04/02/23 “Encounter with the Crowd” (Palm Sunday)

John 12:1-2, 12-19

What crowd were you in when you were in school? Were you part of the sports crowd, the band crowd, the fast crowd? The geeks, the nerds, the goths, the brains? Maybe you were part of the in-crowd. I was part of my high school’s in-crowd for about ten minutes one summer. I was never sure how why or how that happened, and it didn’t last long. I was out of the in-crowd pretty quickly.

I think we have mixed feelings about crowds these days. During the COVID years, we avoided crowds to prevent infection. The mob mentality of crowds at political rallies have been ratcheted up in ugly ways by hateful rhetoric, with disastrous results. Crowds being the targets of mass shootings at things like parades and concerts and city plazas hasn’t made me afraid to be in a crowd, exactly, but I’m definitely a lot more wary.

And yet, crowds can be positive things. They can generate excitement. They can achieve together what one person or a few people can’t do alone. Today we have crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to pool resources from many people. We have crowd-voting, where customers or readers or web site visitors can vote for things like the “Best Zoo in America” or the next pet to be featured in a dog food ad or what new product a company should make. We have crowd-solving, where people collectively solve a crime or come up with a solution to a problem, and crowd-fixing, where people cooperate to make those solutions a reality.

Jesus was surrounded by a crowd on the day we’ve traditionally called Palm Sunday. Of course, this wasn’t unusual. John tells us that a large crowd began following Jesus after he healed that man at the pool on the sabbath. Thousands followed Jesus up a mountain where he and the disciples were sitting. Jesus fed them all, a miracle that prompted the crowd to try to seize him and force him to be their king. The next day, the crowd followed him to Capernaum. And, there was that crowd standing around at the tomb of Lazarus, who witnessed Jesus’ miracle there, some of whom came to believe in him as a result.

It’s common today to think of crowds of people as homogeneous groups of people who all think alike. This is especially true during election season: we hear about “the Hispanic vote” or “the black vote” or the “blue collar vote.” But none of those crowds all think alike. The same is true of the crowds around Jesus. The crowds that surrounded Jesus were not all of one mind about him—far from it.

John tells us that, at the earlier Festival of Booths in Jerusalem, “there was considerable complaining about Jesus among the crowds.” John reports that “some were saying, ‘He is a good man,” while others were saying, ‘No, he’s deceiving the crowd.” When Jesus called the religious authorities out on their plans to kill him, the crowd thought he was paranoid and accused him of having a demon. Some thought he might be the Messiah, but they had doubts. Some thought there was a conspiracy among the authorities—that they knew he was the Messiah but weren’t admitting it. The authorities, in turn, thought the crowd were a bunch of dimwits. Even before he raised Lazarus, the crowds had decidedly mixed feelings about Jesus.

As Jesus approached Jerusalem, he wasn’t surrounded by one big mass of people all thinking the same thing about him. He was actually encountering at least three different crowds with very different mindsets.

One was the crowd that had followed him from Bethany, where they had witnessed the raising of Lazarus. It included the Jews who had been there to console Martha and Mary and came to believe in Jesus.  They were followers of Jesus, but their idea of Jesus’ identity was still incomplete. It also included the disciples but, at this point in the story, the jury’s still out on how much even they understood about Jesus.

John tells us that the people in this crowd continued to testify as they made their way toward Jerusalem. But, John doesn’t tell us what their testimony was. Did they simply continue to report what they had seen—how Jesus had arrived after Lazarus was long-dead, how he wept at the tomb, how he had called Lazarus to come out, and how Lazarus had indeed walked out, still bound in his grave clothes? Or did they testify, not to what they had seen, but to what they now believed—that Jesus was, as Martha said, “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”?

The second crowd was the one that came out from Jerusalem to meet Jesus—people who were part of the great crowd that had gathered in Jerusalem to prepare for the Passover festival. They had heard that Jesus was on his way into the city. Maybe they were some of the same people who had been in the crowd seven months before, at the Festival of Booths, arguing over who this Jesus guy was. Or, maybe they had been in the crowd that had been fed, or the crowd who had heard Jesus responding to the Pharisees after he healed the man on the sabbath. Maybe word had gotten around about Lazarus; the Pharisees certainly knew about that. Or maybe, a friend of a friend of a friend said that a celebrity was on his way, so they just joined the crowd to see what was going on.

Maybe some in the crowd had been among those who wanted to force Jesus into an earthly kingship. Now they have another chance. They grab branches of palm trees and stream out of the city to meet Jesus. This is a pretty risky move, politically speaking. Palm fronds had been symbols of Israel’s nationalistic hopes for independence, ever since some Jews called the Maccabees had rebelled against Greece and ousted them from the temple, hundreds of years before. Palms were inscribed on coins that read “for the liberation of Israel.”

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” the crowd coming from the city cries out. These are the words from the psalm we read this morning as our Call to Worship. It’s known as a “royal psalm,” a song of thanksgiving for a military victory. It includes instructions for celebrating the return of a victorious king. This crowd thinks of Jesus as the national savior who will restore Israel, not as a faithful people of God but as an independent nation.

This crowd also misunderstands who Jesus is. But, as so often happens in John, they unknowingly speak the truth. Jesus is indeed a victorious king, but not the kind of king they think he is. In response to their misunderstanding, Jesus, who has been walking with the folks from Bethany, finds a donkey. In the other gospels, Jesus sends the disciples to obtain the donkey, but in John, Jesus acts on his own as a response to the crowd’s misunderstanding of who he is. He begins to ride the donkey in order to move the crowd from the military and political imagery of the psalm to the imagery of Zechariah—the imagery of a humble king, mounted not on a warhorse but on a donkey, the animal of the common people—of laborers and farmers, not of political royalty and the military elite.

But, John makes a significant change to the image drawn from Zechariah. Where Zechariah reads, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion,” John writes, “Do not be afraid, O daughter Zion.” Seems like a small change, but it packs an enormous punch. The words “don’t be afraid” are used in scripture whenever God or a messenger of God shows up—what’s called a “theophany.” God appears to Isaac: “Do not be afraid.” When God speaks through the prophets: “Do not be afraid.” When the angel of the Lord speaks to Mary: “Do not be afraid.” When the Lord speaks to Paul: “Do not be afraid.” When the angels speak to the women at the empty tomb: “Do not be afraid.” Jesus, walking on water to the disciples: “It is I. Do not be afraid. ” When God shows up, God says, “Do not be afraid.” So, when in John we read the words, “do not be afraid,” they are like a big neon sign with a giant arrow pointing to Jesus saying “God is here.”

There’s one more crowd that Jesus will eventually encounter. It’s the crowd that stayed behind in the city. This crowd doesn’t think of Jesus as anything but a religious threat and a political liability. It’s the crowd of religious authorities whose anxiety is growing along with Jesus’ popularity. Again, there’s the inadvertent speaking of the truth in their words: “We can do nothing. The world has gone after him.” We know, of course, that they did do something: they engineered Jesus’ crucifixion. But, we also know that, in the end, this crowd’s efforts to prevent the world from believing in Jesus would be fruitless.

So, we have the crowd that came along with Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem—a crowd that believed in him, perhaps incompletely but enough to follow him. We have the crowd that leaves Jerusalem to greet Jesus with their palm branches—a crowd that had heard enough about him to draw the conclusion that he was the conqueror who would fulfill their nationalistic hopes. And we have the crowd of opponents—the ones who will stop at nothing to eliminate the threat to their power and authority. The question for us is, as Jesus looked out over the crowds that day, which crowd would he have seen us in?

I think most, or maybe all, of us would not put ourselves in the crowd of Jesus-deniers. And yet, how many times are our words and actions more like theirs than they should be? We may not speak against Jesus, but we don’t make any effort to openly claim our faith in him either. We may live in ways that befit a follower of Jesus, but we don’t say that we live that way because we’re followers of Jesus. Our sin of denial is not one of commission but one of omission and, that puts more in the crowd of his opponents than his followers.

Maybe he would find us in the crowd waving the palm branches. We recognize him as our King, but we only if he’s the kind of king we want him to be. We want a king who will get rid of our enemies, provide us with financial security, keep the people we consider undesirable well away from us, and maybe help our favorite team win the big game or find us a good parking spot. We want a king who will do things for us. We’re not as interested in a king who expects us to do things for him—hard things, like showing hospitality to strangers and outsiders, and loving our enemies, and putting the interests of others ahead of our own. We want a king who will make sure we come out winners, in whatever earthly contest we’re in. That’s the kind of king we’re willing to wave palm branches for. And if he doesn’t deliver, we’re likely to throw out the palm branches and grab a handful of nails instead.

If Jesus doesn’t see us in the hostile crowd looking on from the gates of Jerusalem, or among the crowd of palm-wavers, maybe he’ll look back and see us in the crowd that followed him from Bethany. That’s the crowd that believes in him, to the extent that they understand him. Our faith may still rely on his miracles and signs, but maybe we’re moving past that the longer we spend in his presence. The more carefully we listen for his voice, and the closer we follow in his footsteps, the more we know him and believe in who he is. We get to know him as our friend, but we also know him as our Savior. It’s not a knowledge that most of us grasp all at once. For most of us, it takes a lifetime.

Whatever crowd we’re in, the good news is that Jesus has another crowd that he wants us to be part of. He wants us as part of the in-crowd. He wants us to be part of the crowd that knows him and believes in him. He wants us to be part of the crowd who is rooted in him. He wants us to be part of the crowd that is made new in him and finds eternal life in him. He wants us to be part of his in-crowd, with whom we can say that we confess J. Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as our Lord.

Our place in that crowd is a lot more secure than mine was in the in-crowd of teenage girls. Jesus wants us to be confident of our place in his in-crowd, and he wants us to be there eternally. He came to earth—God in a human body, the Word made flesh—to invite us into a relationship with him, and he went to the cross to show us just how much he wants us to be part of his in-crowd.

We call this story of Jesus’ encounter with the crowds on the road into Jerusalem the “triumphal entry.” But, that’s not what Jesus intended it to be at all. All the palm waving and shouts of Hosanna were just more examples of how wrong the crowds were about who was and is. For Jesus, this was the beginning of the end of his earthly ministry. He would be glorified, he knew, but that glory would come as he hung on a cross. He was indeed the King, but his crown would be made of thorns. He would save his people, and all people, but not through military victory. He would rule in love. Today, we mark the beginning of the holiest week. As we do, let’s think deeply about what crowd we’re in. Let’s think deeply about what crowd we want to be in. Let’s think deeply about the crowd Jesus invites us into, as we encounter Jesus, and he encounters us. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young