Yr B ~ Palm ~ John 12:12-16
If you’re a regular church-attender you’ve heard the story a thousand times. Jesus and his disciples ‘triumphantly’ enter Jerusalem amid waving palms, and cheering crowds, in an attention grabbing parade.
Oh, I’m not doubting the entry, or the donkey, or even the palms (or branches, or coats – depending on the gospel – each witness remembers things in their own way). This year we get the version found in John 12:12-16. But I don’t want to go diving into the details of it this year, and compare and contrast the different versions. That’s interesting and all, but this year I’m more captivated by the context – what’s going on in and around the story.
Sure, Jesus and the gang entered the Jerusalem gates to attend the humongous Jewish festival called Passover…right alongside tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims! That’s the bit the leapt out at me this time. Maybe it’s because we’re so sensitized to the idea of avoiding large crowds in these days of pandemic social distancing. If you watch any of the movies or documentaries that include a Palm Sunday entry you’ll always see it portrayed as Jesus and the disciples strolling into the city – pretty much alone on road. Eventually curious onlookers gather, and some get caught up in the excitement of a parade and either stand and watch or join in. There’s lots of great theology up for grabs in all of that.
The thing is that Passover was such a massive event that the city would have swelled with probably hundreds of thousands of pilgrims attending. That explains why the Romans, and the Jewish religious leaders, viewed it as such a powder keg. I mean, you can’t cram that many religiously fervent people into a hostile situation like a military occupied city and not expect some trouble to bubble up.
Well guess what? All those people had to arrive at the city at just about the same time – so that roadway leading into Jerusalem would’ve been teeming with pilgrims.
Jesus was not alone and making a solo, dramatic entry at the Jerusalem gates. There would’ve been a sea of humanity with him. Yes, there was a donkey, and in John’s version some palm waving – so they would’ve been noticeable, and probably drew some interest – but, well, let’s just say it probably wasn’t like the movies.
It says in John 12:12 that people had heard that Jesus was coming. So, he had a reputation. Word of mouth was the only way to hear about stuff – no internet, no email, no television news – so if folks had heard about him it was because he was making waves. But it also says in verse 16 that in the moment the disciples didn’t really think this day was such a big deal.
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.
I love that! In the moment, they didn’t get it. It was only later, when they looked back and ‘remembered’ that they realized there was something special going on. I take that to mean that that day it wasn’t necessarily all that big of a spectacle in their minds.
So what’s the story here if Jesus wasn’t a spectacle, but was just one small group among thousands and thousands and thousands? Well, you’ve got to read around the edges of the story. There you’ll find a large group of very committed and convicted disciples moving through the throngs of people – sharing the alternative wisdom of Jesus.
This is really surprising. Not that Jesus’ disciples were convicted, but that this whole story is so low key in John’s telling. The gospel of John is known for being all about signs and wonders. John wants to dazzle you and wow you with amazing things from Jesus – and yet tells the story of the Jerusalem entry in a remarkably subdued way. If there’s no sign or wonder what are we supposed to notice? I think we’re supposed to notice what the disciples are doing – moving through the throng – talking to people. Gee, what do you suppose they’re saying to the people? Probably telling them stories of signs and wonders! And, no doubt, sharing their experience of the Way of Jesus – the alternative wisdom of Jesus.
Ok, I’ve used that term a couple of times now. Let’s look at it.
I don’t think Jesus really taught all that much that was original.
I don’t mean it wasn’t deep, and true, and world-transforming – I just mean that he didn’t think it up. He learned it. His wisdom represents the best of his religious tradition and theology – amplified and enhanced through his intimate, personal relationship with God, Abba.
It’s the wisdom found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that we’ve been exploring together through the season of Lent.
It’s the wonderfulness and completeness of God’s love for us and with us – of how God offers an intimate relationship of covenant love – and what it looks like to be open to and accept that love, and let it work on you, and in you, and through you – like Jesus did.
You’d think that would be the standard religious wisdom, right? I mean, it’s so great, and warm, and life-giving, surely everyone in churches and synagogues would embrace such covenant love with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, right?
But we don’t.
We tend to revert back to the ways of the world – to competition, and coveting, and looking out for number one. (And that goes for religious leaders, and religious systems too.) So Jesus’ wisdom is an alternative to the world’s wisdom, and an alternative to the way things generally are, and an alternative to the way folks usually do spirituality and religion.
Well, guess what happens when alternative wisdom reaches the ears and hearts of people?
Some embrace it – others (most especially those with riches, or power) feel threatened by it, and reject it – and try to squash those who dare offer such ‘dangerous’ alternatives.
Need I remind you where the story of Jesus goes later this week?
Alternative wisdom will, by definition, be met with opposition. And yet there are Jesus’ disciples – moving through the throngs of people flocking to Jerusalem to celebrate in the form of the commonly accepted wisdom of the religious tradition of the day. Friends, right there is your sign and wonder! These cats are committed and convicted and are wading into the midst of what will surely be opposition – because they have an alternative wisdom of God’s deep love that has so utterly captivated and transformed them that they cannot help but share it.
I choose the word ‘conviction’ on purpose. I love that it has a double meaning. It means to be so convinced about something that you’re willing to act on it. And it also gets used in our legal system to describe someone who, upon hearing all the information, is judged to be guilty of what they are accused of. Again, think about what will happen to Jesus later this week.
He’ll be convicted, because he was convicted!
And in both cases, the thing that convicts him is this alternative wisdom of God’s ever-present love, and God’s fundamental desire to be in a covenanted relationship with us. Receiving God’s love tends to bring out the conviction in people. No matter the cost.
Ok. Deep breath. Let’s look in the mirror.
What is the church about today? Are we about signs and wonders to dazzle people and draw them to Jesus? Not so much. I mean, I don’t raise people from the dead, and I can’t even turn water into wine (no matter how hard I try). So what are we convicted about? We don’t spend a lot of time celebrating the miracles attributed to Jesus, or any of his signs and wonders, really. We tend to say 3 words a lot. A LOT! Actually, just one word – three times – love, love, love.
I hope that that’s what we’re all about.
I pray that Jesus’ alternative wisdom is the thing that’s lighting us up, and firing us up, and transforming us into people who are convicted by love, love, love.
My sense is that this really IS what we’re about.
I tend to preach it all the time and it doesn’t seem to be meeting much opposition. This is a beautiful sign. It means that Jesus’ alternative wisdom doesn’t seem all that alternative to us – it just seems wise.
Now the hard part. What do we do with it?
Are we committed and convicted enough by the alternative wisdom of God’s love to be wading into the world and sharing that wisdom?
Could we be?
What’s stopping us?
What would it take for you to be one of the followers of Jesus going through the crowd telling people about him and his Way?
Who needs to hear this alternative wisdom of love, because the wisdom of the world is tearing them down and diminishing their spirit?
But let’s pause.
It’s easy to get caught up in the swirl of the spirit of the moment and feel emboldened to step out and say, “I will!”
And I hope we all will.
I just want us to walk through this week first. We’re heading into a hard week, a Holy Week, and the story is going to get heavy. If we’re not convicted we might be tempted to look away, or to slough it off, and just skip to the party next Sunday.
The disciples thought they understood the depth of things as they entered the gates of Jerusalem that day. But it wasn’t until later that they really understood. Later, after the rest of the story happened – the story that we’ll rehearse this week on Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, and in the silence of Holy Saturday. The story that will have a mind-blowing twist on Easter Sunday – a turn of events, and a change in understanding that will deepen and amplify the power of this alternative wisdom of how God loves us, and is ever-present with us, in covenant love.
It’s the same love, and the same alternative wisdom, that was present on Palm Sunday – back then, and today.
But moving through this week, opening ourselves to the hard parts of the story, deepens our understanding of that love – and deepens our conviction – prompting us to pray:
Abba, strengthened, filled, and renewed we pray we’ll emerge from this sacred Holy Week journey and enter the world – refreshed, transformed, and recommitted to living a Christlike life of compassion, justice, and joy – proclaiming your Presence and love and alternative wisdom in word and action, in this place and every place.
But first we need to walk through this week…