Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday: Ride On, King Jesus! (Mark 11:1-11)

When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.


One of the formative experiences of any trip to the Holy Land is to walk the Palm Sunday road, from the top of the Mount of Olives, down into the Kidron Valley, and up into the city of Jerusalem.  Not surprisingly, at the top of the route and really all along it, vendors are waiting to sell all sorts of things to the religious pilgrims walking that route.  For a few bucks, you can have your picture taken riding a camel or donkey, and the vendor who seemed to get the most business was the one with the best sense of humor.  He led his donkey through the crowds, shouting, “Donkey rides, taxi! Ride Jesus’ taxi!”


I don’t remember my first parade.  But I know I love parades, and can’t remember a time when I didn’t.  What I always loved about the parades were the vehicles.  Red and yellow fire trucks with lights flashing, blaring their horn as they passed, volunteers from some organization riding on the back and pelting the crowd with as much candy as a kid could grab.  I loved all the special interest cars, from the shiny new convertibles (though I could care less about the mayor or city council member riding on the back), to the muscle cars and classic cars and antique cars that made their way through.


We lived in a small town in Oklahoma until I was about 3, and our friend and neighbor, Seymour, owned a restored Ford Model ‘A’ truck, which I thought was the coolest thing in the world, especially the “ahooga” horn.  Seymour’s truck appeared in just about every parade in town, and I have the vague recollection of riding in a parade with him, where he let me sound that “ahooga” horn all over the entire route, and I relished every single minute of it.


Another parade I have an early memory of is the palm parade every Palm Sunday.  As a child, I remember waving my branch high and shouting, “Hosanna,” much as we have already done, with our children leading the way, at the beginning of today’s worship service.


Palm Sunday is the beginning of the Holiest week in the life of the Church, and it moves in roller coaster fashion for Jesus and his followers from the highest highs to the lowest lows, and then back up again.  The traditional images of Palm Sunday with which we are so familiar – smiling crowds, fuzzy donkeys, colorful cloaks laid along the road – may lull us into the sense that what took place on this day in Jerusalem so long ago was a matter of child’s play, when the reality is that things of the utmost importance were in play, setting in motion a clash of forces that would lead to Jesus’ execution on the cross.  Let us pray.


It was the beginning of the Passover week, the highest and holiest of Jewish religious festivals.  During Passover at the time of Jesus, the population of Jerusalem would swell from 40,000 to 200,000, drawing religious pilgrims from around the known world together into one place.


But their minds were not only on things religious.  Several came with political agendas as well.  Passover celebrated the Hebrew liberation from the Egyptians, and during the time of Jesus, the people found themselves occupied by the Romans.  Passover parties of the past had proved to be a political problem, the perfect staging ground for rebellion and uprising. 


Picture Jerusalem as the center of a busy intersection.  Jesus’ ride on the stolen donkey was not the only parade taking place that day.  As he descended the Mount of Olives and entered the city from the East, another parade entered the city from the West.  This other parade was led by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, atop a beautiful and powerful warhorse, with the reigns of worldly power held loose, but firm, in his hands.  600 Roman soldiers followed behind to reinforce Rome’s rule during the festival, accompanied by all the symbols of military might we would expect – flags flying, trumpets blasting, drums beating, armor clanking, spears gleaming in the springtime morning sun.


The Romans reinforced their occupation forces on Jewish high holy days to discourage any attempted insurrection by rebel leaders who might take advantage of the swelling holiday crowd. Pilate wanted to be close enough to the Temple complex with a strong display of Roman force to ensure the “Pax Romana,” Rome’s version of peace. And Rome had the cross, an intimidating execution device, to enforce Roman authority with any who would question it. Thousands of criminals and perceived enemies of the state were executed along the main roads so that all could witness the penalty for insurrection.


The cross was a particularly cruel device of both torture and execution.  Not only did it ensure that people died in the most painful and excruciatingly long way possible, but it dehumanized the crucified in a way we cannot imagine.  We picture crosses as high in the air, but the reality is that the crucified typically hung a few feet off the ground, next to a main road, close enough for people to insult and degrade them face-to-face, eye-to-eye. 


In contrast to the display of Roman imperial power, Jesus, who came with no sword, rode into the city on a donkey from the east with a group of ordinary fishermen and farmers and day laborers, tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, the least and the last, the lost and the lonely, the downtrodden and the forgotten.


The Roman legion symbolized power and privilege; Jesus represented its opposite.  He was born as an oppressed minority.  He spent the first two years of his life as a political refugee in Africa, escaping Herod’s infanticide in Bethlehem.  Wherever you consider to be the most backward, middle-of-nowhere place on earth, that’s where Jesus grew up, as some had commented about his hometown, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46).


Pilate and the kingdom of the world came from one direction; Jesus and the kingdom of God from the other, and there in the middle, caught between the two, was a third force: the compromised religious institution. The institution was more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with caring for the poor and marginalized.  They were intent on personal gain and institutional security, with no concern for God’s redemptive mission of justice and righteousness in the world.  More concerned with self-preservation than witnessing to God’s love for those beyond themselves, they had become, as some describe, “so heavenly bound they were no longer any earthly good.”


On Palm Sunday, the crowds who lined the road and greeted Jesus shouted “Hosanna!” literally, “Save us,” but those in the crowd were asking for salvation from different things.  Those with political aspirations were seeking salvation from the Roman government.  They had on their mind a coup d’├ętat in which Jesus would overthrow the Romans and establish a regime of his own.  Those with religious sensibilities were seeking salvation from the misguided, self-serving religious establishment, in the hopes that Jesus would establish a new one in its place.


In either case, first on everyone’s minds were their own aspirations or desires – whether political or religious.  Those looking for a political Messiah greeted Jesus as the new king – of the old kingdom.  Those looking for a religious Messiah greeted Jesus as the new priest – of the old religion. 


And though Jesus is king, he came neither to take over the old kingdom or to establish a new one, which disappointed those with political hopes.  And though Jesus is priest, he came neither to take over the old religion or to establish a new one, which disappointed those with hopes for a new religious institution.


Jesus is always a great disappointment to those who wish to use him to advance their own agendas. Whatever the disciples expected to happen, and whatever the crowds expected, just didn’t happen. Their expectations and Jesus’ agenda are worlds apart.  That explains how he lost the support of public opinion by the end of the week, and how the very crowds who exultantly shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday, would, by Friday, in blood thirst be yelling, “Crucify Him!”


Nothing about the story suggest child’s play.  Jesus, riding a donkey, enters the Holy City from the east. The Roman contingent parades into the city from the west. In the middle were the compromised religious elite. It became known as Palm Sunday – when kingdoms collide.


When Jesus came to earth, he brought with him the reign of God, which uproots self-serving systems of greed, corruption, abuse, and exclusion, whether political or religious in nature.  The reign of God is always a threat to those who benefit from maintaining the status quo.


Friends, I wonder where we would place ourselves in the crowd.  In my own hand, there is a palm branch.  Today, we have waved these branches high and greeted Jesus with shouts of, “Hosanna!”  Have we done so in the hopes that Jesus will advance an agenda that reflects our own?  The temptation is always there to co-opt God to legitimate our vision of utopia, but today, shouts of “Hosanna” can be our cry for Jesus to save us from our own misguided, small-minded, self-serving, status-quo-preserving thinking and desires.


Today, as I wave my branch and greet Jesus as king, I do so with the whole-hearted desire to be a citizen in his kingdom, to pledge my allegiance to him alone, to bow my will and desires to his.  I may not fully understand his kingdom all the time, may not recognize it when it’s in my midst.  I may, at times, cheer for the wrong reasons, or have expectations for Jesus that reflect my own thinking rather than the mind of Christ.


Yet, Jesus has so much more in store than my little mind can fathom, and my limited understanding and misguided expectations do not diminish or dictate what God is up to.


When my expectations collide with those of Jesus, my waving branch indicates my desire to do it his way, rather than asking him to promote mine.  This branch is a reminder to me, to all of us, that there can only be one king, and that position has already been filled by Jesus.


So lift your palm high and greet him as King.  Hail Jesus as the King; love and serve him as your King.

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