We Would See Jesus
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Today marks the beginning of Holy Week. We go through Holy Week in the shadow of the cross. Christ is glorified not in spite of the cross but because of it. It is important that we don’t go from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter Sunday and miss Good Friday. Don’t let us miss the cross. “However might we do that?” you ask. We might go from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the triumph and wonder of Easter morning and forget about Friday. It might be easy to forget in the middle of all the palm waving and the shouting. It might be less easy to forget on a day like this when we’re not gathered together and we don’t have children parading around church with palms leaves and all the excitement that befits a parade. Maybe in some ways, it might be a good thing that we’re not together to celebrate today. It might make it easier for us to see that the love and grace and mercy of Christ triumphs not in spite of the cross but because of it.
Current events have made the phrase “the valley of the shadow of death” very real and immediate. Many of us or many of those around us are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus is walking through the valley of the shadow of death here. Our passage is literally flanked by talk of death – of the death of Lazarus and of Jesus speaking of his own death. The thing about the valley of the shadow of death though is the promise. God with us. What does God have to say to our hearts this morning?
We’ve been talking through these weeks of Lent about material things that signify spiritual things. Water turned into wine that takes on a whole new meaning. Bread that takes on a whole new meaning. The healing of a man born blind that takes on a whole new meaning. This morning we’re looking at actions that take on a whole new meaning. We’re familiar with the concept of course. Symbolic action. We’re familiar with miming that we are writing in the air with a pen at a restaurant in order to let our server know that we would like the bill (or the check if you like, but it’s a universal language).
When we’re talking about action that takes on a spiritual meaning, we call it prophetic action. In the Hebrew, Bible prophets took prophetic action (aptly enough). They did things like tear clothes into 12 pieces, cut their hair and divide it into three parts, eat a scroll even. We weren’t able to have our April drop in this week, but when we do I like to think of it as prophetic action. I like it when we’re able to gather together with our friends on the lawn in the summertime, sit on the grass, share lemonade. It’s a visible action by which we’re saying that everyone matters to God. Everyone is loved by God and no one should be shunted aside or kept out of sight.
What is the thing that is going on in our scene this morning? It’s Passover. The annual feast for which millions flocked to Jerusalem. It’s been thought that the population of the city grew to anywhere from 1 million to over 2.5 million at this time. It was a big deal. Imagine the crowds. We were in a little town in Bolivia 11 years ago which was maybe 10,000 people or so. The presidents of Bolivia and Brazil came to town to make an announcement about new infrastructure and the town’s population grew that weekend to around 100,000. It was a big deal! This was a big deal. The Passover commemorated God freeing the people of Israel from slavery, from oppression. The crowd heard that Jesus was coming. They had heard what happened with Lazarus. They take branches of palm trees and go out to meet him.
We have to stop here and spend a bit of time on the palm branches, speaking of prophetic action. John is the only Gospel writer who specifies what kind of branches the crowd is waving. The thing about palm branches is they remind us of another triumphal entry into Jerusalem years earlier. Holidays are clashing here – it’s like having Christmas at Easter - because the one who came to town years earlier is the one that is remembered at Hanukkah. Judas Maccabeus. You can read about him in the Maccabees. Judas “The Hammer” Maccabeus. The freedom fighter who threw off Roman oppression. The one who came into Jerusalem and restored Jewish rule and restored temple worship. When his brother Simon entered Jerusalem in triumph on another occasion the crowd waved palm branches.
So we have all these things going on in this scene. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” the crowd shouts. “The King of Israel.” We have this crowd naming someone as King at a time when deliverance from oppression is being remembered. We have a people who are living under foreign oppression. We have the people crying out “Hosanna!”
Let’s stop there for a moment too. Hosanna! Save, we pray. Save us. This is what the people are shouting. No matter where you stand on Jesus or calling Jesus King, there is a truth with which I believe everyone can agree. Everyone has something on which they found their life. Something which is the base or foundation for we do and say. Something to which we look for saving. Our foundation might be savings or the accumulation of wealth and stuff. It might be self-reliance. It might be our own accomplishments, good looks, charm. It might be a system of government or a political ideology or a political leader even.
Which brings us back to the present scene. Jesus is going to do some prophetic action of his own. “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it…”
Now the thing about any donkey, never mind a young one, no one is going to mistake it for some sort of cavalry horse. Cavalry charger, rearing up on his hind legs while the rider looks on in triumph. I’ve always been partial to donkeys and got to be around some on a trip to Israel and Jordan some years ago. I got to ride a donkey with some Bedouins at Petra in Jordan. It was like a taxi service but with donkeys. They had ones with camels and horses too. The donkey was more my speed. I didn’t think the donkey would be able to hold me. The donkey taxi guy jokingly said “Get this man a mule!” knowing full well that the donkey would be ok with me.
Jesus does something which tells the thronging shouting crowd that he is not the kind of king they are expecting. No victorious Jesus “The Hammer” of Nazareth here. The only hammer involved here will be the one that drives the nails into the cross. This is the King of Peace. Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt. Here’s what follows those lines in the book of the prophet Zechariah that John is quoting here – “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the end of the earth.”
This King that we worship is the bringer of peace. His disciples didn’t 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 – and so we remember that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
Because we want to understand don’t we? We want to understand more deeply this King that we love; this King that we serve; this King what we follow. The Pharisees mock him. Look at this rabble that follows him. “You can do nothing,” they say (and I see no reason to read this as anything other than mockery). “The whole world goes after him.”
The irony here is rich of course. This is the one who made the world. This Jesus is the one whose death and resurrection will be for the whole world. As if to underscore this, some Greeks approach Philip who was from Bethsaida – a town with a large Greek population. Greek here is mainly to signify Gentiles. Those from outside. They want to see Jesus. There’s a lesson in this too. There are people all around us who are crying out to be saved. To see Jesus. How are we called to show and tell of Jesus’ love? Philip and Andrew go and tell Jesus.
Jesus’ answer might seem a little strange. He says the hour for him to be glorified has come. Great. The hour for him to be made honoured! To be lifted up! To be celebrated! Jesus follows this with talk of death. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit. Jesus is glorified not in spite of the cross but because of it. We will go through Holy Week in the shadow of the cross knowing that it is through self-sacrificing love that God will save the world. We cry out “Save, we pray” and the man whose death and life will accomplish this is the one riding on a donkey, the one we call King.
To follow this King is to die to oneself. Someone has said that when Christ calls a man (or a woman or a boy or a call), he bids us come and die. Die to vain ambition. Die to the myth of self-sufficiency. Die to conceit, to pride, to self-centredness. Die to withdrawal from others (because while we’re called to be physically distant from one another we’re not called to be spiritually distant). Die to yourself, because in so doing, we find that in Christ we have life. We’re going to be gathering around the Lord’s Table, apart yet together in the Spirit. We are going to gather around the Lord’s Table knowing that to live in the shadow of the cross means to live in love and joy and peace and hope. To live in the shadow of the cross means that the one who is honoured in the ultimate act of sacrificial love calls and enables the same kind of love in us. To live in the shadow of the cross is to live knowing that even death has been conquered. As someone has said “For the God who resurrects, nothing is the end,” even in the valley of the shadow of death. May these truths be near to our hearts this week friends, and every week. Amen.