This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Mark 11:1-11
Sermon prepared by Rev. Vicki Cok, Waterloo, Ontario.
The crowds along the parade route on Palm Sunday shout out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” They’re singing Psalm 118, which is a psalm of praise that had been sung for centuries by crowds of festive Hebrews traveling on this same road to these same city gates at this same time of year for this same Passover Festival.
If you look it up you’ll see that Psalm 118 actually says, “O Lord Save Us!” instead of “Hosanna,” but that’s just a translation thing. “Hosanna!” means “Save us!” But for the Hebrews on their way to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, it did not mean save us from sin. It meant save us from our political enemies. The one who comes in the name of the Lord in Psalm 118 is the one who will make the streets safe and stop the discrimination against the Jewish people. When they cried “Hosanna to the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they were saying, “Save us from the Romans! Blessed is the one who will save us from the Romans!”
They’re close to taking the name of the Lord in vain. It’s almost like using the precious name of God to claim that God’s on our side at this political convention or in this war or even this football game. This crowd in Jerusalem has latched on to Jesus as one who will fight on their side, save them from their religious and political enemies, beat the opposing team, when what they really need is for him to save them from the enemy inside of each one of them. What they need is to be saved from their own sin. They need to be saved from the power of Satan. They need to be saved from eternal death.
Shouting nationalistic slogans is not appropriate on Palm Sunday, but it’s hardly a surprise that they do it since political victory is what they expect salvation is going to be about. For the past several chapters in Mark Jesus has quite explicitly said, “No, that’s not it. The Son of Man is going to suffer and die.” And then we’ve seen the disciples respond uncomprehendingly to this dire news by asking who’s going to get the corner office in the new kingdom.
Palm Sunday is just a magnification of the Messianic misunderstanding that we see throughout the gospel of Mark, magnified even as Jesus approaches Jerusalem riding on a little colt, his grown-up feet almost dragging on the ground, not looking anything like the Messiah they’d been expecting. He is not a buffed military leader on a prancing white stallion. But his almost comical entrance is consistent with what he’s been saying for the past three years about service and humility.
But nobody gets it. Nobody gets it that Jesus has come to save them from sin. Nobody gets it that Jesus has come to save them from slavery to sin and from the consequences of the sin that separated the human race from its creator. They can’t see beyond social discrimination and political oppression and economic hardship to the sin that causes social discrimination and political oppression and economic hardship. They’re just tired of being the underdog, of being the team that never wins. They’re the chosen people of God, for Pete’s sake! It’s time for somebody to notice that and to beat up the bullies that keep shoving them into their lockers and stealing their lunch money, and they sure hope that Jesus is just the guy who’s going to do it.
So it’s party time on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus is the grand marshal of the parade. But he’s a quiet grand marshal. Look closely and you’ll see that he’s enduring all the hoopla – not enjoying it. We don’t see him waving at the crowds or blowing kisses or hopping off his little colt to shake hands and kiss babies. He’s quietly riding to his crucifixion, surrounded by disciples who just don’t get it.
Up until now Jesus has not allowed anyone to use his holy name. He’s consistently told people to keep quiet about him. He didn’t want anyone spreading half truths about him. And he didn’t want to tick off the Roman authorities before it was time.
But now it’s time. Jesus is going public. So he rides on, enduring their mistaken and misdirected praises. Letting them use the name of the Lord in vain. Listening to them ask for the wrong thing, when he’s about to give them what they really need--as he still does today. The truth is that Jesus still endures praises offered for the wrong reasons. He still lets his followers use his name in vain. He still listens to us ask for anything and everything except what we really need and what he wants us to ask for – what he gave his life to give us.
In Hunting the Divine Fox, Episcopal Priest Robert Capon says that the typical American paradigm of the Messiah is not Jesus, but Superman. We don't want a savior who does a stupid thing like rising from the dead. We want one who never dies. But there’s even more to it than that. We want a Superman who saves us from burning buildings, but Jesus wants to save us from the fires of hell. We want a savior to keep us from dying, but Jesus wants to keep us from death. We want to be saved from discomfort, from pain, from sickness, from economic insecurity, but Jesus wants to save us from slavery to the one who causes these things. We want to be saved from unhappiness. But Jesus wants to give us joy.
So ask yourself today, when you sing, “Hosanna! Save us!” -- what is it that you want to be saved from? And then ask yourself what it is that you need to be saved from?
One commentator suggests that what we need most is for Jesus to save us from ourselves, and we need this in three particular areas.
(1) We need to be saved from a petty nationalism that divides the world into tiny enclaves set over against one another. Jesus did not come to fulfill anyone’s political agenda. The one who comes in the name of the Lord of the universe comes as the King of the universe and dies for all people. His people will not be confined to any one nation and his sacrificial love will reach beyond all national borders and races.
(2) We must also be saved from a mercurial—or changing, fickle—faith that abandons Jesus at the first sign of trouble. Jesus does not welcome cheers from partiers who will not pray with him in dark Gethsemane or go with him to an even darker Golgotha. He can’t do much with people who show up once a year when the cheering starts around Easter. He needs followers who will endure to the end, even when faced with unspeakable suffering.
(3) We must be saved from foolish expectations of glory, so that we can see God’s true power and glory on the cross. We must recognize that “Palm Sunday Jesus” doesn’t save anybody. Palm Sunday Jesus just goes to the temple, looks around, and goes back to the hotel. If we want to be saved from anything, we need Good Friday Jesus and Easter Jesus. If the story ended with the party today, nothing would have changed, and nobody would be saved.
But that doesn’t mean that today isn’t important. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a little colt fulfills a couple of prophecies, for one thing, and that’s always important, at least for assuring us that Jesus is the one who’d been prophesied about.
Prophecy fulfillment is Matthew’s emphasis, though, not Mark’s. In an article in the Christian Century, Tom Long points out that Mark says more about that whole process of getting the animal than he says about anything else. What kind of animal to look for, where to find it, how to take it, what to say. It’s one of those rare moments where the frenetic pace of Mark slows down. Why is that? What’s the deal with the little horse? Why might all these details be important to Mark’s poor and persecuted readers?
There’s assurance here, of course, for those early Christians suffering for their faith, that while the King and the kingdom might look small and insignificant, God is present and God is at work in weakness and suffering. It’s a lesson for Mark’s readers and for the disciples that God’s definition of power and glory and victory and salvation looks a whole lot different than the world’s definition of power and glory and victory and salvation.
At the same time, this whole scene is one last lesson for all followers of Jesus, then and now, that discipleship is not generally about power and glory and sitting on thrones and passing judgment on enemies. As Tom Long says, a lot of the time, discipleship means following a little horse with a pooper scooper. Mark doesn’t tell us which two disciples were assigned animal duty, but wouldn’t it be deliciously ironic if it were James and John, who not so long ago had been whining about who’d get to sit on Jesus’ right and left hands in glory? Although it doesn’t really matter who it was, since all the disciples were arguing among themselves over who was the greatest.
And now on the day that Jesus finally goes public as King, as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, and the crowd goes crazy, today of all days the disciples find themselves assigned to donkey duty, looking a lot like horse thieves, trying to lead an untamed animal out of town. In Mark, finding the donkey seems like a behind-the-scenes chore kind of like a worship committee meeting to plan the Palm Sunday service – just one of those thousands of details of church work that are necessary, but are not the real action.
But without that little colt, the story would be completely different. Jesus would have walked to town. Prophecies would have gone unfulfilled. So Mark reminds us that serving Jesus often comes down to doing stuff like making photocopies and watching kids in the nursery and handing out Bibles and song books and finding Palm branches for the kids to wave and taking down and putting up chairs in the sanctuary and finding a suitable donkey at the last minute for the Easter pageant.
Long says that it is right at this place that Mark imparts some of his best theological wisdom. He begins his Gospel with the exhilarating trumpet call to "prepare the way of the Lord," but he makes it clear, by his description of the disciples’ activity in the rest of his Gospel that the way to do this is not by becoming a member of the Knights Templar and gallantly defending Christendom, but rather by performing humble and routine tasks. The disciples in Mark get a boat ready for Jesus, find out how much food is on hand for the multitude, secure the room and prepare the table for the Last Supper, and chase down a donkey.
Whatever they may have heard when Jesus said, "Follow me," they’ve found it to mean handling the gritty details of everyday life. Mark understands that preparing the way of the Lord means just that – preparing the way of the Lord. Making the arrangements necessary for the Lord to minister to people, ‘cause it’s really God who does the work. And so in Mark’s gospel, "preparing the way of the Lord" often looks like standing hip-deep in the muck of some stable trying to corral a donkey for Jesus.
Maybe that’s why Mark spends seven verses talking about getting the animal and then tells the story of the parade in just three verses, where he mostly just quotes Psalm 118. We like to focus on the parade on Palm Sunday, ‘cause we’re tired of Lent and ready for the Easter, but the parade’s obviously not the point.
And it’s not Easter yet.
So when the parade reaches the gates of Jerusalem, Mark sends Jesus in alone. Jesus enters the city by himself and heads straight to the temple, and the mind of the reader heads back the very beginning of this gospel, where Mark quotes Malachi 3:1-2, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.” But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.”
Well, here he is. He’s arrived. Nothing much happens at the temple today, but just give Mark a few more verses and the refining fire will ignite because Jesus has arrived, and he turns out to be a very testy visitor. He’s not what they wanted, or who they expected, or what they thought they needed, and he quickly wears out his welcome. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, they roll out the red carpet, only to discover that Jesus has come into town to attack all that they prize.
It feels like a bait and switch when it turns out that the “kingdom” of their father David that they were singing about in verse ten is not the kingdom that they’re going to get. They want another Davidic kingdom, with two chickens in every pot and a camel in every garage. But they’re going to get the kingdom of God instead. Because Jesus didn’t come to restore the Jewish kingdom and its temple cult. When he finally gets to Jerusalem, Jesus walks into the temple to inspect it. Tomorrow he will begin to pronounce God’s judgment on it.
Well, this is a bit much for someone who only comes “in the name of the Lord.”
Have you ever noticed that? That crowd along the parade route does not call Jesus Messiah or Son of David or Son of God. They call him one who comes in the name of the Lord. Like a messenger. Maybe another great prophet. Kind of like Muslims still see him today. They do not see Jesus as the Lord, and when Jesus starts to claim these other names over the next few days, it will get him into trouble with just about everyone.
‘Cause that’s the bottom line: naming Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Not as a prophet. Not as a great teacher. Not as a political revolutionary. Not as an option. Mark says that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who came to save you from sin. Not from unhappiness. From sin.
Palm Sunday is about happiness. Easter is about joy. Because happiness is not enough. Jesus is not about to hang on a cross to make us happy. He has bigger things in mind. Things that often include happiness, but aren’t stuck there.
Scott Hoezee notes that for Christian people, happiness might be a first feeling, but joy is a last. Christian joy is refined and thoughtful because it has passed through death. If you burst into a third grade classroom and surprise them all with out-of-the-blue gifts, you will probably see the class erupt in happiness. The happiness of the original Palm Sunday crowd was like that: spontaneous, erupting straight from the hearts of people who thought an out-of-the-blue gift was getting plopped right into their laps. “Here’s your Savior and King!” the crowds thought they heard someone say. And so they cheered. Of course they did! But that spontaneous reaction is not joy. Joy is not the happy reaction of a child unexpectedly handed a candy bar. Joy is what we will feel on Friday when we look at a bloody cross and still find it within ourselves to shout “Hosanna! What a Savior!”
If the story ended on Palm Sunday, there would be no joy. There would be no salvation. We would go on crying “Save us!”, but there would be no salvation of any kind from that parade. We live in a war-torn world going through a global economic and environmental crisis. No parade is going to fix that. No worship rally, no economic summit, no new American president, no parade is going to save us from the sin that eats at every part of God’s good creation and from an evil one who wants to control us and then to watch us suffer and die.
Only Jesus can save us from that. Only Jesus can destroy what’s trying to destroy us. But this requires following Jesus from today’s parade to Friday’s crucifixion and hearing this same crowd mock him, saying, “He saved others, but he can’t even save himself!” They were wrong, you know. He could have saved himself. But he did not. And because he let himself be killed on that cross, we can call out “Hosanna! Save us!” with confidence that he can.
And he will.
“Save us, Son of David.”
Order of Worship
Gathering for Worship
Call to Worship
God calls us to worship during this season of Lent.
We Worship Jesus Christ, the one who comes in the name of the Lord,
Who rides in humility to do the saving work of the Lord.
God gave Christ the victory so we can call him “King.”
Let us praise God for his great gift to us in Christ, his Son.
Song of Praise: “He Came to Serve, to Give His Life”
(sung to the tune of Psalter Hymnal #219 – “As Moses Raised the Serpent Up”)
He came to serve, to give his life;
To heal divisions, mend all strife.
And still he calls us every day
To follow him upon the way.
He welcomes children as a sign
That simple faith is God’s design;
To welcome children as our Lord
Is to live out His holy word.
All praise to you, our Christ and Lord,
And ever may you be adored.
O may your word be ever clear –
Good news to overcome all fear.
“May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be and abide with us all. Amen.”
Song of Praise: Psalter Hymnal #376, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”
Confession and Assurance
King of Glory, we confess that while we want to celebrate your victory, we often
turn on you as quickly as those who worshipped you on your approach to Jerusalem.
Forgive us for offering you empty praise, for not remembering where the road
to Jerusalem will take you. We are sorry for losing sight of your humility, your
sacrifice, your true strength and power. Help us to proclaim your praises
wholeheartedly as the One who is victorious over sin and death. Amen.
People of God, hear these words of salvation from Psalm 118: “I was pushed back
and about to fall, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and my defence;
he has become my salvation. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love
Thanks be to God!
Song of Dedication: Psalter Hymnal #262: 1 & 2, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee”
Proclamation of the Word
Scripture: Mark 11:1-11
Sermon: “The One Who Comes in the Name of the Lord”
Sing! A New Creation! #129, “Throughout These Lenten Days and Nights”
Doxology: “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow”