This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 25th March 2018, which was Palm Sunday and also the Feast of the Annunciation.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 11:1-11
Today is Palm Sunday, I’m sure you already knew that without my having to tell you. I wonder however, did you know today is also the day of the Feast of the Annunciation, the day upon which we celebrate the messenger Gabriel and his news to Mary that she has become pregnant by God? Think about it, it’s nine months today until Christmas day. Have you heard of that idea before? March 25th, yeah? That would be why we’ve just read from Isaiah 7 and sung “O come, O come Emmanuel”, yeah? Clever.
Well if you did know all of that, well done, but did you also know the tradition that the actual Good Friday upon which Jesus died was March 25th? The theory goes that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception; thereby completing the cycle of God the Son’s incarnation all rather neatly. I must admit that I am radically unconvinced by this theory, for many reasons, but it is a rather nice puzzle even if it is all conjecture. And hey, “Christ was born for thi-is, Christ was born for this” as we good Christians all rejoiced back in December.
Mark tells us that Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Passover festival; they have come to participate in one of the three great pilgrimage festivals in Judaism. In John’s gospel Jesus comes and goes from Jerusalem quite a bit over his three years of ministry, but Mark (and Matthew and Luke who base their gospels on Mark’s) has Jesus coming to Jerusalem only one time, this time, and have Jesus ministering for less than a year. So, this event is a big deal for Mark, and this passage describes the day that the Messiah enters the city for the first time. Now, since it was expected of Jews from around the world that they would make their way to Jerusalem for the festival Jesus had probably been to Jerusalem before. Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents brought him several times when he was a boy, to have him dedicated to God as a newborn firstborn, and again when he was a twelve-year-old. So, Jesus has been before, but today he is coming as Messiah, not as a pilgrim.
Passover was a time of celebrating the special identity of the Jewish religion and the Israelite people; of the three big festivals Passover was the biggest and it was a time of heightened awareness of nationalism and the pride that there was in being Jewish. As Australians we might imagine Anzac Day with an added tradition that everyone gathers in Canberra for the dawn service at the War Memorial, and then moves across to the lawns of Parliament House for a massive barbeque breakfast. Okay, that’s big, and it’s sacred. However, unlike Canberra today Jerusalem in the first century took a bit of getting to. Without aircraft, buses or cars pilgrims in Jesus’ time would have walked for days or even weeks to reach the city. They would have travelled in groups with friends, neighbours and families walking and working together to entertain and protect each other. Along the way the pilgrims would have stayed in designated campsites or hostels where they would have met up with other groups of pilgrims to eat and sleep together but also pray, sing and tell stories as well. By the time they approached Jerusalem there would have been a mounting excitement and a buzz of expectation. Songs like Psalm 118 which was read this morning, and other “songs of ascent”, would have been sung along the road and then would have formed part of the worship during the festival itself. Happy and to be envied is the one who comes in the name of the LORD they sing to one another, reminding each other that this psalm had been composed as a victory hymn in celebration of a great triumph. It’s “all hail the great, returning, and all conquering king” and all that. This is a song of deliverance and thanksgiving: think VE Day or a parade of gold medallists. The roads to Jerusalem in the days before Passover were an exciting place to be and Jesus on his donkey is arriving right in the middle of it all.
And that is part of the problem: Jesus is coming on a mission of peace and reconciliation, riding a colt and not a stallion, but the crowds are shouting for Jewish victory. The first part of Psalm 118:24, which was read to us as this is the day The LORD has made can also be translated this is the day on which The LORD takes action: the pilgrims have reached Jerusalem and are ready to kick some Roman heads. In a similar vein Hosanna means “save us” and was a general cry of praise, but in the heightened tension of the festival it also came to mean “get on with saving us (and kick the Romans back into Italy)”.
So, I wonder whether in throwing down their cloaks and taking up the palm fronds the crowds acted spontaneously; already hyped up by being so near to Jerusalem did they see Jesus and go mental? Did the Jerusalemites, swept up in the arrival of so many excited tourists to their city allow themselves to be swept along in the mob? There may have been mixed emotions in the crowd, everyone using the same words but with very different agendas. Some were crying out in ecstatic praise at reaching their destination at Jerusalem and the temple courts themselves. Others were no doubt happy to see that nice healing-working prophet from Galilee. Others still were crying out to the long-awaited Messiah with a demand for action, hopeful that Jesus might just be that Messiah. Regardless of the intricacies, everyone was saying “God, continue saving us and make us victorious!” But just like the crowds around Jesus we must take care to enter the celebration yet remain focussed on the meaning of the festival. The message of Palm Sunday and the lead in to Holy Week may well be don’t get swept along in all the hype or you’ll miss Jesus’ point!
In Psalm 118:22 we read that the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This wording was also used by Jesus (Matthew 21:42) to describe himself, and by Paul (Ephesians 2:20) to describe Jesus. At this point in the story it is not Jesus who has been rejected by the Jewish leaders so much as what he represents. Jesus is the cornerstone and foundation of Christianity, but more than the man or his teaching it is Jesus’ act of submission and trust to the point of deep humiliation and suffering that our hope is based on. Yes, celebrate the man who is king but look closer at what is right in front of you: see what everyone else has missed. The saviour king is riding a foal amongst the rabble, rather than a charger at the head of a parade, or a cloud at the head of the host of angels. God is not who you think God is and the messiah was never intended to come as a new David conquering the Jebusites, or another Judas Maccabaeus recovering Jerusalem from the Seleucids. It was never ever God’s intention that Jesus would overthrow the Roman colonial governors.
Mark helps us out because he is more interested in presenting the humility and the lowliness of Jesus than the triumphalism of the crowd. This is where we too must look. For Mark this is not a triumphal entry at all, see how he tells the story. After arriving in the city amongst the pilgrims Jesus takes a quick look at the temple, then turns right around and leaves Jerusalem for the night. He doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t address the crowd, he doesn’t speak to anyone, and he doesn’t even stay in the city. Is this a deliberate anticlimax? Mark’s story of the Sunday before Easter is a story of meekness and majesty, humiliation and vindication. All four words describe Jesus at various points across the day.
The instruction to us, as we look to this coming week towards Thursday, Friday and Sunday, is that grace, mercy, and hope are Jesus’ meaning. Jesus is Lord and King; and that is why he alone can offer grace, mercy and hope. This week our focus needs to be on Jesus as “the least of these”, the meek one who allowed himself to be arrested and murdered by people and ideas far weaker than himself so that his glory, and his revelation of God as the God of all, could be displayed in the strongest way possible. Christians alone of all religious people have a God who is prepared to die for them at their own hands. On this Palm Sunday and Annunciation day I suggest that we dishonour God when we get all triumphal and energetic when God’s own nature is to be humble and anonymous. Or, as Paul said, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in Heaven and on Earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
That’s what we want isn’t it, that Jesus would be worshipped and adored? So, let’s have the mind of Christ and see him glorified.