Palm Sunday | Mark 11:1-11

Mark 11:1-11 (NRSV)
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 
4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, 

          Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
10       Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! 
          Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Today’s passage from Mark’s gospel, known somewhat ironically as the “triumphal entry,” is an interesting step in the lenten journey. We haven’t been following the Old Testament readings that closely, but if we had, we would have noticed a kind of red thread through each week that has to do with the covenant journey of Israel through the Hebrew scriptures. Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Jeremiah—all of these characters in Israel’s drama, through whom God makes and remakes the covenant of faithfulness with the people of God. 

But careful attention to these Old Testament readings would also reveal one conspicuous, gaping hole in retelling the covenant journey of Israel: that is, the Covenant with David—to establish his throne in Israel forever. To those Zionists we talked about a few weeks back, the Davidic covenant is unequivocally the most important one … how odd that it would be left out of the lectionary’s undoubtedly intentional sermon series on the topic.

You wonder if David, up in heaven, feels slighted every third year during Lent. 

But even if he gets skipped over in the fourth week of Lent, here as Jesus enters Jerusalem, it is David’s covenant that the crowds appear, at least, to have in mind: 

“Hosanna!” They cry: “Save us now!” 

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord; Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David. 

These crowds cheer Jesus as he rides into town because they believe he is the Messiah, sent to restore David’s Kingdom … the one God covenanted to establish in Israel forever, remember … because Jesus is the one who can make things go back to the way they used to be, when we were rich and sovereign and uniquely beloved of God. 

And the people are right—Jesus is the anointed Messiah who has come to save, realizing on behalf of the people those promises made by God so long ago … 

Why then, is this story headed where we all know it is headed? Why do we feel such tension as our hero enters the city, and the temple, looking around the perfectly prepared, empty, sacred space?

All this pomp and circumstance—borrowing a donkey that no one has ever ridden … riding into town surrounded by cheering crowds … palm branches, and militaristic, messianic expectations—and by the time Jesus finally steps out on the set, everyone has gone home. The long awaited messiah pokes around after a full day of heightening expectation, and then simply turns and goes a mile or so east to stay in our namesake town of Bethany.

It’s a bit anti-climatic isn’t it? We, with the crowd, want Jesus to restore life and peace and justice NOW—and at just the right moment … all the air flutters out of our balloon.

What if, following such a grand display as the nation saw yesterday, nothing happens? What if as we have seen over and over again across these last 20 years, the powers of death simply continue to outspend and outmaneuver the powers of life and no measurable change takes place in our society… What if following the distressed yet hopeful march, the air lets out of our ballon, just like it did on the first Palm Sunday?

Matthew and Luke don’t like Mark’s storytelling any more than we do … they’d prefer to have Jesus do it like a Clint Eastwood film: stroll into town, and right off the bat, hit’em with a good old-fashioned temple cleansing! That’s the first century version of “Vote Them Out! Vote Them Out!”

Mark will eventually get there … Jesus is still the messiah who comes to save us from Sin … but unlike the other evangelists, Mark wants Jesus to disappoint us first … to shatter our expectations … Mark wants us to experience up front, that which will drive Holy Week to take its terrible turn towards the cross … and so he has Jesus disappoint us. Think of it as preparation for the rest of the week … for nothing will go as we expect in the coming days.

The one who rides in to cheering crowds on Sunday will be betrayed and arrested on Thursday; crucified on Friday at the insistence of these same crowds … because he will have disappointed them. Roman occupation isn’t getting overthrown, and David’s Kingdom isn’t coming back, you see—at least not in the glory that it once knew—and Jesus has no intention of fighting for it. To make matters worse, he will actually judge those things that most clearly represent the golden age of Israel’s past … the temple and the priestly order.  

What happens when the one in whom we put all our hope disappoints us?

Most of us, I think, have a tendency—when we are disappointed by Jesus—to simply recast him from a mold that suits our purposes more nicely. If the Jesus we encounter isn’t the Jesus we want, then we kill that Jesus and make a new one for ourselves. 

If the Jesus we encounter threatens, rather than justifies our way of life, it’s no big deal … we can always kill that Jesus and wait on the next one who promises to fulfill our hopes and dreams … We can … and we do …

But must we? are we bound by our desires, or may we with our desires be transformed? Mark prepares us to be let down so that we might get accustomed to the feeling … hoping that we don’t go the way of the fickle crowd, who cheers on Sunday and jeers on Friday. The truth is, Jesus will disappoint us early and often—the life that we want will not be the life that God wants for us—it will not be the life Jesus offers.

We may want a life filled with riches or a life of exacting revenge, but Jesus is clear on these fronts … and disappoints a good many folks because of it.  We may want a life of passivity, so we never have to rock the boat … but Jesus does not offer us that life. 

Today Jesus rides into town on the humble beast, surrounded by poor peasants and hailed as the one who will save the world. Tomorrow he will disrupt our trustworthy, if lopsided economic system and threaten our sense of national and religious identity. Before the week is out, he will reform our ideas of justice, our categories of friend and enemy … he will challenge our self-imposed walls between faith and politics … and our preference for clear, black and white distinctions between success and failure … muddying the waters of triumph and despair.

Is it possible that through all the irony, we might be transformed this week? 

As we draw near to the end of our journey, I’d like to invite you to join me in reading the rest of Mark’s Gospel. Finish chapter 11 tomorrow, then read a chapter a day Tuesday thru Friday. Together we will follow the passion narrative, reading of the last supper on Thursday and the crucifixion on Friday.  

We will likely be disappointed at times. Jesus will not act according to our hopes, ideologies, and desires.  But we may discover as we encounter this messiah along the road to the cross, that some of our hopes, ideologies, and desires are precisely those things from which he has come to save us. Wherever that is the case, may we allow ourselves to be disappointed by Christ, that we may also be transformed by him to follow on that unexpected road which leads to eternal life.