Sunday, April 1, 2012 - Palm Sunday
This day, Palm Sunday, marks a key moment in the Jesus drama as we read it in the Bible. Each of the four gospels has a different slant, but each includes the ride of Jesus into Jerusalem on a Sunday a few days before Passover.
At Passover the people remembered their slavery in Egypt and they remembered how the angel of death, sent from God, killed the first born of all living things in Egypt, human and animal. But, Moses told the people to sacrifice a lamb and put the lamb’s blood on their doorposts. If they did, and the angel of death came, he would “pass over” that home, and not take the first born. After this tragedy imposed on Egypt by God, the Pharaoh released the Jewish slaves. God’s people were free to go.
Since that time, at the Passover meal Jews have annually celebrated their freedom and their unique calling as God’s chosen people. At the end of the first century BC, those celebrations were filled with irony and thoughts of revolution. This is because the people were not free, but enslaved once again, this time in their own land under the heavy-handed rule of Rome. Jesus intentionally came to Jerusalem at this politically heated time, Passover. He came with the purpose of announcing the arrival of the new age, the kingdom of God, founded on his lordship. The people expected the Messiah to usher in a new age and that’s exactly what Jesus was doing.
That’s the background of Palm Sunday.
Here is how Mark describes what took place.
7 And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 8 And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. 9 And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
11 And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.
Once again freedom was being declared in Jerusalem as Jesus rode in like a reigning king, but his kingdom was so different than the political machine the Jews had come to imagine and hope for that few recognized him as the Messiah and as the Lord and as the right King. He fulfilled the prophecies. He just didn’t fulfill them the way most thought the Messiah would.
As we think about Jesus and the scriptures we have for Palm Sunday, the verses we read from Hebrews give us a way of understanding what took place when Jesus came, rode in as the King, cleared out the money changing tables, and in doing so claimed authority over the temple. Hebrews 9:11 says, Jesus entered the holy place and came before God “through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation).”
The temple was thought of as the point at which human and divine would come into contact. The priests, and once a year the high priest, would sacrifice on behalf of the people so that sins were covered. Worship was probably bloodier than we can really imagine. Our church services are musical. And there’s a teaching/preaching element. We respond with prayer and giving. We greet one another. Our time of worship is social. The ancient worship included some of the elements we have, but the big event was the slaughter of the animal and then the burning of the animal so that it was a burnt offering.
It was such a massive operation, and so valued by people, that the temple leaders made a nice prophet changing currency. They of course would not accept Roman coins in the temple treasury. So if people wanted to make a monetary offering, they needed temple coins. They had to do the exchange. Again, many people, maybe most, who came to worship in the Jerusalem temple wanted to offer an animal as a burnt offering. And they especially wanted to do so at the time of Passover. They couldn’t travel 100’s of miles with a dove or a goat in tow. So they would buy one at the temple. And to do so, they had to change out their money.
In a rush of anger, Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers. Then, throughout the week, before he was arrested on Thursday, Jesus had verbal sparring matches with the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees. Finally, as he talked about the work of God and the new beginning in Mark 13 and in other places, he declared the temple finished. One of his disciples was thrilled with the architecture, but Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings [of the temple]? Not one stone will be left upon another. All will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). John records Jesus as facing off with temple leaders when he said, “Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:19).
What does he mean? Mark 13, Matthew 24-25, and Luke 21 (and other sections of Luke) each record Jesus teaching in apocalyptic language. The images he uses tempt us to think he’s referring to the end of time, but I don’t believe that is the case.
I am convinced that all the events described in apocalyptic language Mark 13 (and also in Matthew and Luke) took place in the first century with the death and resurrection of Jesus. I know the more popular reading associates Mark 13 with events imagined in the popular Left Behind series, but my thought is Jesus was talking about what happened in his coming and his rising from death. He said the temple would come down and then be raised in three days. Did that happen? In 70AD, the Romans destroyed the temple completely as Jerusalem burned. Was it rebuilt in three days? It was not.
Jesus meant that he was now accomplishing what the temple was meant to accomplish. People had thought they were to go to the temple to find God. Jesus identified himself as the place where God is found. He was the new temple. As N.T. Wright says in The Challenge of Jesus: “Jesus was deliberately acting in a way as to say that where he was and where his followers were, Israel’s God was present and active in the same he normally was in the temple.”
Furthermore, Wright asserts that much of what the first century Jews were doing – fasting at certain times and holding to particular religious austerity indicates that they considered themselves to be in exile because Rome ruled over God’s land – the city of Zion. Jesus came to say the bridegroom is here; it’s a time of feasting, not fasting. But the feast only comes with the arrival of the Messiah. On that Palm Sunday, amidst cries from many Jews for a military revolution, the prince of peace, who taught us to turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute us, was saying the Messiah and the new age of God had arrived.
The stones of the temple were obsolete because he, as Hebrews says, went before God through a different tent. The writer of Hebrews casts a theological light on the story that Mark and the other gospel writers told. The stone and gold of the temple, so beautifully designed and artfully built, was as rubbish to Jesus who died and rose to life and rose to Heaven to go before God on our behalf. His gruesome death and then his appearance in God’s throne room where he sat at God’s right hand did what generations of sacrifice in the beautiful temple could not. This gets weighty and confusing as we consider that Jesus is God and went before God, but that is the mystery of the trinity that we cannot grasp. We accept it by faith. What’s more, by faith, we accept that Jesus is our salvation.
Mark tells this truth in story form – the drama of Jesus riding in on what we now call Palm Sunday. His disciples cheered him, religious leaders plotted to kill him, and the watching world wondered. Mark’s telling of this story – and by saying it is story, I don’t mean it isn’t true; it is absolutely true and real – Mark’s telling has inspired people to faith for the last 1900 years.
So too has the theological reflection on the events of the Jesus story that we find in the letter to the Hebrews. If the Hebrews 9:11-12 shows the difference between the way Jesus goes before God and the way the temple priests did so, then verse 14, gives us a bit of what happened when Jesus did his priestly work by sacrificing himself. We are purified of dead works so that we may do something alive – worship the living God. In the Message version it is rendered, “Christ offered himself as an unblemished sacrifice, freeing us from all those dead-end efforts to make ourselves respectable, so that we can live all out for God.”
Seeing Jesus on Palm Sunday – Jesus the King who displaced the temple not as a rejection of Old Testament religion so much as a fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament and a reaching back to God’s original intended relationship with humans, with us – see Jesus this was, we know we are freed to answer God’s call. We are called to worship. This is not a case of prematurly jumping to the resurrection before we’ve walked through the shadow of death the cross casts. We know we have to go through Friday to get to Sunday. But, we also see the story in light of the big picture because we live in an age when we have the New Testament and we have the Holy Spirit.
Jesus came and died to free us so we could follow the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Spirit leads us to worship and to tell of Jesus’ kingdom. This is the gospel and it – the narrative of the coming of Jesus – shines through both in Mark (story) and Hebrews (theological reflection).
What appeals more in your thinking? Some enjoy stories – telling and hearing them. Some enjoy slipping serious matters into casual conversation. Some are thrilled by diving in head-first into deep waters of theological dialogue. Some enjoy communicating through friendship, acts of love and then invitation – inviting a friend to church so the friend can hear the gospel in the worship setting. What’s most natural for you? How has God created you as a storyteller or gospel sharer?
The story in Mark and the reflection in Hebrews were preserved believers through the generations would know what happened and how to understand it. But it is not ours. It is Gods, a story and a reality he gives as gifts and we only truly receive the gospel when we share it. Palm Sunday – Good Friday – Easter; this is a time to share. Live in the story. Live in your salvation. And notice someone nearby who appears to be hurting or lost, confused or frustrated. Invite that person you notice to come hear the Jesus story for him or herself. In sharing, we fully realize the magnitude of grace as it flows through us.
Thursday of this week, we continue in the story, going from the cheers of Palm Sunday to the sober mood of Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper. Come back to church that night and bring a friend because this story if given to us by God and it is to be heard, understood, and shaed.