Palm Sunday B

March 26, 2018

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 understanding of power and victory? There isn’t an easy answer to this question. I think we can trust that this is an event that happened very closely to the way Mark tells it. You will find this story in each of the four gospels, and they are all very similar – with some slight differences. 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. John sort of plays it down. He presents it as less of an organized event and more of a spontaneous eruption of enthusiasm for Jesus, but I think it’s safe to say that Jesus entered Jerusalem in a very public manner.


But I don’t think it’s easy for us to understand what was going on with the way Jesus entered Jerusalem. There were many different agendas at play, and the way Mark tells the story we are invited to understand what Jesus was thinking – because there wasn’t much understanding at the time. And in retrospect I think this was more of a parody of a parade than an actual parade.


And here’s what I mean by this. A parade is a celebration of an understood event. There are parades for teams that win championships, for holidays, and for other displays of power and achievement. If this had been an actual parade, and if it was set in our time, Jesus would have entered the city in an expensive sports car with the top down. Or maybe on top of a giant firetruck. The mode of transportation would have made a clear statement of power and authority. Parades are fancy occasions that hype up the situation. And Mark seems to be saying that this was no parade. Jesus entered the city with great fanfare, but it seems to have been more of an imitation of a parade than an actual parade. It was a parody of a parade.


If this procession was set in our day and time, I think Jesus would have entered the city sitting in a folding chair in the back of an old pickup — not an antique truck, but a faded model out of the eighties. Jesus didn’t come in to town on a beautiful and strong horse, as emperors and soldiers were known to ride. Jesus chose to come in to town on a colt that he had managed to borrow for a little while.


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


There was genuine enthusiasm among many people who came out to greet Jesus. It might even be accurate to say it was a little bit like a Trump rally. There was this expectation among many people that this outsider was going to come in, take control, and make the nation great again. There were many different agendas and expectations among the people, but there was only one person who knew what he was doing, and that was Jesus. Yes, he was going to restore the glory of Israel. He was going to show the way to be great. He was going to do something that would provide salvation to the world, but he wasn’t going to do it in a way that anyone expected.


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 glorious entry in to Jerusalem as something that was more like street theater than an exhibition of conventional power. In this Gospel, the way Jesus entered Jerusalem was more of a parable than a parade. It was an event that was 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 sort of dance 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.


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. Of course the truth is that 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 so little 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 displeased with the way we gather to celebrate his presence with us. I’m grateful that there is this institution that carries his name and studies his words, but I don’t think we should ever become overly impressed with who we are and what we do. Jesus could see through the palm branches and into the hearts of the people who were cheering him on. Jesus knew of the mixed agendas that those people represented, and he loved them anyway. Jesus knows how hard it is for us to live by the rule of love and faith in God and not in pursuit of the rewards of this world. Jesus knows how we struggle to reconcile our lives on earth with our desire for heaven. He understands the way we fail to reconcile those things well. He loves us anyway, and with the holy spirit he’s trying to help us do better.


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 maybe the best response we can offer to this story and to the following events that occurred when Jesus entered Jerusalem is our wonder. We would do well to wonder because if we don’t stop to wonder at the way God was revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we aren’t paying attention.


This is a tough week for us disciples. The entry in to Jerusalem might have been some interesting street theater, but it turned in to an actual trial and an all-too-real crucifixion. The disciples scattered. The rulers of this world took charge, and it felt like all was lost.


Jesus knew that the people who were cheering as he entered Jerusalem had no idea what was about to happen, and he proceeded anyway. He knew we would have time to think about these things afterward, and that’s what we are challenged to do. We are invited to think about this amazing way that Jesus would reveal to us what power really looks like.


Yes, the story has a happy ending. We’ll talk more about that next week, but we don’t need to be unaware of how costly it was for Jesus to show what God’s love looks like. And how hard it remains for us disciples to follow him.


It’s not just hard, it’s all but impossible. But with God all things are possible – even our own redemption. Thanks be to God. Amen


One Response to “Palm Sunday B”

  1. Bill Waddell Says:

    “Jesus could see through the palm branches and into the hearts of the people who were cheering him on. Jesus knew of the mixed agendas that those people represented, and he loved them anyway. Jesus knows how hard it is for us to live by the rule of love and faith in God and not in pursuit of the rewards of this world. Jesus knows how we struggle to reconcile our lives on earth with our desire for heaven. He understands the way we fail to reconcile those things well. He loves us anyway, and with the holy spirit he’s trying to help us do better.” This is a wonderful image of Jesus

    When You regarded me,
    Yours eyes imprinted in me Your grace:
    For this You loved me again,
    And thereby my eyes merited
    To adore what in You they saw.

    St. John of the Cross, A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ, Stanza 32

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