The ending just doesn’t seem right.
And I am not talking about the movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” No. I am talking about our Gospel lesson today from Mark chapter 11. We have returned once more to walking through the Gospel of Mark, and our first day back just happens to be the text that is usually read on Palm Sunday–Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In all my years preaching on this text, I have generally overlooked verse 11. I have focused most of my attention on all the rig-a-ma-roe that takes place when Jesus enters into the city. It’s a grand parade! It’s a note of triumph! There is singing and cloak spreading and palm branch waving. It is joyous and uplifting as Jesus enters into Jerusalem, but it ends abruptly, and, might I add, rather unsatisfactorily–at least to our taste.
It’s kind of like the way Christmas is now for many people. Maybe you have had this experience at some point and time. You go through all of the build up for the holiday: shopping, getting ready for the meal; wrapping presents; cooking, cleaning, decorating; putting tons of time and energy into it...Christmas Day finally arrives, and what happens? In less than 10 minutes, the kids have all the gifts unwrapped and they run off to play with their toys. You slave for hours cooking dinner, and it is demolished and eaten in less than 15 minutes. With full bellies, the adults all find their most comfortable spot in the house and doze off. The television is blaring. Kids are off making a bunch of noise. There are a boat load of dishes in the kitchen, and someone has to clean it all up. And you think to yourself, is this what it’s all about? Is this what I spent all that time and effort and worry for? There is a great sense of let-down as all that time, effort, and energy suddenly come crashing down. If you don’t know that feeling in regards to Christmas, I bet you know it regarding something else. All the grandeur ends in a whimper.
That’s what happens when Jesus enters into Jerusalem. Those of you who grew up in the church know the story. You know the actions of the day. Thousands upon thousands of Jewish pilgrims are headed to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. It is the holiest of holidays for the Jews. This celebration was mandated by God Himself to commemorate the saving of the Jewish people from slavery to the Egyptians.
In Exodus Chapter 12 God said these words to the people:
14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. 15Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. 16On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. 17You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance.
This day; this celebration of Passover was a huge deal for the Jewish people. It symbolized freedom. It symbolized deliverance. It symbolized the removal of oppression and tyranny. It offered them hope for the future when God would once again make Himself known to the world and deliver His people.
Of course, at this time, that meant the Romans who occupied Israel. There was great hope; there was great expectation that God would indeed deliver them once more, and on this day, that hope rested upon one man: Jesus of Nazareth.
Oh, they had heard the stories about Jesus’ healing. They had heard the stories of His miraculous raising of people from the dead. They had heard of His feeding of the multitudes. They had heard about His preaching and proclaiming of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. They knew of His power, and now...now He was coming to Jerusalem–the center of power and authority for Rome’s occupation and the center of power and authority for Jewish religion and worship. How would things transpire? What kind of statement would be made?
Jesus sets the tone by sending two of His disciples into town to procure a donkey “that has never been ridden.” The commentaries note explicitly two important things: 1) an animal that has never been ridden is a special animal. Such animals were generally seen as being suitable for sacred purposes. 2) Jesus, and the people, know the prophesy from Zechariah chapter 9,
“9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”
This text was about the promised Messiah. The people knew it. Jesus knew it. A donkey was procured. The procession began. And people lined the streets. They took off their outer robes and put them in front of Jesus. They waved leafy branches. They shouted out, “Hosanna.” Now, please know that the original Aramaic word Hosanna! literally means, “Save us now!” These words; these actions by the crowd had great significance! This was not simply a spontaneous, happy gathering celebrating a person who was much admired. No. It goes much, much deeper.
Hear the words of scholar and theologian N.T. Wright:
You don’t spread cloaks on the road–especially in the dusty, stony Middle East!–for a friend, or even a respected senior member of your family. You do it for royalty. And you don’t cut branches off trees, or foliage from the fields, to wave in the streets just because you feel somewhat elated; you do it because you are welcoming a king. Two hundred years before, Judas Maccabaeus defeated the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, entered Jerusalem and cleansed and rebuilt the Temple–and the people waved ivy and palm branches as they sang hymns of praise. The point Mark wants to make, however, is clear. From chapter 8 onwards the disciples have believed that Jesus is the true and rightful King of the Jews, on his way to the capital city to be hailed as such. This is the moment of his royal reception...[And] In the middle of the chant they have inserted the dangerous prayer: Welcome to the kingdom of our father David!
So, I hope you see. This entry into Jerusalem is a direct confrontation of the powers that be. It is a direct confrontation of the earthly kingdom of Rome. It is a direct confrontation of the religious order. It is a direct confrontation of all of the principalities and powers. The crowd is in a frenzy. Everyone is worked up. Expectations are high. Jesus is announcing Himself as the one who comes in the name of the Lord! He is the one ushering in God’s Kingdom!
And how does it end? Jesus walks into the outer courtyard of the Temple. He looks around. He checks His watch–well, no, they didn’t have watches back then, but the language leads us to say almost the same thing. He checks the time, sees that it is late, and goes camping. That’s how it ends. All the pomp. All the circumstance. All the uproar. Poof! Gone.
Why? It seems so unsatisfactory. It seems like such a let down. It seems so contrary to the way we would write the story.
But this is not our story. It’s God’s story. It’s God’s story of redemption. It was deeply held that when the Messiah returned, he would do two things: He would cleanse the temple and set the religious authorities right and he would liberate the people from their oppressors. In doing so, he would make Israel, the chosen nation of God great once more. They would be a power to be reckoned with. All the nations of the world would once again tremble at the power of the God of Israel. That was the expectation, but the reality became much different. The true Messiah; the true Son of God had His sights set on a different temple and a different throne.
First, let’s talk about the temple that Jesus truly has his sights set on. It is not a temple built with hands. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 3, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” This is a far cry from the Jewish understanding of where God was located. The Jews believed that God dwelt within the temple at Jerusalem in the holy of holies. They believed this was the most sacred place on earth. Jesus looked at that temple. He looked toward that holy place, and He walked away. He would return at a later date, but He would come to show the temple for what it truly was: a den of thieves. Jesus was casing the joint. He was making careful observations for He knew what He was here to reveal. He knew He was here to reveal to the world the true nature of God’s love and the true nature of our oppression.
For you see, there is a reason we are oppressed by worldly powers. There is a reason we feel oppressed by all the things that are going on in society. There is a reason we feel stressed out and burned out and at our wits end. There is a reason we feel out of control. We feel such oppression and are oppressed because the human heart is deeply selfish. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It can be good at times, but the reason there is so much pain and suffering in the world; the reason the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; the reason there is hunger and thirst; the reason people kill one another with guns and knives; the reason people steal and manipulate the system is the desire for power and prestige and security. The reason is fear that we won’t have enough or that someone will take what we have. At the center of our heart is a deep longing for security and well being, and we will do most anything to satisfy that longing.
And Jesus stands at the courtyard of our hearts casing the joint. He stands there looking at what He could possibly do to change our hearts. He stands there wondering if there is a possibility of change. How can a heart be changed?
The Roman Empire sought to keep people in line and sought to keep the peace by means of fear. If you didn’t pay your taxes; if you caused problems; if you tried anything that looked seditious, you were arrested, tried, and oftentimes executed. Troublemakers were not tolerated. People were publicly humiliated, killed, and crucified to send a message: step out of line, and this is what will happen to you.
The Jews saw these acts of power and believed that the Messiah would bring about God’s power. Wielding the authority of heaven would be something to be even more fearful of! When God’s might and God’s wrath were unleashed, then all would tremble at the power of Israel’s God! When the Messiah ascended the throne, things would drastically change. There would be peace because everyone would be terrified of what would happen if God were crossed. Of course, the Messiah would probably be seen as quite the tyrant–as would God. And would this really change a heart? Do you truly love a tyrant?
Jesus walked away from such expectations. There had to be another way. There had to be a way to ascend to the throne without fear. There had to be another way of cleansing the temple of our hearts without breaking and crushing them in terror.
The answer was the cross.
For even though Jesus could have ascended into that throne; even though He was worthy to sit on that throne. Even though He had obeyed all of God’s commands and observed God’s will perfectly; He chose to face utter rejection not only by the people, but from God the Father. He chose to face the wrath of not only the people for failing to live up to their expectations, but He chose to face the wrath of God so that those very people could be saved. He chose to give up the throne so that He could dwell within your heart. How so?
Most folks, when they hear the story of Jesus admire Him. I mean it. Even some of the most secular folks appreciate many of Jesus’ teachings. They love it when He talks about peace and justice. They love it when He talks about loving even your enemies. Other folks love Jesus when they hear that He can give them peace, joy, happiness, and fulfillment. They desperately want those things, and go to church hoping to get them. There are others who have been promised wealth and health and strong relationships because of a relationship with Jesus. They admire Jesus for what He can give to them. In all of these ways, people come to Jesus with great expectations. They cheer Him on. They shout, “Save us now!” But then Jesus confronts them with more. He doesn’t act like they think He should act. He doesn’t give them what they think they deserve. You see, Jesus sees through our facades. He knows that oftentimes we want the things He can give us; we don’t necessarily want Him. We want the goods, but we don’t want to really commit to Him. We love what Jesus can give us, but we don’t really love Him.
If we cherish things above our relationship with God, we commit idolatry. We commit sin. If our desires supersede God’s desires, we are acting out of selfishness, and that selfishness ends up causing great pain. We are all guilty of this. We deserve condemnation, but instead of allowing God to bring such condemnation upon us; Jesus takes it upon Himself. Jesus faces God’s wrath for us. Jesus takes our place because He loves us. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
It’s unexpected. It’s a different ending to the story. It’s not what we are used to. For every other religion and philosophy says, “Do this and God will bless you. Do this, and God will love you.” Christianity says, “Jesus has already done this; Jesus has already blessed you; Jesus has already loved you; now do this.” It is that love which truly changes a heart. Has it moved yours? Amen.