Saturday, April 12, 2014

Missing the Cues

John 12:9-19
Palm Sunday
April 13, 2014
William G. Carter

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 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. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

One of the awkward truths about being human is that we miss a lot of things that are going on all around us.
Perhaps we are distracted. Or confused. Or we are simply not paying attention. For instance . . .

“Did you see that man who fell asleep in church?”  No, where was he? “He was sitting right next to you.” I guess I didn’t notice. I was listening to the trumpeter.

It happens a lot. The day dreaming motorist sits in front of a light turned green. The high school actor fawns over the attractive singer and forgets to go on stage. The young executive should have double-checked the zipper. All of us do this. Oblivious can be our middle name.

I had something horrible happen two weeks ago. After preaching for a big celebration in Abington, just north of Philadelphia, I greeted some people after the worship service. One of our talented church members was there. It was great to see him. He mentioned that church was only a short distance from where he is pursuing an advanced degree in physical therapy. I said, “Oh, this would be a great place to worship while you’re down here!” and made a mental note to mention it to the church’s pastor.

Then I turned to the next lady in line, an older woman on crutches. She had heard our conversation and smiled broadly. I pointed to Ben and said, “Ma’am, are you in need of a good physical therapist?” She said, “I would be, if I had another leg.” Oops! I had not noticed. Call me Captain Oblivious.

Ever have something like that happen to you? It is a common human problem. Something big is going on and we are fussing on the sidelines. We lean down to tie our shoe and miss the motorcade passing by.

It is a way to understand this Palm Sunday story. Jesus comes to town and people miss who he is. The Gospel of John isn’t the only one to say this.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus rides down the Mount of Olives on the donkey and he pauses midway to look at the Holy City. There is a chapel there now, in that precise spot, and it is shaped like a teardrop. It is said that Jesus wept there, gazing at the beautiful city, and he cried out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only you knew the things that make for peace! But you can’t see them, for you miss who is visiting you.”

They don’t notice. The Passion story is a story about a lot of missed cues. A lot of people don’t observe what is going on right in front of their noses.

According to John, Jesus comes into the city with Lazarus. He has just raised Lazarus from the dead. The buzz is all over the region. The crowds are looking for him. The very serious religious officials are upset. “Look at this!” they exclaim. “We can’t do anything about this movement. We had better kill Jesus . . . and we had better kill Lazarus too, his sermon illustration.” It is one of the dumber things that anybody ever says in the Gospel of John: Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, so you’re going to kill both of them? Don’t you notice what kind of life-giving power is at work in the world?

John the Gospel-Writer is not beyond using irony. In fact, it’s often the main course on his banquet. One of the primary reasons he writes this book is to tell the truth about the human race. The truth is quite simple: In Jesus Christ, God comes to us and we don’t want him. We reject the Power that gives us life. We shrug off the Healing that can make us well. The Glory of the One True God shines bright but we put on sunglasses, and then we shut our eyes.

A friend named Rodger had an invitation to speak at a church in Alaska, all expenses paid. It was a long way from Atlanta where he lives. So he flew up to Alaska, took the ferry through the fjords, caught a ride, and got to the church. He said it was amazing. Right behind the pulpit was a huge glass window. Out there were mountains and glaciers, and a pristine lake. It was breathtaking, and it was behind him when he spoke.

At one point, he caught some movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see an eagle swoop down, snatch a trout, and then drop it in front of a Mama grizzly and her cubs. He said, “Wow! Did you see that?” The people in the congregation said, “Oh, we see it all the time.” Ho hum, no big deal.

I believe it was John Calvin who wrote that one of the main pieces of evidence for our sinful condition is that we ignore the glory of God when it is right in front of us. We are blinded by something we see all the time. We grow dull and stop paying attention.

Either that, or we filter it, as a way of making it more manageable. You know another missed cue when Jesus came into Jerusalem? The crowds thought he was coming to get rid of the Roman army. You know how we know that? They responded by using a political symbol: they waved palm branches.

In his new commentary on the Gospel of John, Dale Bruner reminds us that for a hundred years palm branches had been a sign of military power, especially subversive political power. When the Maccabeus family led a guerilla revolt against the occupying empire, the Jerusalem Jews celebrated by singing psalms and waving palm branches.[1] They have a long memory. They are thrilled because they believe it’s happening again.

That’s why Jesus counters by choosing a donkey to ride. Not a groomed white horse of victory, but a farm animal of low humility. That’s how God comes to town – humble, self-giving, winning over not armies but one person at a time.

Jesus has been through this before. In chapter six, he fed thousands of people, who then tried to force him to be their king. But he slipped away. He wouldn’t have it. Satan had offered him a crown in the wilderness, and Jesus said, “Get out of here!” His own people had offered him a throne and scepter, but he refused.

It’s not that he doesn’t care about politics. The Lord of Life is deeply concerned about the affairs of human beings, especially about their welfare and their ability to live with one another. But he doesn’t exert his authority as if he were a politician. As he will say to the politician Pontius Pilate at the end of the week, “My authority – my kingship – doesn’t come from around here.” Pilate, a career politician, doesn’t understand him either.

We have to welcome Christ on his own terms, not on our own. That’s difficult for us, because one of the highest human goals is getting our own way. We want to be self-determined, self-authenticated, self-righteous. We want to determine what kind of Christ we will get. And when the real Son of God comes to town, we miss him.  

I am not willing to criticize the crowds and the religious officials for this. My own soul is riddled with blindness and a good dose of cluelessness. There are many, many cues that I miss, and a great many more that I can’t respond to. Maybe it is the same for you.

So this time through Palm Sunday, I want to pay closer attention. As John tells the story, there are plenty of distractions. Over here is the resurrected Lazarus, the brand-new celebrity who still smells of embalming spices. His manager says, “Maybe we can get him on Dancing with the Stars.”  It’s all about the fame.

Listen to the cheers of the adoring crowds, ever hungry for Somebody to take charge and fix everything that’s wrong with their world. They are willing to alter one of their favorite psalms and cry out for a king. Did you know they do that? They change the words and say, “Come, O King,” as they wave their palm branches.

Meanwhile, the religious officials are in despair. They see their power slipping out of their grip and an uneasy truce with the Romans coming to an end. The whole world is going after that Jesus. That’s not true, you understand; the whole world is no more interested in Jesus than it ever was. But the Pharisees, the scribes, the priests, are feeling like their whole way of life is threatened. What are they going to do?

Lazarus, the joyful crowds, the religious officials – all of them are consumed with distractions. They are missing who it is who rides down the hill, into the city, and up to the cross. This is the One who gives us the life of God. This is the One who makes all things well. This is the One that most people miss because he comes calmly, simply, and humbly.

Maybe what we need this Palm Sunday is a little less cheering and a good deal more adoration. Maybe we need to watch him, to trust him, to love him. Maybe what we need is this humble, quiet man who is not turned aside by anything. He stays focused on his purpose: to give his life that we might have life. This is the work of God. Pay attention. Don’t miss it.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] F. Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012) 708-710.

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