This morning obviously is Palm Sunday, so you already know what’s coming in the text. I’ll simply remind you that this is Mark’s gospel and all the spiritual biographies of Jesus tell his story a little differently. Mark doesn’t make allusions to the Old Testament or prophets. He doesn’t say who is following Jesus, just that many people are with him. In order to read this story this morning we are actually going back in time from where we have been. What happens right before this is that Jesus heals blind Bartimeaus. Then Jesus does his triumphal entry. Then we get all of his teaching about prayer, about loving God and loving others and about the end of the the age. We’ve already studied all of that, but technically it happened during Holy Week, after the story we are going to hear this morning. We need to remember this because when we go straight from Palm Sunday to Good Friday we forget that Jesus spent the week challenging people’s assumptions. He’d been challenging the religious and political power structures for months, and it all comes to a head during Holy Week.
“So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Readings: Mark 11:1-11 & 14:1-9
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying 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. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
This the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The Palm Sunday story is so familiar to us. Like the Christmas story and the resurrection story, we hear it every year. We act it out. We think we know what it means. But as I read the Triumphal Entry story, something new stood out to me because of the situation we are in.
Some people say that churches and pastors shouldn’t be political. But I don’t agree with that. Jesus stood against the corrupting and dehumanizing power of empire, and we are called to do the same. Now what I think people actually mean when they say that churches and pastors shouldn’t be political, what they mean is that churches and pastors should not be partisan, should not blatantly support one political party or the other. And I do agree with that. No system of government or political party in this country or any other country represents Jesus, none of them are fully aligned with the gospel. If the church is going to continue to speak truth to power, regardless of which party is in office, we must maintain a prophetic distance. Political power is the power of the empire, the power to control people and situations. That is a very different kind of power from the power of love that Jesus taught and relied on. The power of control is seductive and will always corrupt and we must be very careful how close we get to it. We must be wise about how we mix our politics and our religion.
The reason I bring this up is because the Palm Sunday story is a political story. We think of it as a religious story because it has to do with Jesus and we tell it in church and so we don’t always realize what was happening. The area of Israel where Jesus lived was occupied by Rome, an empire that had the power to control people and situation. The Jews weren’t the only people who lived in Israel, but they were a very influential group who believed that the land should be controlled by them, not by Rome. Their study of the Old Testament led them to believe that God was going to send them a Messiah, a savior, an anointed one who would lead a political and religious revolution. Their ethnic identity was tied to their religious identity, their national identity, and their political identity. They already had religious freedom, even though they were occupied by Rome. They wanted political power.
And so in the Palm Sunday story as they march through the streets they shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” They are quoting Psalm 118 verses 25 and 26, but it’s not simply a religious proclamation. It’s a political proclamation. They think that Jesus is going to lead a political revolution to kick the Romans out and establish a powerful kingdom, take them back to the good old days when David was king. There were other so-called messiahs before Jesus and after Jesus who tried to lead revolutions, but none of them succeeded. This was not just about religion. It was also about politics. They were looking for a political savior and they couldn’t see how someone could “save” them in any way other than the way they expected. So they staged a protest march, shouting “Hosanna” which means “Save us now.” Save us NOW! NOW! Rescue us in the way we expect and do it right now.
The problem is that the disciples hadn’t been paying attention to Jesus. If they had, they would have known that their savior wasn’t going to use the power of control. He was going to deliberately give up the power of control. Jesus had already told them three times that when he got to Jerusalem he would be arrested, beaten, and killed, but that he would rise again. He never said he was going to lead a political revolution. But that’s what his followers wanted so that’s what they assumed was going to happen. They were willing to follow Jesus as long as they thought he was going to do what they wanted.
But he didn’t. And what’s even weirder is that he allowed them to persist in their assumptions. He didn’t stop the parade to say, “Whoa, friends, you’ve misunderstood me (again). I’m not here to start a political revolution.” All throughout his ministry, he had been trying to explain his mission, his plan, his priorities. But when people insisted on trying to make Jesus into someone he’s not, when they tried to make Jesus in their own image, with their priorities and their agenda, he didn’t stop them. Even though he knew that their delusion would cause disappointment. When Jesus didn’t do what they wanted him to do, they become disillusioned with him.
We start here at Palm Sunday this morning, but we know that in just five more days, Jesus will be on the cross, partly because he disappointed people. On Sunday he’s surrounded by a crowd of people who want to make him their king. On Friday he’s surrounded by crowd of people who want to make him their scapegoat. He doesn’t do what they want, what they expect, what they assume he is going to do, and so they are willing to let him be crucified. He doesn’t come through for them in the way they expected and so they’re done with him.
I wonder if we aren’t so different today. We come to Jesus with assumptions about what he should do and when he should do it. We have a partisan agenda and a religious agenda and we want to make Jesus in our image. We want him to fit in with our plan. And we want him to do it now. NOW!
Friends, when we do this, when we refuse to let Jesus tell us who he is, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. We all know people who have become disillusioned when God didn’t come through in the way they expected. I’m not making light of those situations. Sometimes we ask God for really important things and we can’t imagine why God wouldn’t do what we ask. The Jewish people in Jesus’ day wanted to be free and they couldn’t imagine why God hadn’t freed them yet.
The reason they couldn’t imagine it is because they weren’t God. And we’re not either. We can’t see what God sees. We don’t know what God knows. The resolution that seems so perfect and so obvious to us may actually be less than what God ultimately wants to do. In all things God is working for good, but we can’t always see what that good is.
I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. Some of you see it differently and that’s fine. I believe God works for good in every situation, but I don’t believe God causes every situation. A mentor of mine said recently about the pandemic, “God didn’t cause it, but God’s not going to waste it.” Nothing is so big or so bad that God can’t still redeem it. God can make good in the midst of the worst situations. And we will see it—if we choose to. If we allow Jesus to be who he is in the midst of this pandemic, if we invite him into our individual situations, to redeem them, to redeem us, if we choose to trust God even when we absolutely do not understand why something is happening, we will see the goodness of God in the land of the living as the Psalmist says.
The other option is to hold on to our assumptions about what should happen and then to be disappointed when it doesn’t go the way we want. As we move into Holy Week, let me ask you, will you let Jesus be who he is, or will you be disillusioned? As this pandemic continues, will you continue to trust that God is at work in the midst of it, or will you give in to distrust and be disillusioned?
This has already been the Lentiest Lent any of us can remember, and it is going to be a Holy Week like we have never experienced before. We will feel the disappointment of the people, the isolation of Jesus, the grief of the disciples after his death, and we won’t even have a sanctuary full of lilies and new clothes to look forward to. But you know what? That can also be a gift to us.
This past Wednesday at our Spiritual Experiments small group, we talked about the spiritual discipline of suffering, of testing and temptation. The invitation for small group members this week was to experiment with sitting in your discomfort. Perhaps we can all practice that this Holy Week. This year there is much less to distract us from the heaviness of this week. No planning for big dinners and Easter egg hunts. No services to attend. Just us, and our discomfort with this situation, and possibly our disappointment with God. What might happen if we lean into that discomfort and disappointment instead of avoiding it? Let me just remind you that in order to experience true resurrection, something has to be good and dead first. We always want to rush to resurrection and skip the death part, but that’s not the way it works.
As we wrap up this morning, I’d like to invite you to reflect on what needs to die for you this week in order for you to be ready for resurrection. So I invite you to close your eyes right where you are and take a deep breath in and let it out and begin to be open to what the Spirit is saying to you this morning. … What assumptions are you making about what God is going to do? … Maybe you’ve been holding out for one particular thing, a trip or a graduation or a big event and you need to let that die. … Maybe you have Jesus situated in one political party and you need to let that die. … Maybe you are enamored with the power of controlling people and situations and you need to let that die. … Take a moment to consider what needs to die this week so that something new can be resurrected in its place. … And now I’ll say a closing prayer … Jesus, we join you in your suffering this week. We are suffering. Show us who you really are, and help us to put our trust only in you and nowhere else. Amen.