It has all been moving this direction.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all note a clear turn in the middle of their telling of the story. "From that time on," Matthew says back in chapter 16, "Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…." Mark and Luke do the same thing, right around the story of the Transfiguration, Luke giving ten whole chapters – nine through nineteen – ‘the travel narrative’ towards the holy city. It isn’t clear, but whatever is going to happen, Jesus keeps saying, is going to be difficult.
John handles the approach to Jerusalem differently. After chapters of encounters and speeches, Jesus huddling with Nicodemus under cover of night, breaking all sorts of conventions speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well in broad daylight; He heals on the Sabbath, feeds five thousand, has long teaching sections with the disciples and the Pharisees. But it isn’t until after chapter 11, when Jesus raises his old friend Lazarus from the dead, that plans come into focus, the religious leaders and the civil ones conspire to arrest him, to kill him. Their delicately established order was so threated by his way of compassion, his remarkable inability to not do anything other than be so present with those near him, his message that he so embodied about a new kingdom, a new kin-dom, of mercy and love breaking in all around. The threats were clear, and those around him knew going to Jerusalem for the Passover wouldn’t be safe. "What do you think?" John has one bystander say, "Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?"
But he does. This is the way he must go. Today’s text begins on a grand stage. ‘The great crowd that had come to the festival,’ John writes, heard Jesus was coming. Other versions of this story begin small, with the disciples, then pick up steam. Not John. The whole crowd gets wind he was coming – which means they already had some sense of who he was – and they are overwhelmed. They take branches of palm trees – John is the only gospel to mention palm branches specifically – and rush to meet him. The scene explodes, with a handful of verses slid in, the crowds shouting "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord," like we did with the psalmist a few moments ago. He grabs a donkey, fulfilling prophecy from Zechariah: "Do not be afraid…Look, your king is coming!"1
But it is this final line, 12:16, that I find so interesting, and meaningful for us: "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 the midst of it, it didn’t make sense. Who can blame them! As New Testament Scholar Lamar Williamson writes:
The so-called "triumphal entry" was hardly a triumph. It was a shabby show in the carnival atmosphere of a religious festival; a simply dressed provincial rabbi and miracle worker on a borrowed donkey being welcomed noisily by an enthusiastic but frothy crowd. It had no relevance for the fate of the honoree just days later, nor did his own disciples see any significance in it until after Jesus was crucified and had risen from the dead.
Then, Williamson continues, THEN [afterwards] those who believed in him and loved him saw it as the fulfillment of a prophecy about Israel’s messianic king (Zech. 9:9) and understood that the royalty of Jesus as Messiah differs radically from what the world calls glory. Jesus’ true glory had been revealed on a cross and by an empty grave.2
The only reason that day, the rather pitiful palm parade, is something we remember at all is because of what happened later that week. That is why it is so important to remain connected to this whole story. I have included portions of the narrative of each day of holy week in your insert. I am going to read them each day this week, and I challenge you to do the same. As John says – this only makes sense in light of the whole story. The church too often leaps from the celebration and palm waving of Palm Sunday to the trumpet sound of Easter. This gets at, I think, our larger desire as a society to have it our way, tailor-made, as nicely as we can get it, let’s avoid the hard things, put them away, ignore them entirely if possible, shuffle those people who are ‘problems’ away. Away in jail, away in homeless shelters, away on the other side of town, away in Medicaid nursing homes, mental institutions, away, not in our precious neighborhoods, away so we won’t have to be troubled.
All the more so when it includes death. The suffering and pain of Jesus in these texts is amazingly difficult to read and to think about. Yet we must. In a world that either denies death entirely, marketing everything we can to avoid it, or treats it – on the news or movies or TV as a violent pornography of sorts, blood splattered on the screen. We must sit with this pain, Jesus’ pain. Sit with His disciples as the week begins, as the tension mounts, as the hurt comes. Read these stories. If there is any way you can you must come on Maundy Thursday, come yourself, bring a friend, it’s a little later but we have childcare. Come and be moved into the depths of the whole story, because in doing so is how we remember, as John says: "His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified," through the suffering of this week, coupled with the rejoicing of next Sunday, "THEN they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him."
It is by living in these stories that we are marked. That we are claimed, as around this font at 11. That we glimpse, again, God’s astounding love for us through Jesus the Christ, who calls us to lean into his love in all seasons, and who calls us out, giving ALL of ourselves, to participate in the ways God is transforming all creation.
We won’t end today with the celebration, as nice as it was. John’s gospel, 21 total chapters, spends from chapter 12 to 20 on this one week. Soon it is Maundy Thursday, with the disciples gathering around the table in an upper room, 3 chapters of a farewell speech of sorts after he washes their feet. Then Jesus prays for his disciples. After dinner they head out of town, across the Kidron valley, to a garden. There the die is cast. Listen for this next step in the story, from John 18:1-11, and sit with the story this week, and remember…
1. See Psalm 118:25-26, Zechariah 9:9.
2. Lamar Williamson, Preaching the Gospel of John, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004), p 148-149.