Parade, Protest, Procession, Prelude (Mark 11:1-11)
Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015
Picture it. Jesus sits on the donkey, slowly moving toward Jerusalem. His followers and crowds, either curious or hopeful, line the roadway and wave palms. “Hosanna,” they shout. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David.”
This event in scripture, Jesus’ slow ride into the city on the Sunday before his crucifixion, has been titled “the triumphal entry.” The title fits. Crowds are calling out their hopes and laying those hopes on Jesus’ back. He is the star of this show. This is his parade.
It certainly looks like a great triumph. Recall Mark chapter 3. Scribes – legal experts – traveled from Jerusalem to the north where Jesus was teaching and healing and driving demons out of people. The scribes came and checked out the fuss being made over Jesus. They called him “Beelzebu” (3:22), a demon. His own family tried to rein him in. Now, here he is parading into the great city of David. Crowds praise his name. And this is all happening around the time of Passover. Victory will be his. Yes, this certainly looks like a parade for Jesus.
We cannot stop there. We have to go deeper into the story.
Yes, Jesus is ushering in the Kingdom of God. But it is not a kingdom the Romans would respect. The Kingdom of Jesus stands on love and compassion, not intimidation and force. The Romans would have appreciated the “shock and awe” military campaign our nation tried to impose a little over a decade ago. We’ll force our will by way of power. It is very Roman, very military; it is not very Christ-like.
Some scholars believe that around the same time Jesus rode his humble donkey into Jerusalem, maybe even the same day, another procession was parading into town.[i] The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was processing, on gallant stallions, with all the pomp, circumstance, power, and intimidation the legionnaires could muster. They would should these denizens of Jerusalem what real power is. Jesus showed Jerusalem and the world what God is about.
His Kingdom was not for Rome, nor was it for the Jewish temple scribes. They are in the privileged class and they enjoy the benefits their position brings. Jesus, the Son of God, identifies with the lowliest in society – shepherds, the blind, children, prostitutes and tax collectors, women, and even gentiles. Who are those people in our world you might think of morally base or of low status. Jesus locates himself with them. The elites of Jerusalem, themselves heirs of Abraham just as Jesus was, would feel threatened by his identification with the humble of the world because he came to lift the lowly.
Thus his “triumphal entry,” as it is sometimes called, his parade was a protest march. His actions communicate a resounding “no” to politics of power. His stance negates the idea that might makes right. He also protested the calls of the revolutionaries who were in the crowd shouting “Hosanna.” They wanted him to lead the sword-bearing charge that would evict Roman. Many people in the crowd that waved palm branches in his honor had patriotism and nationalism in mind. Jesus had the salvation of all humanity in mind. There were conflicting agendas.
He protested the Romans who worshiped power, the Jerusalem establishment who cozied up to that power, and he protested those who would have him play a role other than the one God intended. He was not a violent revolutionary. His victory would come through sacrifice. No one around him was prepared for what was coming. This parade, which was in actuality a protest march, was also a funeral procession.
Jesus had said so on three occasions.
Mark 8:31, “31‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ 32 He said all this quite openly.”
Mark 9:31, “‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32 But [the disciples] did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
Mark 10:32, “He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him,33 saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’”
When Jesus rode into town to the tune of the hopeful “Hosanna’s,” he knew more was coming. So too did the first community to read the book of Mark as a completed gospel. The stories that informed Mark’s writing circulated through Christian communities from the very first days after the resurrection, but the document we find in our New Testaments as the book of Mark was not put together until after 60AD, maybe after 70 AD.
When someone, maybe Mark himself, first stood and read this work in a worship service, the core group knew Jesus died on a cross. And they believed it to be historical fact that he rose from the grave. Some of the older members were probably among those who met the resurrected Jesus in person (see 1 Corinthians 15:5). The disciples did not understand that after Palm Sunday would come Good Friday. The day would only be called “good” for what it means, not how it feels.
As we go through Mark and see the utter lack of vision displayed by the disciples, we must extend them grace. In their shoes, not knowing the resurrection was coming, we would do no better. They, so close to Jesus and yet so blind, should be one more impetus to us to show grace upon grace. That is why Jesus died out of love and as an act of compassionate love and grace for all sinners. For you and me.
The shout, “Hosanna,” a quotation from Psalm 118:25 literally means “Save us, we pray.” Those shouting it thought salvation would come with a new David, a new Goliath-slayer. Clearly, they did not realize God had a different plan. Their cry was appropriate though. Jesus would save everyone in his death and resurrection. Seeing the story as we do, from the standpoint of knowing how it turns out, we know that this parade in which Jesus protested violence, conquest, elitism, and many other pains that have resulted from the infestation of sin in the world – this parade was his funeral procession even before he was forced to drag his own cross to his place of execution.[ii]
But it does not end there. The story of Jesus and of us – following Jesus, running from Jesus, hiding from Jesus, denying Jesus, and ultimately being found by Jesus and made new by Jesus – this story does not end at the cross.
It pauses there. We cannot sing Hosanna’s Palm Sunday and then skip to the Hallelujah’s of Easter. We have to go through the Thursday of bread and wine and washing feet. We have to linger in the bloody, black darkness of Friday when our Savior was hung on the cross, nailed to it by our sins. We have to worship in awareness of our dependence upon him.
This drama plays out every time we gather. We come as sinners saved by grace. To say we are sinners means we have been hurt and we have hurt others. It means we have cut ourselves off from God. But, we are saved from this alienation and the death that comes with it. We are saved to joyous eternal life, lived in relationships of love with one another as sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters in the family of God. The highs and lows of this story must never be forgotten.
We acknowledge the pause, while remembering we are a people defined by the light on the distant hill, the light that emanates from an empty tomb. The parade that is a protest that is in fact a procession to death in the end is a prelude to a new age. At Thanksgiving, at Christmas, on Palm Sunday, on a nondescript Tuesday in August, and on every day in between, we are Easter people. We are born again. We are made new, called into eternal life in Christ. The story of Palm Sunday is the introduction to the great work of literary art that speaks in words, in images, on the screen, and in way we live our lives. It is the prequel to the greatest story that can be told, the unending life lived in the Kingdom of God and the part God invites us to play in it.
Palm Sunday is our lead-in prepping us for resurrection. But, more on that next week.
This week, we worship and rejoice because of who Jesus is and who we are in Him.