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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021


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11 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10     Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 Then 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 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, “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 when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples[a] went out of the city.

The Lesson from the Withered Fig Tree

20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus answered them, “Have[b] faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received[c] it, and it will be yours.

25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”[d]



            They came to the outskirts of Jerusalem and Jesus gave an instruction.  “As you go into the village, untie a donkey at a certain house and bring it back.  If anyone asks why you are taking a donkey that doesn’t belong to you, tell them, ‘the Lord needs it.’”  They followed Jesus’ instructions and as he indicated, someone asked about the donkey.  They responded as he said they should, and they were allowed to take the donkey. 

I have a thick sermon file on Mark 11.  Each Gospel has a version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but even alternating from one gospel to another, after 20 plus years, I have looked at Mark 11 quite often.  This week, following a simple ‘A-B’ pattern helped me walk through this story in scripture.  I don’t mean to prescribe this as the only way to analyze a passage.  Systematic theology and critical study of Biblical texts are useful, unless these approaches are overdone and given exclusive voice.  The Bible is a living word that speaks afresh in our lives. When we read, come with our own experiences and the Bible speaks into those experiences.  So, I offer this A-B pattern as one of many possible pathways into this passage, understanding that the Bible is under no obligation to conform to patterns imposed upon it.

Part A is a divine action.  God does something. In this case, Jesus gives an instruction.  Part B is human response.  In the Mark 11 text, the human response is obedience.  The disciples do exactly what Jesus says to do and it turns out well.  They get the donkey and are able to prepare for Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem.  This simple A-B approach reveals the action of Mark 11, what we now call “Palm Sunday,” as it unfolds.

Through this approach we see what God is doing as Jesus rides into the city on the donkey, the disciples’ garments serving as his saddle blanket.  A raucous crowd greets him on his ride, as if he were a conquering general.  Some were his true followers and had been for quite a while.  Some in the crowd were always watching for the Messiah, hoping he would come with fanfare and drama as he forcefully evicted Rome and re-established the throne of David.  Others lining the road shouting just saw a crowd and decided to join it.

Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem was a divine action, and whatever motivated particular individuals within the crowd, that crowd provided the human response.  In the A-B pattern, God is the initiator and we, those created in his image, respond to what He’s doing, whether we realize it’s God acting or not.

Remember, how fickle the crowd can be.  On this day, they shouted “Hosanna,” which means, “O Lord save us, save us now.”  It’s from Psalm 118, verse 26.  A few days later, the same frenzied crowd would, at the prompting of certain priests and scribes, “Crucify him.”  The popular consciousness is easily manipulated and certainly was in this story.  The “Hosannas” were appropriate, but uttered in short-sighted ignorance.

The crowd hope the Messiah would boot the Romans out while they cheered.  They thought He had come to confront Rome.  They never imagined the Messiah to be God’s own son, through whom God would challenge their own sacrificial system.  That comes out in the next divine act.

Jesus instructed the disciples and the followed instructions; divine act, human response; the A-B pattern.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem and the crowd cheered and worshiped.  Upon arriving, he surveyed the happenings at the temple and then headed back out of the city to their lodgings in Bethany.

The next day, arriving back at the temple, Jesus sees more of what he noted the previous day: what has become the normal daily life in the temple’ outer court.  Jews from around the world want to have their sins atoned for at the temple, so they make a long journey to Jerusalem.  Too burdensome to haul the animal they would sacrifice that distance, instead, they bring money – Roman currency.  The temple will only accept temple currency, so the worshipers have to first visit the money changing station, where they are taken for a ride.  Then, they have to buy an animal so that can participate in worship through sacrifice.  The prices for animals are also marked up.  Priests and money changers get rich while worshipers leave the temple broke.

We see God’s thoughts on this crass greed that taints something holy when Jesus turns over the tables.  That’s the divine act, and I think it was as dramatically disruptive as we might imagine.  He certainly had everyone’s attention when then said, quoting Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations, but you – you religious leaders, priests, money changers - you have made it a den for robbers.”

Following our pattern, ‘A,’ is his actions of turning over tables, driving animals, and making this pronouncement.  What is ‘B,’ the human response?  There are two.

Verse 17 says he was teaching.  For one to teach, there must be those who listen and learn.  So, one human response from present was to listen to what Jesus had to say.  We know this because we have the Gospel of Mark.  Someone present wrote down what Jesus said and did, or remembered it and later dictated it to Mark who wrote it.  Paying attention while Jesus talked was one human response to the divine action.

The other comes from the chief priests and scribes.  These were the men – and in those day they indeed were all men – called by God to teach his word, lead in worship, and keep the community on the path to holiness.  These divinely ordained leaders responded to the action of God by looking for a way to kill Jesus.  Mark tells us they were afraid because the crowd was “spellbound by his teaching.”  These leaders feared losing their privileged position, even it they lost it because of an act of God.  They would manipulate that crowd they so feared to turn on Jesus.  God acted, in Jesus’ turning over money tables and condemnation of corruption, and the humans, the leaders anyway, responded out of fear, not faith.

We see three ways of rejecting God’s actions.  First is direct opposition.  This was the reaction of the scribes and leading priests.  The other two ways of rejecting God’ initiatives are seen in American culture today: to ignore Jesus and to reduce Jesus.

Those who ignore Jesus are generally outside the church.  The coming, death, and resurrection of Jesus is God acting to save the world.  But people in the world today don’t seem to care that God did that.  The mother of my daughter’s friend invited her to come to a fun outing.  It was very nice, and this family is wholesome and wonderful and I love them and especially I love how much they care about my daughter.  They invited her to come to an outing on Sunday; Easter Sunday.  Why would they invite a Christian youth to an outing on Easter Sunday?  Easter isn’t the center of their world like it is for a follower of Jesus.  They think to themselves, ‘we’ll distract this Christian and take her was from worship.’  They didn’t think about it at all.  They acted as if God is an afterthought, one option among many for how one invests’ one’s time, energy and thought.  Ignoring God is a way of rejecting God.

The other rejection happens in churches that teach a very limited Christianity.  The coming of Jesus alters reality throughout the cosmos and yet some believers only teach that Christianity is all about an individual going to heaven when he or she dies.  That’s it.  That’s the Gospel. 

Of course, individual salvation is an important part of the Gospel.  I need to reconcile for my sins and the only I can is coming to Jesus in faith and accepting his death for me.  I must do this.  I must receive what He has done.  However, when a pastor or a church teaches only an individual salvation story, they miss and their members miss, the grander story of Jesus dying on the cross to save the world.  There is much, much more going in the death and resurrection of Jesus than simply securing an individual’s personal salvation.  Jesus ushers in a new age.  With his resurrection, new creation has begun.  Churches today that fail to teach this reduce the Gospel.  Reduction of the Gospel is a rejection of God’s action.  It’s the opposite of a faith response.

            A faith response recognizes or at least senses that we need to live in the new creation.  We started out with the disciples obeying Jesus’ instructions to the letter, but prior to crucifixion-resurrection, they were locked into the the old way of thinking.  In Mark 10, the disciples James and John ask Jesus to allow them to sit on his right and left when his sits in glory.  This is rejection of God’s action as Jesus makes clear in his response to their request. 

            The rest of the disciples get furious at the request made by James and John and the group descends into a donnybrook as they argue about greatness.  Elevating our own greatness is not a way to live in the new creation nor is it a faith response to action of God.  Jesus insists that in his kingdom, the leaders serve everyone else. 

            Then he demonstrates this in the closing verses of Mark 10.  Walking to Jerusalem with anxious thoughts of crucifixion on his mind and surrounded by crowds with Messianic stars in their eyes, his progress is blocked by the wailings of blind Bartimaeus.  To be blind in the ancient world was to sit at the bottom of society’s social ladder and others made that clear, telling Bartimaeus to “hush, and stop bothering the teacher.”

            Jesus took a different approach.  He stopped and paid attention to the blind man ignored and overlooked by everyone else.  Bartimaeus’ human response to this divine action was to tell Jesus exactly what he wanted.  He wanted to see again.  In the new creation, God pays attention to everyone, even those ignored and forgotten.  If God loves in that way, then in our human response to God’s love, we ought to love everyone and overlook no one. 

            Throughout the narratives on and around Palm Sunday, we see God act.  Through Jesus God enacts new creation.   We can ignore what God’s doing, or oppose it, or reduce it.  Or, we can respond in faith, and begin living in the new creation.  God has acted.  How will we respond?


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