I love the context in which John places the story of Palm Sunday. I find it intensely moving and beautiful. It’s six days before Passover. Jesus is in Bethany which is a mile and a half outside the city of Jerusalem. He’s at the home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead a few days earlier. They are having a celebratory meal.
Martha is serving dinner, and I have no doubt it was delicious. I don’t picture her in this scene as being “Worried and distracted by many things” like she is described in Luke’s gospel. [Lk 10] Instead, I see her as simply radiant as she places baskets of flat bread on the table and common dishes for everyone to share. She’s grinning from ear to ear because many of the people whom she loves are all under on roof: Lazarus, her sister Mary, Jesus and his twelve disciples. The room is filled with laughter as stories begin to fly.
Who among us would not want to be at this table? It’s the kind of meal we all cherish, but seldom take the time to make it happen. It’s a perfect moment. And perfect moments are rare and precious gifts we should savior and treasure. As the story continues, Mary takes a pound of costly perfume, made of pure nard, and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. The house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Now, the other three gospel writers imply that this is a scandalous act. But the only one who seems to be upset with Mary in John’s gospel is Judas. “Why is this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” He said with a disapproving scowl. But Jesus immediately comes to her rescue: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus knows what’s coming next, and I suspect Mary knows as well.
The reason why this scene is so powerful for me, is that Jesus would have been tempted to stay in Bethany with his friends, to keep himself out of harm’s way, to savor this beautiful moment for as long as possible. But, instead, Jesus knows the path that lies before him. He lovingly tries to prepare his friends for the events of the coming week. This tells us a lot about Jesus, who is not just our friend when times are good. He is willing to walk with us on the darkest days that we can imagine.
We will see this same dynamic being played out the very next morning as Jesus and his disciples, walk to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. It is there that two of his disciples borrow the donkey that Jesus will ride into Jerusalem. We know this scene well. A very large crowd began to gather. They spread their cloaks on the road which is their version of rolling out the red carpet. Others cut palm branches and began shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
This scene echoes what happened the night before. In the midst of this happy and joyful setting, ominous signs begin to appear. John tells us that some of the Pharisees grumbled when they saw what was happening. “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” In Luke’s version of the story, they say, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
Yet we know that Jesus has no intention of stopping. We might have steered our donkey in another direction, back to Bethany, and out into the desert. But Jesus refuses to be the one who is only present for celebrations and good times. He knows how many of the Pharisees feel about him. They want him dead. But this does not stop him from heading down the mountain toward the city of Jerusalem.
If we know anything about the geography of this area, we appreciate the story even more. On my trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to stand on the Mount of Olives. It offers a breathtaking view of the entire city of Jerusalem with the Kiddron Valley between them. It is this view that Jesus would have seen as he made his way toward the city. There may have been shouts of “Hosanna” tickling in his ears, but ahead of him lie Jerusalem, looming like a dark cloud.
As John brings his version of the Palm Sunday story to a close, he omits the story of Jesus’ cleansing the temple, which he told back in chapter 2. In its place, he offers the words of Jesus, which remind us this Palm Sunday, what Holy Week is all about: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
Friends in Christ, this is why I love John’s telling of the story of Palm Sunday. The good news I hear is that Jesus is willing to make the journey for us. He had the opportunity to stay in Bethany with his friends. Instead, he went to Bethphage the very next morning. He could have chosen to sneak into Jerusalem and hope nobody would notice. Instead he mounted a donkey and threw a parade, boldly announcing what kind of Messiah he was destined to be.
There were so many moments in the days that followed where he could have made a different choice, but he didn’t. The stories of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday remind us of his willingness to endure pain and suffering so that we could receive life in all of its abundance. This abundant life is not reserved for some distant future. Grace upon grace is offered to us every day we have life and breath. The hope we have in Jesus is that he is not just our fair weather friend. He is willing to walk with us in the deepest valleys and darkest experiences of our lives. We can count on him because he walked those same deep valleys and dark experiences while he was here on earth, and he overcame them all.
So, I hope you will make the journey with me during this Holy Week. I hope you’ll read the stories and place yourself in them. There is much to be learned from this final week, in the life of our Savior. I pray you will be blessed and encouraged by the journey. Amen.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck