If at First You Don't Understand

Sermon Series: Lent 2005--Olivet Discourses from John

If at First You Don't Understand

March 17, 2005 - March 20, 2005

John 12:12-19

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Harry Heintz

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Our children’s ministry has created a village downstairs to help the children understand better the journey of Jesus into
and to the cross and Easter.  One of our five-year olds got home last Sunday and was asked by her parents, “What did you learn today?”  She answered, “How Jesus went to the Olive Garden.” 
Garden of
, garden of olive trees—sure!  It was such a festive day, that Sunday.  This was child-friendly worship.  It was a parade and most everyone likes a parade.


“His disciples did not understand these things at first . . . .”  Who could understand such things at first?  Who fully understands them now?


Corrie Ten Boom was a member of a Gentile family that sheltered Jews in their Dutch home during the time that the Nazis were rising to power and beginning to identify, torture, and kill Jews.  Corrie and her sister Betsey ended up serving time in a concentration camp.  Betsey died there, but Corrie survived the Holocaust and through her writings became known globally and spoke around the world.  Much acclaim came to her because of her story.  About this she once said, “I’m just like the donkey that Jesus rode into
.  The crowds were cheering and shouting, but the donkey knew it wasn’t for him, but the one on his back.”


“His disciples did not understand these things at first . . . .”  Who could understand such things at first?  Who fully understands them now?


John identifies three groups that were there that day: the disciples, the crowd, and the Pharisees.  Each of us is in one of those groups today.  Let’s look at them one by one.  Of course the disciples were there.  They followed him most everywhere. The disciples included men and women, though we often think only of the men.  At the end of the week most of the men would have trouble following him to the cross and to the grave, though women followed him to both.  It is telling, what John says about the disciples:  “His disciples did not understand these things at first . . . .”  Who, even now, understands all these things?  Why didn’t he ride a big, impressive horse instead of a little donkey?  Why did the adoring crowd do quickly abandon him?  What are some things we did not understand at first, or maybe still don’t understand?  Here are some of the items on my list.  Why is it taking me so long to learn that I can’t earn God’s favor or impress God?  How can God forget my sins when I remember them so well?  Why am I still surprised that God cares about more about who I am than what I get done?  Disciples of Jesus, now as then, can be slow to learn.  But they were with him.  Are you one of the disciples?


A crowd was there.  Jesus didn’t always have crowds around him, but as word spread of his healings and other miracles, crowds formed.  Crowds like miracles and signs.  Maybe that is why Jesus, after a miraculous healing, often said something like this, “Don’t tell everyone.” Crowds are fickle and can quickly disperse when things are no longer exciting for them.  We have learned today that crowds know when TV cameras are on and respond accordingly.  Crowds often play to the cameras.  While they did come out to meet him, it isn’t clear that they made decisions to follow him.  It is easy to get lost in a crowd.  Are you one of the crowd?


Some Pharisees were there, watching from a safe distance.  They were a sect of religious leaders intent on keeping the law in the scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, as fully as humanly possible.  Hence, they were often put off by Jesus, who had this tendency to deal more with matters of the heart than with God’s little Robert’s Rules of Righteousness manual.  The Pharisees didn’t go out to meet him.  They passively observed what was happening.  To their credit, some of them knew they couldn’t stop him. “‘You see, you can do nothing.”  The New International Version has it, “See, this is getting us nowhere.”   “The Message has them saying, “It’s out of control.”  Their final observation is most astute:  “Look, the world has gone after him!”  There is truth there.  Even in our time, the world is going after him.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes in
Africa, in
, and in
just a few weeks ago.  People are going after him in unprecedented ways.  I’ve read about is in Latin American and in
.  People are going after him in record numbers.  Internationally the Church is growing in amazing ways, especially in
Third World countries and places where there has been much suffering and oppression.  But we must note with sadness that in our nation and in
Western Europe, where Christianity has long been seen as the dominant religion, the churches are largely stagnant, and many worse than that.  Could it be that we, the churches of western Europe and the United States, have become the party of the Pharisees, cold observers of what others are doing?  They didn’t even go out to meet him.  Are you one of the Pharisees?


Which group are we in: the disciples, the crowd, or the Pharisees?  The group that didn’t catch on at first, the group that followed the big signs, or the group that watched coldly from the sidelines?


Philip Yancey provokes my thinking in his thoughts about Holy Week in “The Jesus I Never Knew.”  He notes that while most biographies don’t devote too much time to the subject’s death, in the four Gospels, about 1/3 of all this is written about Jesus is devoted to one week—Palm Sunday to Easter, and more of those chapters are devoted to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday than to Easter Sunday.  Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” was heavily criticized for focusing too much on the suffering and death of Jesus.  While it may have been guilty of lingering too much on the flogging, it was not off the mark in giving its focus to what the Gospels spell out in the most vivid detail: the suffering and death of Jesus.  Whether you have already seen the movie or not, I recommend it for viewing this week.   Further, I recommend that you see a movie called “Hotel Rwanda,” which is still playing at the Spectrum in Albany.  It tells of the tragic suffering in Rwanda just a decade ago and how, while most of the world ignored it, some few people responded redemptively.  That might be good viewing this week.  There is a heaviness to the week before us.  Let’s not avoid it or hide from it.  Let’s honor it.  Let’s participate in it.  God’s redemptive work takes us through suffering and death.


Voices that shouted “Hosanna” that Sunday were shouting “Crucify him” that Friday.  The disciples were somewhat perplexed by it all.  The crowd was there as long as the show was good.  The Pharisees hid behind their religious righteousness.  Jesus knew what he must do.  Nothing could deter him from it.


I like the story of little Jamie Scott, who tried out for a part in his school’s play. A lot of children tried out and not all would get big parts.  The day came for the announcement of which children were selected.  His mother made sure to pick him up right after school, knowing that he might be very disappointed and needing comfort.  Jamie rushed up to her with eyes shining with excitement.  “Guess what, mom,” he shouted, “I’ve been chosen to clap and cheer.”


Jesus rides on to the crowd’s acclamations.  Jesus rides on to betrayal.  Jesus rides on to suffering.  Jesus rides on to death.  Painful, humiliating, public death.  Jesus rides on to glory.  We have been chosen to clap and cheer, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  To stand in awe.  To bow hearts and heads and hands, our whole lives, before this one who comes on a borrowed donkey to save us.  Our salvation is God's great drama, the story above all stories, the glory above all glories. 


“His disciples did not understand these things at first . . . .”  Who could understand such things at first?  Who fully understands them now?

To contact Harry Heintz about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180