“King Jesus – A Contradiction in Terms”
a sermon based upon John 12:12-19
Palm Sunday is the day of the great green parade -- the coronation ceremony (the inauguration) -- of Jesus as Israel’s King!
It is amazing to think that Jesus -- a man who, by this time in the story, has a price on his head -- an outlaw in the eyes of the religious authorities -- would deliberately ride into town in such a way that every eye & ear was drawn to him. This parade is either raw courage or utter foolishness.
With the danger that Jesus knew he was in, it seems to me it would have been natural that – if he must go to Jerusalem at all – he should have slipped in unseen, and been hidden away in some secret place in the back streets. (Hiding out like we did for these last two weeks; hunkered down at home in fear of COVID-19, the coronavirus!) But Jesus does the very opposite. He rides into town in a public parade! Jesus entered the City in such a way as to focus the limelight upon himself: “Hey-sanna, ho-sanna, sanna: Superstar!” Like a winning candidate, Jesus is taking center stage like a celebrity: Here comes King Jesus!
Here is how John describes it: A great crowd who had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (Yes, they called him “King” -- the King of Israel.)
And Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it. (Yes, I prefer to call the animal a “donkey” -- because kids always seem to giggle when we read that “Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it.”)
The Gospel of John makes the point that this action fulfilled Scripture -- as it is written: “Fear not, daughter of Zion. Behold, your King is coming, sitting on an ass’s colt.” His disciples did not understand this at first (we are told), but later they remembered that this had been done to him. (John 12:12-16)
What’s not to understand? The crowd is welcoming Jesus into the Capitol City with an inaugural parade, like a winning candidate, reciting the words from the prophet Zechariah that we used in our Call to Worship -- to welcome the triumphant, victorious King... who cut off the chariots and the war horses -- who cut off the battle bow -- and who commands peace to the nations. If Jesus is a King, it’s a different kind of King than King Herod or the Roman Caesar. King Jesus… humble and riding on a donkey -- on a colt, a foal of an ass.
Presbyterian minister Mary Ann McKibben Dana, in suburban Washington DC, writes in The Christian Century commentary (Vol. 133, No. 5, March 2, 2016, page 19):
Jesus’ ministry has been punctuated by his invitation to “come, follow me.” And many do follow, swept along in the wake of the one who will preach, teach, heal, exorcise [evil], exasperate [civic leaders], and inspire [ordinary folks]. But here, as his ministry approaches its culmination, it’s the disciples [and the crowd] … who are out ahead, and he’s the one following. Jesus doesn’t lead the throng into Jerusalem, riding out front with everyone trailing behind him. … [No.] He’s in the middle of a crowd of admirers. [In fact, it almost] seems like he’s bringing up the rear. How can you throw your cloak on the road for Jesus unless you’re ahead of him?
Sometimes we follow Jesus from behind. We can see him clearly; we know we’re on the right path. [We imitate his values, his behavior. We see how Jesus does things; we follow in his footsteps, even as He follows his inner compass set on God.]
But sometimes [writes Rev. Dana] Jesus is in our rear-view mirror, gesturing at us to go. [Go forward, go on!] It takes faith to follow Jesus [in any public way. But] it takes very deep faith to go ahead of him into unknown territory. (unquote)
Joel Biermann (Creative Communications: Fenton, MO, © 2013), reminds us that “not every king always looks like a king. If a king took off his crown and royal robes, and got rid of his scepter and never sat on his throne, he wouldn’t look much like a king. And if he didn’t do kingly things, like lead an army, or joust, or do some sword-fighting, he wouldn’t look much like a king. In fact, some people might decide that he’s not a king at all.”
I suspect, that’s how it was with Jesus. He didn’t look much like a king. He didn’t have a crown with jewels or sit on a throne. And he didn’t lead an army or get into sword fights. There were a lot of people who wanted Jesus to present himself like the kind of king they were used to seeing. On Palm Sunday, especially, people thought it was time for Jesus to start acting like a king. But Jesus didn’t do that. In fact, I go so far as to say that “King Jesus” is a contradiction in terms.
For many centuries, the Church has been in the habit of calling Jesus our “Lord & King”. It is done with reverence, I know. It is done to give glory and praise to his memory. I understand that. I appreciate that. On this day of the Great Green Parade -- Palm Sunday -- I can get with the up-beat, highly-charged, anticipation of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem! “The King of glory comes, the nation rejoices. Open the gates before him; lift up your voices.”
To refer to Jesus Christ as “Lord of Lords” and “King of Kings” is certainly intended as a way to “honor” him as an “Excellency of highest quality”, unsurpassed in all ways. “Sovereign” is our Hymnal’s substitute word for “King”. We’re saying: Jesus… He, the Man!
Some people like to imagine God as ruling everything in royal splendor. (Beautiful? Yes, I suppose.) But it is a total reversal of the values & example Jesus gives us in the Gospels.
I hope you realize that the “Lord of Lords” and “King of Kings” were titles claimed by the Roman Caesar, who was the ultimate ruling authority in the Empire in Jesus’ day. Probably that’s the way some early Christians imagined Jesus Christ “ruling in Heaven” -- surrounded by angels and saints, in a great celestial Throne Room not unlike Roman royalty, and other kings and Presidents since then -- but it isn’t how Jesus functioned on earth. … Not even close.
Do you remember, for example, what Jesus said to those disciples, who were jockeying for positions to sit at his right hand and at his left “in your kingdom”? (Matthew 20:21) Jesus said: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. (!) But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be servant of all; for the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” (Matt. 20:25-28)
I doubt that anyone who uses “Lord” or “King” language for Jesus intends to express something that is contrary to Jesus’ earthly ministry… but it’s been done for a very long time by a great many Christians all around the world. If we are to take the life-story of Jesus (the Rabbi from Nazareth) as our example of what it means to be “Christian”, we will not find a lot of “Lordly, Kingly, Sovereign Power” holding authority over anyone! It’s not Jesus’ way; not at all.
Jesus himself was no king -- at least not in the ordinary meaning of the word. Instead of the trappings of wealth and power, the historical Jesus experienced poverty. Instead of being lifted up high-&-mighty to rule from a throne – which is what the crowds on Palm Sunday were hoping to achieve -- Jesus was lifted up on a cross and crowned with thorns. (!) Jesus knew this tragic reversal was coming, but his followers and the crowds seemed to have no clue!
I try to imagine what the people on the outskirts of Jerusalem were thinking on that first-day-of-Holy Week so long ago. The Jews had been waiting for their Messiah-King for centuries! They yearned for the promised King from David’s line, who would come with righteousness and justice, and exert his power and authority to establish God’s kingdom -- with Israel as God’s “most-favored” nation, and Jerusalem, it’s capitol, the center of all governing power! It’s like they wanted to be the new Empire, like Rome was in their day. King Jesus would be like Caesar, or like Pharaoh of old, or Babylon. Real Kings were rulers, after all, putting their nation first, and best.
On this Palm Sunday, it seemed like it was all coming to pass at long last as Jesus came down the Mount of Olives on a donkey-colt. Jesus’ miracles and teachings had persuaded the crowd. In particular (in the Gospel of John) it was the raising of Lazarus from death that convinced them. John says “it was on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus” (John 12:11)
The crowds were convinced that Jesus was the Promised One. They were certain that he was coming to Jerusalem to use his wondrous powers to drive out the Romans -- to shake up Jerusalem -- and begin his reign over the whole world. Jesus was their man, their king! So, as he rode along they did their best to stage a proper coronation procession. Palm branches and cloaks lined the road. It wasn’t much, actually. They did their best. After all, with no advance notice of Jesus’ arrival, their parade was necessarily impromptu. And besides, the crowd was entirely on their own for this celebration.
The kind of king that Jesus was, and the kind of kingdom he had come to establish, were nothing like the people imagined them to be. To describe Jesus as a King is, in my opinion, a contradiction in terms.
You see, they had long been taught that when the righteous, holy, Anointed One of God would come into the midst of people who were unrighteous and unholy, there could be only one outcome…
… what was unholy would be destroyed! It was a basic concept in biblical religion that “what is unholy cannot exist with what is holy.” The Jewish people were eager for their messianic king to come because he would destroy the heathen Romans… the foreign oppressors, the occupiers of their Promised Land. Gentiles, goyyim.
But Jesus had not come to Jerusalem to judge and to destroy sinners -- he knew he would be judged by and destroyed by sinners. He had said as much to his disciples on several occasions. But that’s not what anyone actually believed. No, this was King Jesus after all.
It was just five days later -- five days after the people’s attempted coronation parade -- that Jesus did receive his crown… and he did ascend to his throne. Except that he was crowned with a wreath of thorns. The king of all creation was lifted up onto his throne, but it was in the form of a Roman cross. There was no royal fanfare on that Crucifixion Friday… only the angry, mocking shouts of a mob. There were no cheers of success (no adulation of a winning candidate like we see in the televised pep rallies staged by our politicians), only the taunts and jeers of the spectators and soldiers. There was spectacle alright, but it wasn’t any dazzling royal glory when Jesus was “raised up” on his throne; it was a grisly, gruesome scene of horror: execution by state authorities with the complicity of religious leaders. So crowned, and so enthroned, King Jesus suffered and died.
Of course, this tragedy (that people call Good Friday) was not what the people had in mind. This was not the kind of “king” that they had cheered and praised on Palm Sunday. Jesus received the crown and the throne that he himself had chosen, because he would not back down in the face of danger, and he would not change course from the Gospel mandate that he felt from the Holy Spirit to initiate.
In the Bible text & the choir’s anthem & in our hymns, we hear the shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Hail to the Son of David!” We hear the wonderful music and relish the glory of the Palm Sunday parade.
And, we smile to think how it must have been on that Sunday so long ago… coming down the Mount of Olives: all those people, all those palm branches waving, all those cloaks lying in the dusty road, and Jesus in the middle of it all.
But remember, this is still Lent. We’re on the brink of the depths of Jesus’ humiliation and suffering. This week leads us to Maundy Thursday -- Jesus’ Last Supper (6:00 pm here in Fellowship Hall) -- and to Crucifixion Friday. We know what’s coming, just as Jesus knew: The hands that were raised in waving acclamation as he entered Jerusalem will soon be raised in angry fists. Voices that shouted “Hosanna!” will all too soon shout “Crucify!”
The reality at the end of the Palm Sunday parade was not a crown of gold and a throne of splendor. The reality was a crown of thorns and a throne of agony. Jesus rode into Jerusalem, not to destroy unholy sinners but to allow himself to be destroyed by them. He came not to blast the unrighteous but to bless the unrighteous. Not as a victor over sinners, but as a victim of sin. To expect Jesus to rule as a King is a contradiction in terms. His kingdom is of another sort altogether.
Jesus came not with judgment and condemnation in his heart, which (frankly) was certainly deserved -- just see how the authorities played it! -- he came with the agenda of salvation. He didn’t come in wrath with the intention to obliterate evil -- nor even to judge those who continued to live in their sin. No, Jesus came with humility… eager and ready to give God’s grace & guidance to all who would receive it by faith, and to extend forgiveness and love from God to all people.
Jesus came to Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday neither to claim the Throne of David, nor with the intention of ending his life on a Cross. He came in hopes of ascending the throne of each person’s heart and from there (within each person’s spirit) the Kingdom of God would begin to rule and direct that person’s life.
Jesus believed his spiritual movement was “contagious” (if I may use a highly charged word). The kingdom of God would spread like an infection, from person to person, until (like a pandemic) everyone caught the Spirit.
Jesus was a remarkable sort of king… One who is content to reign from a throne as simple and as sinful as a human heart. So, if we choose to use the metaphor of a “king” in this 21st Century America, that’s the kind of king that Jesus is. His majesty is not measured in terms of political power -- police powers, taxation, coercion, regulation, lock-down, suspension, travel ban, and the rest.
Jesus’ majesty and authority brings God’s reign of grace and forgiveness alive -- entirely without coercion, free of charge, available to all, whoever you are. (!) His majesty makes the unrighteous righteous; embraces the unholy with unconditional love; extends the offer of mercy -- grace (unearned and undeserved) -- and hands down a verdict of acquittal! That’s how Jesus establishes his kingdom in this world. That’s what he was doing that led up to Palm Sunday, and that’s what he was still doing to the end.
It’s been 2,000 years since the first Palm Sunday parade, and Jesus still doesn’t operate the way we would expect a king to do things. He does not march into human hearts ready to conquer. He does not enforce his authority by royal decree and omnipotent might. Jesus brings his kingdom by grace, through faith, extending it to one person at a time. Jesus brings God’s kingdom by bringing us grace & hope & love. God’s kingdom comes through the living faith of God’s people… in you & me.
Well, now that we’ve taken a long look into the rear-view mirror, and have seen Jesus back there gesturing to us -- thumbs up, you’re right on target -- let’s go on ahead with courage, and do as he would do!
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