Sometimes when it rains, clouds just move in steadily from a certain direction and it eventually begins to rain.  But a storm is often quite different.  Rain may come, but a storm is sometimes said to “gather.”    It is a good verb for what happens.  Winds begin whipping in different directions and clouds are actually swirling in the air.  The violence in the air is visualized by flashes of lightening and verbalized, if you will, by crashing thunder.  It takes time for a storm to gather.  Do you remember the scene in the movie Fantasia where Mickey is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and is orchestrating the storm, bringing the various elements together and calling for ever increasing motion and sound and light?  He is gathering the storm.

This is an apt image for Palm Sunday as John tells the story.  There is a gathering storm, there is sound, there is fury, there is anticipation of a cataclysm about to occur.  In weather, a violent storm occurs when two fronts collide.  On Palm Sunday, several agendas and ways of viewing the world collide to cause the storm.  It takes time for this storm to gather.

It actually gathers through the whole Gospel of John, but we saw it really begin to come together a couple of weeks ago in the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  This astonishing, life-restoring act is met by two fronts.  One rejoices and believes in Jesus because of this miracle.  The other becomes convinced by this miracle that Jesus is a dangerous man and is going to have to be put to death.  The clouds begin swirling.

Jesus realized it and took refuge in a town called Ephraim away from the Jerusalem leadership.  It was almost time for the Passover celebration, so many were making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to prepare for the occasion.  They saw the storm clouds gathering as well.  They kept an eye out for Jesus and they asked each other, “What do you think?  Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?”  Word had gotten out that the chief priests and Pharisees had sent instructions for anyone who knew the whereabouts of Jesus to report to them immediately.

On the Saturday before the Passover Jesus returned to Bethany, where he had raised Lazarus from the dead, two miles from Jerusalem.  The siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus hosted a dinner for him.  Mary took a pound of costly perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair.  As with all extravagant gifts, this one received a variety of responses.  Most people kept their thoughts to themselves, but Judas verbalized the pragmatist’s view, asking, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  The amount was significant, a year’s wages for a laborer, and the question is reasonable even though John casts aspersions on Judas and his motives by saying he was a thief of what went in the common purse.  But Jesus takes up for Mary, saying, “Leave her alone.  You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me with you.  She has done this to anoint me for burial.”  I don’t think that’s what she intended, but that is the meaning Jesus gives to the act.  The storm clouds are gathering, he sees it clearly, and he knows how it will end.

John tells us the storm continued to gather there in Bethany.  As people learned he was there they flocked out to see Jesus and also to see Lazarus, who he had raised from the dead.  Remember, Lazarus is the reason the religious officials have decided that Jesus must be put to death.  Now they decide that Lazarus has to be put back to death as well, because it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and believing in Jesus.  Clouds are swirling, allegiances are shifting, plots are thickening, the storm is gathering.

The next day was the day we know as Palm Sunday.  The storm continues to gather as several fronts prepare to collide in Jerusalem.  Jesus and his disciples and the crowd that had been present when he raised Lazarus from the dead began to make the short trip from Bethany across the Mount of Olives and down to Jerusalem.  The great crowd that had come to Jerusalem for Passover heard that Jesus was indeed coming to Jerusalem, so they went out to meet him.  Unfriendly religious authorities watched all of this coming together.  And on the road from the coast were undoubtedly reinforcement units of Roman troops coming to enforce order on the huge throng of people who converged on Jerusalem every year for Passover.

John tells us the people coming from Jerusalem brought branches from palm trees, a symbol of royalty, and met Jesus shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!”  He also tells us that the crowd which had been with Jesus when he raised Lazarus continued to testify about that miracle.  And he tells us that Jesus enacted a symbol by finding a young donkey and riding it into Jerusalem.  It is both fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.  Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt,” and also an undermining of the kingly, messianic expectations of the crowd.  A conquering king would ride a horse into the city.  A king who comes in peace rides a donkey.  John tells us that the disciples did not understand any of these things until much later.  And he tells us that the religious authorities shook their heads and said to each other, “You see, you can do nothing.  Look, the world has gone after him!”

What people saw that day and what they perceived that day varied greatly from person to person and group to group.  Many agendas were operating.  Turf was being defended by some groups and threatened by others.  The storm will continue to gather during this week we know as Holy Week or Passion Week until the storm breaks on Friday and the sun comes out again on Sunday.  Join us for the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services this week in order to follow that story and be fully prepared for the joy of Easter next Sunday.

A few final notes for us to be thinking about as we embark on this week.  First, John makes clear what courage it required for Jesus to come to Jerusalem at all for the Passover celebration that year, and how much more so to do it in the public manner in which he did.  In John’s Gospel Jesus is regularly saying, “My time has not yet come.”  But after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus told Philip, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  My hour has come.  Here I stand, I can do no other.  And not only was Jesus courageous just for entering Jerusalem that day, he was also courageous in not caving to the messianic expectations of the crowd that he be a militant, conquering messiah.  As he would soon tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

The second thing to think about is our response to this one who gave life to Lazarus, who gave his life so that all might have eternal life.  We have the example of Mary and her extravagant gift.  She loved and appreciated Jesus so much that she threw caution to the wind and got on her knees in humility to bathe his feet with expensive perfume and use her hair to wipe them down.

We also have the example of the critic – Judas, rolling his eyes over Mary’s over the top emotionalism, pointing out what is wrong about what she is doing and what she should have done instead.

We have the disciples, still clueless about what is going on and what it all means, but still willing to accompany Jesus even though they have a pretty good idea it is going to be a rocky road ahead.  They did not perform very well that week, but they showed up.

We have the crowd which was excited about a new star, ready to crown him and look to him for miracle after miracle on their behalf.

We have the religious authorities whose biggest concern in all of this was the political consequences.  What will the Romans think?  What will the Romans do?  How will it affect us?

When the storm is about to explode, there is not much time left to decide what you will do about it.  Will you stick close to Jesus, even though he seems to be a lightning rod?  Will you seek higher ground and shelter?  Will you turn him over to the proper authorities so the lightning will strike somewhere else?  The time has come to decide about Jesus.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

                   David J. Bailey

                   April 13, 2014

                   Central Presbyterian Church

                   Anderson, SC