Hosanna! Hosanna! Hmmm . . . (John 12:12-26)

It has been my good fortune to be around, get to know, and be taught by people who knew Christ intimately. Most of these people were quite “ordinary” by the standards of this world, but obviously extraordinary by virtue of the Spirit’s gentle work in their lives. Some of the things I have witnessed in these people and have been challenged to learn from them are patience, generosity, self-control, faithfulness, and love.

Most of the people whose names come to mind here are people I got to know by trying to minister to them as they dealt with terminal illness, an addiction to alcohol, the death of a mate or child, or suffering for their faith. These people endured what I fear I could not. They prayed for healing or relief and kept on trusting God through unabated anguish. They have shaped my faith. They have modeled what I may someday be challenged to exhibit. They were able to turn loose of and die to everything we human beings typically value most in order to experience the embrace of and life in the sovereign reign of God. They learned the meaning of this saying from Jesus that is part of today’s text: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). It is one of Jesus’ hardest sayings.

On the other hand, I have known many, many people who came to Jesus with a very personal agenda and a massive amount of ego. They thought he was their ticket to personal happiness. He would make them healthy and pious – and probably wealthy too. He would be their personal guarantor of a good marriage, trouble-free children, solid career path, respect of peers, financial security, ripe old age, gentle death, and moving eulogy. When one or more of those items failed to materialize, I have watched those people either stalk away from Jesus in anger or else continue as disappointed and annoyed church members. Their early exuberance for shouting “Hosanna!” and “Praise the Lord!” gave way to questioning whether God cares – or even exists.

Rather than modeling the verse I have cited from today’s text about giving up one’s hold on a personal agenda for the sake of living for the kingdom of God, they exemplify these people Jesus described in his Parable of the Soils: “As for [seed that] was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away” (Matt. 18:20-21). To put it another way, these are the people with whom “Hosanna!” becomes either a subdued “Hmmm . . .” or an irate “Grrr . . .”

The words of Jesus about dying to self in order to live to God make perfectly good sense in context. They are illustrated perfectly by the swirling events of the last few days of his life. Look closely at this text with me to see where you are in it. I will be doing the same thing for myself.

Caught Up in Mob Hysteria

I admit to being both fascinated by and scared of mob hysteria. Have you ever seen the newsreel footage of Adolf Hitler’s speeches to the German masses? Do you shudder at some of the television news reports of huge, angry anti-U.S. demonstrations in Kabul or Beijing? People can be incited to outrageous views and actions by virtue of getting caught up in crowds.

On the Sunday before Jesus would die, Jerusalem was packed with people who had come from all over the world of that time for the Feast of Passover. Here is what John saw happen that day:

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord
— the King of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” (12:12-19).
Oh, yes! There is a “crowd psychology” at work here. The population of Jerusalem has surely doubled at least for Passover. The city is overcrowded, and even the hillsides around it are crowded with tents and campfires. There are people with time on their hands. And talk about Jesus has been going on among these people for three years now – since he created a ruckus at the temple four Passovers ago (cf. John 2:13-25).

This year there is not only the talk about his miraculous deeds and out-of-the-box bold teaching. People who had been in Bethany when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead were only too eager to testify to what they had seen. So, when somebody said he was coming into town and suggested that they go out to welcome him, a trickle of people quickly became a stream became a torrent. It could have been a heady moment for anyone else. But Jesus wasn’t headed to Jerusalem for a coronation but a crucifixion.

Steadfast Purpose in Jesus

So-called “triumphal entries” were not uncommon in the ancient world.

A conquering hero or king would return to his city, bringing the spoils of his battles and stories of conquest. This imagery would not be missed on any Greek-speaking audience on the eastern edge of the Roman empire. When John says that the crowd “went out to meet him,” this is a common expression used for cities meeting their triumphant, returning king. In a Jewish context, “Hosanna” was used to greet such incoming kings (2 Sam. 14:4; 2 Kings 6:26). In fact, Jewish culture understood these “royal welcomes” so well that it adopted such forms commonly.[1]
As the horde of people moved toward an incoming Jesus, they broke branches off palm trees they passed. Palm branches were a symbol associated with Jewish nationalism. So an excited mob surged in Jesus’ direction and amassed palm branches as they moved along. They were going out to hail their deliverer! The new David who would throw off the Roman yoke and restore Jerusalem to her glory was coming to town! So they shouted, “Hosanna!” – an Aramaic term that means “Save us now!” And they proclaimed him their leader: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!”

They were right, and they were wrong. Jesus was coming “in the name of the Lord” and was the legitimate “King of Israel.” He was the heir of David, the Messiah. But the Jewish people had prepared their own agenda for their Messiah long before Jesus came on the scene. He would be strong and powerful. He would recruit an army of mortals who would fight with the impervious abandon of avenging angels. And he would reign in a time of peace and prosperity for all from Jerusalem.

What a disappointment Jesus must have been to that crowd! When they got far enough from the city to intersect his route of travel, there he was – but looking nothing like they had expected. He wasn’t on a prancing stallion. He had no armor. There were no angels in his wake, no weapons in his hand. To the contrary, instead of a prancing steed, he was sitting on the back of a plodding “donkey’s colt.” He was dressed like a peasant. And he wasn’t making fiery speeches filled with threats against the Romans.

Jesus was surely very deliberate about all this. He didn’t want to be the sort of king they had in mind to make him (cf. John 6:15). So he rides in on a donkey’s colt to disabuse the mob of any such notion – and probably turned most of them against him that very day. “That’s not what we were looking for!” quickly became “That’s nothing in which we have the slightest interest!” Indeed, John confesses that he and his fellow apostles didn’t understand the meaning of this scene until after the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

One thing that John remembered later that must have really confused him that day was the appearance of some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. He tells the story immediately on the heels of quoting the Pharisees who witnessed the crowds going out to meet Jesus and said, “Look, the world has gone after him!” Indeed, the whole world – Gentiles as well as Jews! And if Jesus’ word of response to their presence sounds strange, it is only because we still don’t have the full picture of that day.

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “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. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor (12:20-26).
“If this is the Messiah, where is his horse? Where are his soldiers and weapons?” Could the crowd who went out to hail a conquering Messiah have been wrong?

“If this is King David’s heir, where are his royal robes? Where is his throne?” Would you believe he is here for Gentiles as well as Jews?

“If Jesus is the Christ and God’s Son, how could his life end on a Roman cross? How could he die so horribly?” Might heaven’s apparent folly be greater than earth’s wisdom and God’s apparent weakness mightier than our strength?

“If God answers prayer, why hasn’t he healed the hurts in my life? Why hasn’t he heard me?” Might there be more divine purpose in suffering than health? Could it be that, although he hears us, he answers in ways we would not choose or heals some of our hurts only in the new heaven and new earth?

The list of questions we humans ask could go on forever, I suppose. But do you get the point? We are no less likely to take our agendas and expectations to God only to be disappointed and to turn away than the people who went out to meet Jesus that day – only to cry for his murder before the week had ended.

The inner despair of our frustrated expectations can cause us to give up on Jesus, quit praising him, and live self-seeking lives. The words of Jesus ring loudly across the ages: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Getting, hanging on, and devouring to my satisfaction is the world’s way; giving, letting go, and trusting to God’s sovereignty is the heavenly way.


According to Jesus, “the hour” had come for his glorification. That would happen when he died and was put in the earth as we might a seed – only to become fruitful by the power of God. “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.” And what was true for the Master is also true for his servants.

Jesus’ hour of glorification would look to the entire world like failure, humiliation, and defeat. But God would give victory where Satan had created the façade of Jesus’ destruction! After the coming of the Spirit, John came to understand “the Christian’s hour of glory is identical with the hour of obedience, pain, and servanthood. The adage has it, ‘No cross, no crown.’ In John, cross and crown are one.”[2]

On August 5, 1949, Wagner Dodge and firefighters under his command parachuted into Montana’s Mann Gulch to try to contain a fire. Less than two hours after jumping from a C-47, the entire company was trapped in shoulder-high prairie grass and about to be overtaken by flames. All escape routes had been cut off. There was no time to dig a fire line or to light a backfire. Less than a minute before being engulfed and killed, he stopped dead still, lit a match from a matchbook he carried, and threw it down.

Dodge leaped over the blazing circle, moved straight to its smoldering center, wrapped a wet cloth around his face, and fell to the ground. The pulsating fire rounded both sides of his circle of safety and jumped over the top of it – but found nothing to engage where he lay perfectly still. “Within moments the front passed, racing up the ridge and leaving him unscathed in his tiny asylum. He stood, brushed off the ash, and found he was no worse for wear. He had literally burned a hole in the raging fire.”[3]

Isn’t that an amazing story! A single experienced man knew what to do when everyone else in his team was in panic and fleeing for non-existent safety! And that is the pitiful part of the story that remains to be told. Thirteen firefighters died because they refused to follow his lead. After he struck the match and jumped inside his expanding ring of fire, he screamed and motioned for his men to come inside. “This way!” he shouted. And one man screamed back, “I’m getting out of here!” He got out – and died! He lost his life by trying to save it his own way. His life-saving option was to give up his own efforts to escape and join Dodge in the most unlikely of places. If he had given his life over to his leader, he would have survived and triumphed.

That awful experience sounds a lot like the gospel to me. It is a perfect summary of this text for today. And it is heaven’s invitation to you. Come. Stand at the burned-over place of letting go, obedience, and servanthood. God’s gift to you will be eternal life.

[1] Gary M. Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), p. 341.
[2] Gerard S. Sloyan, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), p. 156.
[3] Michael Useem, The Leadership Moment (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), p. 51.

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