While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Lesson: Mark 11:1-11
Palm Sunday is a lot of fun, normally with the children waving their palm branches at the opening of the service. It gives a wonderful feeling of celebration.
Hosanna, loud hosanna, the little children sang
Through pillared court and temple
The lovely anthem rang
In my memory, it has always been like this, although somewhere along the way we switched from green construction paper to real palm branches: it has been a children’s celebration for years.
Of course, adults have always looked beyond that. Once the kids are safely in Sunday School, sermons often talk about the public expectation of a political saviour being disappointed by the appearance of a spiritual, eternal saviour. We have contrasted the traditional human rule by power to Jesus’ message of rule by love; of weakness overcoming strength.
Since we can’t have a Palm Sunday procession this year I’d like to try and develop a more realistic picture of what it was really like in Jesus’ day.
Consider the word “Hosanna”. It means “Save us” and “Hosanna in the Highest” is thus a cry to God to intervene. It is a call for divine salvation.
When you consider that religion and politics were tightly united in all Mediterranean nations in those days and that Israel was no different: they were the chosen people of God and consider that an emperor who called himself a god had forced them to erect his statue in the Temple in Jerusalem . . .
When you consider the depth of that insult, the blasphemy of it, the insult not only to the nation but to God, the violation of the laws of Moses and the third commandment in particular . . .
When you consider that the holy city, Jerusalem, was under the rule of a Roman Governor and had been for over two decades, since Jesus was 9 years old, it should give us a different feel for what that triumphal entry felt like.
Remember, this is the Middle East. It is possible to live in peace there, but it rarely happens.
That stretch of territory has been conquered by empire after empire on their ways between North Africa, Asia and Europe. The Romans were just the latest.
What was going on when Jesus rode into Jerusalem is best compared to the Arab Spring: peaceful demonstrations that we might not consider very peaceful and that certainly wouldn’t be safe, especially with the soldiers watching, armed, but outnumbered and very aware of how much the people hated them.
That’s what Jesus chose to ride through, making himself stand out in the chanting crowd. They didn’t have signs to wave so they waved branches. Whether the crowd really thought that Jesus could challenge the military rulers of Judea, or whether they simply enjoyed the symbolism that he employed that they all recognized from the scriptures doesn’t really matter:
he chose to stand out in a crowd that was challenging the power of Rome, the greatest empire that part of the world had ever seen.
This was not a happy time, although joy would certainly be involved. It would have been electrifying, exciting, terrifying.
You could probably count on the Romans not to arrest Jesus then, with the crowd so worked up. He took advantage of that and went straight to the temple where he looked things over and planned to return the next day
to overturn the tables of the money-changers and challenge the basis of power, the Jewish leaders who collaborated with the Romans.
This is profoundly dramatic stuff and Jesus knew it. He left Jerusalem that night to stay with friends in Bethany, out of the public eye and away from where the Romans would expect to find him.
And you’ll notice that when he was finally arrested it was quiet, in a garden
where riots would not happen. And it was facilitated by the collaborators so the Romans themselves didn’t provoke the crowds.
The security services were not totally stupid. The Romans had ruled trouble spots before and had experience. But they misjudged Jesus; they assumed that when they executed him his followers would disperse.
They also misjudged the Jewish people: so a series of Roman/Jewish wars followed over the years. Eventually the Romans ended up using the military in a brutal suppression that destroyed Jerusalem, and killed countless civilians, creating the peace of the graveyard.
Does this all sound familiar? The CBC has been running a retrospective on the Syrian civil war on this, the 10th anniversary of its beginning. The early images of the Arab Spring have been re-broadcast and the hopeful people who thought that they might chase their dictator out peacefully brought the Triumphal entry starkly to my mind.
What Jesus did was courageous. It was terrifying and brave and it triggered a predictable response from the authorities – no doubt exactly what he intended to do. And the brutality of their response stands in stark contrast to everything Jesus stood for.
We should not be discouraged by that image of the crucifixion looming. Yes, power regularly responds violently to challenge – we have seen that in recent years, as well as in history, and cynicism might suggest that violence will always win.
But since the time of Jesus, as we have tried to put into place his teachings, as we have tried to make real his values, we have seen the ways these work and the progress that is shared, rather than hoarded when people embrace the ideas of the first being last and the weak being strong; when people work to lift each other up instead of treading each other under their heels.
A theological commentator from the Caribbean, who has personal experience of donkeys remarked that the first lesson you learn when you ride a donkey is the lesson of patience. Donkeys are incredibly strong, and can be very loyal but they cannot be hurried. You have to accept that your journey will not be quick, that there will be pauses and delays on the way and that using violence to speed things up, beating the donkey, will only make you slower.
On Palm Sunday at the Triumphal Entry, Jesus began two journeys on a donkey: the first led to the cross in less than a week; he and the crowd challenged the right of the military to govern and he was executed by the military in the hopes of quelling a rebellion.
The second journey actually started much earlier as Jesus taught his followers and as he started us on our donkey ride: the slow transformation of a world wedded to power and privilege into a world of love, of hope, of justice, of peace.
Jesus set out with unimaginable courage, like the students facing the tanks in Tiananmen Square, or the ordinary people in Tahrir Square in Egypt, or the people of Aleppo in Syria.
We are called to continue this greater donkey ride; this cry against the abuses of power; this celebration of the ways that we can grow and advance as a diverse mix of people, helping each other, embracing each other, instead of building walls or drawing swords.
As terrifying as this might seem, it is what Jesus did and what we are called to do. In a world that in recent years has increased its calls to arms and violence, division and hatred, this message is needed more than ever.