Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 24, 2024

John 12:12-16 Commentary

What sets John’s account apart is perspective. Instead of following the story play out from among the disciples and Jesus’s instructions, John tells a story more focused on what the crowd is doing and saying. In fact, even though all attention is on him, Jesus doesn’t speak a word in John 12.12-16.

The larger narrative of John helps us know who is in this crowd, particularly the verses immediately following our passage (17-19). These are folks who witnessed Jesus do the impossible, raising Lazarus from the dead. These are folks who have heard about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and now they want to meet Jesus. Added to the first-hand witnesses and second-hand hearers are folks like the Pharisees who are concerned about how much attention and support Jesus is getting. “Look, the world has gone after him!” the leaders of the temple yell in despair while others praise Jesus.

The palm branches are in honour of Jesus, their presumed victor. “Hosanna!” is a mixed greeting of praise and a call to continuing salvific work. This Jesus has conquered death by bringing Lazarus back to life: what else might he do? could he be the one coming to save them all from their Roman oppression?

The crowd recites Scripture and adds to it as they welcome Jesus in the street (see the textual point below). It is here that we get another difference in John’s narrative when compared to the synoptics. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke focus early in their story on Jesus orchestrating a colt to ride into Jerusalem, it is here, halfway through the event that it comes up in John—notably after the crowd loudly proclaims Jesus the King of Israel.

Commentators believe that this is a purposeful variation. John depicts Jesus as giving a visual corrective. Kings ought to ride on horses, towering above the subjects they have saved through their victory. Instead, Jesus chooses to ride on a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9.9-10. Jesus is not a warrior king; he is a peaceable and humble one. (Though it can be noted that according to the synoptics, Jesus was the first to ride this particular colt—a tradition that matched the custom that only the king rode the king’s horse.)

I really appreciate Ayanna Johnson Watkins’s insight about the donkey choice. Naturally, donkeys are shorter animals than most horses, a colt even more so since it is not quite full grown. Perhaps the donkey was not just a symbol of humility and peace, perhaps Jesus chose it because it kept him among, not above, the people. Riding on the colt, Jesus would have still been close to eye level with the crowd. There will be a time when Jesus is lifted up and raised above for the benefit of all humanity, but here and now, Jesus is communicating yet again that he is purposefully present, here, among, and his people—even when they don’t understand.

Like the disciples, who in John’s gospel do a lot of “not understanding at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered…” As this particular lenten season draws to a close, this is an opportunity to see how the themes all come together here at Jesus’s entrance to Jerusalem. That we don’t really understand how God works, but we know the call is not just to sing his praise, but to get in line behind him and follow him all the way through the events of this Holy Week. That we, like this crowd who witnessed Jesus raise Lazarus from his tomb, have no reason to doubt the Lord and every reason to believe (like we heard at Jesus’s baptism). That though Jesus is publicly acknowledged as the Messiah, we have a harder time coming to terms with voluntary public suffering for the common good, like that imaged by the king choosing to ride a donkey over a horse. And that Jesus’s zeal for the temple’s purity was really about making sure that people could commune with God, as he is now, staying close to eye level with his people as he sits on the colt.

Finally, the events of Holy Week, starting with this reorientation of what kind of King of Israel Jesus is, is the ultimate challenge of being willing to let the truth come to light, eschewing the darkness of not only our own expectations of who God is, but what God must do. Jesus shows us time and time again that his is the better way, but we usually only come to the realization after the fact, having finally “remembered” as disciples ourselves.

[Note: In addition to our weekly sermon commentaries, we have a special resource page for Lent and Easter for you to explore!]

Textual Point

One of the source texts for the people’s praise comes from Psalm 118. Some believe this Psalm was said in the temple every morning, and that it was used as people entered the temple during the festival of Passover. The “Hosanna” cheer comes from verses 25 and 26, and verse 27 refers to having branches in hand as one joins in the procession of the one who comes to save. But notice that our crowd adds one important addition when they offer this praise to Jesus; they call him the “King of Israel.”

Illustration Idea

I think that image of being near eye level with the crowd as he rides the donkey is a really powerful one. You might even consider embodying it yourself as you preach from a platform that is elevated by descending and walking among the congregation to illustrate the point. Ask the congregation to imagine being in the crowd and consider what it might have felt like, knowing what we know, that Jesus stayed so close to them as he entered the city. Not regal, but lowly. Not demanding, but willing to sacrifice.

The CEP website also has a commentary on Mark 11:1-11:


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