Today marks the fourth week that we have spent in just two chapters of the Gospel of John, chapters 18 and 19 - these two chapters in which Jesus is, essentially, on trial. First, before the Jewish religious leaders and, then, for the past two weeks before Pilate, the Roman governor. Throughout this entire time, we’ve been talking about power. And kingdom. And how the world works versus how Jesus works.
Today marks the last of our time in these chapters. Today is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. When we began these weeks going deeper into Jesus’ passion, perhaps, it felt out of place. After all, we usually hear these texts only during Holy Week, which we will mark next week. But, perhaps, by the time we finish today, we will admit that spending time deeply considering these texts, the issues raised in them, and the Jesus pictured for us in them - well, perhaps, we will decide that this time has, in fact, been helpful. Important even. To help us better understand who Jesus is for us.
The soldiers took Jesus prisoner. Carrying his cross by himself, he went out to a place called Skull Place (in Aramaic, Golgotha). That’s where they crucified him—and two others with him, one on each side and Jesus in the middle. Pilate had a public notice written and posted on the cross. It read “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. Therefore, the Jewish chief priests complained to Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The king of the Jews’ but ‘This man said, “I am the king of the Jews.”’”
Pilate answered, “What I’ve written, I’ve written.” --John 19:16b-22 (CEB
Before we move into this story from chapter 19, I’d like to spend a few minutes in chapter 12 - the reading we heard earlier as we gathered. The order of events in John’s gospel is different that in the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Each of the gospels was written to a specific audience. John is no different. So, when we see these differences between gospels, it’s not a bad thing. Rather, it fills out the picture for us. We have a fuller picture, a fuller sense of the experiences that the early apostles had as they walked with Jesus throughout his ministry.
So, in John’s gospel, the entry into Jerusalem is very different. The differences are important to note, because they help us more fully understand the story John is trying to tell. The point the gospel writer is trying to make. I’d invite you to open up one of the Bibles under your seat so that, together, we can look more carefully at these texts.
Jerusalem at Passover season was the center of pilgrimage for Jews from all parts of the world. It was only in Jerusalem that the Passover meal could be properly celebrated since only in the temple could the lambs be sacrificed for the meal. Passover, if you remember, was a festival commemorating God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Many Jews under Roman rule longed for another such deliverance. In fact, it would be just 30 years later that a full-fledged war would erupt against Rome. During this time, longing for the Messiah-king was rampant.
In addition, during Passover, as with the other major festivals, Jerusalem was overflowing with visitors. Normally, it had a population of about 600,000. But, there is historical evidence to indicate that during the primary festivals, Jerusalem’s population would swell to between 2 and 3 million people. Think Miami Beach at spring break. Or New Orleans at Mardi Gras. On steroids. You can imagine how nervous this made the Roman occupiers. It was an incredibly volatile situation. Ready to erupt at any moment.
There was also an undercurrent running through the city. In the preceding chapter, Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead. The news of this miracle - this amazing sign - was spreading like wildfire throughout the city. Not just with the residents of the city, but also those who had come from the reaches of the Roman empire, from across the known world.
As chapter 12 opens, the crowd has just learned that Jesus will be coming to Jerusalem. They gather palm branches. Why palm branches? The other gospels tell us that the people gathered branches. Why the detail in John?
Because palm branches were used to honor kings. This swelling crowd, having heard the miracle story, anxious to see Jesus took branches used to honor kings and went out to meet him. In John, it was only then that Jesus found a donkey and sat on it. This is a different order than in the other gospels. It's as if Jesus knew the kind of king the people wanted. A king who would lead them in a violent overthrow of the Roman occupiers. A leader to deliver them from bondage, just like Moses, thousands of years before. But, this wasn’t the kind of king Jesus intended to be. Jesus was to be the king portrayed in Zechariah: “he will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. The bow used in battle will be cut off; he will speak peace to the nations.” Jesus would not be a nationalistic king. But a universal king, one whose realm would encompass the entire world, not just that of the Jews. “For God so loved the world….”
It was this very thing that terrified all of the leaders, Jewish and Roman alike, bringing us now to chapter 19. The Day of Preparation for Passover. The day of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Crucifixion is a horrible way to die. A few years ago, I started reading a book on this means of punishment. The descriptions of what happens to one’s body were so horrific, I was unable to finish it. Crucifixion is a horrible way to die.
That Jesus dies in this way says everything about who he is and what his death means. In John, Jesus is God, a divine being, Word become flesh. Throughout the story, Jesus is in charge, directing all of the events according to a pre-ordained script. John’s passion account is not so much a tragedy as a divine drama.
In our text, Jesus carries his own cross. Not only is it the Word of God who dies on this cross, it is also the King of the Jews. Pilate puts that very sign on Jesus’ cross. The irony of this is something we cannot ignore. Because we know that statement to be true.
But, there’s more. This sign is written in three languages - Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. All of the languages of the known world. Jesus is not only the Word of God dying on the cross, or the King of the Jews dying on the cross, but the king of heaven and earth dying on the cross. At the same time the Passover lambs will be slaughtered for the Passover festival. Jesus, who sacrifices himself. “For God so loved the world….”
So, what kind of king do you want Jesus to be? No really, what kind of king do you want Jesus to be? Do you want Jesus to be the kind of king - the rescuing king - who swoops in to deliver you from whatever hardship you might be going through? Or, perhaps, you want Jesus to be the nationalistic king, who saves you while destroying your enemies, whoever or whatever they may be? Or maybe your King Jesus is the king who saves you from your sin so that you can get to heaven, with no thought to what discipleship might mean here and now? On earth?
What kind of king do you want Jesus to be?
In John, this is the kind of king we see Jesus to be. A courageous king who moves toward conflict, instead of away from it, restoring and deepening relationships. A truth-telling king who speaks honestly and authentically, with no regard for his own life or his social position. A sacrificial king who carries his own cross. A humble king who stoops down to wash his disciples’ feet. Even the feet of Judas, the one who will betray him.
This is the kind of king Jesus is. Will you follow this kind of king?