Sunday, April 01, 2012

Sermon: John 12: 12-19 Behold Your King

This year the Queen is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. Sixty years on the throne. A lifetime of reigning. One of the ways she is celebrating is by going on a tour of the United Kingdom. Now imagine that you’re waiting to see her arrive in Enniskillen, or even here in Aghavea. How would you recognise her? How would you know who she was?

You know what she looks like, don’t you? You’ve seen her on TV and in photos. You would be able to recognise her. And if you were really stuck, you could always pull out a coin from your purse or pocket and check. The book of stamps in your wallet would remind you what she looks like.

Now, you might think that’s a bit of a stupid question. But it leads me to the question I want you to consider this morning from our reading in John’s Gospel. And it’s this: how would the people of Israel recognise their king? After all, they had no stamps; they hadn’t seen him on TV; there weren’t any photographs of God’s king.

Yet there was a detailed description of the promised king which the people already had - almost like a photofit picture you might see on Crimewatch - made up of lots of passages of Scripture. Long before Jesus appears on the scene, God has been preparing his people to receive the king. He has given them the portrait of the promised king in the prophets of the Old Testament. For so long, the people of Israel have been watching and waiting for him to arrive, and now he’s here.

That’s why, as Jesus comes towards the city of Jerusalem (12), we’re told that the great crowd in the city go out to meet him, waving palm branches. (13) They reckon that Jesus is the king - after all, they’ve heard heard about him raising Lazarus from the dead - whoever can do this must be fairly special. They’re hopeful that Jesus is God’s king, and they quote one of those Old Testament promises about him.

Let’s look at verse 13 together: ‘So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the King of Israel.’ They’re quoting from Psalm 118, and that word Hosanna is a cry to God to save them, to rescue them. So as Jesus comes towards Jerusalem they’re saying to Jesus - you’re the one whom God has sent; you’re the one who’s going to rescue us; you’re the king.

But what they mean by that isn’t what we might expect. You have to remember that Jerusalem is ruled by the hated Romans. Jerusalem and Israel wasn’t free; it had been conquered. They expect Jesus to lead a rebellion against the Romans and throw them out of the country. They want to make Jesus the king in Jerusalem, by getting rid of Pontius Pilate and the Roman armies.

If you can imagine this as a movie, it would be like the moment when William Wallace rallies the troops to fight against the English in Braveheart. This is what the crowd is looking forward to. Victory and freedom.

At that precise moment, though, Jesus does something unexpected. Now, I know that you have heard the Palm Sunday story before, but imagine for a moment that you haven’t. What would you expect Jesus to do, with this wave of popular support; the tension rising; the excitement reaching fever pitch? He’s going to appear on a war horse, isn’t he? A white horse, in particular, to show that he’s the great military leader, a hero!

But that’s the opposite of what happens. Jesus finds a young donkey, and sits on it as he enters the city. In his actions Jesus is saying that their picture of the king isn’t complete. You see, they only grab hold of the victorious king - that’s like only having the queen’s ear - but there’s another piece of the puzzle in the prophet Zechariah. That verse from our first reading is quoted by John: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.’ (Zech 9:9, John 12:15).

They expected a war horse, a conquering king; Jesus comes as the humble king, riding on a donkey, fulfilling what has been written; helping us to see the bigger picture of who the king is and what he’s like. Yes, there will be victory and rescue; but it will come through the humble action of the king, bringing salvation through his own death.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he knows what lies before him. He has been on the way of the cross since he took his first steps. Yet even though he has told the disciples so many times, they still don’t get it. John tells us that in verse 16: ‘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.’

At the time, the disciples didn’t have a clue what was happening. They couldn’t piece together the photofit of the promised king. They couldn’t see how all the pieces of the jigsaw fitted together. It was only after the cross and the resurrection that they started remembering what the Old Testament Scriptures had said about Jesus, and the things that had been done to him.

Perhaps you’re still putting together the pieces, still trying to make sense of this Jesus. You’re still working out what sort of king he is, and why he had to die on the cross. There’s no better way to get to know someone than by spending time with them; listening to them speak. That’s what we’re going to do every night this Holy Week - listen to what Jesus has to say about himself and his death. Why not come along and get to know him better?

As Jesus entered the city, a massive crowd of people are with him; telling about how they had watched Jesus call Lazarus out of the tomb and raise him from the dead. The crowd in the city coming out to meet him are stirred up, as they hail him as king. The Pharisees are watching the scene, talking among themselves: ‘you see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’ The whole city seems to be on Jesus’ side.

That’s on Sunday. Come Friday the crowd will be baying for his blood, calling for his crucifixion, declaring that they have no king but Caesar. How quickly they turn away from Jesus. The King’s people become rebels - but then that’s the pattern of every human since Adam and Eve. We reject our rightful king; we sit on the throne ourselves.

All along, God has been preparing the stage for his king; providing the details of his loving kingdom; painting the portrait of the promised king - the one who loves the rebels so much that he willingly died to bring them back; the humble king who gives his life in place of theirs; who offers peace and forgiveness and rescue through the death of the cross.

This is the king who calls us to return; to find welcome; who invites us to share in the celebration banquet. As we share in bread and wine, we proclaim his death; we celebrate his victory, and we long for his return as the humble, conquering king. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Palm Sunday 1st April 2012.

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