Texts: Ps. 118: 1-2, 19-29; Mark 11: 1-11
1O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
2Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
20This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.
21I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
22The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
24This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
26Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
28You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
29O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
11When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and 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. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11Then 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.
A few years back, President Obama came to Pittsburgh. Of course there is always a certain buzz when the president comes to town, but there is also a feeling of annoyance. Usually the announcement is followed with something like, “crap, which roads are going to be closed?” It’s an auspicious event when an official of that caliber comes to a city the size of Pittsburgh. It’s not quite like New York, D.C., or LA that is used to the massive disruptions. Life has to be altered. People take notice. Traffic is rerouted. Businesses have to close or alter their business hours. People inevitably gather on the side of the streets to watch the secret service cars go along their route.
This is NOT what Jesus was doing. This is not the ancient equivalent of a motorcade. In fact, there is every reason to believe that Jesus had no interest in people other than the disciples knowing that he was going up to Jerusalem. This was an attempt to get a surefooted animal that would be able to navigate the back roads into the city.
The colt of a donkey isn’t all that impressive. We live near a farm that has donkeys on it. Every time we drive by it, I look at the small colts and think to myself “I would look ridiculous riding on that thing”. Rest assured, this was not an attention grab on Jesus’ part. There is nothing regal or majestic about a donkey.
So how did this thing turn into an event so important that all four gospel writers decided to make reference to it? John Dominic Crossan, the prolific and controversial theologian and author offers an explanation for what is happening. Crossan explains that while Jesus is entering Jerusalem from one direction, that there is another much more impressive entrance being made, most likely by Pilate. Now Pilate would have had the ancient equivalent of a motorcade. He would have had warhorses, soldiers, the banners of Rome waving, swords, shields, spears, all the works. And of course people would have lined up for miles to see the spectacle of Roman power entering the gates of Jerusalem.
Okay, so that still doesn’t explain what’s happening on the other side of town. Well, I think a couple of things are happening here. And that brings me to what I want to focus on this Holy Week and Easter. You see this time of year, we tend to focus on who Jesus is. Makes sense, to a degree. But I want us to focus on our response to who Jesus is, what does it mean to be disciples in response to what we say is true about Jesus. That’s what we’re talking about this morning. That’s what we’ll reflect on Thursday evening and that’s what we’ll be talking about Easter morning.
So we have to ask ourselves what the disciples were doing here in this place. First option, this is a genuine outpouring of praise to God. They are shouting Hosanna, save us. They see Jesus’ arrival as the beginning of the salvation that they seek. They see him as a manifestation of God finally bringing freedom and liberation into their lives. And for that they were thankful.
Gratitude has to be a part of our lives of discipleship. It is difficult to be thankful at times when we we’re in the darkest points of our lives. But that’s not the issue that most of us face in our day-to-day lives. Our problem is that we have become so pessimistic and cynical that all we can see is the negative that surrounds us. The words of Psalm 118 draw us to lives grounded in gratitude, recognizing that each new day is a gift and that God is in the business of saving those who hurt and elevating those who have been brought low.
It never fails to amaze me that the folks I have met in life who are the most grateful are the ones that we would judge to have the least. It is the ones whose lives are reoriented to a different set of values. The ones who can find pleasure in the simplest of things. This group of people who gathered along the road to Jerusalem would have ranged from those who were hard working to laborers who lived hand to mouth each day, to the very poor who were barely living. In Jesus they see a hope for something changing. It makes me wonder if our stuff can actually get in the way of our gratitude. Gratitude asserts that there is enough for all in a world that is constantly telling us to be afraid of scarcity. In that way, gratitude is a revolutionary act.
But if Crossan is right about Pilate entering the city at virtually the same time as Jesus, then we have to assume the disciples are up to something else. Something far more dangerous. In the face of the overwhelming narrative that Caesar is king and that Rome is the ultimate kingdom, Jesus’ followers are holding a demonstration that makes a mockery of Rome and claims that there is a superior kingdom at work. This is insurrection and protest at it’s finest.
I hate to be a broken record, but we have lost sight of the radical nature of what Jesus was up to. In an empire like Rome’s, for someone to proclaim a new kingdom, a new set of values with a new figurehead was incredibly dangerous. The disciples were making a political statement, whether they meant to or not. They were declaring Jesus was king in the face of Caesar. Some scholars argue that the disciples believed they were amassing an army. Certainly some understood what Jesus had been telling them all this time, but they certainly thought their march would be the beginning of the end of Rome being in their land.
Our discipleship is meant to be a pledge of allegiance to a heavenly kingdom. It’s meant to be a statement that we are ruled by a wholly different constitution. It is difficult in our country where Christianity has become more or less a civil religion to disentangle the values of our country from the values of our faith. And it becomes tricky when we recognize that the values of our own nation have very much become the values of Rome.
Given all of these factors, it’s certainly not surprising to see how the resolve of this crowd would fade away. It shouldn’t come as a shock to shouts of Hosanna change to shouts of “crucify him”. It shouldn’t surprise us because we can see the ways that our own dedication can lag and waver. We see how difficult it is for us, with far less at stake, to stay committed to the ideals of our faith.
This year I have given up meat for Lent. To this point, I have kept at it, but I can’t help by being struck by the fact that for about 40 days I have done something that billions do by necessity and that millions additionally do voluntarily as a lifestyle including many here. AND, I’ve complained about it just about everyday. Is that what it means to be a disciple of Jesus? That’s not what it meant for the early disciples….
For them it meant running away when things got rough. It meant denying that they knew Jesus when they got questioned. It meant betraying Jesus to authorities. In other words, they were terrible at it too.
Throughout history, people have had many ideas of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Some it has meant taking on vows of poverty, for some it has meant a monastic identity separated from the rest of the world, some have seen following Jesus as a heroic crusade to vanquish other faiths, some have seen it as a call to gain as much political influence as possible, some see it as a mere punching of the clock for an hour on Sundays, others have seen it as a life of lived in foreign nations bringing the Gospel to those unreached by the words of the gospel. At it’s best it can be a genuine outpouring of love and adoration and at it’s worse it can be
Jesus had his own ideas of what it meant to be his disciple. Surprisingly his ideas were much different than ours. We’ll talk about exactly what Jesus definition of discipleship looks like on Thursday, but suffice it to say for now, that it means being a part of a very different parade. Not one built on pomp and power, but a parade of fools, worshipping a man on the colt of a lowly donkey, believing that he can save them from those who enter the city ready to wage war.
His first words to them all those months and years ago were “follow me”. Do we dare follow him now, knowing where this parade route leads?