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Hosanna (Save us from our need for power)

A sermon on John 12:12-16 and Philippians 2:5-11.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Brooke Lark on]

I have not always been a fan of gospel writers breaking the fourth wall to interject explanatory comments about things that the participants in the narrative don’t understand.

I get that John wanted us, the readers, to understand the significance of Jesus riding on a donkey, as per prophecy, but it just feels like the side bar comment about the disciples only understanding the significance later is an interruption.

Even in a relatively sparse description, John has built up this emotion-laden scene with people shouting Hosanna and waving palm branches to celebrate Jesus’ arrival.

Why undercut that build-up by breaking in to offer commentary about how the disciples would look back later and interpret what they saw?

Why not just let the story stand? Why not just let the audience hear that this was a fulfillment of prophecy without pointing out that the disciples didn’t get it at the time?

I can’t pretend to know all of John’s purposes in his storytelling, but I did recently have an experience that has given me a new perspective on the intentional, scene-interrupting engagement of a narrative audience.

Earlier this month I went with my son and his friend to see some of our favorite performers in a Broadway show. The whole show was amazing, but there was one particular comic scene that stands out in my memory.

The brooding protagonist was supposed to play it straight, while his co-star was having a grand old time hamming up her physical comedy for the audience.

She was brilliant and she got us literally roaring with laughter, the energy in the theater was electric… and there was a moment where the protagonist broke… just a little bit, but it was enough.

We could see the triumph on her face, and the audience was gone. Watching as he worked so hard to keep it together while everyone else in the room let go. I laughed so hard I almost cried.

In the midst of a truly incredible, carefully choreographed, and well-rehearsed show, that unscripted moment was the highlight… because we all knew we were a part of it. We weren’t just passively watching what was happening on stage. We were impacting it.

That moment of experienced inclusion is what has me re-thinking my stance on gospel writers interrupting the narrative for sidebar comments. I just can’t get it out of my head what a difference it makes to feel personally engaged by what is happening in the story.

It’s the kind of connection that can be hard to achieve with scripture because we are so far removed from the events by time, and language, and culture.

If we take the Bible on its own terms (and don’t just assume that it was written with 21st Century suburban American readers in mind), it feels… distant. It’s still sharing human stories, but it can be hard to get that intimate connection.

I sometimes think this might be why the Spirit inspired the gospel authors to occasionally break the fourth wall… to interrupt the story-telling to offer a comment about things that were not evident to the people in the story, but that we, as the readers do recognize.

It’s almost like the writer is telling us, “See! You have special insight too. You might not be able to read the original language, and you might have to study to understand the clues in the cultural context, but the people who were actually there missed some big things too!”

It’s a way of evening the playing field.

The people who were there… whose throats shouted Hosanna, and whose arms waved palm branches, and whose noses breathed in the smell of the donkey Jesus was riding… they get the sensory, immediate experience of the story.

But we get the reflective part of the story… the part that sees the connections between the moment of triumphal entry and the prophecies that preceded it by hundreds of years.

And we get to apply those lessons in a much more lasting way than the people who were actually there in the scene.

Because they missed the point. Not just the disciples … everyone who was there in the scene, caught up in the emotion and pageantry of the moment, misunderstood what was happening.

They shouted Hosanna, Save us, now! 

But they only wanted a temporary, political kind of salvation, not the kind that would change the whole world.

They waved palm branches, the welcome for conquering kings.

But they didn’t understand that instead of freeing them from occupying Rome, Jesus would bring victory over sin and death.

They saw and smelled the donkey, an animal of prophecy but also — clearly — one of low status.

But they didn’t understand.

They didn’t understand that the kingdom Jesus came to establish was not about vindication. It was not about winners and losers. It was not about power over.

He was a king that came sitting on a donkey. And they didn’t understand.

But we can

We have the chance to understand. We have the chance to engage, to impact the life this story has NOW by understanding what Jesus was really about and by witnessing to that message in the way that we respond to the king arriving on a donkey.

That is the invitation of our second reading today, which also happens to be the oldest known Christian hymn (known as the kenosis hymn after the Greek word for self-emptying).

Our earliest siblings in the faith call us to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ,” and then they describe what that looks like:

It looks like refusing to exploit our own privilege or power;

and instead emptying ourselves of any advantages that would separate us or protect us from things that others suffer;

and it looks like humility… putting ourselves on the same level as others, rather than assuming that we and ours should come first;

and it looks like the willingness to give everything up for the sake of those in need.

The kenosis hymn goes on to say that this self-emptying is why God glorified Jesus. And our gospel tags the disciples’ eventual understanding of Jesus’s donkey-ride to his glorification,

but this might be where WE have a hard time understanding, because nothing about self-emptying, and humility, and death sounds like the prelude to glory.

We might be separated from the 1st Century palm-waving crowds by language, culture, and 2,000 years, but some things aren’t that different.

Our culture prizes power and domination too.

We can be just as easily swayed by a chanting crowd celebrating the promise of a leader who will bring us freedom from whomever we see as the oppressor.

And our definition of glory probably involves public praise, and recognition for excellence, and probably the perks that come with all that.

Which all means that even with John’s sidebar comment to readers about the prophecy foretelling and reframing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, our culture primes us with assumptions that make the task of “adopting the attitude of Christ” pretty challenging.

We need only look to the claims of Christian Nationalism to see how easily the mission of a donkey-riding Savior can get twisted into calls for power and domination that leverage messages of fear and self-protection bearing no similarity to the path of self-emptying.

And while I know that is not the ethic of our congregation, I don’t know that simply refraining ourselves from a misguided kind of Hosanna is enough.

I keep coming back to this idea that John’s comment to the reader about what is really going on is meant as a call to action.

He’s telling us the story of people who wanted to shape Jesus into the kind of dominating, aggressive, victorious king that THEY wanted, and then he’s reminding us that we know better.

We can recognize the prophecy. We know the significance of the donkey. We have the early Christian kenosis hymn…

And if we simply pat ourselves on the back for understanding it all… I think we’ve missed the point.

If we do that, we’re like a Broadway audience that expects to just sit passively and be entertained, without giving their energy to the actors. Without taking any responsibility for contributing to the show’s success.

Except the story we have a part in telling is much more important.

It’s the story of the counter-cultural, power-reversing, world-changing coming of a king who chooses to ride on a donkey.

Who chooses to empty himself of power, and of pride, and of every claim to what he is due.

A king who bears almost no resemblance to the agenda of those who shout his name most loudly in our time and place, and who do not understand what he really came to do.

They don’t understand. But we do. So, we need to empty ourselves of whatever holds us back from telling his story.

Thanks be to God.


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