John 12:1, 12-16
In our world today when health care workers and chaplains and other first responders are on our front lines of care and protection, they might best understand the exhaustion with which Jesus greeted the crowds on the day known as Palm Sunday. I have chosen the story as told from John’s gospel today. If you were with me last week, you might remember the story of the raising of Lazarus; how his sisters Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. How they counted on his friendship—and on his power—to keep their brother Lazarus well. I know from my daughter that the health care workers and chaplains have family members in hospitals plead with them—plead with them—to save their loved ones. For this virus, there are no sure things—no sure medicines, no sure protective supplies, no sure answers. And yet the pleading, and the wailing continues. It is exhausting. Health care workers and chaplains go from their possibly contaminated hospitals into their garage, or their utility room, and strip off contaminated clothes, putting them in the washer, and then scrubbing themselves in a hot shower. If they could, they would take their responsibility cloak off too—the one they have worn for an 18 hour, or a 24 hour, or a 48 hour shift. They are done. But yet, they are not done. They might have a spouse or a child who needs care and attention. They might need to eat since they’ve ignored their bodily needs. They might want to cry in private. This is the life of these health care workers now. Then there are the parents—moms, dads, grandparents. I have seen some posts on Facebook, with their child home, saying things like: “First day in home school—my student already needs the principal’s office!” Others tearfully write “I can’t do this—watch my kids and work from home.” One grandson said glumly that he wished he could go back to school; and those parents wished the same thing! Everyone in this day and age is being forced to adapt to something forced on them. Jesus, I suspect, is wrung out by this time too. He’s had his critics from the beginning—people who just said little things in stage whispers that he could hear. He wasn’t made of stone, you know! He was human … and he heard … and he hurt. His best friends—Mary And Martha—were disappointed in him. One of the most painful things my father did to me when I did something wrong was not to spank, or to ground me. He would say: “I’m disappointed in you.” And Jesus has just been wrung out by disappointment. In addition, this man’s man wept for the first time that was recorded. He wept with Martha, perhaps not because he was grieving, but because he was spent. Oh and just before he was with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in that exhausting exchange, the Jews in the area were preparing to stone him according to John 10:31.
Now, like an exhausted health care worker coming home to a child, or like a parent spending days with pent up children, it was time for Jesus to enter the lion’s den. Oh not a real lion’s den, but it might as well have been. There were people who were on high alert for rabble rousers, and trouble-makers, and false prophets.
Jesus started toward the city as he left Bethany on the other side of the hill and came down the east side on the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem. But his journey down not only gave boys and girls someone to cheer, it gave hope to the Jews that this man
might be a king, or maybe a messiah, or at least a warrior. So, as John’s passage tells us, they waved palm branches for the occasion. Why palm branches? Not just because they were available; it was because the palm branch was the national symbol of a free Israel. A national hero named Judas Maccabeus (not Judas Iscariot) was celebrated for leading a revolt against the Seleucid Empire beginning in 167 B.C.E. In the Hasmonean period that followed, the Jews ruled themselves; they felt free! The palm meant “Save us!” Then the palms their coins meant “we are free!” The season of Hanukkah celebrates that brief time of freedom. But that freedom did not last. Rome conquered Still, there was lingering hope might return one day, and they hoped it was now! Maybe the man who made people rise from the dead would to lead them to freedom again! So they grabbed their national symbols, not from a vendor but from the ground or from a tree, and waved the branch of a palm tree high in their hand! Every good Jewish boy had learned the words of the prophet Zechariah, where in chapter 9, verse 9, declaring: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” The glass slipper—so to speak—seemed to fit Jesus! And so they chose to cheer him on! Down the steep hillside they went, ceremonially draping their cloaks on the ground as Sir Walter Raleigh did for Queen Elizabeth. In addition, they waved palms and dropped them in the path in hopeful honor, making it more difficult for the little animal to carry a man down the steep path. I have walked that path on one of our holy land visits, and it is not easy. Some chose to get on our bus and meet us at the bottom. So this was a determined—and a joyous crowd—and might we say a desperate crowd? They were so hoping he was the one. The children in the crowd missed the dark or hopeful undercurrent. It was a parade! It was fun! But there were others in the crows who were wary. As Professor Harold Hill sang in “The Music Man,” some people just thought they had “trouble” with him coming to their city! So they watched, and then sent word to others ahead who were there for Passover. He entered through the east side wall through “The Golden Gate.” And it was there that the so called “triumphal entry” was accomplished. All the cheering stopped, and the tensions rose. Jesus, the healer, the man from Nowheresville—Nazareth—had arrived. Like some in our world now, our Lord arrived at the beginning of a week anxious and worn down.
Acting like Hospice nurses, we are asked to give him round the clock care for his last week on earth. Can we do it?
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 5, 2020