I recently had the blessing of preaching at Grace Covenant Church in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. Here is a transcript of that message.
I don’t know about you, but I have had my share of disappointments. We are bombarded with promises everywhere we look. Then I have to go and add my own high expectations to the mix and disappointment is inevitable. That certain something which promised to be “new and improved” is no longer new. And, if it is improved, I can’t tell how. Sometimes I just build something up too much in my mind and it will never live up to those expectations. This pretty much describes every vacation I have ever taken! Promises and expectations shape so much of our lives.
John 12:12-26 A Series of Unexpected Events
In our text today we see the tension between promise and expectation take center stage. More specifically, we see the contrast between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the earth. In the midst of the fulfillment of the promise spoken through Zechariah, many things take an unexpected turn.
First, we see Jesus, who had been laying low (11:54), now orchestrating a well-planned, high- profile entrance into Jerusalem. The lamb is walking right through the front door of the viper’s den. Many did not think he should be going at all. Certainly, no one expected him to make a grand entrance. This is dangerous!
Second, we see Jesus coming in an unusual way for the kind of king expected. It’s no surprise that he would come riding in on a colt. Zechariah prophesied that the Lord’s Anointed would do so. The timing , I think, is quite unexpected. The colt is not the animal of choice for riding into the battle. War-horses and chariots are better suited for that. The enemy had not yet been thrown down. The battle had yet to be fought. The colt is an animal for kings when the victory is already won, when peace is established. This is presumptious.
Third, the crowds that gathered that day were amazed and drawn to one who could raise life from the dead. Word had spread quickly about the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection. Many had witnessed it first hand. Many more had heard about it from others. Here was a man of power. If death could not resist him, how could the Roman legions? What they never expected was One who would bring life and victory through death. This is preposterous.
Fourth, Jesus permits the crowd’s praises and proclamations. How many times have we seen Jesus quiet those who were healed, demons being cast out, crowds who were well-fed and ready to make him king by force? Now he allows it. Even more, it is he who has turned the hearts of the people to respond as they did!
Fifth, the Jewish leaders were not expecting the overwhelming response of a crowd that had gathered from all the surrounding regions. This was no mere local phenomenon. This was not an isolated event that could be easily controlled and contained.
Just as a side note, let me draw your attention to a couple of parallels between our story today and what I spoke about the last time I was with you during the advent season.
- The Jewish leaders, like Herod, saw Jesus as a threat to their small little areas of power. As Herod schemed Jesus’ death as a small child, so now the Jewish leaders plot the death of Jesus the man. The shedding of blood was simply the price of maintaining power.
- As news of his birth came first to the Jews (the shepherds) and then to the Gentiles (the Magi), so now Jesus’ arrival is proclaimed first by the Jews, then we see a group of Gentiles seeking him out.
The people had their promises and they had their expectations. Power and dominion. Freedom and blessing. Glory and honor. How was this King riding into Jerusalem during the Passover celebration different from all other Kings and rulers before him?
To answer that question, let me take you to a parable given in the book of Judges. You don’t normally think of parables when you think of Judges, but this is a great one! Let me read the parable to you, explain its context, then use it to draw some application for us on this Palm Sunday.
Judges 9:7-15 The Parable of Trees
Gideon had been the Lord’s anointed to deliver Israel from the hands of her enemies; to rescue her once again from tyranny and oppression. And he proved to be a true champion for much of his life. But rather than continuing to be a picture of God’s faithfulness and particular love for his people, Gideon sinned by taking for himself many wives. And these many wives gave him 70 sons.
James Jordan, in his commentary on Judges, points out the significance of the number 70. It is a number often used to represent the nations of the world. Something about this story is bigger than it first appears.
Following the death of Gideon, it is a man named Abimelech that rises to the occasion. He offers himself as a would-be king for the people. (9:1) And he offers up the 70 sons of Gideon as a small sacrifice to have such a worldly king as himself.
For, you see, Abimelech was a son born to Gideon from his concubine in Shechem. He is somebody who gives the people exactly what they want. They get the best of both worlds. He is of the people of God and he is also of the people of Baal. It is his connection to the Canaanites that he appeals to for why they should make him ruler.
It should be no surprise that the people agree to this. Worldly people always hunger for worldly authority over them. Those who have first given themselves over to the tyranny of the devil will inevitably return, like a dog to its vomit, again and again to oppression and slavery. Remember how many times the Israelites found themselves longing again for Egypt during the wilderness journey to the Promised Land?
In verse 2, Abimelech says, “Which is better for you, that seventy men, all sons of Jerubbaal (Baal-fighter), rule over you, or that one man rule over you?”
Remember the words of Caiaphas, the High Priest, in John 11? “It is expedient for you that one man die for the people and that the whole nation not perish.”
The nation of Israel turns away from a Baal-fighter to a Baal-compromiser. They turn away from their faithful Husband, the One who protects them, fights for them, blesses them. Instead, they play the harlot for trinkets. They trade shelter for slavery.
Abimelech climbs the stage so that all the world can see what worldly dominion looks like. Power and glory are taken, not received. Authority is not given in order to serve, but to be served. Kings do not lay down their lives for the good of the people. The people become the necessary sacrifices for the good of kings.
Again, Jordan’s commentary is helpful here. he notes the significance of human sacrifice in this story and how it describes so well the kingdoms of this world. As nations of men have raged against Yahweh, it has always been accompanied by human sacrifice (altars of sacrifice can take many forms). Rebellion against God is never a bloodless revolution.
When man sets himself up as king, it is his law that is broken by others, his justice that must be met, his wrath that must be satisfied, his enemies that must be crushed beneath his feet. And this is bloody work, indeed!
Only one of Gideon’s sons escapes slaughter. Jotham then ascends upon a hill and addresses the people with this parable of trees. Let’s look at it more closely and draw some application for us today in closing.
When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on top of Mount Gerizim and cried aloud and said to them, “Listen to me, you leaders of Shechem, that God may listen to you. 8 The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ 9 But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?’ 10 And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 11 But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?’ 12 And the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 13 But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’ 14 Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 15 And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’
- The trees are looking for a king from among them rather than acknowledging the King above them. They want someone like them.
- Olive trees produce the oil of anointing. They serve to honor others, to make others shine, to give glory not take it. They see no glory in vain waving over others.
- Fig trees produce sweetness and fruitfulness in the land. They produce their fruit in its season for the pleasure of others. They offer up themselves to revive and sustain and strengthen. They have no time for vain waking over others.
- Vines produce grapes for good wine. This wine brings joy to others. It cheers the heart of man as it is crushed. It delights the heart of God as it is poured out in worship. They have no desire for vain waving over others.
- Then there are the brambles. Now there’s a willing candidate. Brambles are the growth of the fall. Brambles are the product of rebellious seed. They give neither sweetness nor shade. They neither satisfy nor shelter. Here now is the vanity of all earthly rule. Here now is why every earthly kingdom and every worldly king will fall short.
- To serve a bramble king is to either become satisfied with the “shade” it provides among thorns, or find yourself consumed in its power. A bramble fire can destroy the tallest cedar.
Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. It was an extraordinary day for the world when Jesus came riding into the city. The promised King had come, but this was no ordinary king.
- Mary’s humble hair had anointed him with rich perfumes.
- A peaceful colt carries him to do battle with the great dragon.
- The nations of the world have been gathered in one place as witnesses.
- The Jewish leaders fear that the whole world has gone after him. Yet, here he is setting his face like flint and coming after the world.
- They claim to be saving one nation by his death. He has come to lay down his life to save the world.
Here is our problem as we think about this parable today. Every time we give in to temptation, every time we embrace the promises of sin, we are asking brambles to do what only the true King can do.
Every time I see other people as merely a means to get what I want or an obstacle getting in the way of what I want, I am not acting like the King who redeemed me. I am becoming the bramble king myself.
But when we are trusting and following Christ as King, we will be…
Olive trees. We will serve to honor others. We will make others shine out of our abundance. We will give up our lives that others might receive glory and blessing.
Fig trees. We will be fruitful in the land. We will bear fruit in each season of life and sweetness will flow from us even in the midst of sorrow and suffering. The fruit that the Spirit produces in our lives will revive, sustain, and strengthen those around us.
Vine branches. We will present our bodies as living sacrifices unto the Lord. We will be crushed and pressed so that wine may flow from us as a drink offering for the joy of others and the pleasure of God. I am reminded of what Oswald Chambers once said, “God can never make us poured out wine if we object to the fingers He uses to crush us.” The fruit of the vine must first be trampled under foot. Only then will it produce the wine that is found at the table of kings.