“Jesus found a young donkey.” John 12.14
We don’t normally read this little passage from John’s Gospel on Palm Sunday. This morning’s hymns reflect the accounts recorded in the other gospels, particularly that of Luke. I prefer to examine John’s account. Chronologically, it appears to be a better fit to what might have taken place in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover.
If we read the other gospels, Jesus appears to have carefully stage managed the whole event. He arranges for the donkey in advance. He provides a password that the disciples are to give to the owner. He deliberately enters Jerusalem riding on it like a king, and openly proclaims himself as the messiah. The people respond by shouting, ‘Hosanna!’. What follows is no surprise. Surely, the Roman authorities could not allow what looked like the beginning of a revolt.
I want you to put aside that familiar picture of Palm Sunday, and to pay close attention to what John describes. His gospel relates this event in a very different way. The crowds are in Jerusalem for the Passover. Remember, the Passover was the Jews annual recollection of their miraculous liberation from the power of the Egyptian pharaoh. This particular year, the rumour goes around that Jesus is coming, so they collect palm branches and go out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
It is only then that Jesus looks around for a donkey. When he finds one, he mounts it, and John immediately quotes the very short Old Testament lection. John makes it even shorter, with some other small but significant changes. In John’s gospel, the prophet is quoted as saying, “Fear not”, instead of “Rejoice greatly”, and then John cuts out Zechariah’s description of the king who the prophet has said will be triumphant, victorious and humble. John omits both the military success and the humility of the king and gives just the bare facts of the prophecy, ‘the king comes riding on a young donkey.’
Earlier on, in his gospel, John tells us that the crowd wanted to make Jesus their king. It is after the feeding of the five thousand. On that occasion, Jesus quietly slipped away into the mountains to be alone. And there is the key that helps us to understand the meaning of John’s account of Palm Sunday. On that previous occasion the crowds had wanted to make Jesus the kind of Messiah that would overthrow the Roman rule. It would be several years later before another person by the name of Bar-Kokhba would take up that challenge. The Romans crushed his revolt with such brutal cruelty, that the Jews were forced to live outside of their land. For centuries, the Palestine was left desolate and Jerusalem reduced to absolute ruin. It remained that way for almost a thousand years.
John tells the story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem in a way that illustrates who Jesus is. Jesus reacts to the crowds desire to make him king. By taking a donkey, the animal on which kings rode in peacetime, Jesus refuses to ride as if he was heading into war and conquest. John emphasizes this by removing all mention of victory from the prophecy he quotes. Also, the change he makes from ‘Rejoice greatly’ to ‘Fear not’ is just as significant. The crowds were jubilant. Here was a messiah who would drive out the hated Romans. But John reverses it all. Jesus comes as a king in peace, and in place of a call to rejoice, the crowds are encouraged not to be afraid. John tells us that the disciples themselves were confused by these mixed signals, and that they did not understand until after Jesus was ‘glorified.’
The crowds sought to ‘glorify’ Jesus. But that is not the glorification John is speaking about. Nor is it the ‘glorification’ of the resurrection of Jesus. No, when John speaks of Jesus being glorified, he is speaking of the crucifixion of Jesus. A strange kind of glory, but a glory that fits in with the donkey which Jesus ‘found and sat upon.’
You see, in John’s gospel, that’s as far as it went, and no further. John tells us that those who expected Jesus to make a triumphant entry into Jerusalem were bitterly disappointed. Any such triumphant entry is aborted by Jesus. He reacted to the crowd by finding a donkey, not a white charger, and sitting on it. No wonder the crowds so rapidly turned ugly. And it is only after Jesus is crucified that the disciples remembered the verse from Zechariah and understood the full meaning of Jesus’ action to sit on a donkey.
What, then, has this story to say to us today? Perhaps far more than we care to admit. Christians speak of a crucified saviour, but often we behave as if we were looking for a messiah king. If John’s description of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is accurate, then we need to think less of the triumphant messiah, and more of the donkey. For that was Jesus’ choice.
Jesus had a passion for the kind of justice that had beeb called for by the Hebrew prophets long before him. It was a passion that led him to take the increasingly large risks that resulted in his tragic martyrdom. The events of Holy Week continue to haunt us, challenge us, and inspire us today. Are we prepared, in our time and place, to follow the Jesus’ risky way of nonviolent activism, loving-kindness, and gracious compassion?
This question becomes more urgent as we once again enter this week, framed by Palm Sunday and Easter Day. Both are days of high rejoicing. We praise Jesus as our triumphant Saviour and Lord. Yet, in all four gospels, that triumph is a strange kind of victory. John understands the glory of Jesus is to be discovered in the cross where he was abandoned and left to hang and to die. All four gospels describe his disciples as being scared out of their wits. On Easter Day they are described as hiding in absolute fear and unwilling to believe in their messiah reigning from the cross.
It took a while before “the penny dropped’. Perhaps they recalled the day they first met Jesus when they had asked, “Where do you dwell?” and he had responded, “Come and see.” Like Nicodemus who had to be reborn, like the man blind from birth and who received his sight, like dead Lazarus who ultimately came out of his tomb, like Saul of Tarsus who was temporarily blinded but who received new sight, they understood that nothing could separate them from the love of God revealed to them in Jesus.
All too readily we treat the resurrection as simply the reverse of the crucifixion – life after death, victory after defeat. Whereas, Jesus stressed the way of self-giving love that accepts the cost of humiliation, absolute abandonment and pain.
Authentic Christianity follows that way of Jesus. It is best discovered neither in rapture and delirious praise, nor in escape from the challenges of selfless and loving concern that can drain your resources and force you to rely on divine grace alone. We are not to shout about the gospel, we are to express it in our lives. We are not to wave palm branches, we are to reshape them into crosses.
This morning, you received a palm cross to remind you of your identity. You belong to Jesus – follow his example. He sat upon a donkey. He refused to enter triumphantly into Jerusalem but – for the sake of your life and for the lives of us all, he steadfastly faced a lonely cross outside that city’s walls. Why? Because the message of his life is that God loves you that much. That is why the prophet cries, ‘Do not be afraid!’, and that is why John, the beloved disciple, urges us to follow with him to the foot of the cross. It is on the cross that we find him glorified as Saviour this Holy Week.
Carver 09.04.2017 The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo