“Hail to the King” & “Lamb of God” by Rosanna McFadden
“Hail to the King”
Meditations for 4.10.22 L5 Palm Sunday
Good morning! Palm Sunday is such a joyous celebration: I have mentioned before how much I love to see the palms waving, and hearing everyone shouting and singing my name Rosanna! Rosanna! It may be the only Sunday I get the recognition I deserve. Oh wait . . . The celebration is for Jesus, of course, as every Sunday should be. But this Sunday is more complicated than most. It may help if we go back and untangle the narrative a bit — not only so we know where we’ve been, but so we have a clearer sense of where this is going.
Throughout Lent we’ve been examining what the Bible says about who Jesus is, who Jesus says he is, and especially who we say Jesus is, and what that means for our lives. We’ve heard that Jesus is God’s Son, shining with glory, and the one who seeks the lost and welcomes them home. But a name and an image which keeps returning is Messiah — the Anointed One. Anointing, or having oil poured over your head, was a sign of God’s presence, God’s favor, and especially of being commissioned for a special purpose. Kings of Israel, beginning with King Saul, were commissioned by being anointed by a prophet, who spoke for God. Jesus, the Anointed Messiah, had an even bigger purpose than leading a nation: he was to be the Savior of the world, God’s only Son, the Beloved. His anointing was baptism in the River Jordan, followed by temptation in the wilderness: that’s where this Lenten journey started.
Last week we talked about a different kind of anointing: a love offering of gratitude from Jesus’ friend Mary. Instead of pouring oil on his head, she put expensive perfume on his feet and dried it with her hair. It may have been acknowledging Jesus’ special position as Messiah, but it was also recognition that Jesus’ death was imminent. The perfume which Mary used was often part of Jewish burial rituals, where dead bodies are treated with perfume or spices.
Death has been hovering lose to Jesus for the past week. After he made a big stir raising Lazarus from the dead, John records how the Jewish leaders have been plotting to kill Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus has not made a public appearance for a week: the paparazzi and his Twitter followers and anyone who is drawn to a spectacle are hungry for something to happen. There’s a crowd in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover who can’t wait to see what miracle Jesus will do next. When that crowd hears that Jesus is coming into town from Bethany, they tear down palm branches and go out in the streets to give Jesus a hero’s welcome.
John’s account varies a bit from the other gospels: John doesn’t make a big deal of Jesus riding on a donkey, but that was prophesied in Zechariah 9:9, so it’s a significant detail. It is Luke’s gospel which has Pharisees asking Jesus to tell his followers to be quiet, and Jesus saying “If they were silent, the stones would shout out.” I love that idea of the stones shouting praise to Jesus, so I snuck that into the Call to Worship. These are not real stones, but I hope that they’d have something to say if you hadn’t already said Hosanna! for them. “Hosanna” means Save Us, please! Or Save Us, we beseech you. It could be a theological statement about the need for eternal salvation, but given the fervor of this crowd, it’s more likely a political statement. Remember, Israel is occupied by the empire of Rome. Hosanna in this context is more likely the Hebrew equivalent of NATO forces coming into Kyiv, Ukraine. Please, Save Us!
What is unique about John’s gospel is a concept and a phrase which you won’t find in the other gospels. It is in John 12 verse 13, which says “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered.” John is the only gospel writer who describes the events of the coming week as Jesus being glorified. That is a perspective which could only happen at some distance from Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
This is triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but it is heavy with irony: that is, the people are clamoring for one thing — freedom from the Roman Empire — and Jesus knows the reality is something very different: he will be executed by order of the Roman Empire. The people want to make Jesus their king, but the only people who will say “Hail, King of the Jews!” are Roman soldiers, who have dressed Jesus in a purple robe, and are mocking and striking him. It’s a parade which ends with a different kind of king. Only Jesus can understand and accept what he has been anointed to do and the path which lies ahead.
“Lamb of God”
It is now Friday morning. Jesus has been betrayed the night before, arrested, and dragged around for questioning through the night. The Jews authorities have sent him to Pilate, the Roman governor, who asks the Jews “What accusation do you bring against him?” and they reply, “If he wasn’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have sent him to you.” Which is not really an answer.
Pilate and Jesus have this exchange which feels like they are both speaking, but not talking to each other. Pilate says, I’m not a Jew, but the Jewish leaders say you’re a criminal — what have you done? Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it was, my followers would be fighting for me, but my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate: “So you’re a king?” Jesus: “You say that I’m a king. I came to testify to the truth.” Pilate: “What is truth?” This is not a very satisfactory conversation. It is finally the crowd which wins out with their calls to have Jesus crucified. Pilate washes his hands of the whole business. The truth is beyond what Pilate can understand, and the facing the truth of what we have done and what Christ has done for us takes more courage than any of us have without God’s help. One way to begin to see the truth of what Christ has done is to see how the Bible has described it.
The notion of Jesus as the Lamb of God is a multi-layered one. The Hebrews enslaved in Egypt put lamb’s blood over the door of their homes so that the angel of death would Passover. It’s Friday morning, and sundown will mark the feast of the Passover for Jews: more than 1000 years of remembering their liberation from Egypt. Lambs were part of the Jewish sacrificial system, and the prophet Isaiah has already made the metaphorical leap from an animal to a person. Isaiah 53:7 says, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” Early in John’s gospel (1:36), the first time John sees Jesus he says, “Look! The Lamb of God.” But nowhere is the image of the Lamb as pervasive as in the book of Revelation. For all its apocalyptic wackiness, John the Revelator has a perspective different from the Old Testament prophets, and even the gospel narratives. The perspective of Revelation is a post-resurrection one: the same view from where we stand 2000 years later. We know that Jesus, the Lamb of God, not only suffers and dies, but he is resurrected. Jesus, the Lamb of God triumphs over sin and death.
Today we are going to leave the narrative of Jesus’ life at Friday morning. This Thursday evening, we’ll go back to Thursday evening and then go through until Friday afternoon. Jesus as Rabbi, Teacher, Healer, Humble Servant, Friend — those are all names or character of Christ which we will encounter in the coming week. Prophets talked about the lamb of God, Jesus was the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world on the fateful Friday when the sun went dark. But Jesus is now, and will be forever, the Lamb of God who defeated death through the power of the cross: the resurrected one who will reign forever and ever. Our journey to Easter must go through the cross: resurrection makes sense only if Jesus died on the cross. It is a journey we talk about every year — or read biblical accounts or devotions or other writing about the cross. Maybe you’ve seen movies about the crucifixion, and there are plenty of hymns and songs we can listen to. But the power of the cross is not theatre or performance; it is our experience of dying to ourselves and being reborn in Christ. If this has happened to you, you can probably remember when you realized that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior. If this happened to you longer ago than say, yesterday, you probably know that it is something we need to be reminded of again and again, because we stumble and fall short or miss the mark again and again. The power of the cross is that because the Lamb of God gave his life for us, we are forgiven and we are free: now and for eternity. This is the story which we will remember and celebrate in the coming week. I hope you can join us on that journey. Amen.