A sermon on John 12:12-16 by Nathan Nettleton
During an election campaign there are always a number of incidents that get all the journalists and commentators speculating. John Howard falls over on national television or makes a particular promise or something, whatever, and all the commentators start saying things like “This could turn out to be the crucial turning point of the campaign,” or “We’ll look back in three weeks and say ‘That’s when it was won and lost,’” or “This could prove to be the decisive moment of the campaign.”
Such speculation gives plenty of material to fill up the newsprint columns, but it is never going to see the light of day again. It won’t get quoted in the history texts later. But six weeks after the event, the same journalist might write a feature article analysing the campaign as a whole and describe one of those same incidents as having been the moment that sealed the fate of the country for the next three years. The importance of the incident is explored carefully and its implications explained. That feature article with its careful post-mortem may well be quoted for years to come in the texts that detail the history of the particular era. Now the two articles, only six weeks apart, may in essence say exactly the same thing, but there is a big difference in how they are read. Why? Because now the outcome of the election is known, and we can safely look back at the event and interpret it in light of the events that followed.
If the earlier article had offered the view that John Howard falling off the stage would probably lose him the election, you can be quite sure that the journalist does not now list that article on her resume. Her later piece on how John Howard’s little trip made him seem more human and accessible to voters may be one she’ll still show you. Not that there was anything stupid about the first article; it’s just that later events shed a different light on earlier events.
We read the two articles with quite different ways because of this, but we also read them looking for quite different information. When you read the article the day after the fall you look for information like “Where did it happen?” “How far did he fall?” “Did he hurt himself?” and you take the speculation about whether it will effect the election result with a grain of salt. Six weeks later when you read the analytical feature you ask question like, “What did it mean?” “How did it affect the outcome?” You don’t actually care much anymore about whether he fell down one step or three. Your knowledge of later events has changed the type of questions you ask about the earlier event.
So, why am I going on about this? What on earth has this all got to do with Palm Sunday and Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem? Well nothing directly, but it does have something to do with how we might read the story and what we are to do with it afterwards. Did you notice the last verse in our gospel reading? It said “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.”
It was because of what happened when Jesus was crucified and then raised from death that the disciples were able to understand the meaning and significance of his entry into Jerusalem on the donkey. The day of the entry into Jerusalem, it could have meant anything or nothing. No doubt there was speculation among the disciples and we know there was more than a little speculation going on among the religious leaders. But it was only speculation – like trying to guess what impact John Howard falling off the stage would have on the election campaign. But after the crucifixion and resurrection, it made sense. They could see how that one incident fitted into the overall scheme of things, and they understood.
You see until the outcome was known, the possibilities for what it all meant were endless. They only thing that was reasonably sure was what the crowds thought it was all about; whether they were right or not was another question entirely. The crowds thought that Jesus was the long awaited messiah; God’s anointed leader who would rise triumphantly, overthrow the enemies of God’s people, especially the Romans, and reestablish Israel as the world superpower, the nation to whom all other nations would bow down. Jesus would establish himself on the throne of his ancestor King David, and the full glory and splendour of Israel would be restored and never again would they have to endure the oppression of foreign occupation forces.
Jesus’ radical message of liberation, forgiveness and the nearness of the Kingdom of God, combined with his reputation as a miracle worker and as one who could easily hold his own in arguments with the religious aristocracy, made him the number one candidate for the fulfilment of these powerful expectations, especially with the ordinary people. And everybody knew that the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders was reaching a point of no return, so his arrival in Jerusalem could only mean a major showdown.
And so the crowds meet him as he arrives, wild with enthusiasm, waving palm branches and banners and anything else they could get their hands on. Palm branches had, for several hundred years been associated with national triumph and victory, so the picture is unmistakable – the crowd welcome Jesus as a national hero. And just to make sure there is absolutely no doubt at all, all four gospel writers tell us they sang the words from Psalm 118, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And for good measure, they add the description, “the King of Israel.”
So we in no doubt about what the crowd thought about what was going on, but to return to my earlier point, at the actual time of the event, that is still in the realm of speculation. And to add to the intrigue of it all, Jesus turns up riding on a borrowed donkey. This is hardly a national hero’s mode of transport. It’s a bit like having our Olympic heroes push shopping trolleys down Swanston Street during their ticker tape parade. We are being presented here with a clash of symbols, national hero verses peasant traveller.
And the question is what does it mean? As I said, the disciples were probably speculating among themselves. The Jerusalem authorities were no doubt speculating too. But no one could yet know. Only time would tell. There were three main options. 1. Jesus was coming as national hero, as political messiah, and the donkey bit was a kind of under-cover disguise to throw his opponents off guard. 2. Jesus was just making a routine visit to Jerusalem for the Passover festival and the crowd were backing the wrong horse, or donkey as it may be. Or 3. Jesus was coming as messiah, but the donkey riding arrival was part of his radical reinterpretation of the messianic expectations. That is he was not rejecting the crowds enthusiasm, but he was overturning their understanding of what the Messiah was all about.
There were probably others too, but the fact to note is that at the time, no one but Jesus knew for sure. People knew that something significant seemed to be taking place, but what it meant, who could be sure. The Jerusalem Post may have run a speculative editorial the next morning wondering wither this would turn out to be a crucial turning point in the conflict between Jesus and the temple hierarchy, but the truth of the matter remained no more that a speculative theory.
Until after the death and resurrection. It was only in the aftermath of the story’s dramatic climax that it all became clear. Just 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 of him and had been done to him.” Then it all made sense. Then the definitive interpretation could be written. Jesus was the messiah, but the messiah was not a all-conquering national hero, but a suffering servant who sets all people free by breaking the power of death and leading them through suffering and sacrifice to newness and fullness of life.
Now, as important as that interpretation is, I want to stay with the process of interpretation for a minute, and with this comment by John about making sense of it after the end of the story is known. Two things I want us to note in this, one about the nature of the Bible, and one about where we fit into the story.
The thing to note about the Bible, from this statement by John, is that the Bible is written with the benefit of hindsight. When you read a story like this one, you don’t get an on-the-spot eye witness perspective on the event, you get a later reflected on interpretation of the event. You get the post-election analytical feature article, not the on-location reporter’s description of the event. The gospels, and John in particular make no attempt at all to give an unbiased factual account of the life of Jesus. They give a post-Easter interpretation of the significance of the life of Jesus, and therefore it is appropriate to ask of them question about who Jesus was, and what impact he had on those who encountered him, and what this means for our relationship with God now.
But if you want to know whether he owned a house, or whether the calming of the storm happened instantly or took ten minutes to settle down, or whether his last words from the cross were “God, why have you abandoned me?” or “It is finished!” then you will get very little help from the gospels, or from the Bible as a whole. The writers had precious little interest in clarifying such details. For those answers you will need to seek the on-the-spot reports from back issues of the Jerusalem Post or the Galilee Morning Herald, and unfortunately I think those issues have been lost in the archives somewhere and haven’t ever been transferred to microfiche.
And finally, where do we fit in to the whole thing? Well John is making a very significant statement here about our role as the church. He is explicitly stating that the gospel message is not just the story of the events themselves, but also the reflection on them and interpretation of them. He is saying that the church’s work of interpretation and application is actually an essential part of the gospel message. The interpretation and reflection is, in itself, an act of faith in obedience to the Holy Spirit. And it is done in the knowledge of where the story ends up, so that like the gospel writers, our perspective is consciously shaped by the later events and even by the events that have shaped our environment. The gospel stories become good news over and over again, but only when they are reflected on from the perspective of our situation, and their revelation for the way God wants to lead our generation to new life and new freedom is uncovered and brought to light for all to see.
And that is our job, to reflect on the stories in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and in the light of both the brokenness and break throughs of our generation, and so doing to grasp the truth of Jesus for now, and to proclaim it for all those who are searching for truth and hope and meaning.
These stories are absolutely powerless as long as the book remains closed and the stories untold. But reflect on them in the light of all you know and all you have experienced and let them speak into you and through you, and you may find yourself in the place of the Jerusalem donkey, as the means by which Jesus is brought into our city and into the lives of all who live here.