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An Unusual Path to Triumph

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John 12:1-26


            The Jets couldn't lose this year. Manitoba was so excited just to have a team that they could have been on the bottom of the standings and everyone would still have been excited and happy about the season. In the end they have had more wins than Atlanta did last year and have kept it interesting even having a chance of making the playoffs until recently.

            The way in which to succeed in hockey, or any sport is to win games. The team that is better, stronger, faster and scores more goals than the opposition is the team that is considered better than the rest. The team that will win the last game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be declared triumphant. This is what we consider normal in many areas of life.

            Today is a day we celebrate a great triumph. On the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem and everyone shouted "Hosanna" we celebrate an event which we refer to as the Triumphal Entry.

            This morning we will look at the story of the Triumphal Entry from John 12:1-26. We have already read verses 12-19 which is the actual account of the event we have come to know as Palm Sunday, but it is important for us to read that event in the context in which John has placed it and think about the stories surrounding it. John has put these events together in such a way as to teach us. As we read the surrounding stories and even the story of the triumphal entry itself, although we read about a triumphant event, we also notice some disturbing notes. As we consider these things, we will learn something about the way Jesus gained His victory. But we will also learn about the way in which we as followers of Jesus must live. It is a way of living that is not the normal way for people of the world and requires some careful thinking.

I.       The Triumphant Declaration

A.   The Triumphant Expectation

            The story about the Triumphal Entry begins with a rumor. People who were in Jerusalem heard that Jesus was coming into the city. It seems that at this point there was a lot of excitement about Jesus. He was the current news item and when people heard that he was coming into the city, they went out because they wanted to see him.

            There was more than just curiosity about his arrival. It seems that there was celebration and hope surrounding his coming. People came out of the city and had gathered palm branches. John doesn't tell us what they did with the palm branches, but does indicate that there was a great deal of shouting. The declaration of the people was "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord- the King of Israel." These statements are loaded with meaning. The word "Hosanna" is a Hebrew word that means "save now." It is a prayer to be released, but what was it they wanted to be released from? Were they asking for salvation from their sin? salvation from their suffering? salvation from their enemies? or all of the above? From what they knew of Jesus as one who forgave sins, who healed people and who had power over nature, it is likely that they hoped that Jesus would help them in all these ways.

            The phrase "Blessed is the one who comes" was a term that came out of the Old Testament and refers to the coming of one who was promised by God who would redeem Israel from all their troubles. It was a phrase loaded with Messianic expectation. As they shouted this, they were expressing hope that Jesus was the one whom God promised would come and restore the nation.

            The phrase "King of Israel" reminds us of the promise which God had made to David that one of his own sons would sit on Israel's throne forever. It was also a Messianic promise of one coming to fulfill all the hopes of the nation.

            So as the people shouted and celebrated they shouted about hope, they celebrated the possibility of victory over all trouble. Tenney writes, "If the … crowd came from Galilee, it would be well aware of Jesus’ works there and would probably contain a number who had wished for a long time that he would declare himself as the expected Messiah."

B.   The Triumphant Reality

            As we examine the celebration that took place on that day in the context of the stories that surround it we see that there was something to celebrate. There were reasons why they could have such a hope.

1.     Resurrection

            In the story that precedes the triumphal entry, there is a story about a meal which took place in Bethany. One of the people attending that meal was Lazarus and in verse 1 and in verse 9, mention is made of the fact that Jesus had raised him from the dead.

            Throughout John, Jesus is presented with various "I Am" sayings. We read in different places that Jesus says, "I Am – the bread of life, the good shepherd, the light of the world, but there is no more powerful truth than that presented in John 11 where Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life." People knew that he had raised Lazarus from the dead and that they were celebrating that one among them had power over life and death.

            In verse 17, mention is once again made of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead We are told that the crowd which was coming into Jerusalem with Jesus, which was likely a crowd that included people who had been with Jesus when he raised Lazarus, was telling everyone about it. They recalled and shared the details. I can imagine that as they met someone new they would point at Jesus and say, "I saw him call Lazarus out of the tomb and then he came out alive."

            So there was reason to celebrate, reason to hope in what Jesus could and would do for them. They had seen Jesus for what He was, a life giver!

2.     Greeks

            Of course for the Jewish religious leaders this was not good news. As more and more people heard the story about Lazarus, and as the crowd shouted and celebrated Jesus, they become more and more concerned and upset. They expressed their concern in verse 19 with the words, "…the whole world has gone after him!"

            It is interesting that immediately after that exclamation, John includes the story of a group of Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. They connected with Philip and asked him, "…we wish to see Jesus…" They had heard the stories and now they wanted to know more. Philip didn't know what to do and so he took them to Andrew who brought them to Jesus.

            Putting these two stories together suggests another aspect of the victory of Jesus. The Old Testament had foretold that the nations would come to God. Now, as the Jewish religious leaders cried out in alarm "the whole world is going after him" a group of Greeks, who may have been from The Decapolis, a Gentile region of Galilee, wanted to see Jesus, as if the whole world was actually going after Him.

            This event points to the world wide ministry of Jesus and is another reason to celebrate that He who comes is the Lord over all nations.

            So the story of the triumphal entry is a story of triumph. Because of the story of Lazarus it hints that Jesus conquers death. Because of the story of the Greeks it hints that Jesus is Lord of the whole world. There is reason to celebrate. There is substance to the shouts of triumph because of Jesus.

II.    Jesus' Path to Triumph

            But the story of the triumphal entry and the stories that surround it are also stories that contain some disturbing realities. The event celebrates triumph, but something isn't quite right.

A.   Disturbing Notes in the Midst of Triumph

            First of all we notice that a disturbing memory lingers. We have just read about the amazing miracle of the raising of Lazarus in John 11. Shortly thereafter we read of this great celebration of Jesus' entry into the city. But in between we have the story of a meal. It seems that Mary and Martha hosted the meal and Martha served. I think it was a celebration meal, probably put on to thank Jesus for raising Lazarus. In the story we read that Mary expressed her thanks to Jesus by anointing his feet with an expensive perfume. When this act of Mary was questioned by Judas, Jesus responded by saying, "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial." As we hear that, we realize that not everything here is triumph. A huge question is placed on our mind when we hear about the burial of the man who just raised someone from the dead. That is the first indication in these verses that something is not quite right.

            As the people were shouting words of celebration, Jesus did something which also contained a message. He found a young donkey and rode into Jerusalem on it. The act was declared to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 which says, "…your king is coming…" It speaks of triumph, but there is another note in it as well. We also read, "…humble and sitting on a donkey's colt." This is an intentional image of a different kind of victory. It is not the "ra, ra, our team is the best" kind of victory celebration. Rather it also includes mention of humility. Something other than our normal understanding of triumph is implied.

            Another thread which is woven throughout the passage is the thread of opposition. I believe that John was not just recording historical facts. He was preaching a message and making a point and so includes the things he says in the way he says them to make his point. The threads of opposition are not incidental, but deliberate. The opposition comes from without and from within the circle of Jesus' acquaintances.

            The first note of opposition we see is that of Judas Iscariot. At the thanksgiving meal, when Mary showed her love for Jesus, Judas injected a sour note of criticism, suggesting that Mary's act was a waste. When John added his editorial comment that Judas was a thief, we begin to get a hint that something is terribly wrong. The memory of that negative incident can not be removed even as the crowd celebrates the triumph of Jesus' entry.

            The next note of opposition is one we have already encountered many times in the life of Jesus so we are not surprised about it, but because it is mentioned twice in the text, we must take note of it. In verse 10, we are told that the chief priests wanted to kill Lazarus because he was feeding Jesus' popularity. They thought that if they removed the evidence, Jesus popularity would go away. It seems ironic that they wanted to kill someone who had just been raised from the dead. Their comment later that "the whole world has gone after Jesus" also reinforces their opposition and reminds us that not everything is victory and celebration.

            At the end of the story of the triumphal entry, John included the note that "His disciples did not understand these things at first." Once again we see that even though they participated in the shouting and rejoicing, they were actually baffled about what was happening. They, more than anyone, understood reasons for a celebration of triumph, but perhaps they also were more aware of the threads of opposition. It didn't completely come together for them and they were confused.

B.   Jesus' Way to Triumph

            So where is all this pointing? Does it take away from the sound of triumph? Is there a victory here or not?

            There is enough evidence of victory to tell us unequivocally that Jesus is the victor and the sound of celebration is appropriate. It is Jesus Himself who helps us understand, however, that the path He takes to victory is different than the one we normally expect.

            After the Jewish leaders lamented that the world has gone after him and the Greeks fulfill that prophecy by wanting to see Jesus, we are puzzled by the response of Jesus. The text says, "Jesus answered them, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.'" This answer doesn’t seem to fit with what we expect should be spoken at this point and we are tempted to dismiss it because we are puzzled. In the Bible, when something unexpected happens that is not a time to dismiss it, but to pay closer attention.

            The Greeks were looking for Jesus because they had heard the stories about Him. The fact that they came to Jesus was the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy that the gospel is for all nations. The answer of Jesus to the Greeks, however, is puzzling to us because we are expecting normal earthly triumph and Jesus points not to normal human triumph, but to the unique way in which He will triumph. He is pointing away from "high five" to the unusual, but God planned victory accomplished through His death on the cross. Jesus did not win by calling 10,000 angels. Jesus won by dying. That is what Jesus means when he says, "The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." In that statement Jesus points to the ultimate and complete victory, but He also points to the way in which that victory will be accomplished. He would be glorified, not by power, but by humility and by giving His life. Jesus was not talking about winning the game by scoring more goals, He was talking about winning the victory by yielding to the power of the enemy. Of course, we understand that in the end, this victory is much greater than one in which he would have jumped off the cross victorious. By dying He not only showed His power, but conquered all His enemies including sin and death. So as we celebrate the triumphal entry, we not only celebrate that Jesus won, but that He won completely through the unusual method of the sacrifice of His life.

            Although this way of thinking is, from a human stand point, unusual, Jesus uses an illustration from the natural world to help them and us understand that there are other models in the world which work in the same way. God has left Himself with a natural witness to the method by which He has chosen to gain victory over sin and death. Jesus pointed to a grain of wheat, which can either be eaten for nourishment, or put in the ground where it dies. If we eat it, it is digested and gone forever, but if we bury it, that grain of wheat sacrifices itself in order to grow into a plant and multiply itself many times over. In that image we have an illustration of how death yields a greater victory than how we normally think a victory is to be won.

            That was the strategy of Jesus. That was His way to victory and if we understand that, we have an even greater reason to celebrate and shout "Hosanna."

III.  Walking the Jesus Path

            But Jesus didn't stop there with his answer. He continued and taught the disciples, the Greeks and us that His way of gaining victory is not only what He did, but the way in which He wants His disciples to live.

A.   Life Through Sacrifice

            Verses 25 and 26 are instructions to disciples to follow the example of Jesus. Just as He was willing to sacrifice His life, so we are called to do the same.

            Jesus calls us to recognize that if we love our own life, we will lose it. This is a call to give our life to Him.

            Jesus calls us to hate our life in this world. If we prefer to walk in sin instead of repenting, we will never experience His forgiveness.

            Jesus calls us to lose our life. In many parts of the world the choice to follow Jesus is a choice that could lead to martyrdom. In those contexts, if we love our life so much that we don't want to follow Jesus, we will never find eternal life.

            Jesus calls us to serve Him and follow Him. That is a call to make a choice about whether our life will be about us or about Him.

            These statements have much to say about a way of living in this world that is unexpected. They teach us that we can live by sacrificing our desires and even our rights and promise that by doing so we will not lose. They teach us that a life of sacrifice and service is not the wasted life that many people would suggest it is. This way of life is the foundation for loving our enemy, for being able to spend a lifetime of missionary service, for feeding the poor, for fighting for justice and for involving our lives in God's mission. If we follow this way of Jesus, of sacrifice and service, we may never get rich, or have honor in this world, but we will have honor from God because the last thing Jesus says is, "Whoever serves me, the Father will honor."

            Jesus shows us the way. Triumph is real and came to Jesus, but it did not come with a resounding victory accomplished by power. It came when He laid down his life. Jesus calls us to live in the same way.

B.   Life Motivated by Love

            How will we be able to make a choice to live in this way? Living life the way we want, desiring to preserve our life, looking out for ourselves are so deeply ingrained in us that we find it hard to let go of these things in order to choose service and sacrifice.

            Perhaps the example of Mary at the dinner will help us. I believe that it was out of profound gratitude that she anointed Jesus' feet. The value of the perfume she used was worth about a year's wages for a laborer. That is a lot of money to blow in one shot. But she did not think of the cost. Why was she willing to engage in such an extravagant act of worship and service to Jesus? I believe it was because she was filled with gratitude. Referring to this story Barclay says, "We see love's extravagance." "Mary took the most precious thing she possessed, and spent it all on Jesus." If we are truly thankful for the sacrifice that Jesus made for us and are grateful for the triumph He has gained, then it will not be difficult for us to choose a life of sacrifice and service for the one who sacrificed Himself for us.


            Earlier in the service, the children ran down the aisles of the church shouting cries of victory. What they said and did is entirely true and appropriate. Jesus has won! Jesus is triumphant! We celebrate His triumph gladly and with full meaning.

            But the way in which He came to that triumph is not the way we normally expect in this world. He was the grain of wheat who was put into the ground in order that it would gain much more fruit. When we understand that fully, we understand that His victory is much more complete because of the path He took.

            So today we celebrate the triumph of Jesus and because of the way He accomplished it, we understand that it is a complete triumph. Since Jesus triumphed in that way, we are also encouraged to follow His path to victory through sacrifice and service.

            May the victory of Jesus motivate us to offer ourselves to Him.

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