Lent 6A, Palm Sunday: John 19:12-19 – Powerful / Not-Powerful

Lent 6A, Palm Sunday: John 19:12-19 – Powerful / Not-Powerful April 16, 2014

Here’s a transcript of my sermon from last week (Palm Sunday). If you are a pastor please feel free to cut & paste everything. I got much of the historical stuff from commentaries, especially Ken Bailey’s work on Jesus, and from talks by John Ortberg & Rob Bell.



2014.04.15 – Lent 06
John 19:12-19 – Powerful / Not-Powerful

We’re going to start with a little game. And we’re going to call it: Powerful / Not-Powerful. How it’ll work is I’ll show you a picture of something & you have two choices with which you can respond. You can say powerful or not-powerful. Say it out loud immediately after you see the picture. Let’s try one:

  • M1 Abrams tank – that’s powerful right?
  • The sun – most powerful thing in our solar system.
  • Yoda – powerful Jedi is he (I just noticed this weekend that my Yoda voice sounds more like Dr. Doofenshmirtz from Phineas & Ferb… not powerful).
  • Nerf Gun – not so powerful
  • Dog (dressed in hipster clothes), this dog has no power… if it had power it would’ve put an end to this long ago.
  • Cat – the word you’re looking for is judgmental… not powerful.
  • Walmart – powerful right? If Walmart was a country they’d be in the top 25 in the world in GDP.
  • Ford Mustang – powerful right?
  • Ford Escort ’83 – not so powerful… one of my college cars.
  • Justin Bieber – parents of teenage girls know he’s powerful.
  • Charlie Sheen – He’s “winning” for sure, but I don’t know about powerful.

Every year Forbes does a list: “The World’s top 100 Most Powerful People.” Here’s a look at it (show list). For the first time in awhile a Russian leader (Putin) was on top instead of the American president. Pope Francis came in at number four, I’m guessing w/a bullet… his power seems to be on the rise. Number Ten was Michael Duke, the CEO of Wal-Mart. Just to give you a little perspective, he ranks one spot ahead of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

What if we made a list of the “Least Powerful People,” or people who have lost power? I always think that list should be topped by Prince Charles. There are outgoing folks like Kathleen Sebelius, or Bernanke, the former Fed-Chair. Bernanke usually comes in at number seven or eight in the ten most powerful… the moment he retired he fell like a brick. How about David Letterman? He had a lot of power in entertainment… it’ll soon be gone.

Power is a very interesting thing to think about; who’s powerful/not. Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day when all of Jesus’s life and ministry is coming to a head – we tell the story of his entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover that started the week of his passion. And in this scene, we see everything we need to know about how power and the kingdom of God. It’s interesting to look at the story of Palm Sunday and evaluate the characters in regard to power.

1st character: Jesus. In Jesus’s day if you ordered people from powerful to not-powerful Jesus would have been pretty far down the list toward not-powerful. First of all he was Jewish – living in a Roman society. Second, he was a Galilean. Galilee was mostly a farming & fishing region, but it was part of an active trade route, so it was fairly prosperous. But Herod’s plan for Galilee was to demand such high taxes that everyone lived on the brink of poverty. If you couldn’t pay your taxes, he’d just take your land & sell it to his friends in Jerusalem. The Galileans were powerless to stop it. Plus, Jesus was a Carpenter – it was a decent profession, there were just a lot of them around.

Any list of the least powerful people in Jesus’s world would have to include a Jewish Carpenter from Galilee. And yet he has arguably had more of an impact on the planet than any person who ever lived.

2nd characters: Chief priests and the elders of the people. They hold Jewish religious power, the ruling elite (mostly older men). Their job description was to help the people of God to be faithful. But their actual job seemed to be more like consolidating & wielding power. If you are playing powerful/not powerful… so far as it could be said of 1st Century Jews: these guys were powerful.

Now, by the end of the week these folks will move to arrest and kill Jesus. Why would that be? Nice, humble Jesus? Love your neighbor Jesus? Pray for those who persecute you Jesus? Blessed are the peacemakers Jesus? What do they want to kill him for?

Somehow they had come to see Jesus a threat… which gives us some insight into the message of Jesus. If Jesus was just saying “give peace a chance” or “here’s how to get into heaven when you die,” or “here’s how to be a moral person,” he wouldn’t have been a threat to the powerful. There had to be something else. Why do the chief priests and the elders of the people decide Jesus must be put to death?

3rd characters: Caesar/Pilate/Herod. If you remember, the Roman ruler is Caesar. For decades just before the birth of Christ it was Julius Caesar. Rome was split into two pieces at the time & he was attempting to consolidate. But he got into a huge thing w/Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra picture), & things fell apart… it was all very sad. So, his adopted son Octavian, became Caesar & he had his name changed to Caesar Augustus, sound familiar? “In the days of Caesar Augustus.” Caesar Augustus ruled the world from England to India at the time that Jesus was born. So if you are playing powerful/not powerful, Caesar is powerful.

Around this time a religious cult grew up known as emperor worship, and it was taken quite seriously. They had liturgies you may recognize. He was called the son of a God. Their primary confession was: “Caesar is Lord.” They often said: “There is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved than that of Caesar.” Caesar wanted to celebrate his divine origins, started a 12day day festival to celebrate his birth called: “The Advent: of Caesar” You could make offerings to Caesar for the forgiveness of sins. Caesar was often called, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

Caesar Augustus died… He was succeeded by Caesar Tiberius, who was the Caesar at the time of Jesus’s death. Now Tiberius had a problem. He had consolidated Rome, and the territory it covered was massive: Too big to control & communicate effectively, so Caesar had to set up regional governors, who had some limited autonomy. This is where the Herod brothers come in: Archelaus, Antipas, Philip. They shared control after Herod the Great, their father, died. Archelaus was terrible. He was deposed & exiled quickly. In his place Caesar installed a Roman prefect named Pontius Pilate. If you are playing powerful/not powerful, Pilate is powerful.

Pilate had a palace up in Caesarea Philippi; which actually tells you a lot, living in Caesarea Philippi was like living in Hollywood: beautiful Climate on the Mediterranean Sea with pools, temples, gymnasiums, theaters, Roman baths, and ships in port bringing exotic goods from around the world. Pilate was Roman Prefect – he was very rich & had everything he could ever want. He ruled Judea from Caesarea Philippi, not from Jerusalem. Caesarea, you can tell from its name, was a proper Roman city. Jerusalem was a mostly Jewish City. Pilate liked the Roman way better.

Now, the Jewish people had these pesky festivals every year. The biggest of which was the Passover: a time of remembering God’s deliverance from the slavery in Egypt. You know the story; God told Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” but Pharaoh wouldn’t do it. So God sent all of these plagues: water turned to blood, gnats, flies, frogs, boils; it was bad couple of months to be an Egyptian. Pharaoh still wouldn’t comply. So God sends a final plague, and killed the first born of every household except for those who have spread lambs blood over the doorpost of their house. In those houses the angel of death would pass-over. That’s why it’s called the Passover. That’s why Jesus was in Jerusalem.

There were at least 2-3 hundred thousand Jews coming into the city at that time. (Some say a ½ million, or as many as 1 million). And they are fueled by this religious zeal. And they are there to remember this time when God delivered them from the hands of an imperial ruler. And they are very aware that they are still suffering under the hand of an imperial ruler. Ruled by Caesar, taxed by Herod, bilked by corrupt Jewish leadership… that’s what power was doing to them.

Jerusalem was volatile during the Passover. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims had gathered to celebrate how God saved them from Pharaoh. The spirit of rebellion & religious fervor was in the air, and it was Pilate’s job to keep it from starting a revolution.

So what Pilate would do is leave his palace at Caesarea Philippi, and march his whole army South in a massive show of force meant to deter the Jews from any thoughts of rebellion. It would begin with the Roman Eagle on the Standard… the symbol of the power and speed of the Roman Empire. Look at this picture: What does it remind you of? (3rd Reich borrowed Roman symbols). The Roman war eagle struck fear in the hearts of everybody who looked upon it. If you are playing powerful/not powerful, Pilate’s army was powerful. Jesus’s army? Well, he didn’t really have one… which is strange…

Because, Jesus’s consistent claim, and the claim of the apostles & his followers, the writers of the new Testament including Paul, Peter, James, they all say the same thing: Jesus was claiming power. Jesus believed his power eclipsed the powers of the Chief Priests & elders, Herod, Pilate, and even the powers of Caesar. But, and this is key, his power was completely different… it had a different nature, or essence than Roman Power.

So Pilate’s procession would come into the city. The War Eagle on the standard marching in front. Then came the standard bearers w/flags of all of the Caesars & their divine titles – listing all the battles they’d won. Then came the Centurions, Legionnaires, Cavalrymen. First the soldiers marching with Metal shields, rhythmic clanking. Then soldiers mounted on horses, finally the armored chariots – the M1 tank of their day. And at some point Pontius Pilate himself would go by w/adoring crowds yelling “hail to Pilate, hail to Caesar.” It was a show of force… display of power.

Pilate was saying, “you mess w/Rome, you are messing with Raw Power. You resist? Your going to feel the power. So all of you simple minded Jews, w/ your wine, doing your dances, and your festivals, singing your songs, don’t get any ideas.

Those are the players. Here’s what Jesus did: John 12:12-19

“The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him. Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb & raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”

You should’ve received a palm branch when you came in. When Jesus rode into town on a donkey, the people waved branches kind of like what you have. There’s a story behind these as well. Ever since the time of the exile, the Jewish people had always suffered under some sort of foreign power: Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire, the Greeks, the Romans… somebody was always in power over them.

In all that time, there had only been one successful revolution; led by a man named Judas the Maccabean (he defeated Seleucids Empire and ruled after Alex the Great). When Judas Maccabeus processed back into Jerusalem the crowds celebrated him by waving Palm Branches. When he minted coins he stamped a palm branch on them.

The Palm Branch was a symbol of Jewish Rebellion.

So you have these religious pilgrims descending upon Jerusalem, and they were sick of being Roman Subjects… But they had no army – no real power. If they tried to fight Rome they had no chance. But Jesus had been performing all of these signs. He’d been making teaching about the Kingdom of God. He’d even raised people from the dead. He seemed to possess some kind of power. Maybe if Jesus led a revolution, they had a shot to beat Rome.

So, Jesus rides into town on a donkey, & the crowds shout “Hosanna.” This word does not mean “hooray,” by the way. It was not really a religious word, it was a political word, made up of two Hebrew words: hōša῾: which means “help us, save us, deliver us,” and nā: which means “we pray” or “now, please” – gave it urgency. And it wasn’t like a Michael W. Smith song… it was this fast, rhythmic chanting: “Ho-sha-na! Ho-sha-nah! Save us now! Save us now!”

Think about this scene: a crowd of Jewish pilgrims, gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate deliverance from Egypt, fueled with religious zeal, waving the symbols of the only successful rebellion in Jewish History, chanting, “Hosanna!” This is a messianic demonstration, and the Jewish leaders knew it: “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”… one more detail we need to get.

The first day of the festival of the Passover: was what they called Lamb Selection Day, and it was actually carried out just as it was prescribed in the book of Exodus. (12:3-6)

“Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of the first month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor… The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect… Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.”

Now, they were very particular about the lambs that were used. It had to be blameless & w/out defect – this had to be verified. So you needed an officially approved lamb. Guess who owned all of the lambs for sale? The Jewish leaders… it was part of how they held power. You couldn’t get your sins atoned for unless you bought a lamb from these guys at the temple

Jewish historians tell us the lambs for the Passover were brought in from the fields of Bethlehem to the south, up to Jerusalem and through the eastern gate of the city – which was called the “Sheep Gate” for that reason; (We should immediately think of the birth story from Luke 2, and the shepherds who witnessed the birth of Jesus; that’s Bethlehem… the sheep town). No doubt some of the same shepherds who witnessed Jesus’s birth were driving sheep into Jerusalem that day.

Take a quick look at this Map of Jerusalem. Can you see the little green area called the Upper City? 90% of Jews on the earth were poor – subsistence farmers. But here in the upper city lived the Jewish elite – Chief Priests and elders. You can Herod’s palace was in their neighborhood, which is why they were often called Herodians. They were doing well, getting rich of money changing in the Temple, temple taxes, and Passover lambs. They all lived here in the upper city. The elite group of leaders who are supposed to be helping the people to be faithful are actually causing the starvation of the people.

Jewish families would travel from places far and wide, and they’d come into Jerusalem on Lamb Selection day. They would buy a blameless lamb & keep it with them for five days. Literally everything the family did during the week, they had to take this lamb with them. Then at the end of the week they would sacrifice the lamb… Now, Guess which day Jesus chooses to ride into Jerusalem? Lamb Selection Day. Guess which gate he came to? Sheep Gate… and he stays with them for five days …and then they kill him.

You know the children’s rhyme: “Mary had a little lamb, his fleece was white as snow; And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.”… that’s this story … this is Mary’s son, Jesus, born on the hills of Bethlehem; Jesus, whose birth was attended to by Bethlehem shepherds; Jesus who was blameless, spotless, and without sin; Jesus comes into Jerusalem on lamb selection day by sheep gate, and he stays with them for five days, and as the Jewish people are slaughtering their own lambs, Jesus is killed on a Roman Cross. He becomes the Passover lamb.

Back to the scene at hand, and all of our players: The people want an uprising. Pilate has come w/shock & awe to keep things quiet. The temple leaders are set to make a ton of money off the Passover; and here comes Jesus, riding into town on a donkey. Luke 19 describes it this way:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Jesus is weeping because nobody in the whole place gets what is really happening. They are all scratching & clawing for power; and they are on a serious collision course w/each other. Pilate wielded the most powerful army on earth. The Jewish people wanted a holy war. The Jewish leaders wanted to keep their power. And here comes Jesus, riding on a donkey… the king’s driving in VW beetle… no army… no bravado… just tears.

Everything Jesus is doing speaks of a completely different kind of power. He is claiming power. He is entering as the king. But his crown will be a crown of thorns, his throne will be a Roman cross, his coronation will be his sacrifice as the lamb of God – this Jewish carpenter from Galilee would change the course of human history forever.

And yet the same crowd we see throwing cloaks on the ground, waving palm branches, yelling “Hosanna,” will in just a few days be yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

One more game of powerful, not powerful. (Showing painting of the triumphal entry). What do you think? Powerful / Not powerful?

As Christians, we look at this picture and say, “Behold the power of God.” This is the picture of true power & it tells us that: Love is more powerful than hate. Peace is more powerful than violence. And vulnerability is the most powerful force on the planet.

The gospel writers are pushing us to a decision, “What do you think is the most powerful thing on the planet… what can bring peace to the nations?” How will the brokenness finally end? Is it the armies of the world? Or is it this weak & vulnerable man riding into town on a donkey, weeping for the people he loves so much. They are telling us, you can take the way of Pilate & the religious leaders… or you can take the way of Jesus… but you can’t do both.

How do you approach power in your own life? In a marriage: you going to power up to get your way? You going to humbly serve your spouse, love them, be vulnerable with them? At work: will you power up on your employees? Your vendors? Your boss? Or will you work humbly, honestly, lovingly. Just a simple conversation: is every conversation: are you constantly bragging? Is every conversation a contest you need to win? Or a chance to be vulnerable, to love, to serve, to die.

The way to life – eternal life that starts now, what Jesus called the abundant life, the life that is truly life – it comes in the way of Jesus. When we take on the vulnerability of Jesus with each other, we tap into the most powerful force in the universe.

In the very last week of Jesus’s life we are confronted w/these two ways. And Jesus has finally decided to bring it to a head. So he pushes the Jews, he stays on them. Which way are you going to choose? All of us will we enter into our lives through one kind of power or the other. Either the power the advances by coercion, violence, anger, control, selfishness, self-concern, self-protection… Or will we enter into our lives in the way of Jesus: humbly, peacefully, seeking first the kingdom of God & laying down our lives for Jesus sake… follow in his example.

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