Thompson’s Sermon from Palm Sunday, 2012

April 2, 2012

Seeing Through the Palm
Mark 11:1-11

1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

The question is: was the manner in which Jesus entered Jerusalem a parade? Or was it a parody of a parade? When we look at this story are we seeing a portrayal of power and victory or was it an event designed to undermine our passion for power and victory? There isn’t an easy answer to this question. Especially since we get slightly different messages from the way this story is told in the different gospels and we sort of blend them all together. Luke tells the story in a way that highlights the exuberant nature of the event. He says that when the Pharisees tried to get Jesus to reign in the festivities Jesus said the rocks would cry out if the people got quiet.

I don’t think it’s easy for us to understand what was going on with the way Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time because there were many different agendas at play, but I’m inclined to think that the way Mark tells the story we are to see this episode as more of a parody of a parade than it was an actual parade.

If this had been an actual parade, and if it was set in our time, Jesus would have entered the city in a Hummer with the top off. Or given the fact that he was never one to muscle his way around, he would have at least found someone with a convertible Corvette for him to sit on, but if this had been a parade he would have been riding on some kind of vehicle that portrayed power. Parades are fancy occasions that hype up the situation. And Mark seems to be saying that this was no parade.

The way Mark tells the story, if this procession was set in our day in our city, I think Jesus would have been sitting on a borrowed lawn chair in the back of Karl’s pickup. Now there probably isn’t anyone who makes better use of an outdated undersized pickup than does our faithful maintenance angel, Karl, and in that sense his old truck is an impressive vehicle, but Karl’s pickup does not exude the image of power or privilege and neither did that colt that Jesus arranged to borrow for a little while for his entrance into Jerusalem.

Now there is an element of a parade here. There were many people who were actually excited about Jesus coming into Jerusalem, and these people trusted that Jesus was the guy who was going to reveal the glory of Israel. Mark shows that there was actual enthusiasm for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem even though he was riding on a borrowed animal that was so small his feet were probably touching the ground.

The way Mark tells this story I think we should think of this processional as being along the lines of a Ron Paul rally. There were true believers on hand who held out hope that he actually might take control and get the nation in order. Honestly, I’m not sure what to think about the way Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem, but the one thing that is clear is that Jesus wasn’t confused about what he was doing.

The only consistent theme in all of the Gospels is that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and I’m convinced that Mark wanted us to see this as an event that was more along the lines of street theater than it was an exhibition of conventional power. In this Gospel, the way Jesus entered Jerusalem was more of a parable than a parade. I think it’s a story that’s designed to make us wonder.

So if you find Palm Sunday to be an emotionally confusing celebration I’m right with you. I’m really not sure how to feel about a day like this. It’s the day we celebrate the dramatic entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, and it’s a painful reminder of how misunderstood Jesus really was. We want to whoop it up for our guy who entered Jerusalem with the means and resolve to change the world, and we know that it cost him his life.

It’s not easy to hold together a sense of celebration and sorrow, but I think this passage invites us to embrace both of these emotions on this day we call Palm Sunday. It makes sense to parade with Bandito up and down the aisles of the sanctuary and to join with those original religious pilgrims who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as their savior – and to also acknowledge that we stand with them in having no idea what we are doing. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and what he did is something for us to cheer – and to bemoan.

If you look at the way Mark tells this story it’s actually hard not to see this entrance into Jerusalem as a parody of a military procession. The Mount of Olives is the highest point in the vicinity of Jerusalem, and it was considered to be the place from which the liberation of Jerusalem would be mounted. Like any good military commander, Jesus assembled his people on this strategic and religiously significant place as he prepared to take hold of the city, but instead of gathering weapons and provisions for a military coup – he had arranged to borrow a colt for the afternoon. And he had assured the colt’s owner that they would promptly return it. This is not the stuff of a conventional revolution, but it was some powerful political theater.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem imitated a military procession, and it highlights the non-militaristic strategy that Jesus employed to change the world. Jesus had passionate followers, and the people who lined the road as he came into town was not an ignorable body of people. This was a powerful assembly of people who were ready for something powerful to happen. They didn’t lay their garments on the road and cut branches to decorate his path out of some kind of religious obligation or duty – it was passion that moved them to do what they did.

These people were desperate for somebody to do something to restore the glory of Israel and to make their lives better and more meaningful. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think they would have taken whatever action he called for them to do, but Jesus didn’t harness the enthusiasm of the moment. This processional didn’t end with a fiery sermon on the steps of the Temple. He didn’t say anything when he got to the Temple. Mark says he just walked in, looked around, and left. They had assured the owner of the colt that Jesus would return the animal immediately, and they weren’t going to let him down.

Honestly, the way this event ended reminds me of something I would have organized – not that I’m on the same page with Jesus in regard to what he was doing, but this sounds like the kind of evangelism program that I’m inclined to employ.

Today’s story highlights the essence of the struggle we have as Christians. I think we have this desire to be a part of something big and dramatic and powerful and life changing, but the way Jesus went about this is hard for us to embrace. It’s not easy to construct an institution that actually embodies the values and the strategy and the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. How do you build an organization around someone who had no real interest in establishing a conventional institution? Our challenge is to follow a man who chose to engage in a parody of conventional success.

This procession into Jerusalem portrays the powerfully appealing nature of who Jesus was, and it points to the way in which Jesus challenges each of us to the core. It’s hard for me to understand what an institution is supposed to look like that’s built around this man who used his power to undermine all the ways we like to accumulate power.

I think this is a story that designed to make us wonder. We don’t know what Jesus was thinking when he walked into the Temple and looked around, but the way this story ends invites us to look around and reflect on who we are and what we are doing.

I don’t think Jesus is unimpressed with what goes on around here, but nobody needs to be overly impressed with who we are and what we do. Jesus could see through the palm and into the hearts of the people who were cheering him on, and he knew how hard it is to live by the guide of faith in God and not in pursuit of the rewards of this world.

This is a strange day in the life of the church, but that’s not such a strange thing because we have been called to live in a strange way. Jesus was out to save the world, but he didn’t do it in the way that anyone expected. It’s a wondrous thing that Jesus did, and we do well to wonder what all of this means for us. Thanks be to God for the wonderful ways that God’s mysteries continue to unfold. Amen


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