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“The Untimely Celebration”

John 12:12-19
Bob DeGray
April 13, 2003

Key Sentence

Jesus is King, and sometimes an untimely celebration of that truth is just what our hearts need.


I. The Blessed King (John 12:12-13)
II. The King of Peace (John 12:14-16)
III. Witnesses of the King (John 12:17-19)


        In the course of history there have been many times when people have celebrated too soon - before they had a real reason to celebrate. Sometimes these celebrations have been simply premature - the right people celebrating the right thing, but before it was really attained. At times they’ve been the celebration of a false hope or false report. One of the most famous happened shortly after World War II when Harry Truman ran against Thomas Dewey in the 1948 Presidential election. The Chicago Tribune, acting on misleading early results and wishful thinking declared in a famous two inch headline “Dewey defeats Truman” when in fact Truman had won.

        In World War Two there were dozens of times people began to celebrate too soon or for false reasons. Germans celebrated the fall of Moscow two or three times in 1941. Moscow never fell. When D-Day came and the Allies invaded Europe, thousands of prisoners in German concentration camps learned the news by word of mouth and celebrated - though for many it was too late for survival. In America that fall there was wide conviction that the war would be over before Christmas - but German resistance stiffened: the celebration was pre-mature. All these celebrations were untimely, either false hopes or hopes that had to be deferred.

        This week, of course, we’ve seen a similar thing in Iraq. On Tuesday we watched with awe as the Iraqis pulled down the statue of Saddam. But the celebration was really a little too soon, as officials kept telling us, and as subsequent firefights, suicide bombings and lawlessness have confirmed. Freedom will come to Bagdad, but the real celebration is still in the future.

        This kind of misunderstanding is not limited to recent generations. All through history celebrations have taken place too soon. This week’s text in John is a great example. John 12:12-19 describes Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem, but this celebration of Jesus as king was simply too soon. The people weren’t wrong - Jesus was the king, infinitely worthy of celebration. But a lot of disappointment and sadness and trouble was soon to show that the celebration was untimely. It was not time for him to take up his throne and reign. You and I, on this side of the cross, have better reasons to celebrate Jesus as king than they did, but still, we’re waiting for that day of kingship, waiting for the day he returns in glory before we can properly celebrate his reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. Palm Sunday was untimely - it was too soon to call Jesus king and the power of evil was very strong. Even our worship here today, in a world full of strife and sorrow is untimely - evil still holds sway. But both their celebration and ours are proper as far as ultimate truth goes. Jesus is king, and at times an untimely celebration is just what our hearts need.

I. The Blessed King (John 12:12-13)

        So let’s join in the blessing of the coming king. John 12:12-13. The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the King of Israel!"

        When we last left our story, Jesus was in Bethany at a feast with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, at which Mary anointed him for burial. That was Friday night. Now, on Sunday morning, Jesus leaves Bethany and makes the short, two mile trip to the gates of Jerusalem. On the way, probably near a second town called Bethphage, he is met by a great crowd that has come to Jerusalem for the feast. We mentioned last week that Passover was about the greatest feast of the Jewish year. Josephus, the Jewish historian, estimated three million celebrants, but he is known to exaggerate. Still, the crowd must have been huge. As Jesus left for Jerusalem word went ahead, and a large part of the crowd went out of the city, down the road toward Bethany to meet Jesus coming the other way. As they went, they gathered palm branches.

        Date palms are plentiful around Jerusalem, but nothing in the Old Testament prescribes the use of palm branches at Passover. There is a command to take palm fronds and rejoice before the Lord during the feast of Tabernacles. So some commentators have said the triumphal entry really took place six months earlier at the feast of Tabernacles. However, palm branches were also a national symbol, and had been for many years. After the successful revolt of the Maccabees in 167 B.C., the people celebrated by waving palm branches. They appear on coins minted by the Jewish revolutionaries during the A.D. 66 and 132 revolts. In fact the use of palms as a symbol for Judea was so common that the coins minted by the Romans for the Judean province had palms on them. So do modern Jewish coins. The waving of palm branches was a symbol of nationalism, much as we might wave a flag, but for them it also expressed the desire for freedom and a Messianic king.

        But this crowd didn’t limit itself to visual symbols: they give voice to their hopes as well: "Hosanna!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the King of Israel!" In Hebrew the cry ‘Hosanna!’ means ‘Give salvation now’ and is a term of praise and worship. It comes from Psalm 118, a Psalm sung especially at the feast of Tabernacles, but also at Passover. The key verses are 25 to 27: O Lord, save us; - or ‘hosanna’ - O Lord, grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you. The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.” The crowd quotes both ‘hosanna’ and the phrase, ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ In the original this was either a blessing on the pilgrim or a blessing pronounced on an unnamed Davidic king. In Israel in Jesus’ day it was understood as a blessing on the coming Messiah. The crowds are not simply asking for the Lord’s blessing on whoever shows up, but are proclaiming that the one who comes is the Lord’s blessed one.

        The next line shows the crowd’s hope and expectation “Blessed is the King of Israel.” The crowd is proclaiming Jesus both Messiah and King. This isn’t the first time John has called Jesus king, though it’s relatively rare, not his main theme. Back in chapter 1 Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel." In chapter 6 John tells us that the crowd in Galilee at the feeding of the five thousand “intended to come and make him king by force”, which is more or less what they want here. Later, in John 19, as Jesus stands before Pilate, the central issue will be whether Jesus considers himself a king. After that interview Pilate insisted that a sign saying ‘king of the Jews’ be placed over the cross.

        So this is one of those situations where the celebration is absolutely accurate, but untimely. He is the king, but not yet in the sense they want him to be, and they don’t really have a clue what he and they will have to go through before he becomes king. Only Jesus has a clue. He has already said in John that he will lay down his life for his sheep and then take it up again. Then he will have authority to raise the dead and to judge sinners. The other Gospels look forward to this same future reign. Jesus says clearly in Matthew 25 that “when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.” He will be king of kings and Lord of lords, for “all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” Here is the king they longed for and celebrated, but his reign was future. It’s not wrong to celebrate that, but it is a little untimely.

        How about us? Shall we celebrate this king? Is it right for us to cry “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”? Well, in a sense it’s still untimely. The promises of John 6 and Matthew 25 haven’t been fulfilled. We don’t see Jesus reigning on earth, we don’t see his justice, his judgment and his blessing. So it’s too soon, in that sense, to celebrate him as king. On the other hand, we have much more reason to celebrate his kingship than they did. We know the whole story We know that his ride in Jerusalem led to his death on the cross which in turn led to his resurrection and glorification. We know he’s at the right hand of God, and already receives the praise that is his due. And we know that the next chapter is his return, when he will come in the clouds with power and in glory and reign on earth.

        Further, we know we’ll celebrate in eternity. Consider one scene from Revelation: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." Sound a little like Palm Sunday, doesn’t it?

        The celebrating we do now is an anticipation of the joy to come when we fall before the throne. It’s never inappropriate. It may be a little untimely, simply because we still live in a world of suffering, a world ruled by sin and Satan and death. But we know the end of the story and we above all people should bless the one who is coming again as king to put an end to sin and Satan and death. Today is a good day for a party because the hope we have is not false hope, simply premature. Jesus is King, and at times an untimely celebration of that truth is just what our hearts need.

II. The King of Peace (John 12:14-16)

        Further, we know what kind of king Jesus is and will be. The crowd didn’t understand that the king they welcomed was in fact a king of peace. Verses 14 to 16 Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, 15"Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt." 16At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

        John significantly abbreviates the account of the Triumphal Entry, especially this part. He’s not interested, as the other Gospels are, in giving details of how this donkey was found, or what the owner said, or even that Jesus found it by means of his disciples. He is interested in the fact that it was a young donkey, and very interested in the fact that this ride fulfilled Scripture. John puts this report immediately after the acclamation of the crowd to create a contrast to their nationalist expectations. Jesus did not enter Jerusalem on a war horse, as might have been expected from the teaching and practice of the Old Testament. To enter on a horse would have meant the establishment of a kingdom by conquest. That’s what he will do the next time he comes, as Revelation shows him arriving to conquer on a white horse.

        But that’s the ‘not yet’. The now is Zechariah 9:9 which is partially quoted in verse 15, and in which Jesus comes ‘gentle and riding on a donkey’. John’s opening words are actually not in Zechariah 9. Zechariah has ‘rejoice greatly’, but John substitutes ‘do not be afraid’. That phrase is probably from Isaiah 40, where these words are addressed to the one who brings good tidings to Zion. It’s fairly common for New Testament quotes of the Old Testament to be taken from two or even more places. Immediately after that phrase John does summarize Zechariah 9:9. He probably expects that his brief summary will bring to mind all the significant promises of verse 9 to 11: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war_horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.”

        Three points stand out: (1) the coming of the gentle king is associated with the end of war. John understands Jesus’ mission to be peace, not revolution. Jesus understands it the same way, and will not allow his ministry to be reduced to politics or conflict. (2) The peace that the gentle king brings is proclaimed to all the nations. That phrase in Zechariah 9:10 is itself a quote from Psalm 72, which teaches that Zion’s king, the Son of David, will have a world wide reign. (3) The coming of this king of peace is associated with the blood of God’s covenant, a covenant that promises release for prisoners and water for the thirsty. It is only through the blood of Jesus, shed for our sins that these promises of freedom and satisfaction can be received by his followers. So the action of Jesus in riding the donkey, as well as the Zechariah quote, serve to change the focus from nationalist and political expectations to a world wide promise of peace through the covenant which God makes through Jesus.

        Unfortunately the impact of all this was muted, because John tells us that the disciples didn’t catch the meaning until after Jesus was glorified. They may have sensed the king of peace theme as Jesus rode the donkey, because that link was fairly well known. But John tells us that they did not make the connection to Zechariah 9 until later, until after he was glorified. They made the connection on our side of the cross, after Jesus had been crucified, raised from the dead, ascended into heaven and had sent the Holy Spirit to guard and guide his people. That’s what John means when he says ‘glorified’. Before all that the reasons to celebrate Jesus were a little obscure and often mixed with wrong understandings. But for John and for us the reasons to celebrate are clear: Jesus is the king who came to bring peace, not yet among all the nations, but undoubtedly peace for the peoples of those nations, for every tribe and language. He gives us peace through the blood of his covenant poured out on the cross as a payment for sin, to free us from death.

        Do you see the connection? They misunderstood Jesus as coming to reign and celebrated it prematurely. We know he’s coming to reign, but we’re also aware that it hasn’t happened yet – when we celebrate that it is only in anticipation. But we do have excellent reasons to celebrate him now. Those who are believers should have already experienced his coming as king of peace. We’ve should have already experienced the blood of his covenant which sets us free, his sacrifice of himself which makes us his sheep, his provision which gives us living water so our thirst can be eternally satisfied. All this is, or should be, present reality for us. So we have a reason to celebrate now. Unlike those Jews for whom the king of peace was only a hope, we have the reign of the king of peace now. Romans 5 tells us that those who have been justified by faith have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what we celebrate - the prince of peace has come to give us peace.

III. Witnesses of the King (John 12:17-19)

        So you and I need to ask ourselves, as those who have seen this coming king, as those who understand the power of his resurrection, are we known by friend and foe for our celebration? Listen to the people’s reactions to the events we’ve just narrated. Verses 17 to 19 17Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him. 19So the Pharisees said to one another, "See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!"

        Two crowds mix on the road to Jerusalem. The first is the one that was with Jesus when he called Lazarus from the tomb. This may have included a number of people from Bethany, plus some from Jerusalem who were mourning with Mary and Martha. Many were probably invited back to Bethany for the dinner prior to the Sabbath, the one that Jesus and Lazarus both attended. We learned in chapter 11 that these people believed as a result of the miraculous sign, the resurrection of Lazarus. Now John tells us that they showed one of the classic fruits of true faith - they witnessed concerning what they had seen. The New International Version says that they spread the word. Other versions say that they testified. The underlying Greek word is maturei, from which we get martyr. These people didn’t necessarily become martyrs for their faith, but they were risking something to so boldly proclaim Jesus on the road to the city where he had already been sentenced to death.

        The other crowd was a mix of the people of Jerusalem and pilgrims. These were people who had heard about the miracle and came out of the city to meet Jesus on the road. They became the object of the first crowd’s witness. John doesn’t tell us whether they believed or not, but they had the opportunity, not only because of the sign, but because there were people who were willing to share the truth, to give the reason for the season, the reason for the celebration. So here are some positive responses to Jesus as king. One is faith: chapter 11 tells us that those who saw the raising of Lazarus believed in Jesus. The first response to the king who comes to give peace and forgiveness and life is faith. But from faith comes witness. The joy of finding this king, even in an untimely way, should be contagious, and result in a desire to share him with others. That crowd coming back from dinner with Lazarus had to tell somebody what they’d seen and heard - which is the definition of witness.

        But until he comes again the most exuberant witness in the world will still have mixed results. John gives us one more snapshot of the Pharisees as they stand aloof from this scene of celebration and pass judgment. They still cling to their power and position, still see Jesus as a threat, and are even more threatened as they see the crowd going after him. They respond in unbelief. Even their comment about the ‘whole world’ reflects this. What should be a cause of celebration - that the Messiah has come to bring peace to all nations - becomes instead a source of despair and a justification for murder. Ironically, the events of the coming week would prove that they were wrong in their assessment. The whole world may have appeared to follow Jesus, but most of this crowd were looking only for a political king, and by the end of the week they would be disillusioned and turn on him too.

        Now how does all this fit with the idea of an untimely celebration? What would draw more attention to Jesus in a melancholy and often tragic world than people who have found a king to celebrate, and have been given a reason to celebrate and who do celebrate. To a large extent the witness to Jesus back then was the celebration – here was this crowd coming along, singing, waving palm branches and shouting hosannas to the king, to the Son of David, to the one who was coming in the name of the Lord. That had to arouse curiosity in the crowd coming the other way. So we become witnesses to Jesus as we do celebrate, as we do worship from the heart, as we have a joy and a wonder that other people get curious about. And that worship and celebration is all the more appealing if it is untimely. When you and I, living in an often tragic world full of both obvious and subtle evils can have genuine joy, worship and celebration, we will get noticed.

        The Bible has several examples: Paul and Silas singing in prison, Peter and the others rejoicing to be persecuted. Christian history has examples. Gail and some of the girls recently reread The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. Corrie’s sister Betsie, and Corrie herself stood out in the Nazi prison because of the joy they had in Jesus. People wanted to know what they had. I remember a chance I had to witness back in college after some guy asked me with some irritation why I smiled all the time. I was celebrating the king, in an untimely way. My kids have been listening to that Newsboys song, ‘Shine, make ‘em wonder what you got, make ‘em wish that they were not on the outside lookin’ bored.’ An untimely celebration makes people wonder what we’ve got, makes them recognize that they are on the outside.

        So, Palm Sunday: it’s untimely, it’s premature, this crowd doesn’t know all the facts and is in for some major disappointments. We all know what that feels like: we’ve been experiencing it as we’ve watched the war news, which is often untimely or just false. But, when it’s the celebration of the eternal king, the messiah who has come and who will come, there is no such thing as untimely. It’s true that we live in a world of strife and conflict, sin and hurt and loss. But in Jesus we have found reason to celebrate and reason to hope. Sometimes an untimely celebration of those truths is just what our hearts need.