Palm Sunday: Whose Kingdom, Christian?
Liturgy of the Palms; Sixth Sunday in Lent, Year B, April 9, 2006
[See also the 2008 Palm Sunday sermon Fear – the other Palm Sunday emotion]
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
It was Passover time in Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday – the beginning of Passover week. Thousands – perhaps millions – of people gathered for the great celebration.
And Passover was a commemoration of something – remember? The “Passing Over” of the Jews by the death angel, one thousand five hundred years earlier, on the night their ancestors were set free from Egypt.
My blogging friend Lawrence, from Discovering New Worlds, wrote it like this:
At this point in [Mark’s] narrative, we arrive with Jesus at Jerusalem, the scene of the great, final conflict that is about to take place. This is the denouement – the unleashing of the storm that has been building with startling intensity and pace ever since the outset of Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum (1:21ff). Those earlier conflicts were played out against the backdrop of Jerusalem and the temple, and we saw the fierce opposition Jesus provoked. The city extended its threatening hand deep into the margins of the Galilee. Now Jesus is bringing the fight to Jerusalem. It’s showdown time, and Mark signals its beginning with a suitably high-octane piece of street theatre: Jesus, a donkey, palm-waving crowds and a fevered outbreak of messianic political expectation.
Certain Psalms called Hallel (“praise”) psalms, are sung by the Jews people at festivals like Passover. One of them is Psalm 118. Turn there …[show how]Psalm 118
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
2 Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.”
3 Let the house of Aaron say: “His love endures forever.”
4 Let those who fear the LORD say: “His love endures forever.”
19 Open for me the gates of righteousness;
I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD
through which the righteous may enter.<br /> 21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. 22 The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
23 the LORD has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 O LORD, save us;
O LORD, grant us success.
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
From the house of the LORD we bless you.
27 The LORD is God,
and he has made his light shine upon us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will give you thanks;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.
29 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Watch for those words, now, a thousand years later, in …
The Triumphal Entry
1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ “
“At the Mount of Olives” – the site of the final showdown in the prophetic story, where YHWH appears and enemies are vanquished. On an unridden donkey: Animals used for religious (or, perhaps, royal) purposes were animals that had never been used for anything else – hence, “no one has ever ridden.” More about this in a minute.
4They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
10″Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”
11Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
A different language was spoken in New Testament times than was spoken a thousand years earlier: In the days of the Psalms: Hosanna means Save! You’ll see it in v. 25, above.
And look at 26-27 – branches are a part of the royal procession mentioned there.
And, by the way, look just ahead to Mark 12:10. Jesus is talking to the religious big shots in the temple here, who’ve come to put him in his place – and he quotes Psalm 118:22: The stone the builders rejected … Meaning him. Meaning them. Psalm 118 – that would have been on their minds already for the Passover – is all over this story.
Here’s John’s version of Palm Sunday:
John 12:12-16 The Triumphal Entry
12The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the King of Israel!” 14Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written,
15″Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”[c]
16At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.
See the footnote to v14-15? It points to a prophecy already 500 years old:
9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king [a] comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
So here they are, in Jerusalem for what? Which celebrates what? Liberation from Egypt, 1,500 years earlier. And they’re singing what? A prophetic Psalm, from a thousand years earlier. And Jesus is riding what? A donkey’s colt, prophesied five hundred years earlier. And what’s their political situation? Dominated again, this time by Rome.
Here’s Lawrence once more:
All the elements of the forthcoming climax to the story are in place. Jesus has arrived at Jerusalem for the final showdown. The city is the place where it will happen. Jesus will carry things out according to his programme. The temple is right at the centre of the deadly conflict that is about to ensue. Yet, like any good storyteller, Mark’s denouement is going to surprise us all. No one can possibly guess just how those various elements are going to combine.
Jesus is the Messiah and he is a king. It is not popular expectation – or even the Jewish scriptures – that will define these terms, however, but the way of the cross. Jesus is a revolutionary and a rebel. He is a liberator. Once again, it is the way of the cross that will define these terms. He is a rebel because the proclamation of the Good News challenges the political and religious powers of his day. In that sense, he stands firmly with the rural peasants and against the urban elite.
The religious purity system that shuts the poorest out is contrary to the character of the very God it supposes it worships. Like all false gods, it will be swept away. Rome proclaimed that Caesar is king and god. It, too, will be swept away – as will all powers ranged against the kingdom of God.
Ironically, unthinkably and unimaginably, the means by which God will accomplish this is through the very solution that the authorities employ to solve the “problem” of this upstart who stands at the gates and challenges their authority: the way of the cross.
But one more amazing thing: see Luke 19:41. In the midst of the shouts and the joy and the hope, the main character doesn’t seem to pick up the atmosphere:
41As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.
The folks in for the feast are shouting “Save” – meaning “Throw out the Romans and save our nation.”
The religious bigshots are saying “Shut up, will you!” meaning if the Romans hear about this they’ll come and wipe us all out, so “Shut up and save our nation.”
And the main character is crying his eyes out!
Some say palms are nationalistic symbols of Israel. If so, this procession is, to most of its participants, something of a patriotic display – as if each palm were a flag being waved during the sendoff parade of a general to a battle.
Surely, if ever a nation had cause for patriotism, theirs did – it was founded by God himself, after all (I am not suggesting the modern state of Israel was also, please note).
But Jesus didn’t come for a nation, he came to bring in the Kingdom of God. And he knows that by the end of the week, the crowd shouting “Save” will have disappeared, and the crowd saying “Shut up” will have conspired to have him tortured to death. For the next seven days, it will appear that Jesus has led them wrong, and that he is going down in defeat. Almost everyone will desert him – only the women who follow him will stay true to the end.
May God give us a loyalty to him that is deeper than causes, wiser than nationalism, and faithful even when it looks like we’re losing.
Tags: Palm+Sunday+sermon, Mark+11, John+12, religion and politics, prophecy, nationalism, patriotism, lectionary+sixth+Sunday+Lent+B, Monte Asbury