Tuesday of Holy Week – John 12:12-19

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, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,

15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, 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 about him and had been done to him. 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

In the second half of the fourth century BC, history was dominated by a young Greek warrior-king named Alexander. We often call him “the Great.” I am betting that his mother never called him that. As he struck east and shattered the armies of the Persian empire, he turned south, through the lands of what is today Lebanon and Israel, on his way to Egypt. Several cities resisted him and were quickly conquered. The wiser communities capitulated. They came out to meet him with palm fronds held aloft and singing words of welcome to their new king. It was better than fighting and, while the Persians had been a pretty good empire, they could sense that the political winds were shifting. It was time to get on board with the new regime.

That history was relatively fresh in the days when John wrote this. The practice of welcoming a conqueror, instead of opposing him, with palm fronds held aloft was established throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. The crowds on that first Palm Sunday were making a political statement with those palm branches and their shouts of acclamation. The Pharisees at the end of the passage are aware of it. John approved, although he questioned the motives of the people. They have misread the signs. He wants us to remember the words of Zechariah 9. It is a king coming whom God foretold long ago.

I think sometimes we imagine that when we come to church on Palm Sunday and clutch those palms we are joining in some serene worshipful moment. We are. It has become that. But we are also joining in a political statement as well. The Jewish people were fed up with Roman rule and their own people’s misrule of their land and lives. When they shout and wave the palms as Jesus rides in, they are making a revolutionary claim – Jesus is the new man in charge. John tells us that they had seen the signs Jesus had done and they wanted change. The palm fronds were a revolution of sorts, a new king, a new kingdom. We sing the words of the crowds on Sunday mornings when we come to the Sacrament “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of Lord!” He comes to dry every tear and undo every evil. He comes to shatter the bow and shield. He comes to cast down the mighty from their thrones and rule with justice. The Pharisees of every age are right to be afraid of him.

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