The Point of Palm Sunday

A Sermon for 25 March 2018 – Palm Sunday

 

A reading from the gospel of Mark 11:1-19.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples 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.  If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”  They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street.  As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”  They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  10Blessed 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.  12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.  13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it.  When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”  And his disciples heard it.  15 Then they came to Jerusalem.  And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?  But you have made it a den of robbers.”  18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.  19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Hearing stories like the ones we heard from the gospels today, do you ever wonder if Jesus was either absolutely fearless or just full of folly?  Or maybe a bit of both?  . . .  In The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson does a wonderful job of teaching about the groups of faithful Jews who were contemporary to Jesus.  Likely we’ve heard their names thrown around by gospel authors:  the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.  Similar to the varieties of Christian denominations today, not everyone then approached God through Judaism in the same way.  (See:  Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way, pp. 206-271.)  One thing they all held in common – though for different reasons – Jesus appeared a threat.  The reactionary Pharisees, who started off about 150 years before Jesus as a protest against Greek opposition to Judaism and grew into a strict following of God’s ancient laws, believed Jesus broke the absolute ways of the Sabbath – and according to certain tellings of the story – he even wanted to include the uncircumcised.  Compassion was of higher value to Jesus than code.  . . .  The Sadducees and chief priests, who had gotten in good with the upper echelons and stopped caring for those right before them in spiritual and physical need, despised that Jesus broke bread with the masses.  They hated that he called crooked tax collectors to repent.  . . .  The Essenes, who simply wanted to escape in order to focus on their own holy lives, didn’t like that Jesus got down and dirty with the people.  He touched lepers and listened to blind men.  He let a woman infiltrate a precious male circle as she anointed his body before burial.  He didn’t stay out of the synagogues and Temple where in the Essenes’ opinion some religious folks worried more about themselves and their own comfort over the will of God.  Rather, Jesus marched right in in order to be present – that he would be able to nourish their spirits with the bountiful bread of heaven.  . . .  As if his every move wasn’t enough to turn the religious leaders of his beloved religious community upside down, Jesus meddled.  He told folks what to do with their money.  How to spend their time.  He made clear the ways God expected them to invest their talents – for the good of the whole.  He spoke of merciful love, justice, and forgiveness when so many craved separation, dominance, and revenge.

Look at him today in the story we call Palm Sunday.  Check out the actions of this foolish – or fearless, or a little bit of both – man.  Who does he think he is, descending from the Mount of Olives?  That was supposed to be the path of the long-awaited one.  . . .  The prophecy from Zechariah told of a day when one would come mightily into Jerusalem – one even mightier than old, beloved King David.  A royal descendant would weave down the path from the Mount of Olives on the east into the city with the Temple mount rising above.  The LORD’s promised one would liberate the Israelites from any other rule and establish forever God’s universal kingdom – an empire that stretched over every nation of the world.  What a wonderful vision!  . . .  It’s just that Jesus didn’t look at all like most had anticipated, what with the way he acted – pretty much standing in opposition to all the religious leaders of his day.  All too often Jesus offended, especially those who were certain that they knew.  And now – at Passover – as the city was jammed packed with those making the annual pilgrimage – how dare he participate in this attention-getting, seemingly pre-arranged parade?  He had to know it would only make matters worse.

No bother, to Jesus.  It’s important for us to remember that had a mission – a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, as we say in Renewal Team meetings.  He would not be deterred.  He was centered and focused and ready for whatever would come.  . . .  It was his parade of peace, that day he descended from the Mount of Olives.  He’d been saying all along that the ways of violence would be used against him, as they’d been used against his people for too long.  Those in charge of ordering other’s lives got to such positions through force.  There were no democratic elections in Jesus’ day.  In Jesus’ day the machine of domination rolled over nation after nation.  Person after person – on their way to establishing the Pax Romana:  The Great Roman Peace.  . . .  Was it the Psalmist or the ancient prophet or Jesus himself who chastised those in charge, saying:  “You cry, ‘Peace!  Peace!’  When, in fact, there is no peace!”  . . .  His sign of choosing a donkey – a young, previously unridden colt, as the gospel of Mark details.  Jesus’ choice was a powerful symbolic message.  He was embodying the prophet Zechariah’s oracle of chapter 9:9-10 which promised that a triumphant king will come.  Not on a horse charging in for war with shield and sword ready to go.  But humble – holding nothing in his outstretched hands:  just peace.  Peace pervading every ounce of his heart.  . . .  Here comes Jesus ambling into the city – the victorious king of peace.

It’s why he would tell his followers to put down the sword when in Gethsemane one of them sought to strike.  The One of peace doesn’t fight with those kind of weapons – just acts of kindness, self-emptying calm, and courageous words.  It’s why he would stand silent when both Caiaphas, the High Priest, and later Pilate, the Governor, challenged him to defend himself.  His fight wasn’t to save himself.  But, in love, to offer salvation to the whole world.  It’s why he stayed there on that cross, bleeding in throbbing pain.  His work was to give up his very self, trusting God to show that Life remains forever.  . . .  Here comes Jesus – our Christ – humble as a sign of peace.  Challenging any who would to follow.

It would be easy in today’s Palm Sunday story to keep our eyes on the king of peace – pin all our hopes on him and let it go at that.  But he didn’t enter that city; he didn’t wash his disciples feet; he didn’t hang on that cross and rise triumphant from the grave just for us to think his actions are all that matter.  Holy Week is for us in ways so much deeper than that.  We return to the same stories every year, perhaps from the perspective of a different gospel writer; but we come back round to them as a church to celebrate the Big Hairy Audacious Goal of the One that is not just Savior, but also Lord.  The One who makes a Way for us through death to life again, then beckons us to follow.  This week matters so deeply; these stories shape our faith significantly because they tell us what has been done for us and they lay out the pattern for our lives.  They give us the trajectory for our days.

In The Confession of 1967 of the PCUSA, we hear:  “The life, death, resurrection, and promised coming of Jesus Christ has set the pattern for the church’s mission.  His life as a human involves the church in the common life of humankind.  His service to humanity commits the church to work for every form of human well-being.  His suffering makes the church sensitive to all the sufferings of humankind so that we see the face of Christ in the faces of those in every kind of need.  His crucifixion discloses to the church God’s judgment on our inhumanity to one another and the awful consequences of our own complicity in injustice.  In the power of the risen Christ and the hope of his coming, the church sees the promise of God’s renewal of humanity’s life in society and of God’s victory over all wrong.  . . .  The church follows this pattern in the form of our life and in the method of our action.  So to live and serve is to confess Christ as Lord.”  (adapted for worship from the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions).  . . .  Here comes our Savior and Lord, O church.  Our amazing king of peace – fearless with a big ole splash of folly, at least according to the standards of the world.  He leads in the way of God – we’ll hear it throughout this week called Holy.  All that’s left to see is whether or not we will follow.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

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