Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO.

Who are we waiting for? Jesus son of David or Jesus son of the father?

[Reading: John 12: 20-32]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen’

This morning liturgically we re-enacted Christ’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. Riding on the back of a donkey, Jesus had ridden past the assembled crowd who had come to praise him, shouting Hosanna to the King. They waved his entry with palm leaves and strewed their cloaks on the road before him.

The original event must have been a mighty moment; and each year we take the symbols of it and seek to recreate them through a lens of deeper understanding in our Palm Sunday morning service. That recreation through a lens of deeper understanding comes not just by a simple procession with palms but also with a dramatic reading of the Passion of Christ covering the period from the anointing of Jesus before the entry to Jerusalem through to the Crucifixion. In that reading each Palm Sunday morning we hear the crowd cry out “Crucify him!” – that same crowd who just five days earlier had shouted ‘Hosanna’.

Not only that, the crowd had also called for Barabbas to be freed in Jesus’ place. The reading this morning put it this way:

Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.

Barabbas – do you know what the name means? It means ‘son of the father’. Perhaps even more unsettling is that ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew (25:16-17) recorded Barabbas’ full name as being Jesus Barabbas. This name is not in our Bibles today since it appears that the church leadership of the second century were deeply troubled by this coincidence of names and edited out Barabbas’ first name – Jesus.

So, this is what we have. At the start of the week, the massed crowd were shouting ‘Hosanna to Jesus the Son of David’ hoping that he would free them from their oppression. By the end of the week, they called for freedom for Jesus the son of the father, a murderer who had been part of the rebellion to overthrow the Romans.

Some have interpreted the crowd as having been enormously fickle; but maybe they weren’t. Maybe they only ever really thought of the possibility of being freed from oppression in this life – perhaps because that was simply what worried them more. Not that they wouldn’t have feared death, but in all probability, they wouldn’t have been able to grasp that anything could ever be done about dying – “we are all going to die, so don’t waste time worrying about it – just worry about living”. They had expected Jesus son of Joseph to free them from the life they were living under the Romans, he hadn’t so they had swapped their loyalty to Jesus son of the father – Barabbas – who at least had tried to overthrow the Romans so that they might have had the chance of living free.

Crowd psychology is a well-studied field; it is all about how individuals think and react differently when they are part of a crowd. The assemblages at the Lions’ Gate, the entry to Jerusalem through which Jesus came, and that which gathered before Pilate’s palace were classic examples of crowd psychology. The thing about crowds is that they can so easily have biased versions of truth. One of our children recently gave a spontaneous definition of bias as being ‘how not true the truth is.’ Crowds, in their collective energy, may adamantly proclaim truths that may not be true.

Over the three years of Jesus’ ministry, people had come to hear more and more about this amazing travelling rabbi, Jesus. He could perform miracles, he healed people, he could even defy death. Hadn’t he raised Lazarus from the dead? It is interesting that in the verses from John’s gospel immediately preceding those we heard tonight, we find Jesus having a meal in Bethany with this same Lazarus who just days earlier had been dead in his tomb. The news of that meal with the recently proclaimed dead would have travelled fast from Bethany to the hopefuls of Jerusalem and would have added to their wishful thinking about what Jesus was about to do for them all – give them better and longer lives.

Furthermore, the manner of Jesus’ arrival that day in Jerusalem would have struck chords in the memories of the more religiously literate of the day. The prophecy of Zechariah 9:9-10 could have come to mind:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Or they might have thought that a repeat of history was taking place before their eyes, recalling 1 Kings 1:32-35 about the enthronement of Solomon:

King David said, “Call in Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet and Benaiah son of Jehoiada.” When they came before the king, he said to them: “Take your lord’s servants with you and have Solomon my son mount my own mule and take him down to Gihon. There have Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him king over Israel. Blow the trumpet and shout, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ Then you are to go up with him, and he is to come and sit on my throne and reign in my place. I have appointed him ruler over Israel and Judah.”

Jesus would have been aware of these biased understandings of the truth that he was teaching. And so, in our gospel reading tonight, we see Jesus explaining what his real ministry was. He did so in two parts. Firstly, in answer to some Greeks who had been visiting Jerusalem, Jesus used the metaphor of a grain of wheat. Then secondly, there played out for the benefit of the crowd, a conversation between Jesus and God the father, one of three occasions in the gospels where the voice of God is heard.

In using the metaphor of a grain of wheat, Jesus would have expected that his listeners would understand the reference that a grain of wheat appears to die and then comes back to life in new growth. Jesus extended the allusion by pointing out an obvious point that might otherwise have been missed just because it was so obvious – namely that one grain of wheat creates many more – but only if it dies. His listeners may have thought they understood what Jesus was saying but may have interpreted it to mean that as the generations proceed new life comes into being from generations that pass away. Hadn’t Abraham been promised innumerable descendants?

But Jesus was saying much more than that. He had gone on to say:

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The addition of the words ‘in this world’ and ‘eternal’ are clues to our ears that Jesus was talking about a different form of life than that of this world. But what if I take those words out, the reading would then become:

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life will keep it for life.

Which all sounds rather odd in English, but is much clearer in the Greek words used in the gospel. The Greek word for ‘life’ that Jesus asked his listeners to hate and be prepared to lose was  ψυχὴν [psychen] while that which he was offering instead was a different Greek word for ‘life’ ζωὴν [zoen]. The difference between the two has been described as the difference between ‘our life’ and ‘life itself’, the first simply a mortal distillation of something eternal –the latter being life in its absolute sense.

In the second, the conversation with God, Jesus started with the words ‘Now my soul is troubled’ and followed this with a rhetorical question which he immediately answered in the negative. He then called on God to glorify his name, to which God responded and was variously heard as the noise of thunder or as an angel speaking.

Jesus’ human self had spoken, on behalf of us all, about how troubled he was – this was from his human life – psychen – but his divine self spoke of absolute life – zoen – when he explained the divine conversation to those assembled:

This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world, now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

In other words he offered to all of those who listened, that life/psychen could become life/zoen. Transitory mortal life could become eternal life. It would recall his words in John 10:10:

I came that they might have life in all its fullness.

Where the word for life was zoen.

So what are we to take from all of this? What has Palm Sunday meant for us? What are we expecting of the services that will be play out each day of Holy Week, save Saturday? Will we treat them as mere moving liturgical re-enactments recalling some other time and place where just remembrance suffices? Or will we seek their contemporary relevance to us and our world and to us individually? The choice will be ours either to wash our hands, like Pilate, of the contemporary significance of the whole series of historical events that took place that first Holy Week before its sanctity was understood, or to let them infuse and enthuse us in the place and circumstance where we find ourselves now?

American Pastor Brian Zahnd, whose tweets I follow more than those of Donald, has written this:

One of the problems with tidy atonement theories is that they allow us to brush off our hands and say, ‘That’s that. All done’ It’s too much like Pilate washing his hands. No. The crucifixion of Christ must remain enough of a mystery that it always calls us to take a second look.

So as we embark on the nightly cycle of services for Holy Week from tomorrow and Tuesday’s Eucharist services, through Wednesday’s solemn Tenebrae, then Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, reflecting through Saturday before the Resurrection services of next Sunday, how will we participate?

Will we be just an audience observing the annual re-enactment of events long gone? Will we be a crowd rushing to easy conclusions about the significance of what will occur at each service? Until at the end of the cycle of services they will have been mere performances that entertain so that by next Sunday we will shout the traditional Easter Day proclamation in the spirit of ‘Encore!’ Or will we, as Zahnd commends, take a second look at what is about to happen.

Will we allow our very selves to be awed in the silence and receding light of the Tenebrae, perplexed at the washing of our feet, deeply troubled at the crucifixion, in a state of suspended reflection before the Resurrection? If so, then at that first service next Sunday, Easter Day, when the light will return from a single lit candle reaching out to engulf us all in the Light of Christ, we may acclaim with deep personal impact that – He is Risen!

This acclamation will then be no theatrical climax but words that strike deep within each and every one of us. In C17 the Calvinist Jacobus Revius [1586-1658] wrote a poem ‘He carried our sorrows:

No, it was not the Jews who crucified,
Nor who betrayed you in the judgment place,
Nor who, Lord Jesus, spat into your face,
Nor who with buffets struck you as you died.
No, it was not the soldiers fisted bold
Who lifted up the hammer and the nail,
Or raised the cursed cross on Calvary’s hill,
Or, gambling, tossed the dice to win your robe.
I am the one, O Lord, who brought you there,
I am the heavy cross you had to bear,
I am the rope that bound you to the tree,
The whip, the nail, the hammer, and the spear,
The blood-stained crown of thorns you had to wear:
It was my sin, alas, it was for me.

Yes, alas, it was for me and you that Holy Week took place two millenia ago; but if we deeply feel the ‘alas’ then we can joyously plunge ourselves into the ‘hosanna’.