The Stage is Set; Mark 11:1-11
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; March 28, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
Palm Sunday 2021. It is a day of mixed emotions, isn’t it? I am so pleased to be able to come together face-to-face in a sanctuary this a.m. Last Palm Sunday we were in our 3rd week of online services only, and none of us had any idea at that point that our best option for the next year would be to gather online only.
Like you, I enjoy the memory of children processing into the sanctuary waving their palms with the choir following along behind. Those of you who regularly attended the first service and didn’t have children or choir for a processional have been asked by me over my tenure here to join me in an impromptu Palm Sunday parade around the sanctuary. Many of you were willing and able to join in the fun (yeah, that’s what I call it!), although this year I can hear that little voice in your head saying, “Well, thank goodness, at least we’re not doing that this year!” Yes, I can read your minds.
I want to set all that pageantry aside for a moment—the palms waving, the people cheering and singing, “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”, people laying down their palm branches and clothing as Jesus enters the city…” This morning, instead of thinking about the joy and excitement proclaimed by the crowds, I would like for us to focus in on Jesus’ face. On his posture and mood and affect.
I don’t know, I never really envisioned Jesus laughing and smiling at this enthusiastic reception. I never thought of him as sitting high on the saddle (Oh, wait, there wasn’t a saddle, was there?). I never have visualized Jesus looking out over the crowds with a satisfied look that finally they have come to recognize who he is, and how important he is to their lives.
That’s not the look or demeanor that fits the Jesus we’ve come to know, is it?
Instead, today as we focus in on his face, I think what we’ll see is a look of concern, of compassion, of determination and sadness even, as he enters the city where he will soon face controversy, hostility and death.
From everything we’ve read Jesus knew what was ahead. We read more than once that his face was “set” toward Jerusalem. Surely he couldn’t have known all the details of how it would happen, but I believe he knew the bottom line: that he was about to give up his life. And still, he kept moving forward.
There are actually two parades that enter Jerusalem on that day. It is a historical fact that a Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem for Passover on the other side of the city. Each year it happened: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be present in the city in case there were riots at Passover. This was the most politically volatile of the annual Jewish festivals and the governor wanted to be there to show who was in charge. Along with him came soldiers and cavalry to reinforce the imperial military base in Jerusalem. Large and in charge is what this presence was all about.
The contrast of the purpose and vision of these two parades were so very different. The kingdom of God versus the kingdoms and powers of this world. One is about peace and justice and the end of violence, while the other is about domination and exploitation. One is about love, the other is about power.
In only a few days it will appear as though the kingdom of this world has won, as the rulers of this world kill Jesus. But on Easter, we discover that isn’t true at all. Jesus is resurrected. God wins. Love wins. And that makes all the difference.
(And yet) we can’t help but wonder about the contrast between this day, and the days that are yet to come. How could the crowds turn so quickly? Singing their hosannas now (which literally means “save us”), and in a very short time, joining a mob that could have released him, but instead shout for his crucifixion and the release of a notorious criminal. How could this happen? What were they thinking? And might it be possible, that we, too, could get it so wrong? Surely, we wouldn’t turn so quickly. I wouldn’t deny him. You wouldn’t disappear into the darkness to avoid anyone recognizing that you knew him either, would you?
It’s a hard question to answer honestly, because we know the end of the story. His followers in that day, whether they were “totally in” or who were only pondering the possibility that what he said was true, received him only on faith. And when we’re honest, truly honest, we know that our own faith has been known to falter. We’ve had questions. We haven’t always been certain.
What Jesus’ followers DID know in that day was the one who “came in the name of the Lord” was becoming a dangerous person to associate with. It was all well and good when he was spending his days healing the sick and teaching in parables, but his presence and message in Jerusalem quickly became a serious threat to the powers that be. By the end of the week, even his closest disciples had decided to make themselves scarce.
Received as a hero, he becomes a testy visitor in Jerusalem. Okay, so he’s been a critic all along of the religious elite, and now that he’s on their turf, he’s pretty quickly worn out his welcome. He hasn’t tried to “fit in” or to adapt to the traditions of his faith. Instead, he has not merely hinted, but he has called for reform. And it’s the straw that breaks the donkey’s back. He irritates the religious leaders’ last nerve. (Or something like that.)
I think perhaps the important thing for us to consider today isn’t how Jesus’ followers turned away from him and then, through their actions actually participated in placing his body on the cross, but it’s about acknowledging/accepting the fact that we, too, are sinners. We haven’t always gotten it right, and sometimes we’ve shouted condemnation when we should have listened for what God is trying to teach us.
The thing is, we’re all guilty of being human and there’s a slice in each of us of which we’re not particularly proud. We may be able to sing great songs of praise, but we also have the capacity to be unkind, blind to what’s in front of us, and unfaithful. Sad but true. Whether our sins are great or small, we are all sinners, and we have all fallen short of the glory of God.
The good news is that the one we come to worship has a great purpose: to save a world full of sinners, even the ones who turn on him. He comes in the name of the Lord, entering the gates of Jerusalem and the gates of our hearts. He is the humble king on the back of a donkey, and he is the one who can bridge the chasm between the adoring praises of Palm Sunday and the murderous mob on Good Friday. He is the one who can reconcile the gap between God and humanity. He is the one who can forgive and heal and redeem. He is the one who will be forsaken on the cross, but who will never forsake us in return.
The last verse of today’s scripture is in complete contrast to the beginning of this reading. In the morning, Jesus enters Jerusalem to songs and celebration. By the end of the day, he enters the temple, looks around, and then goes back to Bethany with his disciples. It’s late. It’s been a long day. It’s time to rest. To prepare himself for what is ahead.
“Hosanna!” the people had shouted.
“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!”
The Jesus they’ve welcomed is not the Jesus they get. Their desire, perhaps, is for a considerate guest, a teacher who will teach them what they want to hear, in ways that bring them comfort. It seems that they got more than they bargained for: the “kingdom” they’re prepared to receive isn’t the kingdom Jesus has to offer. It’s not about power or casting out their Roman occupiers. It’s not about wealth or position or whatever else we might value in this world. His kingdom is about loving God over everything else, about loving others, about sacrifice, about giving yourself away. It’s a shocking kingdom, really…and it’s one to which we’re each invited.
I believe that’s good news for all of us.