Sermons

< Back

Our King Comes to Die - True, Even If Not Understood

April 13, 2019
By Rev. James Barton

People often wonder how things could change so dramatically for Jesus from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. Palm Sunday is often called the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem. (The ESV Bible I am using tonight has those words as the heading for John 12:12-19.) These words remind some people of what happened with the Romans and with some other nations, when a king or a military leader would win a great victory in battle and be welcomed home in glory and triumph, with a royal carpet and much glory and honor - and riding in on a horse or chariot, often displaying some of the spoils of war and victory. How could people then reject such a victorious person as Jesus so quickly, calling for His death by Friday?

When you really think about it, though, this was not some Roman-style event, but a very Jewish event, with Jewish people, based on Old Testament ideas and Scriptures and prophecies.

  • Great crowds of people were already coming to or were already in Jerusalem, for one of the yearly Jewish festivals that people were required to come to, if at all possible. In this case, it was the Passover, the celebration of God’s great rescue of His people from slavery in Egypt, during the time of Moses, long ago.
  • People were instructed to wave tree branches, including palms, at times of rejoicing (Leviticus 23:40) 
  • Jewish people would sing certain psalms from the Old Testament, including words from our psalm for today, Psalm 118, every year, as they came up to Jerusalem for Passover. They would sing “Hosanna!” (which means, “Save us, O Lord, we pray.”) They would sing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” - maybe thinking that they were surely blessed, coming as Jews to worship the one true God of the Old Testament (Psalm 118:25,26, John 12:13).

Again and again they would do all these things, and for some, there was still the hope that God would eventually keep His promise and send His Messiah, who would help His people, suffering under Roman oppression, now.

The coming of Jesus to Jerusalem was different, in that the vague hopes of the crowds became focused, at least for a time, on Jesus. Could he be the Promised One? But their focus seems to be primarily upon Jesus as a “miracle worker.”  Stories were being told about Him - and even that he had recently raised someone from the dead. John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us, “The crowd that had been with Jesus when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness.” “The reason why the crowd went to meet (Jesus) was that they heard He had done this sign” (John 12:17-18).

Their focus went beyond Jesus to someone else, too. Remember the words of John, just before our text? “When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of Him, but also to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead” (John 12:9). Even today, there is a kind of fascination with stories and even movies where people claim to have died and seen various things or even gone to heaven, or been clinically dead for an hour or more - and then came back to life. Could these stories be true? What are these people like and what do they look like? You can just imagine the kind of questions you might have wanted to ask Lazarus, if you had the chance. Lazarus became such a focus and draw, in fact, that the Jewish religious leaders discussed killing Lazarus, as well as Jesus, John tells us (John 12:9-11). All this took the focus away from where it really should have been - on Jesus Himself, that day.     

And did very many people, at all, understand what was really going on, that Palm Sunday? Both Matthew and John quote a bit of the prophecy from Zechariah 9:9: “Behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt.” But did you note, in our text, what John says of all these events? “His disciples (including John himself, apparently) did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about Him and had been done to Him” (John 12:15-16). Imagine that! They had been there that day and had already been with Jesus for about 3 years. Some of them had even helped get the young donkey Jesus asked for and rode on. And yet they still didn’t know what was really going on until Jesus had been raised from the dead and explained the Scriptures to them, and the Holy Spirit opened their minds and hearts to understand and led them to the truth.

Some of the disciples and some of the crowd may have remembered that at the high point of the kingdom of Israel, both King David and King Solomon had ridden on donkeys. Maybe Jesus could be a great king like them, who could conquer Israel’s enemies and expand the nation’s boundaries, by power and force. Some in the Palm Sunday crowd began to use terms like: “the King of Israel” (John 12:13), “Blessed is the King who comes” (Luke 19:38), “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David” (Mark 11:10), and “Hosanna to the son of David” (Matthew 21:9,15).

How disappointed the people who thought this way must have been, that by Thursday evening of that week, Jesus was arrested and put on trial and condemned to die, without putting up any kind of fight to protect Himself. Jesus clearly was not going to be the great earthly king and leader that so many hoped for. Why not, then, desert Him, or even turn on Him? Even the religious authorities, who should have known the most about these matters, were against Him and called for His crucifixion. And so the terrible events of Good Friday happened, even after the seemingly glorious Palm Sunday.

The reality is that most everything that people said that Palm Sunday was literally true, but so much was missed or misunderstood. Jesus was a king - in fact, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the very Son of God - true God. And He was also true man, born of Mary from the line of King David of old. And He was blessed, because He came in the name of the Lord, precisely according to His heavenly Father’s plan.

And he came to save! When the people cried out, “Hosanna!” “Save us, we pray, O Lord,” Jesus had come to do just that! But not to be an earthly savior and king, overthrowing the Roman oppressors and other earthly enemies and trying to solve all earthly problems. Jesus came into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday in order to die. As our Epistle lesson for today says, “He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). He died, in our place, to forgive us, too, all the sins that separate us from God, and would condemn us and the whole world, had Jesus the King not come to die for us.

It was all predicted beforehand, and Jesus willingly went all the way to the cross and death, according to His Father’s definite plan. People seemed to skip right over the part of Psalm 118 that said that the Savior had to be the stone rejected first, before He could rise and be the cornerstone for our lives and eternal future (Psalm 118:22-23). He was “despised and rejected by men - a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” as Isaiah predicts (Isaiah 53:3).

If you read it all, the prophecy from Zechariah, quoted in part by John in our text, predicted that only “because of the blood of (his) covenant” - His own blood, shed on the cross - could Jesus “set us prisoners free” from our sins. Only by His own death for us, first, could that coming King then “speak peace to the nations” in His Easter victory and give eternal hope (Zechariah 9:10-11).

And in our Old Testament lesson, we heard God saying those surprising words, “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside Me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal” (Deuteronomy 32:39). These words are especially true for Jesus. Abraham did not have to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. But sin is so serious  and so great that God the Father had to sacrifice His own and only Son (no other price would be great enough) to pay for and forgive the sins of the world.

King Jesus had to come to die. It was true, even if misunderstood by so many. And Jesus trusted His heavenly Father every step of the way, even through the suffering and the killing and death, until the Father raised Him from the dead and gave Him life again - and in the process, eternal life for us all, who trust in Him.

What comforting words these are for all of us, too. We are sometimes just like those people on Palm Sunday. We say the right words, but we are confused and uncertain about them and don’t always understand what is going on with us and our Lord, in our lives, just like John admitted that he and his fellow disciples did not understand. We get off track, too, and focus on “Lazarus” sorts of things of our own day, not the things of Jesus. We do not faithfully follow our Lord’s will, not matter what, as Jesus perfectly did for us.

King Jesus died for us, too, and all that confusion and those sins and unfaithfulness and failures are forgiven, in Him. These words of Palm Sunday are true for us, too. “Blessed are we, too, who come in the name of the Lord,” simply trusting King Jesus and His humble, saving work for us, by His grace.

And one last note from our text. How did John and the other disciples grow in faith and understanding? John keeps saying, in our text, “It is written” (John 12:13) and that “the disciples remembered that those things had been written about Jesus” (John 12:16). Scripture interprets Scripture. That has been a key principle for Lutherans from the time of Luther, and for Christians long before. The whole Bible was written so that we can know better what God says and does , as we read it and listen to what it actually says and keep our focus, by the Holy Spirit, on Jesus, the Center of it all (Romans 15:4, 10:17). John also said, later in his Gospel, “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name. Amen (John 20:31, Philippians 2:9-11).

Tags: John 12:9-19