The Triumphal Entry (Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020)
Mark 11: 1-11
The Triumphal Entry We are now in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, or at least right outside. Jerusalem is where we’ve been headed since the first words of the Gospel according to Mark. The first words of the Gospel are “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” The Gospel of Mark has been referred to by scholars as “a passion narrative with an extended introduction.” That’s basically where we are. This is where we’ve been looking forward to for the entire Gospel. Now we are here. If we had plugged our trip through the Gospel of Mark into a GPS, we would now have Siri coming up saying “you have arrived at your destination.” This is where we are. Jesus is in a small town called Bethany, just over the Mount of Olives, just beyond the city limits of Jerusalem. On the first morning after the Sabbath in this week of Passover he begins to prepare to enter the city. He sends out a couple of his disciples to go and get a colt, untie it, and bring it back to him. Why? Well, probably because of Zachariah 9:9 - Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Jesus being a good solid rabbi likely knows this verse. It is highly likely alluding to this verse, trying to send a message to the people that their king is coming by riding on a colt. Now Jesus is walking into the town, and the people gather around on the Mount of Olives and they start spreading the cloaks on the road and waving palm branches. They are treating this as a King’s triumphant entry into the city. One of the things you might do in a triumphant entry is wave palm branches, because if you’re waving a palm branch in your hand you can’t have a sword in your hand. So this is part of what you did as a king came into the city: wave palm branches as a sign of peace. Also, they would spread cloaks upon the road so the King wouldn’t have to walk on the dirty road, but would walk on your clothes instead as he went through. These were all signs that could at least point to the people declaring that Jesus was king. Of course, them shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” further confirms that this was something that the people were declaring him. And Jesus is at least allowing the people to declare victory, at least allowing them to do something that could be seen by the Romans as declaring victory. And of course, we know that Jesus is declaring victory over sin, but I don’t think it’s completely out of line, as the priests would later, to maybe assume that Jesus is declaring victory over the Romans; or at least worry that the Romans might see it that way. Now we have to at least look at what it actually looked like to have a King’s triumphant entry into a city. There were two different ways this might happen. A king who is conquering the city would enter into the city with weapons, because they were conquering the city and they were showing the power over the people of the city. A king who was returning home after a successful conquest would enter into the city without weapons meaning that they come to celebrate a successful campaign. This was not the first time that someone had entered into Jerusalem in this way. David enters into Jerusalem in this way. It’s recorded in Scripture where David brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, and it’s done in this kind of pomp and circumstance way, with the Ark taking the place of a king who’s riding in triumphantly. In that case, it was on the back of a cart are being pulled by several horses. Alexander the Great, when he conquers Jerusalem is recorded as having a triumphant entry riding his trademark black stallion. In fact it’s likely this wasn’t the first time it happened this week in Jerusalem. It’s believed that every year at Passover, Pilate would bring his Roman troops together in the capital of Judea, which is down on the Mediterranean sea, and march them a full day’s march into Jerusalem and enter triumphantly as the conquering king to remind the people gathering for this religious celebration who was really in charge here. Pilate would’ve entered from the west, Jesus enters from the east. In terms of a kingly victorious procession in the Roman age, there was something called a Roman Triumph. It would always happen in Rome but theoretically news would’ve been spread throughout the whole countryside even as they head back to Rome. What would happen in this, the conquering general would bring back treasures and prisoners and have art done to show the conquest; and they would parade this through the Roman city, these treasures, as a spoil of war. And then at the end of the procession would be the general himself, riding on a chariot being carried along by horses or even sometimes soldiers. And so this is what would happen as he went through the city in this triumphant way. Whether it was a conquering king or a returning king, the expectation would be that all of these processions would end in the temple of the area. Triumphs would always end at the temple to Jupiter sitting in Rome. These positions in Jerusalem would likely all and at the Temple; Pilate’s fortress was right up next to the temple. And it is expected that the king would get down from their mount and we perform some kind of sacrifice at the temple to the god of the area. And so this is what the people would be expecting Jesus to do as he enters into town in this triumphant, kingly way. So let’s take a look at what Jesus does and how it stacks up to what people would’ve been expecting. He rides into town, allowing people to spread the clocks along the road and waive their palm branches; but not exactly riding the prime war horse stallion that Alexander would’ve rode, nor riding in a cart or in a chariot the way Roman a general would or the Ark of the Covenant did. He is riding on a donkey. He rides into Jerusalem; a ride down the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, and into the temple. Now this was expected, something that the Messiah was supposed to do. In fact every religion that is Abrahamic, Judaism, Christianity, and even Islam, believes that in the Last Days, the Messiah (now we all disagree on the definition of the word Messiah), but the Messiah will come down the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, and up through the Beautiful Gate, or the eastern gate, of the Temple in order to perform a religious sacrifice. Exactly like these triumphant entries. We disagree on what that will look like, we all think he’ll do whatever our tradition states is the correct thing to do during worship, but we all agree that the Messiah will enter like this. So Jesus goes down the valley and walks into the Temple, exactly like you expect. Except for the fact he is riding a donkey and not a war horse. And then he walks into the Temple, and all the people are waiting with bated breath. And he looks around and says “this is nice.” And he walks back out the gate, back up the mountain, back to Bethany. And that’s all he does there. What Jesus is doing this whole time is throwing the idea on its head. He’s turning everything around. Just a few weeks ago we had the disciples arguing about who was the greatest and Jesus says in order to be greatest one must be least, to be great one must be a servant of all. Here he is saying the same thing: in order to truly be the King, you have to do what is unexpected, the exact opposite of what would be expected. Instead of riding a war horse, ride a donkey. Instead of doing a massive celebration with everyone present in the Temple, do nothing. Instead, Jesus‘s sacrifice at the temple happens tomorrow, on Monday, when Jesus walks back in the Temple and overturns the money changers’ tables. That’s the sacrifice he gives to God in the Temple. Not when everyone’s there to give him praise, but instead when everyone’s just running their regular day-to-day business. Jesus is upending tradition, and it won’t be the last time. In fact this pattern of Jesus gets him in so much trouble with the authorities that ultimately it leads to the cross. One of the things that has always been powerful to me in the rest of the story is maybe not something that other pastors, or even you, are focused on when reading this passage. But it is the fact that Jesus, in the midst of this walk, at some point he crests the hill; at some point he gets his first view of Jerusalem for this trip. And he stops, and he weeps. He looks out over the city of Jerusalem and he weeps. This is a picture of Jerusalem that was taken the first time on the walk down the Mount of Olives that you can see Jerusalem. It might be a little bit different; the wall that was blocking the path may not have been there when Jesus was alive, but this was powerful to me on both trips to Jerusalem. Because I remembered back to Jesus looking out over the city and weeping over the city. What you see in front of you are graves. I can think of Jesus looking out over the city, over this valley of bones, and weeping. Off to the right are tombs of the prophets; people remembered as heroes by the Jewish people today, but at the time considered threats that the people of Jerusalem had put to death. I can imagine Jesus looking out over this place, the emotions welling up inside of him. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate.[h] 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” And here they are saying those exact words. Perhaps the all-knowing Jesus is thinking of the billions of Christians throughout the centuries who have said those words as they remember the sacrifice he’s about to make when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. As he came here and saw the city, he wept over it saying “if you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace, but now they’re hidden from your eyes.” The tombs of the prophets are not exactly tourist destinations. For a while they were actually places where violence occurred. But at the time of Jesus, these are the heroes, these are the people that pointed to who was going to save Jerusalem. And I can’t imagine what it might’ve sounded like to a prophet to hear “oh, this is the tomb of the prophet the city killed!” For everyone else it might be a time of this joyous thing to go out and visit these places, but for a prophet...I can’t imagine what Jesus was thinking. This walk is an emotional one. I can’t imagine what it’s like for him to see the people waving palm branches, laying out their clothes in front of him, knowing what was going to happen on Thursday and Friday. As we enter this week, especially in this unprecedented situation, let us remember that ultimately as Jesus was going down the mountain hearing the hosannas; he wept. Let’s allow ourselves to feel the roller coaster of emotions of this week; the highest of highs that is happening today, the highest of highs that will happen next Sunday. But too often Christians today go from the emotional high of Palm Sunday directly to the emotional high of Easter without ever seeing anything in between, without ever experiencing the lowest of lows that we get to on Thursday and Friday, without experiencing the roller coaster of the whole week. This year I beg you, this year of all years, come watch on Maundy Thursday and watch on Good Friday. These videos will go live on those days just like this one. We will have a service on Maundy Thursday, will have a Scripture service on Good Friday to remember what happened and what Jesus went through in order to save us. Allow yourself to feel the lows as well as the highs of this week. I promise you, when we get to next Sunday and Jesus is walking out of the tomb, it will mean so much more this year because you went to the cross. Join me this week as we travel to our destination. Amen.