Imagine you heard of a man who had raised someone from the dead. Imagine you could find proof of it in the man he raised. What would you do?
John 12:9–11 (NET)
9 Now a large crowd of Judeans learned that Jesus was there, and so they came not only because of him but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to kill Lazarus too,11 for on account of him many of the Jewish people from Jerusalem were going away and believing in Jesus.
Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, in front of a crowd of mourners after he had been in the tomb for four days. If this had happened today cell phones would have come out and Lazarus walking from the tomb complete with burial cloth would have been all over Facebook, YouTube and the evening news.
Word had spread and everyone wanted to see Jesus and to see Lazarus who was walking proof of Jesus’ power. I’m sure many people would have done their own investigation, taking to the people who saw Lazarus dead and talking to the people who saw him alive.
Now let’s imagine that you are convinced that the stories are true, that the people who testify to both Lazarus’ death and the public event of Jesus raising him are credible and that there isn’t any doubt in your mind that this Jesus, somehow, raised this man from the dead. What would you do?
Your first thought would probably be, “I want to meet this Jesus and see what he can do for me!” Your mind would immediately turn to whatever difficulty, illness, obstacle or recent death you may have suffered.
You would also be aware that you are not alone in realizing the opportunity that this Jesus presents to you. Dozens if not hundreds of people will be doing the same investigating, questioning and thinking about what they might be able to get Jesus to do for them. Chances are good, unless you somehow have an “in”, you’ll be in a long line and likely never get a chance to have a personal audience with Jesus. Last week the text began with some Greek speaking Jews who wanted to see Jesus so they tried to work their way up the chain of command.
Very quickly people are going to start trying to anticipate the next move. Events like this are rare and if you want to have a say in what comes you need to act fast.
The raising of Lazarus would not be welcome news to those already in power. Religions leaders had for a while already been approaching Jesus to see if there might be a way that they could recruit him to their position in their culture wars. Jesus, if he would align with one side or another could be a powerful piece that might bring their group towards triumph over their adversaries.
It seemed, however, that at every turn, Jesus refused to take a side. Jesus would repeatedly seem to assert that he was his own side and he would appropriate titles like “Son of Man” and make alarming claims to have come from heaven. He used the signs he did to legitimate his words and his claims that in fact he, and he alone, apart from the other culture war actors spoke for God and that if anyone wanted to align with God they should align with him.
This kind of thing was of course a complete non-starter when it came to forming a political/religious alliance. It would mean that those who had taken a public posture on one thing or another would have to abandon their cause and their religious/political and even familial tribe and align with Jesus. Factions were looking for an ally, not a Lord.
The chief priests who had as much to lose as anyone in this turn of events planned on killing Jesus and Lazarus, the quickest way to stop what seemed like an inevitable religious and political calamity. This might sound extreme today but in first century Judea killing was a common and fairly acceptable way of addressing a political adversary, at least if you could get away with it without crossing the Romans.
If you were not necessarily invested in the political/religious status quo, this Jesus presented an exciting possibility.
First, you want to keep someone like this around. Jesus, in himself, represented the opportunity for power to heal, power to command, power to change human history. Your parent, sibling or child might die and keeping this Jesus around meant a hope that they might be saved from death.
Second, you probably are willing to take a chance even on this religious man’s crazy talk.
If someone walking down the street says “I’m the Son of Man spoken of in Daniel 7. According to Daniel 7 God the Father will crush the empires that have been corrupting your children and taking your money and deliver into my hands an eternal kingdom that will never pass away!”
Most people hearing that might say, “Well, OK. You could be nuts. I won’t commit. Let’s just wait and see what happens.”
Then this person seems to have legitimately not only done a bunch of other rumored miracles including raising this known guy Lazarus from the dead. Well then you consider more carefully all that talk about “the Son of Man” and his special connection to the Creator God of Israel.
Maybe its now worth it to you to make a bit of noise, draw some attention to him and implicitly warn the ruling officials in Jerusalem who you rightly imagine will want to see him dead that if they act hastily they might have a riot on their hands. You have seen the crowds do this before, rehearse the centuries old Maccabean script of a Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.
John 12:12–13 (NET)
12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him. They began to shout, “Hosanna!Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”
Now if you’re a resident of Jerusalem you know the history of your people. The brothers Judah, Jonathan and Simon Maccabees lead a rebellion against the pagan Greeks who had taken control of Judah from the old Persian empire. Step by step they were able to wrest God’s people and God’s country away from the Greeks until at long last you were able to banish them from the citadel at Jerusalem.
1 Maccabees 13:49–52 (NRSV)
49 Those who were in the citadel at Jerusalem were prevented from going in and out to buy and sell in the country. So they were very hungry, and many of them perished from famine. 50 Then they cried to Simon to make peace with them, and he did so. But he expelled them from there and cleansed the citadel from its pollutions. 51 On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. 52 Simon decreed that every year they should celebrate this day with rejoicing. He strengthened the fortifications of the temple hill alongside the citadel, and he and his men lived there.
So you and your friends and neighbors know what to do and know the signal it will send to the Romans and your fellow countrymen who are collaborating with the Romans and helping to keep them in power.
The Donkey and Zephaniah
Along the way, however, Jesus mounts a donkey. On one hand you know that David and his family rode donkeys, not war horses like the Romans, but you might begin to sense that he is altering the script. Jesus has been resisting becoming a national hero. Where does he want to take this?
John 12:14–16 (NRSV)
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 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.
Jesus then mounts a donkey, which was both in keeping with Davidic kingship but also with the prophet Zechariah. John, however, then flips the script and slides in a quote from the prophet Zephaniah.
Zephaniah 3:15–20 (NRSV)
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
It is easy for you to understand Jesus in a nationalistic way but you know those limits.
John 12:17–19 (NRSV)
17 So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. 18 It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. 19 The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
Jesus and Politics Today
Jesus remains very much a part of American politics today, but not in the way he was on Palm Sunday. Today’s Jesus seems far more available to be set up as a cardboard cut out with words put into his mouth to support whatever candidate or cause the Jesus we imagine would support. I suspect if Jesus were present today like he was on Palm Sunday it might remain the case that multiple sides would want to kill him. Jesus seemed to have a habit of saying things that no political side was comfortable with.
This fact betrays not just our political and religious parties but also the warm hazy spiritual imagining that Jesus’ real mission is to simply help us feel good about ourselves. While Jesus in fact regularly brought comfort to a number of individuals the kind of affirmation he brought usually wasn’t in the shape of validating our decisions or our agendas.
Palm Sunday as Warning to Culture Warriors and Nationalists
Of Jesus’ entire ministry there is no other place where Jesus seems to come closer to the line of signing on to a culture war or nationalist agenda than Palm Sunday. He walks right into the Simon Maccabee script and embraces the “Son of David” “King of the Jews” labels working the AD 30 pundits into a frenzy. The Gospel of John puts him right there and throws Zephaniah into the mix.
Jesus will advocate for the broken, the hurting, the Gentile, the outcast when there is no political coin in it. He will offend those who wish to lure him in as his ally and declare to them that if there is a side he is on it is him alone, and in a week he will prove it when he dies alone. Jesus will make everyone with power and position believe that killing him is the only way to move this world forward to their cherished vision of how it should be.
We all have agendas. We see Jesus’ power and popularity and we drawn to him as the solution to the problems we imagine, and he will have none of it.
They may be private and personal, the kind of life we want and the things that we deeply believe need to happen for our dreams to come true. No matter how devote, obedient, sacrificial or manipulative you try to be you cannot get Jesus on your side. There is only his side.
You may have a religious or political agenda for your family, your city, your tribe, your nation or this globe. You may want to recruit Jesus or his church to this. Your mission too will stumble and fall in the age of decay. You cannot recruit him to your cause even if you use his name or a life size cut out or get churches, pastors and celebrity preachers to endorse your cause. There is only his side and he will do as he chooses.
In the end we see that he is in fact more on our side than our own agendas are. He knows what we need even as he infuriates us and lets us down by bringing or allowing circumstances that we can’t interpret as anything else but evil. This was his path, his cross where his disciples watched and despaired.
The path of gratitude then becomes sometimes puzzling and sometimes free. Jesus is can be a terribly difficult lamb to follow. His path is costly, often painful, and for every generation until now concludes in our loss and death.
We are moved forward not out of zeal to control history or take back the land or make the age of decay kingdom come, but rather to bear witness to this king in the kingly ways he led by.