Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
Palm Sunday is the last Sunday in Lent. Tomorrow is the first day of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the beginning of his journey to the cross. It is a difficult journey, a terrible journey, but because we know it results in the resurrection on Easter and new life for the whole world, we also know that it is good. That is why we call Good Friday, good, even though that day is about remembering Jesus’ death on the cross. Today, in our Scriptures, we will see how Jesus’ anointing by Mary will foreshadow Jesus’ last supper with his disciples (which we remember at our Maundy Thursday service) and Jesus’ anointing by Mary will also foreshadow Jesus’ death (which we remember at our Good Friday service). Just like our John passage says, the disciples did not understand these things as they happened, but later they could look back and understand all the things that happened in light of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, so we are able to remember these things in light of Jesus’ glorification through His death, resurrection and ascension. So let’s look at our John passage, to see what happened, according to John, to set the stage for Jesus’ journey to the cross.
We didn’t read all the way from the beginning of chapter 11, but the beginning of chapter 11 details the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The response to this miracle is mixed. In John 11:45, we read that many of the Jews who saw this believed in Jesus, but some ran off and told the chief priests and Pharisees. The chief priests and Pharisees have a meeting at this point, starting 11:47, to decide what to do about Jesus, and the result is in 11:53, “from that day on they planned to put [Jesus] to death.” So before Jesus enters Jerusalem in the Gospel of John, he has already been sentenced to death. And we also know that there are mixed reactions to Jesus (some believe and some don’t); that clues us in that we can’t really be sure about what the crowds will do. Are they for Jesus or against Jesus? We see this ambiguity in 11:56, when crowds gathering in Jerusalem for the passover start wondering if Jesus will show up. There is no information about why they are wondering. Are they wondering so that they can turn him over to the Pharisees who have already asked everyone to do that so that they could arrest him? Or do they believe in him and they want to see him because he is a sign of hope? We don’t know; the text doesn’t say. The ambiguity here helps us enter in to Jesus’ own experience. When Jesus enters Jerusalem he has mustered all of his courage to make that journey. He knows it will end in his death, he knows he will be betrayed, yet he is courageous enough to make that journey.
Liz Kirkland is one of our elders and 11:30 worship leaders. She shared her own reflections on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with me. She made an insightful observation: She said that in the Gospel of John, before Jesus enters Jerusalem, He seeks refuge and encouragement from his close friends: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He loves them and he knows that they love him, so he goes there first.
So, in the Gospel of John, right before Jesus enters Jerusalem, we have this beautiful scene in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. We’ve seen Mary and Martha before. Here again, in verse 2, we see Martha using her incredible gifts of hospitality because she is serving at the dinner. And in verse 3, we see Mary in her element, zeroed in on the spiritual significance of the moment. When we saw Mary and Martha in Luke, we noticed that they were portrayed as disciples of Jesus. Here, they are likewise portrayed, but I want to focus on Mary. In John 10:27, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Already in the story about the raising of Lazarus, Mary responded to Jesus calling her. She is clearly portrayed as one of His own. In this dinner scene, Mary, as I said, is zeroed in on the spiritual significance of the moment. It says in verse 3: “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair.” This act by Mary, of anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair, foreshadows two events in Jesus’ passion which we will remember this week at special worship services: Maundy Thursday & Good Friday.
First, Mary’s act of wiping Jesus’ feet is a foreshadow of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. We will remember this on Maundy Thursday at our service at 7pm by washing each other’s hands. The verb used here in verse 3 for “wipe” is ekmassw, which “is the same verb used to describe Jesus’ wiping of his disciples’ feet” at the last supper (NIB, John, 701). When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet at the last supper, he does it as a demonstration of the ultimate act of love, of serving one another. But when Mary does it here, at her home over dinner, Jesus hasn’t taught this yet. She anticipates this. As I wrote this, I wondered, did Mary inspire Jesus? Was this moment so powerful for Him that He wanted to do something similar for His other disciples? I don’t know. What we do know, according to Gail O’Day, is that “[Mary] knows how to respond to Jesus without being told. She fulfills Jesus’ love commandment before he even teaches it” (NIB, John, 703).
The second thing that Mary foreshadows in this verse is Jesus’ death and burial. Jesus himself says this in verse 7 when he says that, “[Mary] bought the perfume...for the day of his burial.” For Jesus, this is His anointing for burial. We will remember Jesus’ death at our Good Friday services which will be at 4 & 7 pm this coming Friday. According to Gail O’Day, “[Mary] embraces Jesus’ [death] at His house before He has taught His followers about its true meaning….In the anointing, she shows what it means to be one of Jesus’ own. She gives boldly of herself in love to Jesus at his hour, just as Jesus will give boldly of himself in love at His hour” (NIB, John, 703).
Just like in Luke, Mary was contrasted with Martha, here she is contrasted with someone. Mary is contrasted with Judas. Whereas Mary here is the model of discipleship, Judas is the opposite. Remember last week I said that one of the sins that can lead us away from God is greed? Judas here is consumed with greed. We should never underestimate the power of greed in our lives. While Mary is in the middle of anointing Jesus for courage and strength to begin his journey to the cross, Judas is only focused on money. He rebukes Mary. He responds to the arrival of Jesus’ hour with self-centered greed and disdain (NIB, John, 703). But, Jesus, even though this is His moment to relax and receive a blessing and anointing from one of His own, from Mary, he defends her against Judas’ rebuke. Jesus is always thinking of others.
John is telling us about the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross in such a way as to be clear that there will be confusion when Jesus enters Jerusalem and things will not go well there. The crowds who saw the raising of Lazarus are split: some believe in Jesus and some report the news to the Pharisees. The small group of disciples who dine at Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ house are split: Mary gets it and helps Jesus prepare; Judas doesn’t get it and treats the moment and Mary’s action with disdain; and everyone else seems to just be having dinner.
So now, we come to Jesus’ actual entry into Jerusalem. I want to end by talking about the Scripture that the crowd uses to greet Jesus and the Scripture that Jesus uses to respond to them. But first a trivia question: Which of the four Gospels gives us Palm Sunday? ... The Gospel of John! The Gospel of John has Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem happen on a Sunday and the people actually carry palm branches. This is where we get our liturgical tradition from.
When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowds who had been wondering if he would come ran out to meet him shouting a verse from Psalm 118. In John 12:13 they say, “Hosanna! [which means save] Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the King of Israel!” According to Gail O’Day, “Psalm 118 is a royal psalm sung in thanksgiving for victory in battle… John 12:13 is to be read as the reenactment of this Psalm’s liturgical celebration of a royal triumph” (NIB, John, 707). Already, we know then that the crowds do not understand who Jesus is. They think he is coming as a political victor. They think he is going to overthrow the Romans and usher in a new golden age for Israel. This belief is underscored by the addition of the words “the King of Israel” to the quotation from Psalm 118. “The King of Israel” is from Zephaniah 3:15 which is about God’s enthronement. They think Jesus will be a political king enthroned by God. Even though the crowd is excited to greet Jesus, they do not understand what he has come for. This foreshadows that they can turn on a dime. They may support Him now, with palm branches and greetings, but what happens when they find out that he has not come as a political leader? What happens when they find out that he has no intention of overthrowing the government? What happens when they find out He is going to die? Are they really Jesus followers? Are they willing to follow Jesus to the cross? Or will they turn on Him when they realize He’s not what they expected?
These are important questions to ask ourselves. Often we have an idea of who Jesus is and we follow that idea. But Jesus is not confined to our ideas. Jesus breaks any box that we try to put Him in. We might try to make Him fit our ideas, but actually the opposite is supposed to happen. Jesus wants to renew our minds, transform our thinking. Last week, we learned that going to the cross is part of the Christian life. As Jesus’ followers, we have to follow Him to the cross, whatever that means in each of our own lives. But that is hard. We naturally want to reject the cross. Remember that Jesus is with us when we go to the cross, and His purpose is to lead us to resurrection, new life, healing, transformation. Jesus went to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ house to receive strength and courage to go to the cross. Are we courageous enough to go to the cross with Jesus?
Jesus knows that this is hard. He responds to the crowd in the Gospel of John in 12:15 with a quote from Zechariah 9:9. But he changes it. In Zechariah 9:9 it says, “Rejoice, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.” He is saying, “I am not who you think I am, but do not be afraid.” He is saying, “God is about to do something amazing, through my death on the cross, do not be afraid.” Jesus knows that going to the cross is scary. Jesus knows that it takes courage. Just as He said, “Do not be afraid” to the crowds in Jerusalem, so he now says to us, “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus knew the cross was coming. He sought refuge and encouragement from his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Just as Jesus sought strength and encouragement in community, so can we, as we enter Holy Week. We come together for special services at this time of year to draw strength and encouragement for our own going to the cross. We receive this strength and courage both from God and from our family of God in the church.
And so, I leave you this morning with a to be continued… Jesus has entered Jerusalem on his way to the cross, saying, “Do not be afraid.” We, as Jesus followers, are following Him there. We will a gather again on Thursday night at 7pm to continue His journey. Until then, to be continued...