Palm Sunday is not merely a day that marks our calendar as we draw closer to Easter. Palm Sunday is also a story that reveals how Jesus’ 12 disciples carried a blindspot, one that challenged their faith. Join us this week as we uncover how our blindspots about God can help or hinder our faith.
The Last Blind Spot
The past few weeks we’ve been in this series called Blind Spots, Matt has been exploring how we can be blind to the truth about who we are, how we are called to speak the full truth to others so that they can heal their blind spots, and how God sometimes prompts us to this calling and truth-telling even when we aren’t ready.
I am excited about today because no matter how old we are, no matter how long we’ve been Christians, and no matter where we find ourselves on our faith journey, I think we all carry this specific blindspot. I carry this blindspot. And in the stories, we find in John two groups of people carry this blindspot, and while their experiences are different, the blindspot still affects their actions and their thoughts.
What is this blindspot you may ask….well today we are going to sit in this truth that Our expectations about who God is or how God should act blinds us to the reality of who God is and how God acts. A big one….let’s kick things off with prayer.
Last year one movie seemed to rule it all, and that was Spider Man No Way Home. The film, which was arguably pretty epic, was the first post-pandemic movie to hit $1 billion at the global box office, so I would say it did pretty well. If you are one of the few people who didn’t see the film, let me recap it for you. Or better yet, let me have IMDB give you an overview. The website says, with spider-mans identity now revealed, Peter (who plays spider man) asks Doctor Strange for help. When the spell goes wrong, dangerous foes from other worlds start to appear, forcing Peter to discover what it truly means to be Spider-Men.
Epic. The film was arguably great and had some wonderful cameos in it. But one line stuck out to me as I was watching the film, a line from Peter’s girlfriend MJ. In the midst of the chaos and destruction MJ drops some philosophy noting that ‘if you expect disappointment, then can you ever really be disappointed.” The angsty teenager MJ lives in a world in which her expectations are low, she expects to be disappointed and so she is never blindsided by a thing going wrong. And when something goes well, she gets to be pleasantly surprised.
Her line is a throwaway in the film, but it made me think about the reality of what it means to have expectations of people, of events, and of ourselves. Psychologists define expectations as personal beliefs about an event that may occur- they are assumptions about the future, anticipation based on subjective and objective aspects. We expect that the roller coaster at Disney will work, an expectation about an event. We expect that our spouse will throw away the trash when we ask them too, an assumption based either on past experiences or more likely on future hope. We expect that our parents will love us, we expect that our friends will be loyal to us, we expect a lot of things about both people and events in our lives.
And the expectations we carry for the secular things in our lives filter into the expectations we carry for the sacred. At times we expect God to act a certain way or do a certain thing, and at times our expectations are met and at times our expectations are not met. And when those expectations aren’t met it can lead us to question or wonder or anger. Unlike MJ we don’t often expect disappointment in our faith, and so sometimes when disappointment comes it can radically shake the foundation of our faith. Failed expectations can change the way we see God, it can make us question, and it can be tough.
And it isn’t necessarily bad to carry hopes with God, we get to engage in this fun formation of surrendering and leaning into prayer for our hopes. But at times our expectations about who God is and what God does becomes a blindspot in our faith lives, theses expectations create God in our own image and can block us from experiencing or seeing God’s presence in our lives. And that’s what happened in these two stories in John. In one story, the religious people’s expectations of Jesus and the expectations of the Mosaic laws that they held so tightly to blinded them to what Jesus was offering, and their blindspots hurt their faith. And then the story, the Palm Sunday story, shows another group being blinded by their expectations and yet we find them surrendering to what they see, they move away from their blindspots and into the lived reality of their experience with Jesus and it alters them and alters the faith in a positive way.
Let’s jump in, the first story we find is in John 8, and here’s what happens.
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
These first few verses from John 8 are interesting, from a literary point of view they have what some theologians call, a checkered history. The passage we just read is actually absent from from most of the oldest copies of the gospel, the copies that precede the 6th century. The passage here is also absent from early commentators, meaning they had no passage to comment on. Some theologians say the passage is unhistorical, but because it has the same coherence and spirit as the rest of John, and because it explores the same characteristics of Jesus that the Gospel of John uncovers, that we have it in our modern biblical texts.
The passage itself exists yet it exists in isolation, its a part of the family but it’s that weird kid who sits in the back and you’re not exactly sure if they are a cousin or a friend of a cousin. A passage that is here but wasn’t originally included. And I point that out because it reminds me that sometimes we keep hidden parts of our story that are important, sometimes the things we push to the back corner or leave our of the diary are important when we reflect on our faith lives. That thing we keep hidden because we are embarrassed, that moment when we felt isolated, whatever we call other or chose to leave behind, is what God uses. The beginning of John 8 is the other, but it’s an important other.
So what actually is happening in this story we just read? In previous chapters, the ones who are a part of the historical gospel, Jesus is performing incredible miracles. He is feeding the crowd of 5.000 and walking on water, but even in the midst of those miracles their are rumbling and questions about who Jesus is and what he is doing. In John 6:66 some of those following Jesus did not like what he was teaching, and so they left the community following Jesus. In chapter 7 Jesus has to thwart bad advice from friends who wondered why he wasn’t becoming a more public and political figure of power. In 7:25 people are questioning and doubting Jesus as he speaks to them, and finally, in 7:45 the religious leaders don’t believe Jesus. A mixture of seeing visible things and disbelief fills these middle pages of John.
And so that is where we find Jesus here in the passage in chapter 8. Jesus in the midst of everything leaves his community and people and wanders into a sacred garden, to spend time in nature and to spend time with God. He is there all night, and as the darkness of night breaks into the light of day we find Jesus appearing at the temple. From one sacred place to another. If you’ve ever been to Israel you can walk this walk, it is probably a fifteen to twenty minute walk from a beautiful hill where the historical mount of olives stands, and you descend from the hills into where the temple would have been. Jesus descends and is met by religious leaders who have brought to Jesus a women caught in adultery.
Some theologians note that the religious leaders historically did not wake up early in the morning unless their was a specific occasion or reason, and so we are posed to understand that this scene was certainly odd. Jesus may have chosen a time when they wouldn’t have been an issue, it is like going shopping when stores open to avoid teens, or going to Disney on a Wednesday to avoid, people.
These religious men, up early, bring to Jesus a women. The bible makes it clear that her guilt was certain, in fact verse 3 said she was caught in the act. Which brings up questions, but we wont ask those. And the religious leaders throw this women who is indisputably guilty to Jesus and ask him
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
The law that the leaders held so tightly to was pretty clear about the crime and punishment; Leviticus 20:10 says that
If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbor – both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.
And then Deuteronomy 22:22-24 says
“If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife…you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.”
The law was clear, and the leaders knew it, and verse 6 tells us that they were in part blinded because they knew the law and they wanted to trap Jesus. Whereas the actions of the religious leaders were bold and brash, Jesus was small and quiet and gentle. The verses tell us that his response to these questions was passive, he sat and wrote in the sand while being bombarded with questions.
We don’t know what he was writing, there are of course theories but we dont know. Jesus wrote, and roots out the evil in the religious leaders hearts. The verses tell us
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Capital punishment in the jewish tradition started with the witness and since in theory these religious leaders were witness to the act of adultery it would make sense for them to enact the punishment, but Jesus flips it. It is not the one who witnesses the adultery, it is the one who is blameless that does the stone throwing. Well no one was blameless, and so they left. Jesus straightened up and asked her,
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus never challenged the innocence of the women, she was at fault. And yet he saw into the trap and trickery and saw past the Mosaic laws and acted in a way that defied the expectations of the religious leaders, he dismisses rather than condemning the woman.
Jesus defies the expectations of the religious leaders, who expected Jesus to at least mirror or stick with the laws and codes of their religion. Jesus defies the potential expectations of the women caught in adultery, who may have expected Jesus to condemn her or at least cast judgment on her. The expectations of these characters blinded them to the reality of what Jesus was going to do. Our expectations about who God is or how God should act blinds us to the reality of who God is and how God acts.
And this narrative is found in another story in John. Now today in most churches is something we call Palm Sunday. A big holiday in the church world is this thing called Easter, where we get to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. And we have different timestamps in this celebration, one of which is Palm Sunday, a story found in John 12.
Unlike John 8, which wasn’t included in the early gospel, John 12 is a story not only found in the early gospel but it is also a story that appears in all four of the gospels. A week before Passover, Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany. After raising Lazarus from the dead, a dinner is hosted in Jesus’ honor. As he sits with his friends, Mary takes a jar of oil or pure nard and anoints Jesus feet. The night wanes, and the chapter continues into what we now call Palm Sunday.
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Hosanna!” Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion, see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.
At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
The title for this section in the NIV is Jeus comes to Jerusalem as a King, but I think that title is a bit misleading. When I was little I used to watch Aladin, the Disney animated film, often. It was my older sisters favorite disney movie, hence why we watched it daily. My sister identified and connected with Jasmine, in fact we bought her a stuffed tiger that she loved to death. I identified with the genie, if that tells you anything about my personality.
In this Disney film we see a young Aladin arrive to Agrabah, a city of mystery and enchantment, in a fantastically kingly fashion. Prince Ali, as the genie calls him, is welcomed into the city with an army of bell carrying men, people juggling swords, dancers, gold camels, peacocks, and of course a large inflatable monkey. Yes, i did watch the song as I wrote this. He rides an elephant, stories and fairytales spreading about his strength and wealth as he rides closer to the palace, throwing out money to all those around him. Everyone in the bazaar can’t help but looking at him, looking at the show. It is the way that you expect a king to enter into a city, and it is certainly the way many expected the messiah to enter into Jerusalem. The entry of a king is marked by power, by scale, by prestige.
But we know that isn’t what Jesus did.
John 12 tells us that a great crowd swarmed around Jesus and his disciples, they are there for the passover celebration but scholars believe that most came from the Galilee region and therefore would have potentially known or been aware of the work and miracles of Jesus. The crowd knows Jesus, and even though they are far from their homes and party supplies they pull together what they have to welcome Jesus into the city.
With palm branches going Jesus enters the city and is greeted by people yelling Hosana which translates to Save Now or Save, an exclamation of praise. The moment is boisterous but humble, ecstatic but intimate. The moment also fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah. Zechariah 9:9 noted,
‘Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey. This balance of power and humility, are characteristics we find of Jesus both in John 8 and John 12. The people around them in this John 12 story believed, they held the importance and sacredness of the moment, but interestingly the disciples are the ones that carried an expectation that was being challenged. John 12 ends this triumphant entry by noting, At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
We don’t know what expectations, if any, the disciples carried with them as they entered this town. Maybe the thought it would just be a normal walk into Jerusalem, maybe they excepted a Prince Ali sort of introduction to the messiah. Who knows. But whatever expectations they carried John 12 tells us that they weren’t expecting Jesus to do what He did. At first, the disciples didn’t understand this, at first their expectations were not met. Only later, says John, they understood, they shifted their understandings, to see what Jesus had done and how his actions fulfilled this prophecy in Zechariah.
Jesus did something here, amongst his closest friends, that defied their understanding and characterization of both the event and the person. Yet as they sat with the countering experience they began to understand and reshape their expectations, and in doing so they understood the glory of the palm sunday entrance.
These two stories found in John are stories about expectations, about blindspots. They are stories of how the expectations about who God is or how God should act has the potential to blinds us to the reality of who God is and how God acts.
Apart from sharing similar narratives, these stories reveal a few points of reflection for us, for our lives, and for our faith development. We are going to be talking about those in a minute.
In elementary school, some say 1st grade some say 3rd grade, you learn how to process a story with the 5 Ws of writing. The who, what, when, where, and why. It’s a process that helps us understand the characters, the narrative, and the practical applications of the things we read, teaching students reading comprehension. As we reflect on the truth of these stories we are going to be reflecting on the 5Ws, well technically 4Ws and 1H, but you get it. Thinking about our blindspots about God, and thinking about these stories in John, we find ways to ask ourselves questions so that we don’t carry the burden of a blindspot, so that we can live wholly into a God and not define God by our own expectations. You ready for the 5 Ws.
We are going to ask why, how, who, what and when. The first one is easy, and these stories point to the question why? Why is this happening?
Heres the truth, when we carry expectations of and for God, when we are blinded by these boxes for God, we can find ourselves in situations where we ask why. And these situations can be positive or negative, if we view God as our eternal father who judges and punishes then we may ask why when God brings joy and peace into our lives. When we have a mindset that if we live well that God will allow life to be all rainbows and easy then we may have a question of why when life inevitably becomes tough.
In John 8 the religious leaders were trying to trap Jesus by using laws, their expectations of religious people and leaders was that their actions would stem from the legalism of their faith. And so when Jesus altered the religious protocol, they undoubtedly asked why. Why would someone flip these laws to impact the religious person and not the person caught in adultery. The disciples were probably constantly asking Why. Why Jesus chose to focus on the poor or heal the sick, why Jesus was calm in storms and why Jesus who was powerful chose to ride into a town on a donkey. Why.
In our lives, as we grow spiritually throug moments of good and bad, starting with a why prompt helps us see and reveal what our expectations of God are. They help us uncover perhaps unconscious blind spots.
And naturally, the why moves into the how. How is this thing challenging my faith right now? In John 8 and John 12 everyone had something that challenged their faith. They acknowledged firstly the why, that something was interrupting their expectations, and then they found that the why was leading into the how. In John 8 the religious leaders had their legalistic faith challenged, the foundation for their faith and religious rhythms was directly challenged by Jesus redefining expectations. I would argue that the woman caught in adultery also probably experienced some form of challenge, this system that she lived in even if she didn’t live according to it, was shattered when Jesus acted in a way that countered death. In John 12 the disciples had their expectations of a triumphant entry challenged. If the why brings clarity to a circumstance and the expectations of that circumstance, a sort of reflection of the outside experience, the how pushes us to internal reflection. How the experience is challenging our beliefs.
We see stories of challenged faiths a lot in the Bible. All different, but all with this truth that our faiths can be challenged in different ways. Job was challenged when he was processing loss on a tremendous scale, David in En Gedi was challenged when he was in total isolation, Ruth and Esther were challenged when they were thrown into unfamiliar places, the characters in John were challenged. And in each of these stories, new characteristics and realities of this infinite God were found, and it’s the same for us. Our blindspots tell us that God has to act in a certain way, and that our faiths need to be a certain way. Asking why and how, unravels blindspots and let’s us reflect on who God is and how we respond to those challenges.
And the good news is that we don’t have to process this or reflect on the why and how alone. It brings me to my next question, who can I process this with? In student ministry we talk alot about how the company you keep influences who you become as an individual. And while we say it a lot for our kdis and students, we often don’t say it to adults. But the truth is who we surround ourselves with, who we process with, can add to or help relieve us of blindspots in our faith. The religious leaders held together in a way that inhibited their communal and individual spiritual growth. They carried the same blindspot and existed within the blindspot together. The disciples countered this, they carried a blindspot together but through experience and reflection they were able to process and change as they experienced Jesus more deeply on Palm Sunday. Who you have around you can help you understand not only your personal blinddspots, like Matt talked about a few weeks ago when he encouraged us to live into speaking that last 10%, but who you have around you can also help you understand God when you are wondering why and experiencing the how.
A few years ago a celebrity was in the news because it was argued that they were surrounding themsleves with yes men. Social Psychologist calls these yes men a truth bias, when we feel discomfort or challenge we can surround ourselves with a low-conflict person or we ourselves can be in low conflict positions. A Forbes article on yes men talked about how some of us deal with uncomfortable situtiaons with uncrticial agreement, yes men.
Filling our lives of faith with yes men can keep us in blindspots in our faith. Now Im not saying we need friends or partners that are combative, but like the disciples, who we process our hows and whys with can chape if and how we are blinded to things. Surrounding ourselves with people who are pursuing growth, who recognise blindspots and react to them, are important. Why is this thing happening, how is it challenging my faith, and who is walking alongside me so that I am not blinded by these blindspots.
These three questions are sort of informative, reflective questions. And they lead to two outcome questions. What and whet. What is God showing me, and when do I surrender the blindspot I am holding onto.
God reveals truths to us in funny ways; he reveals truths to us by putting us in situations like we see in the story of Esther. He reveals truths to us when he calls us to something extraordinary like in the stories of Moses and Noah. He reveals truths to us in moments of happiness like the wedding in Cana but also in moments of isolation like Jonah. He reveals truths when he uncovers the improbable like when Jesus does miracles. He reveals truths when we are challenged, like John 8 and John 12.
God is showing us something today, I really believe that, hes revealing the answer to the whatt. God is revealing something about his character to us, something we have maybe chosen to not see or to avoid. And as God reveals these to us, as we figure out what God is showing us, we may be called to surrender our expectations or our blindspots so that we can live into the fullness of God.
The disciples did this; in John 12 they found this moment of celebration, it challenged their expectations of how Jesus would enter the town, they processed amongst friends, they found that God was showing them who Jesus was and the truth of his messianic purpose, and then they surrendered and allowed the glory of God to redirect their minds and their faith journeys.
The religious leaders, well they missed it. They held so tightly onto a blindspot, onto an expectation of God. And listen I understand it, they had a fatih and a system that told them that a lived faith looked like a certain thing. And when Jesus came to counter that they boarded up the walls of their hearts and minds, they had a clear expectation of the God they served, and they couldn’t see what Jesus was revealing and they couldn’t see when they needed to surrender. They held on, with tight fists, and they missed out on an experience with Jesus.
And if we were honest we would say that some of us have done the same, or may be in seasons of the same. We have held on to a blindspot or an expectation, we havent engaged in the challenge that surrender proposes. And we sit here longing to know God and be formed by God but we can’t.
Why, how, who, what, and when is a process that challenges us and causes us to let go of a blindspot that we hold.
Next week is Easter, as you probably know. Easter is this celebration of Jesus doing the impossible, doing the miraculous, resurrecting and transforming the lives of all of us. His process is one of pain, death, and then salvific glory. And I encourage you to not miss that because of a blindspot.
I encourage you this week to take one of the blindspots Matt and I have talked about, and to spend some time working through or working on it. I encourage you to spend time in the why and how and who and what and when, so that when we approach the Easter celebration we can be unburdned by a blindspot. When we approach Easter we can celebrate a resurrected Jesus, who brings a fullness of hope and joy and new realities.
John 8 and John 12 helps us to see that sometimes our blindspots are about God, and these blindspots deter us from seeing and engaging with a God who acts and calls us in challenging ways. The ending of John tells us that the resurrected Jesus invites us into a new life, a new creation, in which we don’t have to let these blindspots hold us back from who God is and what God is calling us to . So friends, as we draw near to an empty tomb, let us let go of the blindspots that hold us back and let us walk with sight to God.
This week we explore the last blindspot. We have discovered how our blindspots can hold us back, keep us chained from true connection, and hinder our relationship with ourselves and with others. This week we are uncovering another blindspot, a blindspot we can carry in our faith.
Palm Sunday is not merely a day that marks our calendar celebration as we near closer to Easter. Palm Sunday is also a story that reveals how the disciples carried a blindspot, and it challenged their faith formation. Join us this week as we uncover how our blindspots about God can help or hinder our faith.
Blue Oaks Church