Sermon Jesus Christ Is Coming to Town
Good morning. I was looking at some pictures on Facebook the other day, when I came across a picture from a couple years ago, with a few of my fraternity brothers. It was taken after the funeral of another one of our brothers, Mark. It’s a bittersweet picture. It was a sad day, but it was great to be with some old friends. My fraternity gave me a rich set of relationships.
I have this one fraternity brother, I’ll call him Pino, but that’s not his real name. Anyhow, Pino would listen to a single song, over and over again. One summer he dated a girl with red hair. He played and sang Neil Young’s song, “Cinnamon Girl,” until we yelled at him to shut up.
Pino is also a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. One December he started playing and singing Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” nonstop. If you were talking to him, and you asked him a question, any question, especially if the question began with “why?” Pino would sing, in his best Springsteen voice, “because: SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN!”
I mean, that could be the response to any question, any comment, you name it. At first it was funny. And then it was a little less funny. Then it became annoying. And after a couple more weeks, it became really annoying. But Pino didn’t stop. Finally, it got funny again. It was just so ridiculous that we couldn’t help ourselves—we were waiting for it. And there was no explanation for why it was funny. You just had to know Pino. The joke worked because we knew Pino and we loved him—it wasn’t funny if you didn’t know him, if you weren’t in relationship with him.
Relationship is at the heart of this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, which also presents us with something ridiculous: the image of the messiah, the King of Israel, riding on a donkey. It’s part of the story of Jesus’ death on the cross, which made him an object for scorn and ridicule. The idea that a savior would be crucified was ridiculous to the people who waved palm branches and welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem.
Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem looked like a military parade, or the parody of a military parade. I imagine some of you have heard this explanation before, and it’s accurate. The parade and the palm branches on the ground were the sort of welcome that would be given to a conquering general or a Roman governor who was coming on a state visit. But instead of riding a great warhorse, Jesus comes on a donkey. Instead of leading a revolt against Roman rule, Jesus meets his fate on a cross. The people who shout “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday also shout “Crucify!” at the trial. And Jesus’ broken body is lifted high on a cross, to demonstrate the power of the Roman Empire.
This story is ridiculous!
The same Jesus who could turn water into wine and raise Lazarus from the dead couldn’t raise an army to run the Romans out of Judea. That’s ridiculous!
The same Jesus who met the Samaritan woman at the well and instantly knew everything about her life couldn’t avoid his own arrest and trial. Ridiculous!
The same Jesus who could multiply a few loaves and fishes to feed thousands somehow couldn’t get himself off of that cross. That’s ridiculous!
The crowds who greeted Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna!” and later, “Crucify!” profoundly misunderstood Jesus and the signs—the miracles—that he performed. The crowds sensed Jesus’ divinity, but they didn’t know what it meant. They thought that Jesus would fulfill their earthly wishes in the same way that Santa Claus brings presents to good little boys and girls. Even the disciples didn’t fully understand what was going on. As the last verse of this morning’s reading says: “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.”
When I read any Bible story, I try to see where I fit into that story. I ask the question: “in this text, who am I?” This helps me to see where the text intersects with my life, so that I can draw a worthwhile lesson from the story that I’ve read. I find this approach very helpful, but I always have to remember, no matter what the story is, I’m not Jesus. I am human and I will always fall short, so I have to be someone else in the story. Always.
In this story, I hope I’m one of the disciples. They only get the importance of what’s happened in this story after Jesus has been crucified and raised from the dead; “when Jesus was glorified” the disciples remembered Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and they realized that Jesus was fulfilling a prophecy from the Old Testament. But at least they got it. The crowds never saw the victory over the Roman Empire that they wanted Jesus to bring; God didn’t deliver them a military victory over the Romans.
A few years ago, I made a very difficult hospital visit. A man in his early forties had suffered a series of strokes. He was in a coma and I visited with his parents. The prognosis wasn’t good. His parents were faced with a grim decision; they had to consider removing their son from life support.
While the parents were hoping and praying for a miracle, I don’t think they really believed a miracle was coming. I know I didn’t believe there would be a miracle. There’s no good explanation for why this man had a series of strokes, and in his early 40s, no less. No one can tell his parents—or his children—why this happened. And eventually, his parents had to make the awful decision to remove life support. They had to face the reality that their son would not recover.
Still, it’s human nature to look for a reason. We want God to heal our loved ones, and when they don’t heal in the ways we want, we want an answer. We want control, so we make up explanations. We tell people they need to pray more or go to church more often. Some of the preachers on TV tell their viewers that they need to give more money to their TV ministries so that they’ll gain God’s favor.
We live in a world where people of great faith still die of cancer or strokes or in car crashes. No amount of prayer changes the fact that people die. Yet, that doesn’t stop us from bargaining with God or Jesus, in the same way that kids write letters to Santa Claus, promising to be good. The truth is, we want to make this about us, about what we do, because that gives us the illusion that there’s a clear path out of our suffering.
The Palm Sunday story in the Gospel of John is very short—it’s the shortest version of this story in the four Gospels; it’s only eight verses long. For John, the entry into Jerusalem is almost an afterthought. It’s wedged in between the raising of Lazarus, the plot to kill Jesus, and Jesus’ explanation of his coming death. It sets the story, but it’s not the whole story—there’s more than the false triumph of Palm Sunday. And Jesus reminds the disciples and the crowds that there will be suffering before the resurrection.
I think the crowds who waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” missed the point. They thought that Jesus would give them what they wanted—freedom from Roman rule—rather than what they needed. Remember, the Gospel of John is the Gospel of relationship; it is about God in direct relationship with humanity through the physical presence of Jesus. I think they missed the point because they weren’t fully in relationship with Jesus. And the crowds can be forgiven for that; the disciples didn’t completely get it either; they only understood the events after the resurrection.
There’s one other thing that sets John’s version of this story apart from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In all four accounts, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a young donkey; but only in John’s version does Jesus find the donkey himself. This signifies that Jesus is in control of the story, even as he makes his way toward his trial and crucifixion and death. This is a reminder that God is in charge, not us.
This is great, because it shifts the burden off of us and onto Jesus. The truth is, we could never pray enough, never be faithful enough or holy enough or righteous enough to overcome our own sinfulness. We can’t do that which only Jesus can do; we can’t restore ourselves to a right relationship with God the Father. Only Jesus can do that.
The challenge is for us to let go of our need to control and explain all the events in our lives. This isn’t easy; we want to explain away all the pain and suffering in our lives and in the world around us. But the explanations we offer never hold up. The only answer that we can offer to pain and suffering is relationship. That’s what Jesus offers us.
An invitation into a relationship is an invitation to change. Think about it. If you participate fully and unconditionally in any relationship with another person, you must open yourself up to being changed by that relationship. You have to learn to see the world through that person’s eyes. You have to accept and love that person as that person is. Sometimes you have to change your own ways to do that. And that’s also true in our relationships with Jesus.
There is so much suffering and brokenness in the world, yet God rarely seems to take that away. But I believe that God is always in the midst of that pain and suffering. Relationship alleviates some of the pain and suffering. Sometimes relationship even motivates us to work to change things that cause pain and suffering. That’s how we honor Jesus’ call to relationship—we follow him into the midst of the pain and suffering, and then we offer relationship and unconditional love. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world today. We are called to go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 169.