Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on Apr. 5 2009.
Mark 11: 1-11.
Like the ancient Greek masks for theater, this is a day with two faces. Some churches celebrate this day as Palm Sunday. It’s the day with the appearance of triumph as Jesus and his disciples entered the city welcomed exuberantly by a throng of joyous Jews so overcome with the excitement of his arrival that they stripped palm branches from the trees and threw them down in front of Jesus like a red carpet on Oscar night. Others took their cloaks off and threw them down for the burro to walk on. It was the grand entrance of a star rising on the Jewish horizon and they were overcome with shouts and cries of “Hosanna!” which meant, “Save us, we pray!”
The moment was riveting and even as we read the story today, we find ourselves caught up in the excitement of the drama. Our pulse quickens and the story is buoyant with the heightened expectations the crowds feel. It was an experience of excitement and anticipation. They were welcoming the King to the city that was ripe for his coming!
But some churches today remember this day as Passion Sunday. On Passion Sunday, an altogether different mood is created when Jesus’ suffering is described. The Passion of Jesus are those tortuous events that occurred after Jesus was arrested. The passion was the unjust punishment he experienced at the hands of the Romans before his subsequent death on the cross. The Passion of Jesus was the suffering he endured as the result of his arrest.
The Passion of Jesus was as much psychological as it was physical. The prophet Isaiah described the element of shame with these words,
“He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hid their faces,
he was despised and we held him of no account”
The experience of Jesus’ passion is sobering and we want to stare … but we don’t want to get too close. It’s an overwhelming emotional experience but of a completely different type. The story is sad and somber. It’s the all-too-true reality dawning on us all that God has not only entered human history, but that at his arrival, he suffered and was killed as a common criminal whose only offense was coming to live among us.
A part of the sadness that overcomes us is the sobering reality that not even Jesus was safe among us. We are a fallen creation that killed the only beautiful, decent one to ever walk among us. In truth, we’ve killed every good and beautiful thing we’ve ever encountered. That’s the heart of what the gospel has to tell us about ourselves as humans.
By his dying, we recognize Jesus’ is the central character of his own parable of the absentee landowner. Later in the day after being greeted by the crowds who threw down their coats and palm branches, Jesus told a final parable to the people. The story was about an absentee landowner who had a vineyard that he had leased out to tenant farmers. When the time of harvest came, he sent a few servants to collect his share of the proceeds from the vineyard. Instead of paying them, the tenants savagely killed the master’s servants. The landowner couldn’t believe it was true, so he sent another entourage of servants to collect his payment. They too were beaten and killed like the first group. The owner thought to himself, “Surely they misunderstand what I want from them … so I’ll send my son to them. Then, they will know my intentions. Surely no one would hurt my own son.”
Jesus knew the truth of his own story. He was the master’s son sent to the world with the simple, loving message of God’s redemptive love. In the story of Jesus’ passion, we come to realize how deeply sinful and how profoundly capable of evil we are.
When Jesus and his disciples made their final move towards the ancient city of Jerusalem, the time was ripe for something to happen. Maybe it was the feeling that a revolution was in the air. Maybe it was the shared, intuitive sense that the Messiah would come among them bringing the salvation of God. Fermenting among the troubled people was a deeply felt sense that something was on the verge of happening.
Maybe it was something akin to the feeling in the air in the mid-1960’s with the revolutionary feeling among our nation’s young that something needed to happen. For some, you were parents hoping to God your children wouldn’t get caught up in it all and march in the streets creating chaos and mayhem in our world. Some of you might have even shared those strong feelings and participated in some form of protest.
Maybe it’s a time felt now by another generation who’ve grown tired of the promises that have plainly gone unfulfilled. A little revolution is again brewing among us even now hoping to see the world will head in a new direction. Who will come along to make it happen? Who will step forward to give leadership to this new movement? The young of our time, the children of an earlier group of revolutionaries, are now envisioning what they can do if they can find a voice to describe the new world they would create if they could. Is there ever a time when a revolution is not being stirred up?
In Jesus’ day, the people had grown tired of the same old system. What the temple leadership promised was nothing more than the sense that the system’s chief goal was protecting the status quo. No challenge went unpunished. No threat to the current leadership was allowed. The system wouldn’t permit it. The leadership of the Romans was one powerful and cruel leader after another in their minds. All they knew to do was tax the people and rule them with an unbending, iron fist. Caught in the middle of those tired dynamics of church and state, it’s not hard at all to sense the fatigue among the common people of Israel, the working class who were oppressed on both fronts.
A new leader could ignite the match that would burn the whole thing down! One spark, one new thought, one new challenge to the system and the whole thing could be engulfed in a blazing, torrential firestorm. Would Jesus be the one to spark such a movement? Could Jesus be the one?
Jesus had a keen political sense of what the people wanted. He knew a political parade was being organized in the streets. He understood what they wanted and if he wasn’t willing to be caught on their wave of unrest, he had to maintain control over what kind of leader he would be. So he outmaneuvered them by making a political statement of his own when he approached the city. He told two of his disciples to go ahead of him to the neighboring villages of Bethany and Bethphage and to bring him the donkey that was waiting for him. They were told, “If the owner asks you what you are doing, tell, him, ‘The Lord needs him.’”
You see, as the parade was gathering, they had their own ideas of what their new leader would need in order to make the kind of statement that they needed. The parade organizers knew that Jesus had the kind of star power to ignite the revolution. They understood him enough to recognize that he could stir things up that he could incite the crowds to follow him; perhaps he even had the clout to make the whole thing come apart and they could then overthrow the Roman’s system of control.
They had heard that he had done many miracles … why, even Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus! Could it be any more powerful than that? They understood that Jesus had a moral power in his teaching that none of the temple rabbis could even approach. The Pharisees had publicly tried to question him and trick him into making a mistake; but Jesus was too quick for them. He was powerful, he was astute, and he was an incredible candidate for being the leader who could gather the people of Israel into one, powerful mob of revolt.
When Jesus mounted the colt, he must have understood what was happening around him. It was a parade of the wildest imagination! People were excited all around him! They cut down the palm branches and threw them down in front of him. They even threw their own coats down on the ground making the street before him look like an unimaginable path of plant and cloth.
This drama would have reached epic proportions if Jesus hadn’t introduced a picture of the comic absurd into the middle of it. Instead of riding on the kind of animal that would have announced his political intentions as a new king among the people of Israel, he approached them on an animal of another kind … he came riding meekly on a gentle donkey. He turned it into a theater of the absurd.
By riding into the middle of this frenzied crowd, Jesus made an announcement of another kind. He deflated their strongest wishes by announcing to them by the symbol of the donkey that he had no intentions of complying with them. He let them know that the Jesus Parade would not introduce a revolution of government. His revolution was a power of another kind. He would be a Savior of the heart, not of the halls of political power.
By stooping to ride the lowly donkey, Jesus was inviting his followers to see that the Kingdom of God was lowly in spirit, not exalted in merely political terms. “Let the kingdoms of this earth rule as they will, but don’t assume that kind of power is capable of changing the human condition.”
The parade died down disappointed because the central character refused to play his role of a revolutionary controlled like a puppet by his political handlers. From this point on, the comedy turned into a deadly serious theater of passion and intrigue. Jesus, the court jester to their dreams of independence and power, refused to wear the mask they had given him. Instead, he put on the mask given him by God.
One day in Paris, a religious procession carrying a crucifix passed Voltaire, the 18th century philosopher, and a friend. Voltaire, who was generally regarded as a religious skeptic, lifted his hat seemingly out of respect for the passing symbol of Christ’s death.
“What?!” his friend exclaimed, “are you reconciled with God?”
And Voltaire, with fine irony replied: “We salute, but do not speak.”
Voltaire’s answer is the explanation of the depths and the shallows of religious commitment today. We believe God is; we cannot explain the universe without nodding to the Divine; but we maintain very shallow relationships with God. “We salute, but we do not speak.”
We believe in the church and are especially sensitive to those rapturous moments when some experience of the Divine has subdued us to reverence; we are moved by the dignity of church’s worship, but we have not personal fellowship with God. “We salute, but we do not speak.” Jesus’ parade needs more than that. The new kingdom of Jesus needs much more than a mere salute that has no sense of meaning. It needs the deeply felt commitment that would lead us to follow the parade to its end.