Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 5, 2009, Mark 11:1-11

Un-ironic Palms


You notice different things when you read the bible.  Last year I noticed that half of the story that we call the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is about the donkey colt.  This year I noticed the cloaks.  Some people put their cloaks on the donkey, others laid them on the road like a red carpet.  There must have be a lot of cloak-removal that day.  The thing that made me notice the cloaks is that I was reading the gospel of Mark for context, and realized that the last thing Jesus does before that entry-ride is heal the blind man named Bartimaeus.   Mark’s gospel includes the minor detail that when Jesus called Bartimaeus, he jumped up and left his cloak behind.  Lots of cloaks were hitting the ground that day.

It is pretty easy to see that the emotion that drives all these cloak-removals; it is   sheer exuberance.  Bartimaeus, springs to his feet, overjoyed that Jesus will hear his request to regain his sight; so too, the people on the parade route were similarly exuberant that Jesus had come.

Both scenes are linked by expectation as well: it was not just that something was  happening when the cloaks came off; something was about to happen; Jesus was about to do something.  He did indeed for Bartimaeus; Jesus restored the blind man’s sight.  That expectation was met. On the other hand, after the big parade Jesus goes to the temple, looks around, notices his watch; it is late, he leaves.  Whatever the expectation that made people willing to carpet the donkey’s path with their cloaks, I bet it was for something more than that.  I guess you could say that, at least for the moment, their expectations were un-met.  Too bad for the cloaks.

One crowd?  Maybe not
I also noticed something else this time as I read the gospels; many times I have heard that the irony of this parade is that the same crowd that shouts “Hosanna” today is the crowd shouting “crucify him!” very shortly thereafter.  None of the gospels say that the crowds on those two different days were composed of the same people.  Perhaps there was no irony; maybe the people with the donkey tracks on their coats really did catch the allusion to the ancient prophecy of a king coming into Jerusalem in a humble manner, riding a donkey colt – specifically because it was not a war horse, specifically to bring peace, as Zechariah said (9:9).

Easter is coming
If there is any remaining irony in the Palm parade, perhaps it is in us.  We look at this parade day with post-Easter eyes.  We know that the darkness of Thursday night is ahead of us when Jesus will be abandoned and betrayed; we know that the horror of crucifixion on Friday is coming, and the despair of Saturday too; but we also know that next Sunday is Easter, the day of resurrection.

The Humble King
Easter Sunday totally changes the way we read the parade story.   Easter confirms that the one who rode in to Jerusalem over those cloaks with the branches waving really was and is the King of Zechariah’s prophecy.  Yes, he came humbly, but not in humble defeat. He came with the humility of a king whose goal is not subjugation of a people –  not to be the new tyrant in town, but rather the liberation of a people: the one whose whole agenda was to bring God’s kingdom of peace and justice to his suffering people.

As Zechariah said:
your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot …
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations

So, this is indeed cause for exuberance.  This is a reason to abandon restraint and throw off  your cloak; the king has indeed come.  It is right to shout “Hosanna” – God save us – because that is exactly what he is in the process of doing.

But he is not doing it exactly as one might expect.  It does not all get done instantly.  We are in a similar position to those people lining the parade route: we want the whole thing to happen immediately, here and now – but Jesus has more complex plans.

Because this text coaxes us to throw off our cloaks, take up the branches in our hands, and identify with the “Hosanna” shouters, it also forces us to examine our expectations as well.

On Sunday mornings we often ask ourselves, “What does God want from me?”  This morning we are turning the question around:  “What do I want from God?”  “What are my expectations of Jesus?”

Right at the top of the list for all of us, is rescue.  We want exactly what those people wanted: “Hosanna:  God save us” “rescue me”  and usually we add “now.”

There is nothing wrong with this desire for rescue, because we all need to be rescued; except that we quite often do not adequately recognize what we need rescue from.  This text compels us to look at what Jesus’ rescue operation was about.  What we find is that we need to be rescued from the soul-killing conditions that we find ourselves in.

Selfishness to giving
Jesus’ first rescue operation is to save us from ourselves; that is, to rescue us from a life of simple selfishness to a life of giving.  Here’s the human condition: I do not feel anybody’s pain but mine, anybody’s hunger, fatigue, sadness, loneliness, depression but mine.  I am acutely aware of my needs and how many of them are unmet.  The default position, unless I am rescued, is for me to be “me first” about my entire life.

But the self-centered life is not worth living, and ends badly.  There is irony in selfishness too; it never works.  In fact the more we obsess on ourselves, the less happy we are.  Lives that are given away are not lost lives, but found lives, as we saw last week.  Now we see that Jesus’ willingness to give himself away for us, for others, is the pattern he sets for us.  Whether or not this is what we are out on the streets yelling “Hosanna” for,  whether we expect this rescue or not, the first rescue Jesus makes is to transform selfish people into givers.

Apathy to caring
The second rescue is from apathy to caring.  It is rescue from a life of walking past the blind man without even noticing him – or worse, shushing him – but either way, his pain simply doesn’t register.  The apathetic life is not worth living either.  Easter eyes do not turn away from the scenes of suffering, scenes of hunger, scenes of homelessness.  Jesus’ whole ministry was impelled by a deep empathy with people in pain – women with chronic diseases, children near death, lepers – and people in psychic pain, excluded and despised people like Samaritans and Roman officers.  All of them were people Jesus cared about – and there is no such thing as a follower of Jesus who has not been rescued from apathy.  We care about homeless people, about victims of poverty and discrimination, about Iraqi’s and Afghani’s, about Jews and Palestinians.  We have been rescued from soul-destroying apathy by seeing the world through the Easter eyes of caring.

Despair to hope
The rescue we need so badly today, especially in this time of economic crisis, is rescue from despair to hope.  We are not stuck in the world of hopelessness as if Easter never happened.  We do not agree that the problems are too great, the evil is overwhelming.  We are like Bartimaeus, crying out against seemingly insurmountable odds, or like the people on the parade route shouting Hosanna while Pilate and his minions looked on suspiciously.  Rather, like Bartimaeus our eyes have been opened; we have Easter eyes now.  We see our humble king riding into town and we know God is going to vindicate him on Easter morning.  Let the empire throw all their power at him – as if they had the power of life and death.  God alone has that power, and on Easter Sunday morning, Rome is put back in its place as a merely human institution.

This parade into Jerusalem is not a suicide mission – even though it will lead to Jesus’ death.  Hope that God is doing something powerful and new does not end on Friday evening.  Hope means that we see beyond the present awful conditions and circumstances because we believe that the God of Easter life is stronger than any army.

What are you dealing with right now in your life?  Is it yourself?  your future?  your family?  Listen: we are not in despair.  We are always able to cry out “Hosanna!  God save us!”  We always have the hope that he hears us, that he is not apathetic to our cries but is deeply moved by our suffering.  He is the God of rescue, of Easter, of new life.

And he is the God who is rescuing us and will rescue us from self-absorption, from apathy, and from despair.

God has put us here for a reason: we are disciples of Jesus Christ, here to continue his ministry in the power of the Risen Lord – which is at work in all us through his Holy Spirit.  This is something to be exuberant about – enough to abandon the cloaks to the donkey and shout “Hosanna!  blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!


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