The Return of the King

Sermon for Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday

John 12:1-18

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In yesterday’s Gospel the Lord wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Grief is a natural response to seeing something we love ruined. Someone we care about is taken from us, our closeness to them is broken, and we are wounded by losing them.

And remember, physical death is not a natural thing; it’s a disruption that forcibly uproots a person from their life, their family, and even from their body. King Solomon writes,

God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living… For righteousness is immortal. But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death (Wisdom 1:12-16).

No wonder Christ, a whole and perfect man, full of life and purity, was grieved and wept to see the family of Lazarus broken, and his good friend torn from his body and taken from the earth by a sickness that brought only pain, separation, and sorrow.

Once I visited a grave on the anniversary of a man’s death. He was a Protestant but many of his family were Orthodox, so they invited me to say some prayers at the grave. Since he wasn’t Orthodox, I just sang a brief Trisagion memorial for all the dead in all the world, the same as we often do here on Saturdays. It’s simple and sobering, reminding us that death is caused by sin in the world, expressing repentance and hope, and knowing that Christ is not the accuser but the one who has committed himself to save us from eternal destruction.

The family’s Protestant pastor was there, too, and she was shocked. After I finished, she couldn’t wait to basically refute all my prayers: she insisted we mustn’t ever be sad, because the departed one is in a better place. Instead we should celebrate their life and give no thought to gloomy notions of judgment. Death is part of life, and God wants us to be happy.

But Jesus wept because death is a bad thing. It’s not morbid or selfish to grieve when harm come to the ones we love.

The Lord knew Lazarus was dead before he got the news – but he still cried. He knew Lazarus would be alive again in a minute – but still, he cried. He knew death here is not forever; he knew eternity and the kingdom better than anyone else could; yet he wept. Because this world is full of pain and regret and loss and devastation. Jesus wept because knowing the end of the story doesn’t mean you can’t cry at the sad parts.

Never apologize for grieving.

*      *      *

Yesterday the Lord raised Lazarus from the dead; now today he prepares and enters into Jerusalem. And Saint Luke tells us,

As Jesus drew near and beheld the city, he wept over it, saying, “If only you had recognized on this day what would bring you peace! But now it is hidden from your sight. Indeed, the days will come upon you when your enemies will raise up fortifications all around you and hem you in on every side. They will smash you to the ground, you and your children with you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44).

There it is again. Christ, who loves the people of Jerusalem, sees the tidal wave of conquest, destruction, and millennia of persecution that is about to break on the Jews, and again he weeps.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wing; but you were not willing” (Luke 13:34).

But today, it’s only Jesus who is mourning. For Jerusalem, it’s a day of victory and the crowd is full of joy and shouting. Today Messiah enters the holy city of Jerusalem in a parody of a Roman triumph: Instead of a victorious general on a chariot, he’s an itinerant rabbi on a donkey colt. Instead of an army’s victory parade displaying captured kings and slaves, he’s followed by a ragged band of disciples and singing children.

Everybody in Jerusalem recognizes this as the arrival of a King and Deliverer. They’re singing Psalm 117lxx (118kjv): “Hosanna to the Son of David! Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will enter therein and give thanks to the Lord. We have blessed you from the house of the Lord. God is the Lord, and has appeared unto us. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

In place of “Hosanna,” this psalm in your Bible may say, “Save now! Send now prosperity!” which is a literal translation of the Hebrew original of verse 25. They’re singing in Aramaic: Osha na! Save now! In fact, they’re singing Osha na to a Man named Yeho-shua: Singing “Save now!” to the One whose very name means “Savior.”

The common people welcome the King who raised Lazarus from the dead. But the religious authorities are well aware that besides “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” that same psalm also includes the line, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” They know Christ has been preaching that verse about them (Luke 20:15-19). Now, out of fear and envy, the chief priests and the Pharisees plot to have the Lord put to death. (John 11:45-53).

Beginning with the resurrection of Lazarus and the priests’ plot against the Lord, we will begin to watch two different stories unfolding this week. Christ will be preparing to give himself for the life of the world. And in parallel, Judas and the priests will carry out their plan to take the Lord, and put him to death.

On Palm Sunday we don’t usually have much to say about Judas Iscariot. But the final act of his story begins now as well. Between yesterday’s Gospel reading for Lazarus Saturday and today’s reading are a few verses at the end of John chapter 11, where the Pharisees and chief priests respond to the Lord’s recent miracles and preaching.

“Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then Caiaphas, the high priest, spoke. “It is better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” So from that day on they plotted to take his life. [So they] gave orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it, so they might arrest him. (John 11:45-57).

But this morning, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is no secret! Palm branches are waving like flags, and flowers and coats are being thrown down to make a carpet to welcome the King.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion! Shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem,” Zechariah prophesied five hundred years earlier, “Behold, your King comes to you: he is righteous, and having salvation; lowly, and riding on a donkey’s colt” (Zechariah 9:9).

Matthew and Luke tell us that when the priests and scribes heard the children shouting in the temple the royal salutation, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were angry and asked Jesus, “Do you hear what they are saying?” He answered, “Yes! Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and infants thou hast perfected praise’? …I tell you, if they keep quiet, the rocks will cry out!” (Matthew 21:14-16; Psalm 8:2; Luke 19:40).

And now the triumphal King rides through East Gate right into occupied Jerusalem, straight up to the Evil Empire’s fortress Antonia. The cheers rise to a crescendo! He’s finally doing it! Messiah is going to overthrow the tyrants, judge the sinners, and inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth! “For I have set my King upon Sion, my holy mountain” (Psalm 2:6).

Then the Lord rides right past the fortress, to the gate of the Temple – where he starts throwing down the tables, chasing out all the vendors of sacrifice animals, and disrupting everybody’s holy offerings.

Now, not only do the Temple priesthood want Christ dead, the people are confused and scandalized as well. He has not judged the invaders; he has created a violent scene in the holy place, and stopped the worship of God for the whole day. What kind of Messiah is this? Some in the crowd are glad to see the profiteers cast out of the Temple – but the crowd no longer has a purpose, nor any idea what they have come together for.

Christ has gathered together everyone’s hopes of deliverance and then shattered them at once into confusion.

*         *         *

When Christ called himself the cornerstone rejected by the builders, that isn’t the first time Christ is referred to as a stone. In the prophecy of Isaiah, the Lord had said: “Behold, I lay in Sion for a foundation a stone: a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; he that believes shall not be dismayed” (Isaiah 28:16).

And remember when the Prophet Daniel interpreted the dream of the king of Babylon.

You beheld a stone, cut out without human hands. The stone struck the image [of all the world’s kingdoms] and broke it in pieces… And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth… And in those days the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed… it will break in pieces and bring all these kingdoms to an end, and that kingdom will stand forever (cf. Daniel 2:34-35;44-45).

In Luke 20, Christ tells a parable about people who are appointed to manage a vineyard but they run it for their own benefit. When the owner sends his son to collect the fruit of the vineyard, they kill him.

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “God forbid!” Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?  Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people (Luke 20:15-19).

There’s a Jewish sage who wrote: “If a rock falls on a clay jar, woe to the jar. If the clay jar falls on a rock – woe to the jar” (Midrash on Esther 3:6). It is shortly after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and cleansing the Temple that the Lord comments on the cornerstone verse, saying, “Whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but whoever it falls on, it will grind him to powder (Matthew 21:33-46).

*      *      *

Over the next week we’re going to follow the trajectory of Peter and the disciples, who will deny the Lord and flee and hide for fear of the Jews, and will abandon the Lord when he asks them to watch and pray one hour with him.

And we’ll follow the women disciples, who will stay close to him at every stage, standing even at the foot of the cross, then rising before dawn after the sabbath with hearts full of grief, bearing myrrh and spices to anoint the body of the Lord after all their hope has died. And it’s these women who will be apostles to the apostles, announcing, “The Lord is risen; come see the place where he lay!”

And we’ll also watch Judas fall down into the pit of despair.

*         *         *

Judas Iscariot is important, not only as the betrayer, but as a warning. We already know from Saint John’s Gospel that Judas was greedy for money (John 12:4-6), but there was another passion also driving him.

In first-century Judea was a group called the Zealots. They were:

A party opposing with relentless rigor any attempt to bring Judea under the dominion of idolatrous Rome, and especially of the aggressive and fanatical war party from the time of Herod until the fall of Jerusalem and Masada. The members of this party bore also the name Sicarii, from their custom of going about with daggers (sicæ) hidden beneath their cloaks, with which they would stab any one found committing a sacrilegious act (Jewish Encyclopedia on Zealots).

Judas the Sicariot and Simon the Zealot were men dedicated to bringing about the kingdom of God here and now. They were outraged by the culture war that threatened to swamp Israel under Roman godlessness, and Judas set his hopes on Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah who must surely bring down the whole unjust system.

But when Jesus turned out not to be interested in culture wars, the Rock fell on Judas’s hopes and crushed him. Jesus didn’t fight arrest and start taking back the nation; instead this Messiah threw away the opportunity for revolution. “‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews… But this has all taken place so that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.’ Then all the disciples deserted him and fled” (John 18:36; Matthew 26:53-56).

Among Christ’s twelve disciples were Judas the Sicariot and Simon the Zealot – and also Levi Matthew, the former tax collector (Luke 5:27-28) whose job made him a collaborator with the occupation army, a traitor to his people: The natural enemy of a Zealot and Sicariot.

How is that for built-in tension? At least two of Christ’s disciples had sworn a patriotic oath to kill another of Christ’s disciples. Matthew’s continued survival depends on Simon and Judas remaining true to their repentance.

Yet the Lord, after praying through the night, with intention and foreknowledge, chose the Twelve – including Judas.

What an amazing power is given to repentance! Judas – a man divinely chosen, anointed, appointed, and for years a full-time companion of God in the flesh, fell from the light forever. Not because of the weight of his sins, but because he couldn’t believe there was mercy for him.

Yet on the same day, a criminal who barely even knew the name of the Person dying on the cross next to him, was saved from his sins by merely asking “Remember me when you come in your kingdom!”

The power of repentance at once sobers me and fills me with hope.

Because, while we’ve seen the Lord weep with compassion for a people he loves, whose teachers lead them away from the source of their very life, into destruction. Yet for sinners who turn to him, last night in the readings at Vespers we heard from the prophecy of Zephaniah:

The Lord your God is in your midst, the Lord of Hosts who saves. He will exult over you with joy; he will renew you with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17).

This is the God who, in yesterday’s scripture readings said, “I will never leave you, never forsake you… I will be with you always, even to the end of the world” (Hebrews 13:5; Matthew 28:20).

“For I know the plans that I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for peace and not for fear, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

So, like the women disciples of the Lord, this week let’s stay close to the Master and walk with him all the way to the cross – and be there when the empty grave opens. And if, like the rest of the disciples, we fail or stumble, then let the astounding power of repentance and the steadfast love of the Lord be our hope. “Like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, in thy kingdom” (Luke 23:43).

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.