Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve totally got the wrong end of the stick about someone or something? I’m completely rubbish with both names and faces, so I’m always failing to recognise people even when I’ve met them several times before. I’m sorry if I’ve done it to you! It’s one reason why I’d be terrified of ever approaching a celebrity to say hello - I just know that my brain would fail at the last moment, and I’d completely forget who they are.
Tony Blair, back in the days before he was the UK Prime Minister, told a story about some EU function in the Netherlands that he had attended as Leader of the Opposition. He goes into the room where the function was being held, and a very glamorous older lady comes up to him. She welcomes him in, and invites him to come and help himself from the buffet. As they’re heading over to get some food, she asks his name. “I’m Tony Blair, of the UK Labour Party”, he says. “And, who are you?” “I’m Beatrix”, the lady says. “And what do you do?” asks Tony Blair. “I’m the Queen”, says Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.
Failing to recognise someone in church is pretty embarrassing. Failing to recognise the monarch of the country that is hosting your official visit is even worse! Mr Blair looks pretty embarrassed as he tells the story, but it clearly didn’t hurt his political career too much! It’s hard to imagine that our own Queen would be quite so relaxed about that sort of breach of protocol!
When it comes to Jesus, people have all sorts of different ideas about who he is or was. To many, he is simply a mythological figure, who never really existed. Others would accept some sort of historical identity, but say that Jesus was simply a moral teacher whose identity was stolen by the church after his death. Richard Dawkins, for example, has suggested that Jesus would be an atheist if he had known what we know now. To Muslims, Jesus is a prophet, an ordinary man that God used for his service. By contrast, Christians believe that Jesus is God the Son, come to earth in human form, and God’s appointed king over the universe.
Now, these different opinions can’t all be correct. Jesus can’t be just an ordinary human teacher, and at the same time be God the Son, part of the eternal trinity. He can’t be a prophet sent from God, and at the same time be just a mythological figure. If we are going to treat Jesus correctly, it is important that we know who he truly is. If he were just a myth, then worshipping him as God would be completely foolish. On the other hand, if he really is God, then treating him as just another human lifestyle guru is supremely offensive. It’s important that we get our attitude to Jesus correct.
In our passage today, we meet some people who know who Jesus is. He’s certainly not a myth - he’s a very real person. But he’s no ordinary person - nor is he simply an enlightened philosopher, or a moral example. Jesus is God’s king!
Jesus is king – the crowds proclaim it
It’s the time of the Passover, the biggest Jewish festival of the year, and the crowds have come from all over the Mediterranean to gather for the Feast. The Jewish writer Josephus, writing about a Passover festival around this time, estimated the size of the crowd in Jerusalem as about 2.5 million. At the start of our passage, in verse 12 of chapter 12, John tells us that this crowd has heard that Jesus is coming to join them, and they go out to welcome him. They are waving palm branches, which are sort of a national symbol for the ancient nation of Israel. And they are shouting slogans: “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, and “Blessed is the King of Israel!” They are quoting from Psalm 118, which is like a national anthem.
I gather that the Queen has come to Havering twice on official visits since the borough was created. I wasn’t there for either visit, but I had a pretty good idea of how it probably looked - lots of Union flags, smartly dressed children waving and cheering and so on. Sure enough, a quick Google search found this picture from Draper’s Academy in Harold Hill. Lots of union flags - check. Waving children - check. The monarch’s visit to any town is a focus of national pride - and it was just the same in Jesus’ day. In fact, the excitement in Jerusalem was probably even higher. After all, this was a nation that had not known a king for nearly 600 years.
And so we have to ask - was this just wishful thinking? Jesus wasn’t the first popular leader to be welcomed into Jerusalem - perhaps the crowd were just seizing on the opportunity? Thankfully, we have more than the crowd’s opinion to go on. Jesus really is God’s king - the Old Testament predicted it.
Jesus is king – the Old Testament predicted it
Verse 14 of our passage tells us that Jesus found a donkey and rode it in to Jerusalem. It’s an odd detail to mention - we’re not told what Jesus was wearing, or what he said that day. Why tell us that he was riding a donkey? Well, verse 15 explains it, with a quote from the prophet Zechariah writing 500 years earlier. Zechariah was speaking to the people of Israel after their return from captivity and exile in Babylon, and he brought them a message of hope from God. One day, said Zechariah, God will send you a king, a Messiah, would who restore the people and rule over them justly and peacefully. And the gospel-writer John says that Jesus was the fulfilment of that prophecy. Jesus is the king that God had promised - riding into Jerusalem on a donkey!
Jesus is king – Jesus confirms it
Thirdly, Jesus himself confirmed it. Only 5 days after the events of Palm Sunday, Jesus was brought before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate accuses Jesus of being a king, and Jesus responds with these words: “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” It would have been the perfect opportunity for Jesus to renounce any claim to kingship - it would have saved his life! Instead, Jesus freely tells Pilate that he is the king.
Jesus is king – Jesus’ life proves it
Fourthly, Jesus life proves it. John’s gospel up to this point has been focussed on a select group of Jesus’ miracles. John calls them ‘signs’ - pointers to Jesus’ identity. Towards the end of the book, in chapter 20, John writes that “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”. Messiah is a Hebrew word meaning “God’s chosen king”. Christos, which gives us the English word Christ, is the Greek version. It’s a title, not a surname or a swear word. And John is convinced that the miracles Jesus did, show that he really is the king. Miracles like the changing of water into wine. Healing the sick with just a word. Walking across the surface of a stormy sea. And, as we saw last week, commanding the dead man Lazarus back to life
Jesus really is the king. But what sort of king? There are different types of monarch, aren’t there. Our own Queen is a constitutional monarch - the real political authority lies in the government, elected by the people. The Daily Mail ran a story recently saying that the Queen personally disagreed with the law introducing same sex marriage, because of her Christian faith. Nevertheless, she felt that her role permitted her only to “advise and warn”, and so felt duty-bound to sign the law into existence.
We owe the Queen respect because of what she represents, just as we are required to obey the law of our land. At the same time, though, we are free to disagree with the laws that are made, and to campaign against them. We can even campaign for the removal of the Queen! The news stories around Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year showed that it is even possible to be installed as one of the Queen’s Privy Counsellors, whilst personally favouring the abolition of the monarchy.
But that is not the sort of kingship that we see in Jesus - there simply to rubber-stamp the decisions of others. Only God the Father has greater authority than Jesus, and he has given that authority to Jesus. Praying on the night before his death, Jesus says “Father the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.” When Jesus commands the wind and the waves, or tells a dead man to rise, he does so in his own authority, given to him by the Father. Jesus has shown himself to be in command of *everything* in the universe - of nature, and of people too. He has real power, and is worthy of real respect.
And so *all* people owe Jesus their obedience. Since Jesus is king, we are not free to ignore his commands, or to ignore him, with impunity. This is especially true for Christians - those who claim to to follow King Jesus.
I’d like to gently challenge you this morning, if you would call yourself a Christian. Are you submitting every aspect of your life to the King? Are their ways in which you could be using more of your time, your energy, your money, and your skills in service of King Jesus? Does your behaviour, when you are with your friends, family or work colleagues, give glory to the King?
Jesus *is* king. The Old Testament predicted it. Jesus admitted it. His life proves it.
And the crowd have proclaimed it. But that gives us a problem as we read on in John’s Gospel to the account of the first Easter weekend. Because the next time we meet this crowd, they’re not proclaiming Jesus as their king any more. Jesus is brought before them as a prisoner, and they are offered the chance to spare his life. And instead of “Blessed is the king of Israel”, they are shouting “Crucify him!” How did things go sour go quickly? With all that evidence of Jesus’ kingship, what could make them give up on him so easily?
Jesus is the servant king
I think that the answer lies in that curious detail that John gives us - Jesus choosing to ride a donkey into Jerusalem. The original passage in Zechariah makes clear that this king riding a donkey is arriving in peace. A donkey is not a particularly lowly form of transport - in fact it’s a sign of comparative wealth. Most people would simply had to walk! But a donkey is certainly not something that you would ride to war.
The people desperately wanted a king. But it seems that they wanted a king who would come to fight for them against their enemies, particularly the occupying Romans. They wanted a king who would come on a war horse, at the head of a mighty army. They wanted a king who would follow their agenda, get with their plan, and make their lives easier for them. When Jesus is in the custody of the Romans, hauled up in front of the governor, it’s clear that Jesus is not going to be that sort of king.
Jesus is certainly the king. But he’s a king who came not to bring war, but peace. He came not to fight for his people, but to die for them. He came not to make life easy, but to give life in its fullness. That’s great news for us, because - just like that crowd - we’re pretty poor subjects of our king. Our hearts may be ready to welcome him in with shouts of joy now, but it won’t be long before we look the other way, even if just for a moment.
So, at the start of this Easter season, it’s my prayer that we would all, myself included, rejoice in our servant king, and commit ourselves to submit everything we have to him.