Your King comes to save you.

The Text: John 12:12-16 (esp. v 15)

When our sports heroes come back home, say, after the Olympic Games, and they’re given a parade in one of the capital cities, there’s great excitement.  When a football team wins a grand final, its fans become delirious.  It must have been something like that when our Lord entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Passover (12:1,12).  The large crowd that welcomed Him was jubilant.  Of the four Gospels, only St John tells us that people carried palm branches.  For the Jews, palm branches were symbols of victory.  2 Maccabees, for example, tells us that after Judas Maccabeus won a victory over the Syrians in 164BC, he and those with him entered Jerusalem to cleanse the temple and rededicate the altar.  It says, “carrying green palm branches and sticks decorated with ivy, they paraded around, singing grateful praises to [God] who had brought about the purification of his own temple” (10:7).  On the occasion of our text, the crowd that had come to Jerusalem for Passover was stirred up because they’d heard how Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (vv 9,18).  Who had ever done anything as great as that?

For all the freedoms we enjoy in this life, especially in a country like our own, we human beings remain in the grip of death.  We become alarmed when we hear of conflict between nations.  We panic in the face of a pandemic.  “In the midst of life we are in death.” Death in turn is the result of sin that characterises the fallen world in which we live.  Each one of us sinful by nature and is also guilty of actual sins of thought, word, and deed.  We haven’t loved God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, as He wants us to.  We’ve failed to love our neighbour as ourselves.  God has every right to consign us not only to death but also to eternal punishment.  Instead, He loves the people He has made.  He sent His own dear Son to save us from sin and death.

Jesus came to Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday so that He might be our Saviour.  The people who welcomed Him thought of Him as their King.  Their cry was a verse (26) from Ps 118 that was used to welcome pilgrims to the temple: “Hosanna! [Save now!] Blest is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.  We shouldn’t question that they added the words, “even the King of Israel!”  Many of the Passover pilgrims would have travelled from Galilee.  No doubt some had been present the year before at the feeding of over 5,000 people on the other side of the Sea of Galilee (6:1, 4).  On that occasion, people wanted to take Jesus by force to make Him their king, St John tells us (6:15).  When the Passover crowds heard that Jesus had raised Lazarus of Bethany to life (12:18), they would have been sure that He was their king.

Yet they had no idea what Jesus would do as King.  Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand, either, that though almighty God, He’d come humbly to die as God’s ransom for human sin.  They knew the Old Testament verses that mention the coming of Israel’s glorious King.  But they had a blind spot when it came to those verses that tell about His suffering and death.

In Zechariah 9 the LORD tells the inhabitants of Jerusalem to rejoice greatly that her King would come to her victorious and bringing salvation.  He’d come humbly, riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  He’d rule over the earth in peace, but not peace brought about by war.  The LORD says, “As for you also [daughter of Zion], because of the blood of my covenant with you, /I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit” (v 11).  He wasn’t referring to the blood of the covenant that Moses splashed on the people of Israel at Mt Sinai (Ex 24:8).  He was referring to the blood of Zion’s King.  In those days kings were called shepherds of their people (e,g, Ezek 37:24).  In following chapters of Zechariah there’s a mysterious reference to the shepherd of the flock whose wages would be weighed out as 30 pieces of silver (11:4, 12).  The LORD says about Him, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (13:7).  He, the Shepherd, says, “when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn … as one mourns for an only child” (12:10).  Then come these important words: “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1).  (This verse was the inspiration for the hymn [LHS 68] that begins, “There is a fountain filled with blood, /drawn from Immanuel’s veins”.) 

Jesus’ blood that would be poured out at Calvary is the blood of the new, eternal covenant.  The only other mentions in Scripture of ‘the blood of the covenant’ are found in the New Testament, always in connection with Jesus’ death.  For example, St Matthew tells us that at the last supper Jesus gave His disciples a cup of wine and said, “this [cup] is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28). Jesus is the King who would be sold for 30 pieces of silver and would be struck and pierced to save His people by the blood of His new covenant.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion,” is how the passage in Zechariah begins.  But the passage that St John quotes doesn’t begin with a summons to rejoice.  It begins, “Fear not, daughter of Zion”.  These words are from another part of Scripture, from the prophet Zephaniah.  By using only a few words, Gospel writers usually (e.g. Mk 1:2f) draw in large amounts of the Old Testament Scriptures.  It says in Zephaniah 3 (:16f), “Fear not, O Zion; /let not your hands grow weak.  /The LORD your God is in your midst, /a mighty one who will save”.  Just two verses earlier, the prophet calls on the daughter of Zion to sing aloud, shout, rejoice and exult with all her heart because, he says, “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you … /The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst”.

As earlier chapters of Zephaniah show, by her worship of false gods the daughter of Jerusalem deserved every one of the judgments of the true God.  Who of us always puts God first in our lives?  But the prophet also tells about the LORD, the King of Israel, coming among His repentant people to save them from His judgments.  That’s what Jesus came to do.  He’s not to be taken lightly, as His cleansing of the temple and His cursing of the unfruitful fig tree show.  He’ll come as powerful Judge of all at the last day, to destroy His enemies.  All the more amazing, then, that He came humbly the first time to be lifted up from the earth (on a cross) in order to draw all people to Himself, as last Sunday’s Gospel tells us (12:32).  He’s not spiteful or vindictive.  He has righteous anger over sin.  Yet even righteous anger isn’t at the heart of His being.  It says that He punishes people only to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Him, whereas He shows steadfast love to thousands of generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments (Ex 20:5f).  His heart is full of grace and mercy (Ex 34:6).  By that mercy, all who turn from sin to Him are saved for all eternity.

We’re saved by our King who shed His blood for us on a cross.  The letter to the Hebrews (9:15) describes Jesus as the mediator of a new covenant/testament that gives an eternal inheritance.  It says that His blood purifies our conscience from dead works so that we can serve the living God (9:14).  It’s by His blood that we can come into the presence of God and live.  As the song, ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’ says, addressing Jesus, “By the blood”—by your blood, that is—“I may enter your brightness”.  In His Supper He comes to us in a hidden way to give us His blood to drink and His body to eat.  By His body and blood, He forgives our sins and strengthens us in faith towards Him and in love towards one another.  Therefore, we also rightly welcome Him among us with the words, “Hosanna!  Blest is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest!”

For now, many of His followers are treated just as He was.  They’re killed in gruesome ways, as He was.  But since He now rules over all things, eternal victory is also theirs.  In the Revelation the apostle John was given (7:9-10), he was shown the huge number of people who can’t be numbered, standing before God’s throne and before the Lamb, Jesus, “clothed in white robes”, that is, cleansed from all their sins.  They’re described as coming out of the great tribulation.  But they’re victorious as He is.  They stand before God “with palm branches in their hands”.  They sing in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  That victory is also yours, who, to use words from the Revelation, “have washed [your] robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14).  We aren’t privileged to have been among the Jerusalem crowds that waved palm branches and welcomed Jesus as their King.  Nor do we see the great multitude that stands before His throne in heaven.  Yet until we do, we are privileged to welcome Him among His Zion, His new Jerusalem, His church, whenever and wherever she is gathered together in His name.  We join all His people whether living or dead, in praising Him.  For Zion’s King comes humbly today also to you, daughter of Zion, so that you may belong to him in peace and joy for all eternity! Amen