Matt said...

Thank you for your thoughts on this and thank you also for all you put into your Corinthians Commentary. I have been using it among a few other things to prepare for a class and it has been helpful. It was really well done.

Mitchell said...

Clearly Jesus did not enter Jerusalem with the intent of fomenting insurrection against either Roman or Jewish powers. It's interesting, however, that people quote the Zechariah 9 material as if it were talking about means instead of ends.

Zechariah 9-14 certainly does not envision the donkey-riding king making peace by singing "Give Peace a Chance." The king of Zechariah 9:9-10 enters in peace because the battle has been won. There is no longer a need for chariots or war horses because permanent, inviolable victory over evil has been achieved.

Zechariah's vision is certainly not pacifistic in the modern sense. Zechariah sees the Lord rousing the sons of Zion against the sons of Greece. Judah is his bow and Ephraim his arrow. With quite violent language, Zechariah describes how the Lord's warriors "devour and tread down the slingers; they shall drink their blood." (9:13-15)

Essentially, Zechariah 9-14 is an apocalyptic vision. The framework of this vision is clearest in chapter 14: God's enemies come to fight against Jerusalem, but God defeats them and establishes a recreated world order.

When Jesus adopted Zechariah's donkey as a symbol of his kingdom, he identified himself as the one who fulfills Zechariah's vision.

I take both Zechariah's vision and Jesus' adoption of it as eschatological - having to do with ends, not means. The means will be Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Armed rebellion, it is true, will not bring God's kingdom to fruition - but neither will pacifistic political demonstrations.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Mitchell:

Excellent post. You are quite right about Zechariah. What is interesting however is the verses used to exegete what Jesus was doing, not what was left out. The same applies to the use of Isaiah in Jesus' same Lk. 4 speech where redemption is the subject, and the mention of judgment is left out. And while you are right that Zechariah is not saying that the kingdom will come by pacifistic demonstrations that is hardly the point. The point is that God will strike the shepherd, and though the sheep will scatter, through that death sin, suffering, death, violence will be overcome. That's not a pacifistic demonstration-- that's dying, paradoxically enough, to end sin and all its manifestations including violence.

Peace doesn't come by violent 'pacification' using weapons against one's enemies. Peace comes when the king of peace dies for his enemies (read Romans 3).

Happy Easter,

Ben W.