In John 11:7, after the death of Lazarus, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” His intention is to comfort Lazarus’ sisters by raising their brother from the dead, and then to go on to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. His disciples, however, don’t think this is such a bright idea. “Rabbi,” they respond, “the last time we were there, they tried to stone you—you don’t really want to go back, do you?” The ensuing conversation makes it plain to the disciples that they aren’t going to change his mind, and they give up the argument, with Thomas saying gloomily, “If he’s going, we might as well go too so that we can die along with him.” And so they went; Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, winning himself a new flock of converts—and, in the process, persuading the Jew-ish leadership that they had to have him killed by whatever means necessary.
Jesus’ disciples weren’t stupid; they knew what was coming. The Sadducees—who were the priestly party in Jewish politics—and the Pharisees—who were sort of a reform movement—didn’t agree on much of anything, but one thing they did agree on was wanting Jesus dead, and Jesus’ disciples knew it. They knew that for Jesus to go to Jerusalem, especially right after ticking his enemies off by raising Lazarus, was just asking for trouble.
The disciples had had high hopes for Jesus; they had even started thinking he might be the Messiah, the promised savior of Israel who would kick the Romans out of Jerusalem, restore Israel to independence and prominence, and in general get things back to where they were when David was king. They had seen some incredible things on the road with him that had really made them think Jesus could pull it off. Now, though—well, they were afraid that going to Jerusalem would be the beginning of the end. Maybe Jesus would escape; he had before, after all . . . but if the chief priests got their hands on him, surely it would all be over. All their dreams, all their hopes, all their plans, all the good they had seen Jesus do, all the good they had done themselves as they walked with him—it would all be over.
And so, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, even as his disciples praised God and shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”—even as they were caught up in the joy of the moment, even as they proclaimed Jesus to be the promised King of Israel—they were no doubt worried what the days ahead might bring. Jesus was entering Jerusalem in triumph, the triumph he deserved, everything announcing him as the king of whom the prophet Zechariah had spoken; but would he leave the city in triumph as well? Would he leave at all, or would he die there? Jesus’ triumphal entry was a provocation the Jewish leaders couldn’t possibly ignore—in fact, it was one that even the Romans might notice; at this point, either he would reveal himself decisively as the Messiah whom God had sent to restore the kingdom to Israel, or he would soon be dead. What other possibility could there be?
In a few short days, the disciples would see their worst fears come to life before their eyes, as one of their own would sell Jesus to his enemies; they would see him die the most horrible, agonizing death Rome could deal out, and they would hear the grinding sound of stone on stone as a multi-ton boulder was rolled in front of his tomb. But in a far different context, the British prime minister Winston Churchill would remark of the Second Battle of El Alamein, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”; and his words could just as truly have been spoken beside Jesus’ tomb, had anyone been there who truly understood what was happening. Jesus’ death was not the end, for, unique in human history, he would not stay dead, but would rise again of his own power; rather, it was the end of the beginning—of the beginning of God’s plan to redeem the world. He had begun with Israel, and now he would extend his reach to invite all people in every nation into his eternal kingdom.
And so, though Jesus’ death would seem to deny it, the message of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem was nothing less than the truth: he was indeed a conqueror come to claim his kingdom. The difference was, neither his victory nor his kingdom were the sort the world expected, because God was throwing out all the old patterns and doing some-thing completely new—the sort of thing only he can do. God’s plan didn’t involve any conventional sort of victory because conventional victories can only achieve conventional results; to do the impossible, to redeem the world, it is necessary first to stand the world and its conventional wisdom on its head. For this reason, the cornerstone of God’s work would not be, could not be, anything obvious, like a conquering general, even though such people had had their place in his plan over the years; rather, the cornerstone would be a stone that all earthly builders had rejected—a homeless man, a wanderer, a man of no reputation, a man whose moment of greatest triumph would be quickly followed by his execution as a common criminal.
Except that, for those with eyes to see, his execution would be his moment of greatest triumph, for even death would not be able to hold him. It was for this that he rode into Jerusalem as a king, announcing a victory which none of his enemies would be able to understand. Just as Moses had walked back into Egypt to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” and to lead them on the Exodus through the wilderness to the Promised Land, so Jesus rode into Jerusalem to begin the new Exodus, leading his people—all his people, not just Israel—out of their exile in the wilderness of sin; and just as that first Exodus had begun with the celebration of the first Passover, so would the new Exodus begin with the celebration of the new Passover, the Lord’s Supper. But this time, the exile was not political and physical, but spiritual; it wasn’t one people in bondage to another, but all people in bondage to the power of sin. Therefore, his victory would not be political but spiritual; he would win not by conquering his enemies, but by surrendering to them.
This was God’s kind of victory; which is something our politicized American church needs to remember. The Protestant mainline churches got into the lobbying business in a big way in the 1960s, on the liberal side of things; in reaction, the conservative wing of the American church launched itself into politics on a national scale a decade or so later, and has only been getting more and more invested in political issues as time goes on. This has, to be sure, generated a lot of energy in American politics, gotten a lot of laws passed, and increased the number of committed, engaged voters in this country. At the same time, though, it’s meant that many non-Christians now see the church as primarily interested in politics and the success of a given political agenda—and indeed, that many churchgoers would effectively agree. This isn’t good, because what the church is supposed to be about—not primarily about, but in total—is the gospel of Jesus Christ; and too often, with all our political arguments, the gospel gets lost in the noise.
Now, understand me here, I’m not saying the church should ignore politics; I’m not advocating that Christians should cut themselves off from politics—or worse, sepa-rate their politics from their faith. There are Christian leaders who have reacted against the politicization of the American church by going to that opposite extreme, but that’s just the equal and opposite error. Politics is a part of our civil life; as citizens of the kingdom of God, we are called to be good and faithful citizens of this republic. This means that at the very least, we should vote, and we should do so intelligently—and that if God calls us, we should involve ourselves in the political process in other ways as well. Jesus is Lord in every part of life, and we need to act accordingly.
The problem comes when we identify our nation with the kingdom of God, and the political process itself with the work of the kingdom, and conclude that a victory or defeat in a legislative vote or a court decision is a victory or defeat for the church. That is buying in to the power-oriented thinking of the world, and it has given too many churches in this country the mindset that what really matters is that we win, whomever “we” might happen to be. After all, if we are on God’s side on this or that issue, then we are doing God’s work; that being the case, then logically it must mean that we have to win and we will win, because our victory is God’s victory and he never loses.
The problem is, this isn’t the way the gospel works; it isn’t Jesus’ way. His disciples thought they knew what he was on earth to do—win an earthly, political victory over a corrupt establishment and a pagan military power—which is why they worried that his return to Jerusalem might ruin everything; but Jesus had other plans, and so it wasn’t the beginning of the end, it was the end of the beginning. Equating the political victory of our cause with the victory of God’s work on earth—however well-grounded in Scripture our cause might be—presumes far more knowledge of him and his plans than we actually have; as such, it inevitably leads us into grave error. Abraham Lincoln knew this, which is why during his presidency he declared to one questioner, “Sir, my great concern is not that God is on our side, but rather that I am on God’s side.” Unfortunately, too many of his opponents had forgotten this—if they ever knew it at all.
It isn’t our job to win victories for God, because we aren’t even qualified to judge what a victory is. The disciples would look at the cross and see only agonizing defeat, because they lacked the ability to see what God was going to make of it; we can’t see the future, we can’t know what will best serve to accomplish God’s purposes, and it’s not ours to try. Our job, rather, is to be faithful in doing what he has called us to do, to do it to the best of our ability and with all that is in us—because to love him is to obey him, and we are to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength—and to let him worry about the victory. As the great poet T. S. Eliot put it, “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” This is truth, and it is liberating truth; not only does it release us from carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders, it also frees us from our pride, for the desire to win at all costs has far more to do with the demands of our pride than with the demands of our God.
We are here this morning to celebrate the God who brought us “out of bondage, out of the house of slavery”; as we do that, let’s remember that he did so not by winning a great military battle or political victory, but by suffering death, and bringing victory out of that. Does this mean we shouldn’t care about political issues, about votes and laws and court decisions? Of course not; our call is to live out our faith and seek to follow God’s will in every aspect of life, the political as much as anything else. But it is to say that we shouldn’t get too high about the victories, or too low about the defeats; we should trust God for what he’s doing, and remember that our primary focus ought to be proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, not of our chosen politician or political party. As Psalm 146 says, put not your trust in princes, for in them there is no salvation. Salvation is in Jesus Christ alone, and in him alone we should put our faith, and him alone we should worship.