March 28, 2010, Palm Sunday Westminster Presbyterian Church John 12:1-19 The Rev. John Zingaro “He’s Riding a Tricycle!” When I was a kid, I always knew Palm Sunday was a big day, because we got something in church. As a minister, however, I can’t figure it out. Why do we make such a big deal out of Palm Sunday? Why do we make such a big deal out of an event in which: Everything went wrong! People are cheering Jesus waving palms like pom-poms. The cheering was because—they thought they had found their Savior. That was Sunday. Friday night, they were saying, “Y’know that guy we held the parade for? We thought He was the Messiah—can’t be—He’s out there nailed to a cross!” Jesus Himself tried telling them, You’ve got the wrong guy. Everything went wrong! Why do we celebrate Palm Sunday? Jesus is traveling on foot. Have you noticed, we never read of Him riding—riding a horse, riding a donkey, riding in a carriage—like some celebrity? He’s always walking. Where He’s walking to is the Washington, D.C. of His day. Today if you want to protest something—if you want to support something—you go Washington. You go to Washington, because there are two buildings which are the focus of the nation—the Capitol and the White House. In Jesus’ day, the focus of the people was not two buildings—it was one building. It was called “The Temple”. [See insert.] The importance of the Temple was: People would bring sheep to the Temple, and the priests would kill the animals and offer them as sacrifices to God. People offered sacrifices to God because in that day, people believed: God was angry at them. They believed God was dangerous. There’s a scene in The Wizard of Oz. [Video of “The Wizard of Oz” in which the Scarecrow is set on fire.] The way the Scarecrow is terrified of fire—that was how it was thought to be between people and God. God is often portrayed in the Bible as fire. *Moses in the desert sees a bush that’s— on fire. *Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, and the top of the mountain is—on fire. *The Hebrew people are led through the desert by a pillar of—fire. How do you live with a God that’s a terror? Well, it’s like, at school, when the bully takes a kid’s lunch money. It happens one day. It happens another day. Happens another day. Eventually, the kid learns how to live with the bully. As soon as the bully approaches, he doesn’t even have to say anything. You see him approaching—you just reach into your pocket and hand him the money. That’s what the Jewish people did. They got into a routine of giving God their lunch money. Here’s what people did: They would pick out a lamb from their flock, they would bring the animal to the Temple, they would hand it over to a priest—they had to give the lamb to a priest, because the people themselves weren’t allowed into the Temple—only a priest was allowed to get that close to God. They would hand the poor squirming animal over to the priest, the priest would take a knife, cut the cute little lamb’s throat, and then spill the blood and burn the carcass as an offering to God. People were giving their lunch money to God. Now these offerings were made especially on holy days. On a holy day, Jewish men were supposed to go to the Temple. They would deliver sheep to be offered to God. This is why Jesus is walking to Jerusalem. Jesus is a devout Jew—He is carrying out the obligation of a Jewish man: On a holy day, you go to the Temple. The holy day that was approaching was—Passover. But it’s a long walk to Jerusalem. It’s a hundred miles. It’s that far away because Jesus lived way up north. He lived in the area of the Sea of Galilee. Up there in the north, Jesus had gained a reputation. He was doing miracles right & left—He was teaching the way people had never heard anybody teaching before—He was standing up to the religious know-it-alls. Jesus had authority. People could see it in Him. His followers began wondering, Could He be the Messiah? “Messiah” is a Hebrew word—it means something like “champ”—a champion. That’s what people were looking for—they needed a hero—a champion. See, they lived under the rule of the Roman Empire. The Romans were like the bully taking your lunch money. The Roman Governor in Jerusalem was Pontius Pilate. Pilate wanted to build an aqueduct—y’know, a kind of long pipeline to bring fresh water into Jerusalem. But where did he get the money to build this pipeline? Well, people would make donations to the Temple—the way you drop something into the basket here in church. That is the money the Roman Governor took to build the water line. It’d be like living in a town where the police were crooks—and on Sundays, they’d go around to the churches, and when the ushers reached the back of the church with the collection baskets, the police would be there to take the money. The Jewish people were looking for a hero—someone to get rid of the Romans. Jesus’ followers wonder, Could He be the man? And their hopes really rev up when He says to them, Let’s go to Jerusalem. Whoa! We’re going to Jerusalem! He must be the one. They’ve got to walk a hundred miles. It’s taking a few days. And maybe it’s at night, when they’re sitting around a fire, and they have a chance to talk, Jesus keeps telling them, when we get to Jerusalem, I’m going to be killed. Their mouths would have dropped open. You’re going to be killed? That doesn’t make sense. How is your getting killed going to help us? Y’know, in the Harry Potter stories, there’s Hermione Granger. Hermione is the brains of the outfit. Straight A student. One time Harry couldn’t figure something out—it was confusing—and Harry Potter said, it’d be like calling Hermione stupid. Stupid Hermione. Those words don’t sound right together. Stupid Hermione. Dead Messiah. Those words don’t sound right together. It’s like having an army—that surrenders. How’s that going to help us? But Jesus keeps saying it: When they get to Jerusalem, He is going to be killed. They get to the point where, one more day, they’ll be in Jerusalem. They spend that day at the home of a family that Jesus knows. Jesus knew a family that lived in a town just outside of Jerusalem—the little town was called Bethany. The family that Jesus knew consisted of a brother, named Lazarus, and two sisters, Mary and Martha. But the brother had become ill, and died. This was before Jesus had gotten there. Now, in the Jewish tradition, there’s no such thing as a couple days of visitation and then a funeral. In Jewish tradition, when someone dies, that person is in the ground within 24 hours. They wouldn’t even bother with a coffin. A person would be just wrapped in linen—wrapped in cloth. Burial was quick and simple. It was done this way to show that death is to be accepted—don’t make a show of elaborate mourning and extravagant expense. But there was one extravagance people would do for a funeral. And that was: The family would purchase perfume in order to pour it on the body—before the burial. Perfuming the body holds off the odor of decay. It would be done before burial—and again they would perfume the body a few days after burial. They could perfume the body even after the burial because burial did not mean in the ground—as if you’d have to dig up a grave in order to perfume the body after burial. Rather, burial was above ground: in a tomb. A tomb is above ground. If you’ve been to New York City, maybe you’ve seen Grant’s Tomb. It’s above ground. But Grant’s Tomb stands all by itself—like a monument. In biblical times, a tomb would be attached to something. The tomb might be carved out of the side of a mountain. Or a tomb would be carved out of a huge boulder. A tomb would look something like an igloo. There would be a small entrance—you had to stoop down to go in—and then when you got into the tomb itself, the space would open up. The little entrance would be covered with a boulder. This family that Jesus knows in Bethany, it was two sisters and a brother—but the brother had died. The brother died, and then four days later Jesus arrived. He visited the sisters, cried with them, and then He asked to be taken to the tomb. A lot of people were at the house, like at a funeral home. And the whole crowd got up and followed. They follow Mary & Martha & Jesus out to the tomb. So there’s a crowd watching as Jesus orders that the boulder blocking the entrance be rolled aside. Jesus then stepped forward and called into the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” Still wearing the linen that he was wrapped in, Lazarus appeared at the entrance of the tomb. The crowd saw the whole thing. They didn’t have cell phones in those days—but Man, did the news spread! That’s Saturday evening. This is the evening before Palm Sunday—Saturday evening, and now they’re having dinner: Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Jesus’ closest followers, the Apostles. You may know that in the Middle East in those days they did not have dinner sitting around a table. They would by lying on the floor—it would look like teenagers at a slumber party lounging on the living-room floor. Jesus and the others are lounging on the floor, eating and talking. One of Lazarus’ sisters, Mary, is so moved by her thankfulness towards Jesus for bringing her brother back to life—Mary takes a jar of perfume. This was likely the perfume she had planned on using on her brother, when he lay in the tomb. This perfume was expensive. It’s called nard; it’s rare—it’s made from a plant that grows only in the towering Himalayan mountains between India and China. So, it’s a perfume that has to be imported—it’s expensive. This was the perfume Mary would have used on her brother’s body in the tomb, but now her brother is back among the living. Mary must have been wondering, “What do I do with this very expensive perfume?” She gets an idea. She gets up from the slumber party, walks over to Jesus, opens the bottle and—as soon as she opened the perfume—the sweet aroma filled the room. Everybody would have noticed. They all would have turned to Mary to see what she was doing with this bottle of expensive, powerful perfume. This perfume was so costly, normally it would be used only in precious drops. [tiny drops] But Mary takes the entire bottle—we’re told it was a pint—this is a pint [showing a pint bottle]. Mary empties the entire thing over Jesus’ feet. The others gasp. One of the Apostles objects—it’s Judas. Such extravagance! He says, That perfume could have been sold. It was no longer needed for a funeral—it could have been sold. With the money, you could have made donations to the poor. Judas is objecting like this—when Jesus cuts him off. He says, by pouring this perfume on me, she is still using it for its original purpose—she is anointing the dead. The Apostles must have looked at each other and said, “There He goes again!” He keeps saying He’s going to die!” What kind of Messiah is this? That’s Saturday night. The next day is Sunday. Jesus leaves the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and Jesus heads the final three miles into the big city. Lazarus went with Him. We read that the crowd which saw Lazarus brought out of the tomb also went with them. Excitement was in the air. There’s this crowd of people leaving Bethany to follow Jesus—and there’s this crowd of people up ahead in Jerusalem waiting to see Jesus. News had spread. People showed up as curious to see Lazarus as to see Jesus. But the cheering is only for Jesus. He has to be the Messiah! Who else could raise somebody from the dead? They line the road, waving palm branches like pom-poms. People are craning their necks to see this hero. Finally, Jesus decides to ride. He’s been walking all this time—now as He is about to enter Jerusalem, He decides to ride into this parade. But what does He choose to ride? He doesn’t come clip-clopping into town on a brilliant white stallion—that’s what a conqueror would do. Jesus gets on—a donkey. In fact, we’re told this detail—that it’s the colt of a donkey—a colt—in other words, a donkey’s baby—He’s riding frisky, puppy-like colt—a silly, young colt. I’ve never seen in person—a President. But I imagine there would be all of the excitement as we’re waiting. And we’re standing by the side of the road, and we’re craning our necks, and we can see the advance guard of the police on motorcycles and here come the bodyguards—the Secret Service—and we’re waiting to see the big, shiny, black limousine—but instead what we see is: The President shows up, pedaling—a tricycle. He’s riding a tricycle! That’s what people would have thought seeing Jesus riding a silly, puppy-like colt. What’s going on here? What kind of a messiah is this? Well, by riding a young donkey, Jesus is actually playing out a scene from the Old Testament. There’s a prophet of the Old Testament named Zechariah. In the writings of Zechariah, there’s a line about a king arriving—but the king arrives riding not a white stallion—the kind arrives riding the colt of a donkey—a silly, young colt. And the meaning of a king riding a donkey is: The king is not a conqueror—the king is peaceful. See, the people are expecting one kind of messiah—they’re expecting a hero who will lead a revolution against the Romans. Jesus is telling them, you’ve got the wrong guy. He is not that kind of savior. He will save the people. But He will do it in His own way. Five days later, He’s hanging on a cross. What kind of messiah is this? How does this help—it’s like having an army that surrenders. In fact, Jesus surrendered every step of the way. Some people who wanted to get rid of Him. They had Him arrested—He didn’t put up a fight. They put Him on trial—He didn’t defend Himself. Wound up nailed to a cross. What kind of champion is this? Nobody understood—for three days—it wasn’t until Sunday morning. Easter! When Jesus returned to life, only then did His followers get it. Only then did they understand who Jesus really was. Only then did they bow before Him and worship Him as God. Only then did they realize how He had saved them. It wasn’t the type of salvation they thought would happen—they thought the Messiah was going to drive out the Romans. What good would that do? You get rid of one dictator—who would take his place? Another one. Instead of a Roman bully, you’d have a Jewish bully. What Jesus accomplished was something much deeper than just exchanging one type of government for another. What Jesus saved people from was much deeper— their fear of God. Jesus showed them a whole, new idea. The Almighty is not eager to punish, to terrify, to bully—rather, what people could see in Jesus is: It’s God Who gets bullied—a God Who in the person of Jesus is manhandled and hanged on a cross. In other words, what do you know—God suffers. This God that people all along have feared like a lightning storm—it turns out, God suffers. God feels pain. God is hurting. The Green Bay Packers had a right guard—he was 6-foot-4. Which means when he was growing up, he was already a very big kid. Growing up, Jerry Kramer worked in his father’s store. The father owned a shop that sold televisions. The kid was somewhat wild & reckless, and he would regularly get hit by his father. One time, the son wanted some cash. He was all by himself watching the store. He figured, I’ll just take it from the cash register. My dad’ll hit me, but he always hits me. The boy pushed the button that opened the cash register, and took out some money. Later that day, the father realized some cash was missing. He confronted his son. The boy was expecting to get tanned as usual. Instead, he looked at his father, and the father just looked very sad. His dad didn’t hit him. His dad simply said, “Son, if I can’t trust you, who can I trust?” Jerry Kramer said, that cut deeper than any time he ever hit me. If you want to change people deep on the inside—it’s not done by force—it’s done by going through suffering. That is the change in people that Jesus accomplished. In Jesus, people see God going through suffering. That is why we celebrate Palm Sunday. We are not part of the parade cheering a Savior that people expected to conquer by using force. They had the wrong idea. We have the vantage point of knowing the complete story. By entering Jerusalem, Jesus was walking right into a trap—He knew what was going to happen: He would be betrayed by His followers, abandoned, arrested, tortured—and finally nailed to a cross. That is why we celebrate Palm Sunday. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, it meant His willingness to step into one hellish week. Today we thank Him. He knew how to draw people close to God. If you want to draw people close, you don’t do it by terrifying them— you don’t do it by bullying them— what changes people deep on the inside is when they witness suffering. .