Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Shadow on the Palms: Mark 11:1-11

Sunday, March 29, 2015 | Lent
Palm Sunday
Sixth Sunday in Lent
Year B

The full manuscript can be found after the break. 

The gospel of Mark is the second and shortest of the four gospels. It’s one of the three gospels that seem to follow the same thread of the story of Jesus’ life: the synoptic gospels. Our passage today is one that may be so familiar it’s difficult to hear with fresh ears, but try to imagine that you’ve never heard it before

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he 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,
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. [2]

A Shadow on the Palms
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church

There’s a part of me that wanted to introduce the gospel reading this morning by saying, “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.” For many Christians, this is where we see the beginning of the end because we know the story. We’ve slogged through weeks of Lent and fasting and praying and going to extra church and finally we’re only a week from Easter! Finally we get to shout hosanna and wave our branches around!
This is the triumphant entry! This is when Jesus comes into Jerusalem for the very end of his life, but when we look back on it from 2000+ years later, we look back saying, “it’s almost here. . . Easter! It’s almost the part where he’s not in the grave and we know he’s the Messiah!”
This is such an important story, it’s in all four gospels. Many stories are in two or three of them because the gospel writers are thought to have been either followers of Jesus or friends or students of followers, so they had a lot in common. There is some almost direct overlap in some of them, especially Matthew and Mark, so many scholars agree that Matthew probably had the book of Mark sitting on his desk when he wrote his own gospel. But there aren’t many stories that we see in all four of the gospels. This is a rare gem of a story and with all the excitement going on, the foreshadowing, the clueing in to what Jesus has been up to and will be up to, all of this builds up to this moment that is clearly a climax of some sort.
Even in the Gospel of Mark, where we hear Jesus constantly telling people to keep what’s going on under wraps, we see this freight train of energy and publicity hit as Jesus enters Jerusalem. It was an exciting moment for any pilgrim to the temple, but especially for Jesus’ followers.
Looking back, we know that the gospels all ramp up the pace and crescendo at holy week. Palm Sunday is our indication that we’re nearly there. We’ve almost reached the explosion of excitement that comes with Easter. Palm Sunday is exciting!
            And Palm Sunday is ironic. . .
The first irony is that in rides the Messiah that the people have been told is coming and they don’t even realize it. The people shouted Hosanna! It looks like they got it, but we have sort of co-opted that word to be one of praise, and that’s not really what it used to mean. Hosanna meant “save us” traditionally, but had become a shout of acclamation or a greeting for any famous rabbi. It’s possible that the people shouting it were just excited in general. They might have been followers of Jesus. . . people who had heard him teach or seen him heal. . . perhaps even people who had been healed themselves. But they weren’t necessarily acknowledging him as more than just a good rabbi. Jesus rode in knowing what he was about to do for the sake of these people that still didn’t get it. They are so far from getting the point that they sort of wander off and don’t stick around for very long after waving a few branches around. And it’s not long before they turn around and demand Jesus’ execution. 5 days. That’s a fast turnaround.
The second irony is the animal on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem. First of all, most pilgrims would simply walk through the gates. Jesus and the disciples had walked all the way there. . . why the sudden need for a set of wheels. . . er. . . hooves? And if the Messiah was going to ride into Jerusalem majestically. . . why not something cool like a camel or a horse or something? A donkey?! Not even a donkey. . . a young donkey colt that hadn’t ever been ridden before. This wasn’t the sort of power the people expected from the messiah.
The fact that it had never been ridden made it especially good for sacred use, but the donkey also symbolized peaceful action. The only time royalty would have ridden into town on a donkey would have been as a sign of peaceful intentions.  Jesus came in with triumphant shouts, but not as the warrior the people expected. The one who would conquer sin and death. . . the one to whom one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. . . came in not as a warrior but as a harbinger and carrier of peace.
Did you notice that Jesus prepared for the entry himself? Sure, the disciples went and did the task of getting the donkey. On Thursday, they’ll get the room ready for the dinner. But on Friday, they still won’t entirely get what’s going on. Jesus knew this would be the last time he’d enter Jerusalem, but nobody else did. Jesus has tried to tell his disciples what’s going to happen, but they just aren’t hearing it. Back at the transfiguration, Peter wanted to build houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He’s in complete denial that this death thing Jesus is talking about will actually happen.
And the crowd understands Jesus even less. The crowd are followers, they are interested, but they aren’t disciples. They are fair-weather fans at best.
            We have a tendency to live in the same sort of irony we see in the Palm Sunday narrative. We wave our palm branches and rejoice on Sunday for Jesus, but as the week wears on, Sunday fades from our memory, or we forget that there is a shadow on Sunday’s palms. The shadow of Friday’s cross looms over our celebration.
There is a shadow on the palms that we are wise to remember. Not because we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become emotionally invested in the story of Palm Sunday. It’s OK to wave our palm branches and watch the children excitedly sing and shout. Celebration is important. That’s part of our story. We are wise to remember it because that shadow on the palms is the heart of the story. That shadow on the palms is why we are able to celebrate. Without the shadow of Good Friday falling on the Palms of the triumphant entry, they are just branches waved at another good teacher.
We will gather this week to acknowledge the shadow. On Thursday evening, we will remember the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples. Friday, we will remember his death. . . brutal and undeserved death at the hands of people who were so desperate to hold onto their power and the status quo that they didn’t realize that death was for their sake. And finally, on Easter Sunday we will gather to celebrate that while Jesus entered into a world that didn’t understand him, was put to death by people who refused to acknowledge him, that death ultimately could not hold him.
In your preparations this week for what is considered the highest holy day of our tradition, remember that we have a whole week of shadows to reflect on in order that we might fully understand the light of Easter. Let’s not skip straight from palms to the empty tomb, but remember the fullness of Jesus’ sacrifice for us all.

[1] Revised Common Lectionary. (2009). . Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mk 11:1–11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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