Yr A ~ Palm ~ John 12:12-16
So here we are again. Palm Sunday. A significant day in the rhythm of the church year that many of us have been marking for years, decades even. Some of us have experienced 20, 40, 60 Palm Sundays – maybe more. Surely by now we understand fully the significance of the event and can explain the subtle and not so subtle movements in the story. Who’d like to come up and do that?
We’ve been using the lens of wonder to explore all kinds of obscure texts through Lent and now that we’ve arrived at a very familiar old favourite that we can probably quote by heart, instead of feeling confident about what it all means we find ourselves bewildered by it. Well, at least I do. So today’s wondering gets the title perplexity.
Perplexity is defined as the inability to deal with or understand something bewildering. Yup! That’s us today. How are we going to deal with and understand this bewildering story? I’m not sure you’re going to like my answer, because I’m not going to really give you one. I just want to spend a few minutes exploring the perplexity of it.
In other words, we’re going to wonder together about it.
John 12:12 – The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.
Ok, I get the big crowd part. It was Passover. The city of Jerusalem would’ve been overflowing with people coming to mark this holy time in the Jewish year. But if you read the text from John carefully it sounds as if every single person who had made the pilgrimage had heard that Jesus was coming.
Wow! I’d love to have his advertising team working for Faith United! They must’ve coordinated their Twitter and Facebook advertising and also done a serious media buy in the Jerusalem market!
I wonder how the crowd heard the news.
It’s the wonder of buzz.
Buzz happens when people start talking about something and it takes on a life of its own. Nowadays they call it “going viral”.
Apparently the news of Jesus coming to Jerusalem for Passover had gone 1st century viral.
I wonder why the Romans didn’t hear about it.
John 12:13 – So they (that is, the great crowd that had gathered for the festival) took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!”
Ok, couple of things. I wonder why they used palm branches. Obviously we call today Palm Sunday because of this, but why palms? One suggestion is that palms signify being victorious. At this point in the story Jesus was an itinerant preacher and healer who hadn’t done anything to really get on the radar of the Romans or even the Jews for that matter so what is he victorious in?
Or maybe they’re anticipating him being victorious? In what? In overthrowing the Romans? A nobody from the backwater town of Nazareth and his ragamuffin gang of followers are going to take down the empire? As if! Victory is unlikely!
Another possibility is that palms are the 1st century equivalent of the red carpet treatment.
I wonder why they felt so moved to treat Jesus like a celebrity.
I wonder what provoked them about his arrival.
I wonder why the cops (aka the Romans) didn’t bust them all for disturbing the peace.
Now for what they were saying. What’s that all about?
The word hosanna originally meant ‘save now’ or ‘please save’ but apparently was also used liturgically at high feast days as a word of praise similar to hallelujah. So are they saying “hurray Jesus” or “save us Jesus” or both?
And the next bit is intriguing too.
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” was a familiar call to pilgrims drawn from the psalms of ascent – specifically Psalm 118:25-26. Psalms of assent were used as devotional material as people on a pilgrimage made their way up toward Jerusalem (hence the assent part) and this particular line was something like a standard greeting.
In other words, lots of pilgrims besides Jesus would’ve been greeted with the exact same phrase – “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The person is travelling in the name of God for a spiritual purpose.
Our morning greeters could welcome you that way each week that you come here to worship. Wouldn’t that be a great welcome? “Blessed are you because you come in the name of the Lord.”
That’s not very perplexing, but the tag bit about the King of Israel is super-strange. I mean, it’s one thing to maybe get swept away with the buzz and think this guy is going to do something big so you treat him like a king – but to actually call him a king right there at the gates of a heavily occupied city is absolutely astounding.
So we’ve got buzz, we’ve got foliage, and we’ve got greetings – what else does this story need to be perplexing? I know, how about a donkey?!
John 12:14-15 – Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
As it is written – in the Hebrew Scriptures in Zechariah 9:9 to be exact. Powerful kings process on horses. In Zechariah it says that the peaceful king shall process on a donkey.
So if the people in the crowd knew the significance of this verse, then you gotta know that Jesus and his disciples did too. Of all the ways they could’ve come they chose this one.
I wonder why?
Maybe a donkey was all they could find and this was just accidental? Nah!
So, I wonder what Jesus was hoping to accomplish with this symbolism.
Do you think Jesus just loved street theatre?
Did he want people to think he was calling himself a king?
Was he doing it to garner attention for himself so the crowds would support him and contribute to his itinerant ministry? Does that sound like the way Jesus usually operated?
Or maybe theologians Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan are right and this is a carefully designed and orchestrated deliberately anti-authoritarian alternative procession to both mock and stand in stark contrast to the imperial procession that would’ve been arriving at the same time at the gate on the opposite side of the city.
If so, this is a pretty provocative move.
If so, isn’t that kinda like poking a bully in the eye?
If so, I wonder what Jesus’ game is here.
Or here’s a wildly bewildering thought. Hear me out on this, don’t react too quickly.
Maybe this whole thing is all just really good writing.
Maybe the authors of John’s gospel who had the benefit of reflecting and theologizing about Jesus and his life for 60 some-odd years were able to design this story with all sorts of bonus material to help us understand the significance that they knew Jesus had for them.
I’m not saying the palm parade didn’t happen. I am saying that there’s no clear agreement on what might have happened that day, and the story has “benefitted” from hindsight.
In Mark’s gospel the disciples are sent to “acquire” a donkey, and by acquire I mean take it. A guy, presumably the donkey’s owner, says “Hey what’re you doing?” and the disciples say, “Jesus needs it” and the guy goes, “Oh, ok.” Bizarre! And “many” spread their garments before him and cut branches from the fields (but not specifically palms). (Mark 11:1-11)
In Matthew’s version it reads like Jesus is riding on two animals – a donkey and a colt – and the disciples just take it (them?) with no word to the owner at all! And “multitudes” spread garments before him and cut tree branches (again not specifically palms). (Matthew 21:1-11)
In Luke’s telling they get the animal and spread garments for Jesus but there are no branches of any kind mentioned – and it’s a “multitude of disciples” accompanying him, not a random crowd apparently. (Luke 19:28-44)
In John’s gospel Jesus seems to get his own donkey, and everyone in Jerusalem is supposedly there, and John is the only one of the four that says anything about palms – and yet we call this Palm Sunday! Bewildering!
In Mark, Jesus arrives, looks around, and goes back out.
In Matthew, Jesus arrives, goes to the temple, and tears the place up.
In Luke, on the way in he does some verbal jousting with some Pharisees (who don’t appear in any other version) and then goes on and trashes the temple.
In John, the palm stuff happens in chapter 12 but Jesus had already done his extreme temple makeover thing way back in chapter 2.
Are you befuddled yet? What’s the real story? And what’s the point?
Well, all four versions agree that Jesus made a unique and curious arrival for Passover that year, on a donkey, with some hubbub, and with some variation of the psalm of assents greeting “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
So why so many versions, and why do they differ, and why is it so strange?
I think the answer is really simple – and you’ll find it in the very next verse – maybe one of the most candid in all of John’s gospel!
John 12:16 – His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
In other words, they’re saying “we didn’t really have a clue what was going on at the time, but now after decades of reflection and experiences of somehow mystically interacting with Jesus’ Spirit we can go back and understand what was there and also try to make it even clearer with our explanations.”
This is not a CNN live video report. The telling comes 60 years after the event.
His disciples did not understand these things at first.
Sound familiar? I think even now after all this time we’re still trying to understand. It’s perplexing!
We have this really strange attachment to this story. In the grand scheme of things it’s a relatively insignificant bit of theology. Jesus doesn’t offer any teaching, nor does he heal anyone or challenge anyone (except in Luke’s version, but even then not really). It’s possible he’s making a big political statement, but it’s not clear.
And yet of all the stories of Jesus this is the only one we physically act out every year. We all jump up and join the parade as we march around our churches and wave our palms (mentioned in only 1 of 4 gospels).
We let the kids act out the nativity at Christmas time, but that’s about it. We don’t act out the healing stories. We don’t act out the crucifixion – well, I guess we used to do a cross walk but that was pretty removed from worship.
You could make an argument that we act out baptism and communion regularly – but really we do those in such minimalist and symbolic ways. We don’t go to a river and immerse for baptism, and we do communion with a cube of bread and a drop of juice.
Unless of course you come here this Thursday for our Maundy Thursday Potluck! We will sit and have a feast just like Jesus and the disciples did. We’ll act out the last supper. 6:00. Thursday. Please come!
So why do we choose Palm Sunday as our participatory event?
What are we accomplishing when we parade around the church?
What are we trying to catch the spirit of?
What theological point are we trying to underline?
I wonder if it’s a pressure valve that we need before we tackle Holy Week and its terrible and wondrous events.
I wonder if it’s our way of trying to give Jesus some energy and encouragement as he enters this perilous city.
I wonder if we’d be so brave if we were actually there and didn’t know the end of the story. Would we join the parade if it meant possible arrest or punishment? It’s easy to back a guy from the comfort of 2000 years of distance with no fear of reprisals – especially a guy we know wins in the end.
But they didn’t know that. Not when they entered the city.
I wonder what they were thinking.
I wonder what they were hoping to accomplish that week.
I wonder if that showy entry turned people on to Jesus or turned them off.
I wonder what kind of entry I’m making into this Holy Week.
I wonder how many of us who paraded around today will continue the journey through the whole week of events and how many will just show up for the party next Sunday.
I wonder who will come to dinner on Thursday.
I wonder who will come and mourn on Friday.
I wonder whether Holy Week will be truly holy, and bewildering, and awe-full, and perplexing, and wondrous this year.