Everyone loves a parade! Two months ago, Donald Trump stated that he would like a really big parade in Washington, probably on July 4, to help lift everyone’s spirits in the United States. Other countries from France to North Korea have their own parades to show off their own military strength. Some of the best parades of all take place in England – the English know how to do pageantry right!
We have our own annual parade in Steinbach. We celebrate with tractors and flags, reflecting the community’s farming background and the present influence of immigration on our community. I remember our Pioneer Days’ Parade a few years ago, when I carried the flag from Zambia (where I was born), one of over 100 flags of different countries represented in Hanover.
Today, we started our service with our own little parade, but this is a parade with a difference. We remember Jesus and his “triumphal entry” parade into Jerusalem. Instead of tanks or warhorses, he had a donkey. Instead of soldiers, he had ordinary people cheering for him. Instead of a powerful speech, he went quietly into a room, where he washed his disciples’ feet (another unusual action for a leader).
We read the account in John 12 this morning, and we read a passage behind the events of Holy Week from Isaiah 50. We look at these passages, asking what’s going on in this unusual parade, and what it means for us.
John 12The triumphal entry, as we call Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, is recorded in all four gospel accounts. This event begins what we refer to as Holy Week. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), it is followed immediately by Jesus cleansing the Temple of the moneychangers, an action that shows Jesus’ desire to renew the true worship of God. In John, the account of the cleansing comes near the beginning of the gospel, linking this renewal with the whole of Jesus’ ministry. By detaching the account of cleansing the temple from the parade, John provides a clear focus for the entry into Jerusalem: It leads directly to the cross of Jesus. These verses lead to several questions (among others):
- Who planned the parade?
John’s account leaves the planning unclear. The first three gospels suggest that Jesus planned the entry, and the disciples carried out his wishes. John notes simply that there were many Jews in Jerusalem, present to celebrate the Passover. They were drawn into the parade by the enthusiasm of the disciples, and by the rumours of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11). The verses immediately after our passage make it clear that the Jewish leaders were afraid of Jesus’ evident popularity. They responded by putting their plans in motion, which led to his death.
- Why did Jesus ride a donkey?
- What’s up with the palm branches?
- What does it all mean, anyway?
Isaiah 50This passage is one of four passages in Isaiah that we sometimes call “the servant songs”. Commentators have looked carefully at these passages, connecting them to their historical context, preparing for the return to Israel from Exile in Babylon and Persia. A proper consideration of the servant songs must wait for another occasion. This morning, I note one basic truth about them.
As someone has said, the Bible was written for us, not to us. That is, each book of the Bible was written to a particular audience in a particular historical context. Commentaries and biblical studies help us to discover this original audience and context, the people each passage is written to. Behind or beneath these specifics, there are principles from God, which are written for our benefit.
In our text this morning, Isaiah 50 is written to people in Exile, waiting for their salvation, for their return to their homeland. The prophet refers to the servant who suffers in order to save his people from Exile here and in Isaiah 53. The prophet probably means that Israel as a people is God’s suffering servant, and that their suffering also brings their salvation. Some suggest that Isaiah saw Jeremiah as a model of this suffering servant, which makes sense, given Jeremiah’s own difficult experience as God’s prophet.
In the New Testament, Jesus applies these passages to himself, and the early church clearly understood them to be prophecies about the suffering Messiah, whose work on the cross saves not only the Israelites, but the whole world. In Acts 8, for example, Philip explains Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch as applying to Jesus. In Luke 24, Jesus explains to the two disciples walking home to Emmaus how the prophecies of Scripture were fulfilled in the death and resurrection of the Messiah.
With this understanding, then, we hear the words in verse 6: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.”
Handel’s Messiah has collected these verses (and others) from Isaiah and the Psalms to describe the cross of Jesus in a moving and remarkable piece of music. Hear the way that the librettist describes the cross, using OT passages:
22. Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1: 29)
23. Air: He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53: 3) He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 50: 6)
24. Chorus: Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. (Isaiah 53: 4-5)
25. Chorus: And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53: 5)
26. Chorus: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53: 6)
27. Tenor: All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying:
28. Chorus: “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him; let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him.” (Psalm 22: 7, 8)
29. Tenor: Thy rebuke hath broken His heart: He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort him. (Psalm 69: 20)
30. Tenor: Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow. (Lamentations 1: 12)
31. Soprano or tenor: He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgressions of Thy people was He stricken. (Isaiah 53: 8)
32. Soprano or tenor: But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell; nor didst Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption. (Psalm 16: 10)
The libretto is a profound and moving account of Jesus on the way to the cross, entering into the shame of the world on his way to glory. I encourage you to sit down and listen to it this whole section during Holy Week, preparing yourself for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
For Us, and For Our SalvationAll of this was written to the first readers of the Bible, but I said that Scripture is also written for us, even if it is not written to us. So, what does this mean “for us”? We can get at this question through another question. Why did Jesus have to die on a cross? This question is really two questions: Why did Jesus have to die? Why did it take a cross?
The full discussion of these questions would take far too long, so I will just hint at it. We know that sin is in the world. Sin is rebellion against God. Sin is the source of all that is wrong in our world. When we ask why a loved one had to die, or why someone has cancer, or why marriages dissolve in anger and shouting, or why someone kills other people with a bomb in Austin, Texas, the answer is always, “Because of sin.” Not that a death is connected to a particular sin, but that human rebellion against God has brought about a world in which such things happen.
Sin, then, creates space where God refuses to come. God rules all that is. If we rebel against God and seek to live under our own control, we expel God from that space. The result is a godless place, filled with all that is wrong and twisted in our world. When we cry, “God, save us!” we are asking God to remove us from this godless place and reunite us with God. Reconciliation. Reunion. Joy and health and hope restored.
God saves us by taking our rebellion into the very being of God, where it is destroyed. God enters our rebellion, our sin, our worst fears and nightmares, and takes them into the very being of God. We call this destruction “death”.
We could describe this process in terms of a court where God will judge our sin, and a penalty that must be paid. That is one metaphor we can use, but I have been using the metaphor of destruction, a kind of battle that Jesus wins – sometimes called “Christus Victor”. We are trying to describe the indescribable, the reality of human sin against God, and the path back to life with God.
The death of Jesus, then, was necessary for Jesus to swallow up our rebellion and destroy it within himself, but why did it have to be a cross? Is it not enough that Jesus died? Consider this. If Jesus enters into and carries the consequences of human sin with his death – and his death was more or less normal, I can imagine someone saying that some exceptionally bad person is not covered by his death. We might say that Hitler, for example, was simply too evil for God to save.
Fleming Rutledge has written extensively about this question in her study of the atonement, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. She observes that death on a cross was the most shameful way for a person to die. The Old Testament Law states, “Cursed is he who dies on a tree” (Dt 21: 22f). Crucifixion not only killed the person, but it also blotted that person’s memory out of the family. A crucified criminal could not be buried with the rest of the family. Jesus died by the most shameful way possible, the most agonizing death possible in his context, a manner of death that cut him off from the rest of the world. As the tenor sings in Handel’s Messiah, “He was cut off out of the land of the living.” There is no one, therefore, who is beyond the reach of the cross. Jesus went to the deepest places of our existence possible and swallows up the consequences of our sin and rebellion in himself.
None of this would make any difference if Jesus had remained dead, but Jesus rose from the dead. Next Sunday we celebrate his resurrection, and this Friday we celebrate communion to remember his death, the great saving event of all human history. This fact gives us something else to do during Holy Week. We examine ourselves and prepare for communion as we gather on Good Friday and remember the great events that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem led to.
ConclusionThere is one final point. Jesus embraced the most shameful death possible, and then he transformed it into glory. Jesus’ death on a cross really did deserve a parade, because he transforms our shame also into the glory of redemption.
We make a mistake, however, if we think that Jesus died so that we do not have to die. Jesus died, and Jesus invites us also to die. “Whoever would be my disciple,” Jesus said, “must take up his/her cross and follow me.” Paul put it, “I am crucified with Christ.” This path – embracing the shame of people and situations around us – is the path that Jesus invites us to follow.
My father experienced clinical depression when he retired. Jesus tells us to embrace my father in his depression, not to back away because we don’t know what to say. I have friends who are convicted criminals. One has finished his jail time, and the other hopes to soon. Our natural instinct is to isolate them. Jesus encourages us to remain in relationship, and I thank God for church communities who relate to them, accepting their shame on the path to our mutual glory. Folk in our congregation have found the glory of God in relating to people on the margins through the SCO.
None of this means that we seek bad things and then embrace them with a cry of delight. Shameful things are shameful. We are right to shrink from them. Once we get past the natural instinct to pull our hand from the flame, however, we look again at the people around us and we enter into their pain and suffering with the presence of Christ. When we do, we discover that shame is the path to glory, and we pray again the prayer of Good Friday:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
25 March 2018
Scriptures: John 12: 12-16; Isaiah 50: 4-9a.
John 12: 12-16Jesus comes to Jerusalem as king
12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written: 15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realise that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
Isaiah 50: 4-9a
4 The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. 5 The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away.
6 I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. 7 Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.
8 He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! 9 It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who will condemn me?