Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 29, 2015
Mark 11:1-11 Commentary
Comments and Observations
It’s something I’ve just never understood. Ever since I was a little kid I have wondered why the various Gospel texts on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem are so careful to include both Jesus’ detailed instructions on where to find a colt (and what to do with it once they located it) and then a nearly word-for-word repeat of all that once the disciples do as they are told. It does not make for gripping reading! It’s like having someone give you the recipe for chocolate chip cookies and then describe step-by-step someone following that recipe.
Is this supposed to be a small miracle as Jesus reveals his ability to see into the future or see what is up ahead of them in the village where the colt was tied up? If so, it doesn’t exactly rank up there with walking on water of raising the dead. If you are the Son of God, this is more of a parlor trick than some grand miracle. Or is this some hint that Jesus had actually pre-arranged all this in a very earthly manner, replete with some encoded secret password so the owners will know it’s OK to let some strangers take off with their animal? And if so, is this supposed to show how deliberate Jesus is being about marching toward his own death in Jerusalem? Or is it supposed to show us both that Jesus had pre-arranged all this and that he was purposely playing into Old Testament prophecy for the arrival of the Davidic King in the Holy City?
Take your pick—each has about as much going for it as the next. But in no case do I find a lot of inspiration in this little sub-scene of fetching the colt. And anyway, if Jesus was so intent on playing into long-expected Old Testament prophecies, why does he at the same time so manifestly not play into what the people were expecting?
In Luke’s gospel Jesus breaks out into tears at the high point of the entry parade, essentially ruining the moment. And here in Mark’s gospel, Jesus no sooner enters the city and he high-tails it back out seeing as it was getting late. And as I point out in my sermon “The Indignant Re-Entry,” when Jesus comes back into the city the next day, he does so without fanfare but he does come in with fire as he curses a fig tree and cleans out the Temple courts. But why is there way more drama the following day in Mark 11 than on the day we commemorate on Palm/Passion Sunday?
As you can see, I have far more questions about this story than answers! But sometimes questioning the familiar opens up an opportunity to approach it with fresh eyes. The truth of what we call Palm Sunday is that this is not a simple celebration that happened long ago to give latter-day Christians a chance to whoop it up with some palm fronds every year a week before Easter.
Instead this is a story fraught with some mystery.
Did the disciples wonder what was going on in what Jesus told them to do—and then again when things played out exactly the way Jesus told them it would? Did they suspect Jesus was playing into Old Testament anticipations?
And if they did, what did they make of that? After all, Mark is the one gospel account that makes the most out of the “Messianic Secret.” In Mark the disciples have witnessed Jesus hushing and shushing people for the longest time anytime anyone came remotely close to a public identification of him as the Christ. This had to have been confusing for them. So did what looked like a public identification of himself as the Messiah confuse them still more or make them really, really excited to finally be moving forward toward the political victory they were hoping God’s Messiah would accomplish?
You see, it’s easy when we preach on Palm Sunday and when we sing about it in church to make the whole story look like a clear-eyed, straightforward set of events. It’s too easy to picture the disciples as moving through all this with heads-held-high confidence and swagger, to treat Palm Sunday as a big bright spot in the midst of the Lenten darkness and ahead of the darkness of Holy Week, which this Sunday kicks off each year, of course.
But think about it: the world—indeed, the cosmos, it is not too grand a thing to allege—was teetering on the brink of the most momentous event since the Big Bang. The very Son of God was about to be handed over, betrayed, abused, murdered. There was, in a sense, going to be a death in God within days. The universe was about to turn the corner from endless darkness back toward the Light that just is God (into that Light that the darkness cannot overcome). What all was at stake cannot even be overstated or overestimated. The very hosts of heaven—and maybe of hell for all we know—were quite literally holding their breath to see this play out.
So would we come to a fresher appreciation of this story if we could picture the disciples as being a little confused, too, as maybe biting their fingernails now and then in wonderment as to what all was going on (and in pondering why the whole world just seemed to be so tense)?
Think of a time when you were anticipating something big. And think of a time when just how that big thing was going to go was by no means 100% clear to you or certain. Maybe you were planning to pop the question and ask someone to marry you. Maybe you were facing a major interview, a big exam, or were slated to give a speech that could change your life (if it went well). And now remember the knot in the pit of your stomach that you endured for many days in advance of that event. Remember how tense you felt, how jumpy you were, how now and then someone would catch you staring off into space with a couple fingers held up over your lips as you got totally lost in thought.
You know the feeling.
And now transfer all of that onto the canvas of this story. See that kind of nervous anxiety and wondering in Jesus, in the disciples, in the whole cosmos, for heaven’s sake. What Palm/Passion Sunday celebrates and observes is not simple, it is not neat, tidy, or straightforward. The air fairly crackles with electricity as the characters in his grand drama sense that something big is up. Maybe if we can pick up on those aspects of this story, we will also pick up on what makes Holy Week so momentous, so amazing, so jaw-droppingly splendid.
And maybe then we can look back at that palm branch in our hands, put a couple fingers to our trembling lips, and just wonder, wonder, wonder what this all must mean.
Although Psalm 118 is seldom listed as anyone’s “favorite psalm” (it’s pretty tough to edge out the likes of Psalm 23 and Psalm 150, after all), nevertheless Psalm 118 is the most oft-quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament. No other passage gets as much play time in the gospels or epistles than Psalm 118. A quote from this same psalm is tucked into Mark 11 as well when in verse 9 the people shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” which appears to be a quote lifted from Psalm 118:24-25. But here’s the funny or ironic thing: the part of Psalm 118 that most of us know about—and that gets quoted the most in the New Testament—comes from a few verses prior to that Hosanna verse where the psalmist talks about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the head of the corner after all. We know that the New Testament writers routinely applied that rejected-stone image to Jesus. So how curious that Mark is careful to have the people quoting Psalm 118 in Mark 11:9. The people are lauding and celebrating Jesus and trying to make him into the kind of hero they want him to be. But by invoking Psalm 118, there is more than a subtle hint here that these same people will be rejecting this same Jesus in pretty short order. What’s more, it will be that rejection—and not the “triumphal entry” reception—that will bring salvation to the world and make Jesus the Cornerstone for a whole new reality.
In John Grisham’s novel, The Firm, an exceptionally gifted young man fresh out of law school lands a dream job with one of the most respected law firms in the country. The partners in this firm greet him royally, wining and dining him, buying a house for him and his young wife, lavishing him with accolades and praise. It was a glorious start to his law career! But within months it becomes clear that most of those partners are criminals with connections to organized crime. The firm itself hired thugs to keep the partners in line and the cozy house they had bought for the young couple turned out to be loaded with hidden microphones that had recorded all their private conversations, lovemaking . . . everything.
Given how things turned out, it’s hard to imagine that in later years this man or his wife would nonetheless look back fondly on those early heady days when the firm first hired him! It did not turn out at all well and so there would be nothing good to look back on.
So also with Palm Sunday: there are so many conflicting angles to all this. In fact, even this very story ends on an anticlimactic note. Jesus enters the temple but by then the party had already stopped. There was no royal welcome for Jesus at the house of God and so, after peering around at this and that for a little while, Jesus and the twelve disciples silently slip back out of Jerusalem with no fanfare whatsoever. The next morning Jesus re-enters the city but this time not only does no one greet him joyfully, Jesus himself tears into the place with a full head of steam, driving out money changers from the temple and just generally behaving in ways that make a lot of folks hopping mad at him.
The Palm Sunday party was over almost as soon as it began. So is it right to look back fondly on this day? Given what happened in subsequent days, isn’t celebrating Palm Sunday a little like celebrating the anniversary of an abusive marriage that ended in divorce? Even if a person did note the anniversary of a failed marriage, wouldn’t the memory of that bring regret rather than joy, a disappointed frown rather than a fond smile?
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