Here we are at a day full of . . . irony. I guess that is why we refer to this day in the church’s lectionary as Palm / (slash) Passion Sunday. The truth that gathers us and meets us this day is ironic, or in psychological terms, is kind of ‘bi-polar’ – moving from one emotional extreme to another. We are welcoming a king – but he rides in on a donkey. We sing hosannas of welcome to the Messiah – but by the end of the week those same acclamations become transformed into demands for his execution. Behind this day is the irony of the God we did not expect. And behind that is the greater irony of the way our expectations for God got subverted in Jesus of Nazareth.
In the church where I grew up, I remember Palm Sunday as being a Sunday set aside purely for a great celebration. It was a joyous Sunday where we enacted and celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Palm Sunday still begins as a day for celebration for us like today, but now years later, I have come to realize, the celebration is not for the reasons we often think. In the church where I grew up, we thought of Palm Sunday as the day when it was clear that Jesus was KING, so that he now triumphantly rode into Jerusalem as a KING. The setting and the image was one of children and crowds waving palm branches and spreading cloaks on the ground in honor – “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”
But we know that after this account, the Gospel begins to tell a different tale. It relates the account of great expectations and hosannas on Sunday, turning to the shout to “Crucify him!” by Friday – and ironically, these shouts are perhaps by the very same people.
Therefore this Sunday is a sobering reminder about what can happen to a group of religious people. . . . Even religious folk can work up their expectations for a major victory at the beginning of the week, and by the end of the week, dash those hopes, so that even the inner circle of disciples denied, deserted or betrayed Jesus by late Thursday. And as for the crowds – well let’s just say that things turned really ugly when Jesus was handed over to the Roman authorities who prepared him for crucifixion; a welcoming crowd was transformed into mob rule. So it is that this week moves quickly from palms to Jesus’ passion.
We are left asking ourselves how a week that began so well could have ended so badly. Perhaps one of the reasons for finding ourselves here, at the end of this week crying out “crucify him” was that Jesus appears to have little interest in meeting our heartfelt expressions. He was not the God we wanted – even though he was the God we needed. We all know the kind of God we wanted: One who would come and vanquish our foes and put us up in a position of power over others and control over our own lives. But then Jesus ironically came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for sin.
That wasn’t what we wanted – but it was what we needed. Because, when we are honest, we must admit that the true heart of the problem is not the acquisition of more political power. It is the overcoming of good old human sin.
Jesus told us as recorded in Mark, chapter 7 that it is from us – from our own hearts – that war, adultery, murder, slander, and all manner of human sadness come. Our politicians, then as now, tell us that we need to protect our borders from alien persons; but we know deep down that our real problem starts with the borders within our own hearts.
Here in Mark’s account of the Passion is the only time in this gospel that Jesus elevates himself above the crowd. But he doesn’t do that by mounting a war horse, as we might expect. He climbs on to a donkey and bounces into town, taking the town, not with as sword in his hand, but rather in peace.
Those palm branches that the crowds were waving ought to be set in context. They were symbols – political symbols. Palm branches were used to celebrate the Maccabean victory nearly 200 years before. The Jewish Maccabees militarily miraculously conquered their pagan overlords and placed Jerusalem once again in Jewish hands. Surely that was what the crowd was hoping for when they saw Jesus riding in town on a donkey. They were hoping for another overthrow– this time of their Roman oppressors. They thought of King David or King Solomon when Israel was at the summit of international power and how these kings would swagger into the capital city after one of their great military victories. But if they thought that, surely their thoughts of royal power were shattered when they saw the kind of animal Jesus was riding. … how ironic.
Here is another irony in the Palm Sunday account. The pilgrims coming to town with Jesus were singing “Hallel psalms” – that is, the “let’s go up to Zion” psalms. Those psalms are somewhat like the football fight songs that we all used to chant at the bonfire before the big game; “Cocoa Beach High School, fight, fight, fight!” The “Hallel psalms” are full of hosannas, which mean “God saves’, as well as hallelujahs which mean “praise God,” or “God wins!” The line “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” was what the pilgrims sang back and forth antiphonally to one another as they went up to Zion.
But the Gospels indicate that even though the King of kings and the Lord of Lords, had truly arrived, the vast majority of those who sang did not recognize Jesus as such. They had a very different vision of what sort of king Jesus should be than Jesus had. Their grand expectations were not matched by God’s peculiar presence. How ironic…..
When Matthew writes of this account, he quotes the prophet Zechariah to unpack the significance of Palm Sunday: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” That in itself is a shock, but not as great a shock as what follows: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations…” So Jesus rides into Jerusalem as the prince of peace, not as the pursuer of war. And what was the popular response? Crucify him! He just didn’t meet the expectations as to how a Messiah was to behave. How ironic….
Biblical scholars estimate that at Passover, Jerusalem went from a town of 50,000 to a town of 500,000. (Think Cocoa Beach during Bike Week, Spring Break, Melbourne Air Show, Runaway Country and Spring Praise Fest Weekend – that’s what Jerusalem was like…) So if you want to make existing authorities – both Jewish and Roman ones – nervous, then ride into town in some sort of royal ceremony. Then march right into the religious center of the city – the temple – and say things and do things that could be interpreted as depicting the destruction of the temple. Then go and take a whip in your hand and clear out the money changers in the temple and see how the authorities will respond.
Even among his own disciples, Jesus apparently raised their hopes and expectations. At last, they must have thought! At last he’s is going to stand up, take charge, take names, run the Romans out. At last he is going to act like a real Messiah.
But by Thursday night, things had taken an ironic turn. Jesus was at the table talking about his body and blood, rather than up at the palace or in the temple talking about seizing power. His disciples became disillusioned and fearful.
Was it by accident or by divine design that these twelve disciples were unable to perceive the identity of Jesus? When the going got rough they fled into the night. Ironically, it was the women disciples, like Mary Magdalene, who remained to the last at the cross, and then were the first at the tomb. Hence, they were the first to see the risen Jesus. Was it that the women were best able to receive Jesus as he was – Jesus as the prince of peace? “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus, “for they are the ones who will one day be called the children of God.”
Yes, this was a day of irony – a day when both the crowds and the disciples had their expectations concerning Jesus dashed. Jesus was not the sort of king they expected; one who would run the Romans out of town. He was a king who climbed in the back of a donkey and then was hoisted high and lifted up to die on a cross – dying even for the sins of the enemies of Israel… dying for our sins committed some 2,000 years later.
Therefore, it is no wonder that we too find the truth of this day to be incomprehensible. To this day, still, we tend to think that military solutions to our world problems are the only realistic solutions. We tend to think that political power is the only power worth having. We say, ‘but this is the way the world works,” or “this is reality.” Everything except this Sunday and this last week of Jesus’ earthly life tells us this is so. But look at our world today – our contemporary modern world – can we say that we have really advanced in our battle with the sins our own hearts?
Did you notice the 11th verse of the passage we read for today? This whole account of Jesus entering Jerusalem ends rather awkwardly, doesn’t it? After this grand parade, Jesus enters the temple, takes a look around … and since it is getting late, he and the twelve quietly return to Bethany.
That’s not a very dramatic ending for such a glorious dramatic beginning. Perhaps this concluding verse is the key to our interpretation of the events of this Palm/Passion Sunday. This great entry into the holy city just does not go as we anticipate. Our expectations are thwarted. Our Messianic hopes are dashed, or at least rearranged by Mark. Jesus just looks around. Does he look around at the glory that could have been his, but would have caused him to be unfaithful to his mission? Does he look around the temple with contempt and sadness? Or does, Mark the writer, simply mean for us to marvel at how a day that began with such expectation ends with such anticlimactic disappointment?
The crowd had dispersed. There was no one left to continue welcoming this curious visitor to town. There was no priestly delegation to greet Jesus as he enters the temple. There are no Pharisees watching him from behind the pillars, wondering what Jesus will do next. There are no Roman soldiers spying on him, ready to take action if he even gives a hint at causing an insurrection.
Jesus is simply left alone with his own thoughts, and the twelve following behind. Perhaps as he walks toward Bethany, he is beginning to think again of the way that nobody wants to go – the way of self-sacrifice, of suffering love – of a way walked by few on the face of God’s earth.
It is a quiet, anticlimactic, but still revealing conclusion to this well-known scene from Mark. It is an account replete with irony – the same irony that is involved in the incarnation itself where God becomes human, the story of our redemption, where a king becomes crucified for us.
How quickly Palm Sunday joy turns to Passion Sunday sadness, fear and rejection. The king we welcome with waving palm branches becomes the peacemaker who bounces into Jerusalem in the back of a donkey.
Jesus did not come to meet our expectations. He came to meet our need – to bring us peace we could not have on our own. He came to meet our deepest needs – our need of a means meet God that is not self-devised; our need for salvation that is more than a political solution, our need for the truth about who God really is, rather than who we hoped God would be.
To be a Christian – a follower of Jesus – is to be encountered by the Messiah we did not expect. So this week ahead, let us follow our unexpected Savior down the ironic path; that path that few of us would have ever expected that he, or we would ever have to walk. Amen.