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Do you ever wonder why we look at these stories, written so long ago? Do you ever wonder what they might have to do with us today? The world in which Jesus rode toward Jerusalem is so different. Does anyone ever ask you these kinds of questions? What do we do with them? The questions I mean, not the people.
Throughout these weeks we’ve been considering the question – What kind of Messiah is this? What kind of saviour is this? What kind of deliverer is this? What does it mean to follow him? What does this story have to do with us today?
The cry of the crowd was “Hosanna!” The meaning of the word had changed over the years. It had been adopted as a general cry of praise and acclamation. The same way we would use “Hallelujah!” Do you know what its original meaning was? Save us. Save, we pray.
Save us. This is what the crowds who went ahead of him and those who followed were shouting. This is what they were crying out.
Do you hear those cries? Do we still need to ask the question “Of what relevance is this ancient story for today?” Is that your cry? Has it ever been your cry?
These cries are all around us. If there is one thing in the world most people can agree on, it’s that we’re falling short in some way. It’s that we’re falling short as individuals. Be the change you want to see, is the slogan because we realize that we need to change. We need to do better. Surely we can do better as people. As a society. Something has gone terribly terribly wrong.
If you’ve heard the story before you know the background. Societally speaking, the children of Israel were living under a foreign power. They’d been living under a foreign power for hundreds of years. Save us, they cried. They were living under the power of something from which they could not extricate themselves.
I said the cries are all around us. The cry comes from deep within us. Save me from the Angst and the Weltschmerz that seem to make up the Zeitgeist. Save me, save us, from our own worst inclinations. Save me from self-seeking. Save us from living comfortably on the backs of others. Save me from my addictions. Save me from the things that make me feel I am worthless. Save me from the things that make me feel I am worthless.
We could go on yes?
And in the middle of these cries rides the one who we call our Saviour. Ride on ride on in majesty, we’re going to sing later. We sing majesty because Mark takes much time to show that Jesus is fully in control of this situation. When we are familiar with this story we are painfully aware of what he is riding into. It’s like watching a favourite movie over and over which contains a painful scene. We know that Marley is going to die at the end of “Marley and Me.” We know that Owen Wilson is going to take him to the vet where he’s going to be put down. We wish for a different result every time.
The thing about this story is, God is in full control. These are divine things that are being carried out. Divine order. The Divine Plan. God’s great salvation plan. These are not things that are being done to Jesus. These are not things that are coming as a surprise to Jesus. Jesus details the immediate part of the plan to his disciples. Two of them because two is good. Same way he sent them out earlier in the story. 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.”
Nothing unusual about finding a colt parked in Bethpage. Someone has compared it to saying “Go downtown where you will find a parked car.” Jesus adds some specific instructions about the colt and what to say if challenged. There is some disagreement among Biblical scholars as to whether Jesus had made arrangement prior to the day or this is divine foreknowledge that Jesus is showing. I tend to lean toward the latter but this is something we can discuss. The scene goes down exactly as Jesus said it would.
As we enter Holy Week friends, this is a timely reminder from Mark. There’s a popular song out now called A World Gone Mad. There was a popular song when I was a teen called Mad World. I don’t need to go into the reasons why. Wars and rumours of war. Children being cut down by assault weapons in school. Above all of this and over all of these things is the man riding silently on a colt, bringing all things back to himself.
James Russell Lowell, a 19th-century American poet put it like this in a poem called “The Present Crisis” – “Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet tis truth alone is strong… Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, - Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
The plan is going forward. Jesus is in control. He enters Jerusalem triumphantly. This is the heading in our NRSV bibles over the passage. This is what I was thinking when I first started thinking about Palm Sunday and preaching on the Triumphal Entry. The thing is when you look at Mark’s account closely, there’s not really a lot about it that’s triumphal. Matthew writes of the people proclaiming Jesus as the Son of David – “Hosanna to the Son of David” they cry. Jesus enters Jerusalem and we read the whole city is in turmoil. This is a big deal. We talked about it last year – Pastor Abby compared the hubbub to Haile Selassie visiting Jamaica. In Luke, we have the crowd crying “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” There is such a commotion that the Pharisees in the crown tell Jesus to order his disciples to stop. This is too upsetting. Too disconcerting. Luke describes Jesus weeping over the city on his way, saying “…if you, even you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” John has the people waving palm branches (the only Gospel writer to include that detail) and calling out “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel” and the people from Jerusalem come out to meet him to such an extent that the Pharisees say to one another “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
And it’s a triumphant day and we sing upbeat songs and we wonder things like how could these crowds have turned against him in less than a week.
Not so much in Mark. Oh yes, we have Jesus sitting on a colt. It’s a nod to the verse in Zechariah (9:9) for sure. We have the crowd spreading their cloaks on the road, along with leafy branches. Look at who’s doing this though. Those who went ahead and those who followed. Those who were in the crowd with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem for Passover. There’s no outpouring of people from the city here. Look at what they’re saying – “Hosanna!” Save us! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” This last line is biblical. It’s from Psalm 118. Jesus is definitely not meeting anyone’s expectations of a warrior Messiah. A figure like Judas Maccabeus who defeated the Selucids and entered Jerusalem victorious, the crowd waving palm branches. The thing is that in Mark, Jesus is not even overtly referred to as any kind of Messiah apart from this oblique reference to the coming kingdom of our ancestor David. The thing is, this line from Psalm 118 could be used by any group of pilgrims. The group of pilgrims would say “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” while Temple priests would answer “We bless you from the house of the Lord” in a call and response type thing.
The image that stands out here is this silent figure on the colt. This silent figure who continually subverted expectations. This silent figure who talked about what it meant to follow him. To take up one’s cross daily. This silent figure about whom we’ve been asking – What kind of Messiah is this? We’ve talked about these cries of “Save us!” What kind of saviour is this?
The one who told his followers, when they were arguing about who was the greatest among them (talking of triumphalism) – “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The one who took a child in his arms (and children had no rank and were among the least of these of Jesus’ day) and said: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
The lowly Jesus. Infant lowly, infant holy we sing at his birth. There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus, is how another hymn put it. He knows all about our troubles. He is a man acquainted with sorrow and grief. Mark invites us to remember this on this triumphal day.
So let us not get too triumphant. Let us remember that the one who is riding into Jerusalem bids us come and die. Die to ourselves. Die to our worst inclinations. To find life in the one who through the death he’s riding toward will bring life. We’ll talk about that next week a lot.
The one who is defying all expectations. This can be a scary thing. What might Jesus expect of us? What might Jesus demand of us? Who might he expect us to associate with? Who might he expect us to forgive? To love? What might he expect us to do? I ran away from expectations for some time. God is working it out though.
Jesus is in no way fulfilling any expectations of a Messiah here. No adoring crowds coming out of the city. No visit to the Temple to give thanks publicly for victory as had been done by returning victors in the past.
Just this final scene that happens in the dark. The crowd has melted away. Gone to wherever they’re going to spend the night presumably. It’s anticlimactic really. “Then he entered Jerusalem and 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 unspoken question is – “Are you willing to follow?” Are you willing to follow him to death, and in so doing to know life? May this be the desire of us all as we go from here today and enter Holy Week. May it be our heart's desire to complete the journey with this silent figure. To set our faces like flint – resolute. Ever more firmly resolving that this silent, lowly, man is our foundation. That through self-sacrificing, self-giving, self-denying love, humanity will be saved, the creation will be saved. This is where we are heading this week as we move toward Good Friday. God grant that these truths become ever more meaningful as we move through the week together.