“The Defining Sign of the Savior King” (John 12:12-19)

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday (April 5, 2020)

What are we to make of the events of Palm Sunday?  They are quite curious.  Jesus’ participation in them seems almost out of character.  Throughout His public ministry He tended to shy away from any sort of adulation by the masses.  Oh, yes, He had never stopped any one from prostrating himself before Him, honoring Him as Lord and even God.  But when He had those perfect opportunities to be praised by many, as happened on the occasion of the feeding of the 5,000  when the crowd of onlookers were so enamored with Him that they sought to make Him king, Jesus would  make a hasty escape from them. 

But on this Sunday before His passion, we actually see Jesus initiating the events.  There is no running and dodging such a public fuss being made over Him. He accepts the crowd’s cheers and words of praise almost as a matter of course.  In fact, Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem actually becomes a defining moment for, not only His earthly ministry, but actually a defining moment for His reign as King.

Have you ever noticed that all leaders tend to have a defining moment for their reign or term of office?  By that, I mean something takes place under their watch that either they initiate or happens beyond their control that tests their mettle, reveals their real character and sets into place their style of leadership. 

So we have witnessed with many of our presidents. Abraham Lincoln’s defining moment was the Civil War.  His presidency was all about keeping the union together.  The four terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to be defined by World War II, as well as the Great Depression and our nation’s recovery from it.  It was all about Watergate for Richard Nixon.   Ronald Reagan was defined by his stand against communism and the resulting breaking up of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Bill Clinton actually had two defining moments, each of which gave us a whole different picture of His presidency. From a moral perspective, it was the Monica Lewinsky scandal that totally tainted his whole persona and character.  Yet, from a rather pragmatic point of view, it was his leadership in the saving of our economy and the balancing the budget that he has been most admired for.  George W. Bush, of course, was defined by 911 and his war against Terrorism.  For Barack Obama it’s perhaps a little more difficult to pick just one thing.  His whole presidency was characterized by the fundamental shift in morals and politics from leaning right to leaning left. And here in the present we all assumed that what would define the presidency of Donald Trump would have been the last three years of non-stop attempts by his enemies to impeach him and remove him from office or his phenomenal success in leading our nation into one of the greatest economies we have ever enjoyed.   But, as what often happens, the unforeseen has changed everything.   The Coronavirus pandemic has stopped the world cold!  What will now define Donald Trump’s presidency will be his leadership to defeat this plague and rebuild a nation brought to its knees by it.

It seems for the masses of people who were singing praises to Jesus on that Sunday preceding the Passover, the defining moment for them concerning their perception of Jesus was His raising of Lazarus from the dead a few days earlier.  The clear witness that resurrection gave to Jesus’ divinity had not only captivated the Messianic fervor of the nation but had caused the powerful Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews, to tremble to its core.  This miracle so threatened what these ruling Jews perceived to be their ruling authority over the people and the stability of the whole nation under the oppressive thumb of the Romans, that they issued decrees that both Lazarus and Jesus be arrested on sight (Jn. 12:10-11). 

On this day there were throngs of people everywhere.  In fact, John clearly indicates that there were actually two, distinct, hyped up crowds. The first crowd was composed of people who were on their way up to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover and had been in Bethany to witness Jesus’ raising Lazarus from his tomb.  As John tells us, they were bold to continue to bear witness to this feat (v.17).

It was, in fact, their witness of what Jesus’ had done that actually preceded them to Jerusalem.  This news had a profound effect upon the citizens of Jerusalem also. Herein, then, we find the second crowd. They came out of the city in droves to meet Jesus as He made His way up to Jerusalem amidst the songs of praise of the masses that were accompanying Him from Bethany. 

And what marvelous praise it was, especially when the two crowds converged.  Not since the angels sang above Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth had there been such melodious praise directed toward Jesus as the Savior King.  Perhaps it was the entering into the city of King David and the proximity of the Passover celebration that gave added inspiration for their song.  After all, the people didn’t just cry out, “Oh Jesus our King!” or even “Hail Jesus!” No, the lyrics they sang were not of their own composition.  They sang a hymn straight out of their Passover Hymn Book.   You see, for centuries Psalms 113-118, known as the Hallel, had served the people of God in their worship at the Passover Meal. The crowds together sang from verses 25 and 26 of the last of those psalms, Psalm118.  They sang:  “Hosanna, (Heb. “Hoshi’ah-nna” “grant salvation”) blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD...”  They then added as if by explanation, “The King of Israel.” 

Now, of course, like many massive demonstrations today, it is conceivable that many of the people in these crowds had just been swept up in the excitement of the moment. 

After all, just a few days later outside the praetorium of Pontius Pilate there would be no singing of praise of Jesus.  Instead a lynch mob would scream out, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” 

Nonetheless, the crowds that greeted and accompanied Jesus clearly indicate at that moment at least, they had found their Messiah… their Savior King.  His power over death, as witnessed by His raising of Lazarus, was the defining “sign.” At long last the LORD had come to save His people!  “Hosanna!”

But if the divine power Jesus displayed was to be His defining glory then why would Palm Sunday be so quickly followed by Good Friday?  God had demonstrated His power over sin’s consequences with miracles before, most notably through the word of His chosen prophets.  To be sure, the Gospels are clear to show us that Jesus did miracles in abundance, but so did Moses and the prophets before Him.  Moses sent 10 horrific plagues upon Egypt.  He also parted the Red Sea!  Even the raising of Lazarus from the dead did not totally set Jesus apart from the prophets before Him.  Both Elijah and Elisha had also raised persons from the dead. 

There is something else, though, that Jesus would do that would be quite unconventional…quite unimaginable in a worldly sense, and would serve to truly define Him as the sole and unique Saving King. That something would be the humility of His cross.

I’m afraid there are many today who also are missing the boat when it comes to comprehending what truly defines Jesus as our Savior.  For them it is a Jesus of worldly glory they praise and follow.  They hold up His impeccable behavior as a role model to the world.  “What would Jesus do?” is the mantra they drill into their children’s heads.  Many love to tell the stories of Jesus’ miracles… of His compassion to heal and help the weak, sick and distressed.  They preach that if we would all just be like Jesus, live moral lifestyles, trust in God like Him, we would all enjoy His physical blessings in our days and our lives.  They are all for a Palm Sunday Jesus but when it comes to a Good Friday Jesus then it seems that their tongues of praise are tied.

However, there is no real Jesus, Savior of the Word, King of Israel, without the cross.   Yet, as John helps us to see, Jesus is not defined merely as a victim of the cross. In fact, it is Jesus who takes the initiative toward His own crucifixion. 

So we see with the events of Palm Sunday. There is nothing spur of the moment, accidental or even coincidental.  John notes, “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.”  There is no record in or out of the Bible that Jesus ever rode a donkey.  But here He does so purposely.  In fact, the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all record that Jesus sent His disciples on a mission to find a donkey for Him to ride.  It was hardly out of exhaustion.  Jesus, with His disciples had spent the preceding night in Bethany, just few miles from Jerusalem.  Jesus and His followers were used to walking everywhere and for much farther distances than this.  No, Jesus wanted to ride the donkey to make a statement.   He wanted to make it clear what would define His reign as the Savior King.

What sort of statement is it to ride a donkey? First off, if one as a Jew wanted it to be known that he was accepting the throne of David… the throne of Solomon, there would be no better way than to ride in a celebratory way into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Both King David and King Solomon rode a mule, or donkey, as part of their coronation ceremony.  The crowds of people clearly got that message.  They sang to Jesus, “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord: (that is) the King of Israel.” 

But John wants us to know that Jesus desired everyone to get the message that His ride upon the donkey was to signify something else about what type of King He was.  John, as well as Matthew, direct their readers to the prophesy of Zechariah in which we hear that the Messianic King would come astride a colt of a donkey (Zech 9:9). 

A horse is the ride of a warrior… a conqueror. Horses were ridden into battle or as the ride of the returning victorious king.  Donkeys and war or victory are never associated with one another. Instead, a donkey has always been perceived as a “beast of burden.”  The donkey is a most humble ride, especially a colt. Jesus’ feet must have been dragging on the ground!  Not exactly the picture of a victorious, powerful, king!

But that was Jesus’ whole point.   Jesus was saying that His reign is defined by humility, taking the burdens of others onto Himself.  The full verse from Zechariah states that He who comes in the name of the Lord will ride in all meekness (humility) astride the foal of a donkey.  Jesus is defined by humbleness.  As we hear from the apostle Paul in our Epistle reading this morning,  “… though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philip.2:5-8).

However, even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t fully get it right away.  As John says, “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.”  The idea that the coming Messianic King would be a conquering hero certainly didn’t come from God.  From the beginning God had promised that it would be a bruised seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:16). 

Further He said through His prophet Isaiah that it would be His suffering servant, one who would be despised by men and forsaken of God, who would save people from their sins (Is. 53).  In all humility God’s Saving King would take upon Himself the sins of the whole world and be bruised for their iniquities.

All of Jesus’ powerful miracles would pale next to His humiliating suffering at the hands of wicked men.  “He saved others, why can’t He save Himself…If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross,” chided the people as Jesus hung on the cross.  In the end it would not be power that would define Jesus’ reign but the weakness and humility of the cross.  This is why the whole world goes after Jesus.

This humility of the cross is Jesus’ greatest glory. Jesus would say as much as He and His disciples would leave the Upper Room where they had eaten the Passover meal and as they headed toward the Garden, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and the Father is glorified in Him” (Jn. 13:31). 

Indeed, God the Father is glorified in the cross of His Son.  Palm Sunday evening God the Father audibly said so in the earshot of many of the people.  Like thunder He bellowed, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (12:28). 

Why wouldn’t The Father be glorified in Jesus crucified?  At the cross, in His humble state, the Son of God fulfilled the love God has for sinners. There He would yell out His victory cry: “It is finished!”   The Son of God became incarnate (in fleshed) intentionally and willingly all to become your “burden bearer” and deliver you from your sins.  The One who had the power over death, in all humility allowed Himself to be swallowed up by death that He might bring you eternal life. This is how God defines a great King! 

How wonderful for you!  Your King’s death has brought you victory over sin, over the plague, over suffering, over death and even over hell itself.  “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD and rides on to die for you!”