Palm Sunday – 25/03/18
I preached this morning at St Mary’s Datchet & St Thomas Colnbrook. I was given the wood carving as a gift from a very talented wood -carver in the congregation as a thank-you. I was really humbled by this generous gift. At the end of the service at St Mary’s a lady told me that her 15-year-old daughter really liked this sermon. This is high praise indeed!
This is the title of my sermon this morning ‘Why?’. I generally think that questions that begin with why usually require some thought and are often awkward.
Palm Sunday, this final Sunday is Lent, is a good stopping off place to ask some why questions. On the surface of tradition, today is generally a day of celebration, with waving of palm branches and the singing happy songs around the church. Some churches will have the hilarity of a donkey in the church yard.
Why are we doing this? Jesus asks this poignant ‘why’ question in verse 3 ‘If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this… and he provides an answer.
Why are we doing this? That is the question to ask ourselves this morning. Are we going about today in the right way? What is Mark trying to tell us in his writing? Sometimes it is helpful to have a slow-read through a familiar passage to pick up the things we might otherwise gloss over or miss all together.
Starting in verse 1…
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives. Why is this significant?
Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the east side. The view from the Mount of Olives over Jerusalem is breath-taking; you stand a few hundred feet above the city, what remains of the Temple dominates the view. Below you are the Garden of Gethsemane and Kidron Valley. This was the view at the first Palm Sunday and is the same today. However, the east side was not the side of Jerusalem with any power or prestige. No king would think of entering from the east side.
A brief bit of historical research argues that two processions entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday; Jesus’ was not the only Triumphal Entry. Every year, the Roman governor of Judea (Pontius Pilate) would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west, specifically to be present in the city for Passover.
The governor would come in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. This was Pontius Pilate’s imperial procession was described as: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.
Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
According to Roman imperial belief, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome; he was the Son of God. So for the empire’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession was both a potent military threat and the embodiment of a rival theology.
There are two processions going on. One from the west that shows the power and might of the Roman empire. One from the east with a rag-tag bunch and a man on a donkey.
It seems a bit embarrassing really – one side of the city is caught up in the pomp and glamour and the other side is small and shabby. Now might be a good time to ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ as we move onto verse 3.
Has anyone ever asked you that question? Awkward – especially if you are caught in the middle of doing something dumb. Maybe you have asked this question of yourself or your children or a spouse. ‘Why are you doing what you are doing?’ Sometimes this question is asked with a tone of irritation or exasperation or anger; other times with suspicions or sarcasm.
I wonder how the by-standers asked that question of the disciples as they watched them untie the donkey. Disbelief? Sarcasm?
Remember that Jesus has given the disciples the answer to the why question ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately’.
What does the Lord need from us today? This is another dangerous question to ask. I think so often we are afraid of what is being asked, we get nervous that He will want more than we want to give; more than we are willing to give. We hold back because we don’t fully trust Him or the inconvenience is more than we can bear.
Yet we can overlook the end of the answer. The Lord will send it back immediately. Granted the Lord’s immediately and my immediately are likely very different. In Mark’s brevity, there is no mention of any further negotiation on the leasing of the donkey. It was simply given. How easily do we give to God when asked?
Whatever we give to God – we will receive back. Maybe not on this side of death or in the way we think. If Jesus was willing to return a donkey – how much more willing is He to return to us what we give him?
The answer of ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately’ given by the disciples obviously worked as in verse 6 ‘they (the bystanders) allowed them (the disciples) to take it.’
Donkey has been procured and Jesus gets on it – we are now in verse 7. If there was ever any question that Palm Sunday just sort of happened – Jesus has debunked that. He knew, had planned out what was to happen. It doesn’t feel very nice to wipe out the Sunday School image of a spontaneously jovial gathering coming together on the east-side of Jerusalem.
What was happening on the west-side of Jerusalem is the background against which we need to frame the Triumphal Entry of Jesus. That Jesus planned a counter-procession is clear from St. Mark’s account of the event.
As Pilate clanged and crashed his imperial way into Jerusalem from the west, Jesus approached from the east, looking (by contrast) ragtag and absurd. His was the procession of the ridiculous, the powerless, and the explicitly vulnerable.
There was no armour, brass or leather on the east side of Jerusalem. There was cloaks and palm branches – virtually worthless items spread before Jesus and his borrowed donkey.
I’m not sure about you, but one thing I do not enjoy is looking foolish. I’d rather be overdressed and over-prepared than under. I’d rather be seen on the right side than on the wrong.
Jesus’ so-called triumphant arrival into Jerusalem throws up questions about whose side do I want to be on? How far am I willing to go to look foolish? How visible do I want to be? The fact that I swan around in a dog collar most of the time gives some indication – but what about when I’m not wearing it?
If we had had a full procession today – palms, singing, donkey outside on the green – how comfortable would you have been to have your work colleagues, neighbours, friends, etc to see you?
Now the crowd in verse 8 didn’t seem to be bothered with the visuals – they seem to be merrily going along the way spreading cloaks and branches. Which begs the question of why are they doing this?
Not only are they spreading out the laundry – they are shouting!
‘Hosanna’ means save or saviour. It also has a sense of immediacy to it ‘save now.’ The crowd is also calling to be ‘saved in the name of the Lord’.
One of my favourite television programs is Saving Lives at Sea about the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. The tension in each episode builds as the crews must search the sea – stormy or calm, day or night – for those that are lost. There is a real sense of urgency, of danger for both the teams and those people needing to be rescued. There is always a race to get the boats on the water, the members drop whatever they are doing and go.
Now imagine for a moment that when the call came into go – the crew stopped to put the kettle on, sat around for a while for tea and a biscuit before heading out to sea? No!
They don’t do that because they understand the urgency of the situation.
Hosanna! Save now, immediacy to it. Are we saved now?
The crowd that first Palm Sunday didn’t have the benefit of hindsight the way we do into their story. Would they have reacted differently that day if they knew that in a few short days their ‘Save me’ would turn to ‘Crucify him’?
I remember being struck by the observation made in a bible study group a few years ago – that Palm Sunday was the one day where the crowd got it right. Just one day. This person who made this comment went on to explain how he wanted to get Jesus right on more than one day, but every day.
We are finally in verse 11! The crowd then watched Jesus enter Jerusalem and go to the Temple – down the Mount of Olives which is steep, through the Kidron Valley where Jesus and disciples would return later in the week and up to the Temple.
Mark ends his account rather abruptly – Jesus looked around at everything, it was late (read this as they were probably hungry) so he went out to Bethany with the disciples. The end!
For Mark, Jesus the Messiah has entered the city, surrounded by the praise of those who entered with him. Jerusalem has her change to accept her king and her promise. But nothing happens. Jesus goes to the Temple and receives no welcome. Whatever Jesus has seen in the Temple – he clearly doesn’t like it given that he returns the following day to clean it out.
What did the crowd do? They have been praising and shouting and then it all just ends? Jesus seems to be headed in another direction. Are we going to go with him?
Why are we doing this?
Two processions. Two kingdoms. Two symbolic journeys into Jerusalem. Stallion or donkey? Parade or protest? Which will I choose? Sometimes (I’ll be honest), I’d rather just wave a palm branch, sing a few rounds of “Hosanna,” and go home.
The actual praise and worship Jesus invites me to enact on this last Sunday in Lent is far riskier; his donkey ride cost him everything. I dare not join Palm Sunday’s parade too casually.