The First Presbyterian Church of Watertown
Text: Mark 11:1-11
When they were nearing Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany on Mount Olives, he sent off two of the disciples with instructions: “Go to the village across from you. As soon as you enter, you’ll find a colt tethered, one that has never yet been ridden. Untie it and bring it. If anyone asks you, ‘What are you doing?’ say, ‘The Master needs him, and will return him right away.’” They went and found a colt tied to a door at the street corner and untied it. Some of those standing there said, “What are you doing untying that colt?” The disciples replied exactly as Jesus had instructed them, and the people let them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus, spread their coats on it, and he mounted it. The people gave him a wonderful welcome, some throwing their coats on the street, other spreading out rushes they had cut in the fields. Running ahead and following after, they were calling out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” He entered Jerusalem, then entered the Temple. He looked around, taking it all in. But by now it was late, so he went back to Bethany with the Twelve.
The Son of God, the Messiah, the one who would restore Israel, the King of Kings, rode into Jerusalem on the back of a colt that had never been ridden. Can you imagine it? What must it have been like to stand there in the crowd as Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem. The people were so excited that some placed palm branches that they had cut from nearby fields while others took their cloaks and placed them on the ground in front of Jesus, all while a great number of others gathered to greet him. With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem it raises the question, “Why did they do that,” Why are we continuing to do it?”…
These questions are why I love the Gospel of Mark. There is an “earthiness” that brings the cosmic down to our own plane of existence. The people who appear in Mark’s narrative are not that much different than ourselves… They asked questions of one another and of God. And this God who they asked questions of turned the world upside down and continues to turn the world on its head. When the people in the city placed palm branches and their coats on the ground I wonder if they really knew what they were getting themselves into. Each of them had their expectations and their own hopes for what they wanted Jesus to do, but Jesus never really seemed to fit into any of their boxes.
This morning as we wave our palm branches and sing songs of admiration and joy, do we know what we are getting ourselves into when we place our palm branches at the feet of Jesus? Are we willing to follow Christ, even if that means we are being led in a direction that goes against our preconceived notions of others, our biases, and our fears? Perhaps that is why we wave palm branches… Perhaps that is why we come to offer what we have to God with the faith that what we offer will be used to transform the communities in which we live. But we better be ready, because if we are going to welcome Jesus into our presence, we should realize that things probably won’t go the way we want them to, because Jesus rarely does what we expect of him.
When we welcome in this Messiah, this King of Kings, we welcome in the unknown, which can be quite a frightening thing. This unknown factor, this fear of where Jesus will lead us is not something new or strange. It’s a tale as old as time and a story that has been repeated throughout history. If we were to follow the crowd in their praise of Jesus, would we embrace the fact that Jesus challenges us to grow as individuals and as a community? This reminds me of a conversation I had recently:
Not too long ago I was leading a confirmation retreat for youth and their mentors. Besides leading plenary sessions for youth, I also led a small group for the adults who had come with them. While I try not to have favorites, there was one older man named Denny, who quickly jumped to the top of the list. During a discussion about how the church can be a better neighbor to those in the community Denny chimed in, “You know I’m really tired of some of the things my church does… All they do is debate and complain about how the church should be decorated. They’re concerned about the flowers and the building, but not about the people around us. When I walk outside of church on Sunday I see that there is so much more that we can and should be doing! Yet all people seem to ever talk about is keeping things the same!”
I took the liberty of editing some of what Denny said for the sake of this being a church, but the sentiment is still the same. It asks the important question, “Are you, are we, willing to follow Jesus if that means giving up things that are no longer part of God’s calling for us?” We know what is comfortable and we know what makes us feel safe… For the people in Jerusalem this feeling of security was founded in their belief that Jesus would be an earthly liberator. With a sword in his hand, Jesus would free the people from their oppression and would restore the kingdom that they had yearned for for centuries. For us, here and now, we often cling to what we know, to what is familiar, and we become uneasy thinking about what it means for us to become the community of faith for the second, third, and fourth generations to come.
Life isn’t easy… When you’re laying in bed late at night thinking about the troubles of the world, it feels like the last thing you want to worry about is the mission that is given to us by Jesus Christ. I mean there are bills that have to be paid, loved ones who are sick or dying, stress about employment, struggles with addiction, and relationships that are fracturing or just starting anew… At the end of the day when we are most vulnerable it isn’t too hard to wonder, “How in the world am I supposed to add one more thing? Discipleship? Stewardship? Fellowship? Jesus can’t expect me to do it all!” To some extent that’s a fair question and a feeling that we have probably all experienced or will experience. Turning to our reading this morning we find that the people in Mark’s Gospel wrestled with similar questions and feelings as well.
As the people followed Jesus through the city they were shouting and calling out to Jesus, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Hosanna… It’s a word that we have come to associate with praise, with jubilation, with celebration. But hosanna is actually much more nuanced than that… It can also mean, “Save us now, we pray.” Save us from what? I would imagine that if the people found out what Jesus’ intent was they wouldn’t be so eager to follow him. The same might be true for us… When we’ve become so concerned about ourselves and our traditions, thinking about what lies beyond the walls we have erected for ourselves can sometimes seem like an impossible task, but that is what we are supposed to be doing if we decided to follow Christ.
Marching behind and in front of Jesus the people believed that he would liberate them from their earthly oppressors. I think it might be fair to say that as Jesus rode into town the people were hoping that this would be the moment that he would establish his earthly kingdom. But like I said before, Jesus isn’t about these things… Those gathered were following him for the wrong reasons. Jesus didn’t care about the Romans or their swords and collection of weapons. Jesus didn’t care about borders or nations, powers or principalities… Jesus would have probably preferred the people to march with him in order to demonstrate the restorative power that only God can give. The restorative power that emphasizes empathy, love, and compassion, and therefore brings about reconciliation beyond comprehension. The power that calls us to cherish human life, instead of the things that extinguish the precious image of God that dwells inside each and everyone of us.”
Jesus asks us if we will follow him on that path he has laid out for us… If we are really willing to place our palm branches and cloaks in front of Jesus are we willing to beat our swords into plowshares? The weapons of our speech, our emotions, and material goods? Will we surrender our hostile attitudes for one another in order to recognize not Caesar’s reign, but the reign of Christ. The palm branches that we carry are much more than signs of our praise… They are a sign of our humanity, our purpose, and our desire to follow Christ who continually surprises us and challenges us to grow.
I’m not sure how many people would be left in the crowd if they knew that is what Jesus was really asking them. I’m not sure how many of us would be left if we could look ahead and see where Jesus is leading us. Because our faith asks us to do more than think… Here in the Western hemisphere we’ve done a lot of thinking… But maybe it’s time for a change, time for action, time to put those years of thinking about our faith into action. That way we can become the better community of faith God calls us to be, we can become the better neighbor, and we can become better stewards of this great and beautifully created world and caretakers of one another. Perhaps then we will be able to lay down not only our palm branches, but our pride and stubbornness as well.
We’re stubborn though, you can ask anyone in my family and they would verify that I can be quite thick headed… In our resistance to change, in our fear of the unknown, we grasp to the things that give us a sense, a false sense, of security… Yet time and time again we find that Jesus is there patiently waiting. And not only is Jesus waiting, but he is willing to accept that we will often go kicking and screaming and wait for us to return with open arms in order to put us back on the right path. This Palm Sunday isn’t just about celebrating Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. It sets the stage for a series of events that ends with Jesus hanging on the cross… There was no victory over the Romans, there was no re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, there was only death… But a death that radically changed the world as we know it, and continues to ask the hard questions, and pushes us into a direction where we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
As we go into this Holy Week let us continue to ask the questions that the people in Mark’s Gospel asked. Why do we follow Jesus? Why do we do the things that we do? Instead of leaving them on the ground, why don’t we pick up our palm branches and our cloaks and continue to follow Jesus. Who leads us on a forward march that asks us to leave behind the things that builds walls, creates division, and silences life rather than nurtures it… Where is Jesus calling you to go? And are you, are well, willing to invest the energy and effort needed to be faithful to that calling? I don’t have the answers, so I can’t say what lies ahead… That’s why we do this thing called faith together… That’s why as a community of faith we wave palm branches… It’s why we come together to offer our praise to God… It’s why we come together with one another, people who were created in the image of God. Amen.