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"Choices"

John makes choices as he tells his version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The crowd makes choices – both to come into the city, and in how they welcome Jesus. Jesus makes choices … that respond to the crowd and reveal a difficult truth.


“Palm Sunday” by Jen Norton
“Palm Sunday” by Jen Norton

John 12:12-16

March 24, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


I think choices are what make the human story so interesting!

So, I was struck by the unfolding choices as I read through the text for today.

John makes choices as he tells his version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

The crowd makes choices – both to come into the city, and in how they welcome Jesus.

Jesus makes choices … that respond to the crowd and reveal a difficult truth.

And the Pharisees, seeing all that transpires, make a choice.


Let’s explore each a little more.


 

The other gospel writers are unanimous in how they tell the story – it is a triumphal entry!


They all tell of Jesus sending out his disciples to procure a donkey – a sign of his authority … or prior preparation, or persuasiveness, or a vast network of contacts; but mostly his authority!


They all tell of a crowd that goes wild, shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”


They all tell of people spreading their cloaks on the ground before him, like they are rolling out the red carpet for a celebrity!


And they all leave the reader with the impression that everything is proceeding as it should.


Only later will it fall apart. Only later will the crowd turn on him … and shout crucify!


But John has a different version. His choices become clear as we look at the key players.


 

In the verses leading up to this story, he tells us the crowd has chosen to be there because Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. They could have chosen to stay home, or to avoid the crush of people downtown, or to keep silent, fearing that they would be reported to the authorities. But John reports that they make a different choice. They want to see more of this wonder-working man; they want to see (and smell) Lazarus personally; they want to see what will happen next!  


And when they see him, only John tells us that they wave palm branches. It is a sign of their adoration, but it also emphasizes the crowd’s misguided notions about what type of king Jesus will be. One scholar explains, “Palm branches were a symbol of royalty, national triumph, and victory [in] both Roman and Israelite culture.”[2]


They have made a choice about who he is and what they think he can do. They have waited patiently for God to answer their prayers, and now they choose to believe that God has – raising up a king who will deliver them from their oppressors with military might and healing justice!


So, they decide to follow him, to cheer and sing the yearning song of many generations, because hope is stronger than fear and faith makes people bold!


 

But the king they long for is not the king Jesus chooses to be.

John is hinting at that difficult truth with the detail about the donkey.


Let me explain.


Jesus has been in Bethany with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. It would have been an easy walk into Jerusalem. The two miles might have taken him 45 minutes – no challenge at all for someone who has been walking all over the countryside. But Jesus chooses not to walk into the city.


Instead, John says Jesus finds a donkey himself and mounts it for the ride into Jerusalem.

He does this right after the crowd has shouted, “Hosanna – save us!” and referred to him as the “King of Israel!”

He grabs a donkey, in John’s version, as a response, a correction, a blunt statement of truth.


As Kate Bowler writes, “Not only is this a fulfillment of [Zechariah’s] prophecy, but the fact that Jesus [rides] a donkey’s colt instead of a noble steed signals that Jesus is a humble, self-sacrificing king who no one needs fear.”[3]


This is not what the crowd expected. They wanted someone like King David – a warrior king – just as oppressed people everywhere want someone to fight for them. They wanted the promise of victory! They wanted someone to ride in on a horse.


A word of caution: we assume a donkey and a horse are equivalent. They are not.


Matthew Schlimm, professor of Old Testament at Dubuque Theological Seminary, goes to great pains to explain that when we think of horses we think of the Kentucky Derby, or carriage rides through Central Park, or the animal that used to pull my grandfather’s cart delivering milk.


But for the people in the Bible, he says, a horse was a military machine, like a tank.[4]

Jesus refuses to ride into Jerusalem on a tank. He will not be that kind of king.


 

That’s a difficult truth for the crowd. And maybe for us.


Maybe as you read through the gospels, you are attracted to a particular type of savior:

The Healer who can cure every illnesses.

The Miracle-worker who can walk on water and still storms and raise the dead.

The Teacher who can explain everything and leave people a little wiser.

The Story-teller who both entertains and illuminates.

The Leader who everyone wants to follow … and who sees something valuable in ordinary people.

The holy man who loves and forgives.


They are all worthy types. They all satisfy some need that we have. They are all true.


But few of us are as attracted to what Isaiah referred to as the suffering servant:

“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him … He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity … Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases, yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”[5]


That is who Jesus chooses to be … for us! And so he picks a humble donkey.


 

I’m not sure exactly how this drama touched the Pharisees. They had been keeping tabs on Jesus for a long time. Some of their number were drawn to him; others were alarmed by him.


So some probably joined in the shouting, swept up in the crowd’s yearning for a savior.


Others saw his actions as a threat.


His entry into Jerusalem forced both types of Pharisee to decide.


John doesn’t draw such a distinction here. He says that after Jesus was welcomed by the crowd buzzing about Lazarus, the Pharisees said to one another, “See the world has gone after him!”


A few chapters later, John reports that the Pharisees and the chief priests sent armed troops to arrest Jesus. A little while later he was nailed to a cross.


They made their choice.


 

John is a masterful story-teller. He places us right in the middle of all this – as if we are seeing and hearing everything – pressed from every direction by the crowd, rocking between hope and fear; trying to make sense of things like the disciples; forced to pick sides like the Pharisees.


It’s as if he is forcing us to choose. How will we respond? Amen


[1] “Palm Sunday” by Jen Norton
[2] From “Have a Beautiful, Terrible Lent: a Lenten sermon guide” by Kate Bowler
[3] ibid
[4] See 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know, page 110
[5] From Isaiah 53

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