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"Palm Sunday"

The day has arrived! Jesus has arrived… in Jerusalem! Today is Palm Sunday, the day of the Great Green Parade… the start of “Holy Week”. Later this afternoon (if you come back at 5:00 for our Fellowship Dinner and Readers’ Theater), you will hear the whole of Mark’s Gospel, from beginning to end. The whole story, in context.

What we see in this morning’s text is Jesus and his disciples finally arriving at their destination… ready to confront their destiny. The story has been circling around Jerusalem from the beginning, which is not surprising since (in Jewish thought) Jerusalem was the center of the world. The tug of the Holy City of David has been felt throughout Mark’s Gospel.

Early on, scribes from Jerusalem went up to Galilee to question Jesus. Pharisees and Teachers of the Law from Judea were on hand, it seems, at every stop along the road… as Jesus preached in the villages, and as he healed people and fed the crowds by the sea.

The first complaint from the scribes had taken place when Jesus healed a paralyzed man, who had been let down on a pallet in the middle of a crowded house. Because Jesus told the man that his sins were “forgiven”, the scribes were upset. “It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone!?” (Mark 2:7)

Their next complaint was that Jesus was eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. (Mark 2:16)

Yes, scribes and Pharisees representing Jerusalem have been circling around Jesus like a school of sharks since the very start of his ministry… joining forces (first) with King Herod’s people, in hopes of destroying Jesus’ movement. Mark tells us that scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying that Jesus was “possessed by Be-elzebul” and that it was “by the prince of demons, he casts out demons.” (Mark 3:22)

Mark then tells us that the Pharisees, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, saw that Jesus’ disciples ate with unwashed hands. To them it was not just a matter of poor hygiene, but of ritual defilement! They had not “purified” themselves, in accordance with “the tradition of the elders”! (Mark 7:1-5)

By now, Jesus has just about “had it” with these negative, nay-sayers from the Capitol City, with their picky, petty, rule-keeping ways. He said to them: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites! “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are very far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ You leave the commandments of God and hold fast to the traditions of men.” (Mark 7:6-8)

Yes, the teachers of the law in Jerusalem – probably some of the best scribes and Pharisees in all of Judea – were upset with Jesus.

Mark tells us that the Pharisees came and began to argue with Jesus, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. (Mark 8:11) So Jesus cautioned his disciples, saying: “Take heed. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” (Mark 8:15) Just one pinch of their perspective -- their divisive & argumentative point of view, their legalism and insistence on public piety -- will spread like yeast in dough until your whole religious viewpoint will be adversarial.

It is at this point Jesus decides it’s time to confront Jerusalem.

Mark tells us that Jesus began to teach his disciples that he must suffer many things -- to include being rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes in Jerusalem -- and be killed… and after three days, rise again. Jesus said this plainly! (Mark 8:31)

The first time Jesus began to point them toward Jerusalem -- and the stiff opposition they would encounter there -- Peter refused to believe it. He even rebuked Jesus for thinking that things would go badly for them in the Capitol City. (Mark 8:32) The second time Jesus told them that he would be “delivered into the hands of men, who would kill him”, Mark tells us the disciples did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him. (Mark 9:32)

In Chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus leaves Galilee and goes into the region of Judea, beyond the Jordan River, down in the Valley near Jericho. Again the Pharisees come to Jesus in order to test him, this time on matters of marriage & divorce. They are relentless… but Jesus continues on his way. Mark tells us that they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. (Mark 10:32)

For a third time, Jesus tells his disciples to get ready for what was going to happen to him, saying: “Behold. We are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles (the Romans); and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him… and after three days, he will rise.” (Mark 10:33-34) Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem -- to “beard the lion” in its den (so to speak) -- and he was not about to turn back, despite what he knew was ahead on the horizon.

They came to Jericho, at the base of the mountains upon which Jerusalem stood… where Jesus healed Bartimaeus (a blind beggar), who immediately followed Jesus and joined his disciples on the way.

Then, as they drew near to Jerusalem (to Bethphage & Bethany on the Mount of Olives), Jesus sent two of his disciples into the village to get a colt… And that’s where we picked up the story as Leigh Copeland read for us this morning. The Palm Sunday parade!

The story (as I said) had been circling around Jerusalem from the beginning, and now Jesus has arrived. He enters the city for the first time. By now, the reader of Mark’s Gospel knows that this City – both in its Temple (with the priests, and teachers and scribes who look to it for guidance in all things “Jewish”) together with the Palace (King Herod’s party) -- have been the origin and source of all the opposition Jesus has encountered. Jesus has pointed three times to the brutal encounter that’s about to happen, so things are tense!

We who know Jesus’ story know that this is the place where Jesus will meet his death! But it is also the place where Jesus meets enthusiastic support. A cheering crowd meets Jesus as he enters. The church has traditionally referred to this day as the “Triumphal” Entry. It’s like a royal “coronation”… or an “inaugural” parade.

An enthusiastic crowd greets Jesus and his followers as they arrive, here, at the very center of Jewish hope and history, especially since the Passover celebration was approaching! Huge crowds were expected for the festival. (!) But this is nothing new for Jesus. After all, he has drawn huge crowds from the very beginning… back in Capernaum! He spent all night healing people at Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, and then the same happened in every village thereafter. Huge crowds of 4,000 and 5,000 people at a time were clamoring for Jesus; and he not only taught them, and healed them, he fed them!

Everywhere Jesus went, crowds have followed! They have crushed together inside houses, and raced ahead to meet Jesus. Now they seem to have crystallized around Jesus on the edge of Jerusalem, at the Mount of Olives, calling for God to “save them”!

It strikes me that up to this point, the “crowd” has always been a positive, supportive group, who respond to Jesus with faith & joy! Whereas, it has been individuals who have responded negatively. (!) In Mark’s Gospel, up until now -- and especially now, in the Palm Sunday parade! -- “the crowd” has had high hopes for Jesus.

“Hosanna!” means, in Hebrew: “God save us!” Hosanna! “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” is right out of Psalm 118 (verse 26). “Blessed is the Kingdom of our father David that is coming!” is clearly a claim of royal lineage & rulership. “Hosanna, in the highest!” The City is a-buzz with expectations for Jesus! Maybe he will start something; maybe even claim the throne!

I’m sure that Jesus’ disciples prefer the “acclamation of the crowd” -- in all of its positive energy -- in contrast to the negative warnings from Jesus about how badly they will be treated here. Up until this point, the crowd has always been part of Jesus’ strength… and his safety, and his cheering section. Palm Sunday captures that.

But there is something coming this week – this Holy Week – which will turn the crowd against Jesus. It is a crowd that will come with swords and clubs to arrest him in Gethsemane (Mark 14:43). It is the crowd that gets “stirred up” against Jesus (Mark 15:11) so that Barabbas was released instead.

Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” And the crowd cried out, “Crucify him!” And Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” And Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas; and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. (Mark 15:12-15)

The crowd proves fickle in the final act. They turn against Jesus.

Maybe that’s one lesson we can learn from today’s text: don’t expect your “supporters” to always have your back. The crowd can turn against someone that they have formerly held in high regard. We see it all the time. Celebrities are famous for a while, then they are forgotten. Politicians are elected, and then their base evaporates. Millionaires are made by innovative hard-work and gaining market-share; and then the stock value drops and they are bankrupt again. The crowd “loves ya, and then they leaves ya!” Don’t let the applause go to your head. Don’t think the “victory parade” will last.

Jesus does not let the high expectations of the crowd cloud his vision of what’s important in God’s eyes -- of what’s really happening behind the scenes -- of what he must do to save the world: Hosanna.

What’s happening behind the scenes -- where God’s ways and God’s will is to be done -- is not swayed by the “fickle” crowd – neither tempted to arrogant pride and a grab for power because of the cheering parade (like a candidate’s pep-rally), nor to be put off-track of what must be done because of the desire to do something in public to prove oneself to the crowd. No, Jesus enters Jerusalem to do God’s work God’s way, and neither the cheering of the crowd nor their condemnation will turn him away from the path he’s on.

With all the build-up of excitement, and the clamoring crowd, we might expect something big to happen next… Right? Well, here’s how Mark describes what happens next: As he entered Jerusalem,

and went into the Temple; and when he had looked round at everything… as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. (Mark 11:11) That’s it?

It’s like a fire-cracker that’s a “dud”. An unveiling of… (ta-da!)… nothing! Jesus goes into the Temple, looks around, and (since it is already late) he leaves and takes the 12 with him, back to Bethany.(!) Maybe he returns the colt to its owner…I dunno. He goes to bed. (?)

If this surprised you, just imagine what a let-down it must have been for the folks in the Palm Sunday parade! Everything has come to a head -- the Jesus revolution is on the march -- the time is now!

But Jesus does not get with the program! He looks around and then he goes away. That’s not what the folks who put the parade together expected! The moment has passed, and Jesus has done nothing!

I can imagine it won’t take much to turn this disappointed group of king-makers to look elsewhere for a hero – maybe a “Barabbas”-type activist, a rebel leader who had committed murder in the insurrection. Yes, give us Barabbas -- who has put his life on the line for the revolt against Rome & Herod; he’s got blood on his hands! He thinks and acts like we do; he doesn’t put up with stuff – he acts! For a Savior, a Messiah, Jesus was such a disappointment.

I think Jesus knew what he was doing, as he approached Jerusalem that day. Because he knew the hard road that was ahead of him in this Holy Week, he did not let the crowd blow his arrival up into something that would exalt him to royalty or even divine status.

If the crowd honestly saw in Jesus the representative of the return of King David’s dominion, as the true monarch of Jerusalem – not Caesar, not Pontius Pilate, not King Herod – wouldn’t they follow him through the rest of the story? How is it possible that the crowd would disappear right after he arrives in town?

Maybe they were putting on a false front, hoping to provoke something in public…

Maybe to get a rise out of the Romans? To stir up some street action? It’s the Passover season, after all: the annual reminder of the Exodus… when Moses set the oppressed children of Israel free!

There should be fireworks (like our American 4th of July) to celebrate the Jews being freed from their slavery. Rebellion, revolution, liberty!

Or, maybe the Jerusalem crowd staged this “re-enactment” of Solomon’s coronation parade – with Jesus in the starring role, riding down the Mount of Olives on a donkey colt, swaying palm branches in the air while singing Psalm 118: Hosanna – not because they believed it, but as a joke… to deride and mock Jesus.

Here comes this country bumpkin from Up North, from Galilee, who thought he was something special; some great teacher, who never went to our school, who never got credentialed, who never held Judea in high regard, who broke our purity code and our Sabbath laws. Oh, yeah, here comes the “king of the Jews!” This Jesus, from Nazareth! (No good thing ever came from Nazareth!)

If the crowd’s acclamation of Jesus as “the one who is coming” is a joke told at his expense, that would explain their disappearance. Having had their fun at the expense of this tourist, they went on with their lives. … And if that’s the case, it also foreshadows the taunting and mocking of Jesus as the “King of the Jews” and the Messiah of Israel, which haunt the crucifixion scene coming in just a few days.

I don’t want to leave the Palm Sunday story on so low a note. After all, this is the day of the Great Green Parade, where people in churches everywhere wave branches and sing happy songs! We call Jesus our King, and usher him into the Temple as our high priest!

But be aware: there’s more going on here than meets the eye! If you find yourself in the cheering crowd, don’t forget who you are, and whose you are… lest we let Jesus down in the end, as they did.

This is the start of Holy Week – a time of crisis and discernment. May God help keep you true to what you know, and may God give you the courage to see things through to the end, as Jesus did…

May God bless you.


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