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The Good News of Disappointment

A sermon on John 12:12-19.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Romina Farias on Unsplash]

A few months ago, I was in a zoom conversation with a few trusted colleagues and we started talking about the challenges of pastoring in the time of COVID.

Specifically, we were lamenting the thousand and one decisions that have to get made, and how inevitable it is that we will end up disappointing at least some of our people.

Every pastor I know feels the weight of this responsibility, and grieves the frustration of people who are upset about the decisions we make.

But then one of my dear friends offered a perspective-shifting statement that I have held onto ever since.

She said, “I have come to the point where I have absolutely no problem disappointing people in the name of Jesus.”

That might not be the kind of thing you would expect a committed and faithful pastor to say, but I don’t believe that Jesus would take offence at this use of his name.

After all, he led the way down the “disappointing people” road.

In fact, it was the road on which people spread their cloaks and palm branches shouting “Hosanna” on the Sunday we commemorate with our worship today.

Today’s gospel is the set-up for Jesus’s climactic act of disappointing just about everyone.

In her commentary for this week Debie Thomas writes “If the Palm Sunday story is about anything, it is about dazzling hopes and disappointed expectations.”[1]

The procession into Jerusalem is a celebratory procession, but the people waving palms and shouting Hosanna are celebrating what they think Jesus is coming to do… their praise is conditional on their hope, and the frustration of those hopes is what sets the scene for coming events.

These expectations are perhaps more clearly presented in John’s gospel than in any of the other three, because John’s account spends less time focusing on the outward expressions of praise and the logistics of getting the donkey, and more time dwelling on the interpreted thoughts of the crowds.

We learn that the people who had been in the neighboring town of Bethany to witness the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead have been continuing to tell this story in Jerusalem.

And the people who have heard that testimony have come to welcome Jesus looking for signs.

They want to see mighty acts of power.

They want to experience miraculous healings.

And, presumably, they want a mighty king to challenge the Roman governor who is processing with an armed escort into the city of Jerusalem on this same day from the opposite gate[2] … coming to remind the Jews during the Passover festival – the festival that celebrates their people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt – that they are not actually free. They belong to Rome, and Rome demands allegiance and has the soldiers to enforce that demand.

So, when the people see a man of God processing into the East gate of Jerusalem, they are hoping for liberation.

All of their hopes are contained in the shouts of Hosanna, because Hosanna is not just an expression of praise. It is a cry for help. It means “Save us.”

The people are welcoming Jesus because they want him to save them from all the things that they experience as their biggest problems.

The pharisees who observe this procession have a very different set of expectations. Their expectations will also be proved false in the coming days, but they are perhaps even more crucial to the story.

They expect Jesus to meet the people’s expectations, or at least to try to. And they expect the Roman authorities to respond with devastating effect.

We know this because John reports a council of the chief priests and pharisees immediately following the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11, a Council in which they predict about Jesus: “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our people.” (John 11:48).

The religious leaders may be jealous of Jesus’s power and mass appeal, but their opposition to his ministry is not just petty envy. They are afraid that he is a threat to their entire society.

That’s why it is so terrifying to them that “the whole world is going after him.” That’s why they are plotting to kill him.

Because, as the high priest Caiaphas prophesied in that fateful council meeting, “it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed.” (John 11:50).

Ironically, the pharisee’s expectations of nationwide Roman retribution, and their expectations about the persistent adoration of the crowds, are both unfounded.

As soon as Jesus shows himself to be disinterested in meeting the people’s expectations of mighty acts and political revolt, the crowds turn on him. It only takes a few days to go from shouting, “Hosanna” to shouting, “Crucify him.”

And so, by disappointing the people’s hopeful expectations, Jesus disappoints the religious leaders’ fearful ones.

Jesus will not be controlled by anyone’s expectations. The only expectations he will meet are the prophetic ones that no one recognized until after the fact.

“Don’t be afraid, Daughter Zion. Look! Your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”

The reference to a donkey’s colt makes the association for us, telling us to identify Jesus as God’s promised king. But the most important part of the prophecy is the instruction about how to respond to his coming.

“Do Not Be Afraid.”

This short phrase pinpoints the problem with bringing our expectations to bear on the actions God is taking in the world. When we put forward our expectations, we are trying to set the agenda. We are trying to take control.

And that sets us up for fear. Because once we have decided how things need to go, we stop trusting that God will know and do what is needed, and we start demanding that things be done our way.

But, imagine how the first Palm Sunday would have been transformed if fear had been removed from the story.

If the people had not been afraid of sickness and death… if they could have heard the testimony about Jesus’s miracle not as a potential source of relief from their fears but as a revelation of God’s presence among them…

And what if the people had been equally free of fear about the threat of empire… recognizing Jesus’s kingship was about so much more than the politics of the moment, that it offered them a chance to learn about God’s kingdom…

And what if the religious rulers had not been afraid of Jesus’ power or his potential to attract Roman violence. What if they could have recognized in him the presence of the God they wanted to serve.

If the people there on the first Palm Sunday could have been free from fear, they also would have been free from the coercive, blinding power of their own expectations. They could have seen Jesus for who he really was… the Savior they actually needed, rather than the one they wanted.

The quote I shared earlier from Debie Thomas goes on. After the description of Palm Sunday as being “about dazzling hopes and disappointed expectations,” she continues, “It’s a story about what happens when the God we want and think we know doesn’t show up, and another God – a less efficient, less aggressive, far less muscular God – shows up instead, and saves us in ways we didn’t know were possible.”

God will show up however God chooses, but unless we can let go of our expectations, we run the risk of missing it.

And I believe that is what my friends meant when she talked about her embrace of “disappointing people in the name of Jesus.”

She meant the deliberate commitment to let go of any expectations that try to dictate how God is going to show up.

She meant releasing the fear about what might happen if our own expectations (or other peoples’) are not met.

She meant that a pastor’s job, especially in the middle of a disorienting, anxiety-fueling, expectation-frustrating pandemic, is to witness to the ways that Jesus disappointed people all the time… because he knew far better than anyone else what they actually needed.

I believe that just such a witness is what this Palm Sunday gospel offers us, and that witness is an invitation is to let go of the expectations that hold us in fear, or that teach us to demand that God save us the way we want to be saved.

After more than a year of pandemic we are RIGHT to shout Hosanna.

We need saving… from the virus and from so much more.

But in praising Jesus as our Savior let us resist the lure of putting our trust in our own expectations about how salvation needs to happens.

And let us hear the prophets call to “not be afraid.” Our king is coming, and no matter how he comes, that’s all the good news we need.

Thanks be to God.


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