Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 11:1-11 Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
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,
‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
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.
Jesus wasn’t a king. I said that in my sermon last week. Jesus in his role as messiah wasn’t going to be a king. In Mark 12, Jesus said that the Messiah wasn’t a son of David, that is, wasn’t a descendant of a king who could argue that he deserved to because of that royal lineage. I said, to your very faces, across your phone and internet lines, that Jesus wasn’t a king and that I think that Jesus wanted to make sure that the people following him didn’t think he was going to be a king. The Messiah was not going to be a new monarch to restore their people to the Good Old Days of King David. I still believe that. And, yet, here where are today, back a chapter or so from what I preached on last week, with Jesus entering Jerusalem kind of like a king in a royal procession. Great. Thanks, Jesus for messing up my point from last week. I hope you’re happy. Because that’s what this strange little parade is supposed to remind us of: A king entering the city. And, Jesus is set up to be the king in this parade, but none of it looks quite right.
The book of Zechariah has a prophecy about a king on a donkey. It reads: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” When we read that Jesus asked the disciples to borrow a donkey for him and that he rode that donkey into Jerusalem during Passover, we’re supposed to remember that prophecy and think of Jesus like a king. Bonnie Bowman Thurston reminds us, in her commentary, that kings usually had the right to use whatever they wanted. Jesus wanted the donkey and he got it. Whenever people do what Jesus tells them to, things work out well.
The city of Jerusalem would have been packed. It was the festival of Passover, one of the most important Jewish festivals, and Jewish and God-fearing non-Jewish pilgrims from all over would have been traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate. The streets would have been full of money changers and people selling animals to be sacrificed. People who were sick and impoverished would likely be in the streets, asking strangers for help, especially for food and money. You remember the story of Bartimaeus? The streets of Jerusalem would have been full of people just like him. Children would have been running wild, too, enjoying the exciting trip to the city, and probably driving their parents to exhaustion.
The city would have also been tense. Passover is a celebration of God rescuing Israel from slavery, a celebration of God taking down a tyrant to save the people. Another tyrant was ruling Israel, this time Rome. Rome was quick to violence if they thought a people they conquered were going to revolt. A festival celebrating liberation seemed ripe for rebellion. Fred Craddock, in a sermon titled “If Only We Didn’t Know,” said that Rome increased the size of their military presence in the city by three times during this festival. The presence of the soldiers was intended to be threatening. So was the presence of Pontius Pilate. He was always ready to enact violence to protect Rome. Pilgrims remembering liberation while under the watchful eye of a violent army. The city would have been tense. If all we think about is the Hosannas, we can forget the tension that would have been all around them. Into this tension, this ruckus of pilgrims, vendors, sick people, and soldiers, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, riding on a borrowed donkey, carrying the weight of Zechariah’s messianic prophecy and almost looking like a king... or at least a man who might want to be a king.
As he rides into town on a donkey, people see him coming and they make a path for him. You don’t just make a path for any old pilgrim coming into the city. You clear a path, especially in this way, for someone special, maybe even someone royal. Mark doesn’t call the branches palms. That happens in John. But, they are leafy branches of some kind that people take the time to cut down. Dr. Thurston points out in her commentary that in the book of Isaiah, one way you welcome a king is by smoothing out the road ahead of him and in the book of 2 Kings, when Jehu is proclaimed the king, some military officers spread their cloaks out in front of him to acknowledge his kingship. At Passover, parts of Psalm 118, were sung: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.” The word “hosanna” comes from that text. Hosanna means “save us.” Importantly, you don’t just yell save us at any random pilgrim who comes riding by on a donkey. You yell “save us” it to the King. You yell “save us” to God.
I once read a dramatized account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem written by Doyle Burbank-Williams. Rev. Burbank-Williams imagined that the people who watched and joined the procession would have had all manner of responses to it. I was particularly struck by a couple of crowd members he imagined:
Voice 2: What a great day! I haven't had this much fun in ages! Did you see that rabbi Jesus enter the city? He came in like a crazy little king. Pilate comes charging in on his chariot, leading his army. Jesus trotted in followed by a bunch of peasants. We all grabbed branches and waved them high, shouting and cheering. What a great day!
Voice 3: I waved a branch today, too. And, I laughed. But, even more, I hoped. I hoped that maybe this Jesus means to change things. I'm just like one of those peasants following him. They know how hard life is. Jesus knows, too. So, hoping that just maybe he might be a new messiah, I joined that crowds that shouted: Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna! Hosanna!
Unfortunately, we don’t have any accounts from the actual crowd members, just the story of the crowd’s behavior as curated by the author of Mark years after the fact. I could believe that the two members of the crowd gathered might respond like that, one in delight over anything that might knock Pilate down a peg and another with an uncertain hope. Also, though, I’ve read the stories after this one. Even as Jesus is greeted like a king and a savior in today’s reading, the rest of the week will not feel triumphal. I know that by Thursday, Jesus will be betrayed, and by Friday, Jesus will be dead. Crowds will shift from yelling “save us” to yelling "Crucify him!" By Saturday, his followers will believe that all hope has been lost.
I mentioned Dr. Craddock’s sermon “If Only We Didn’t Know” earlier. In that sermon, Craddock points out that if we’d paid attention to Jesus at all in Mark, even as he looks like a triumphal king in this story, he has already told us three times that this royal parade will end up on the cross. Roman soldiers will call Jesus “King of the Jews” while they torture and mock him. If Jesus was supposed to look like a victorious king entering the city, if he was supposed to be fulfilling the prophecy of a Davidic heir entering David’s city and would be returning their people to glory, why on earth would he later be betrayed and killed? What kind of king is this?
For all the trappings of royalty and allusions to heroic kings of the past, the events of this story and the rest of Holy Week, will show us that Jesus was no king. Or, at least not the leader everyone thought he would be. Yes, in some ways, if Jesus is “kingly,” he shows us a vision of God’s kingdom, a kingdom of love and justice, which stands in opposition to the cruel Empire of Rome. In his commentary on this passage, Ira Driggers wonders if even the use of the donkey colt as his mode of entry into the city is intended to show us that Jesus will lead not like Pilate, charging into the city on a warhorse, but on a humble donkey, a mount fit for leader rooted in healing and care for stranger and neighbor alike.
Driggers argues that if we are to understand Jesus as a king, it is a king unlike any other. From his baptism to his death, Jesus demonstrates his deep commitment to his mission to restore humanity to covenant with God. This commitment to restoration and wholeness will put him in opposition with people of good will who disagree with him, powerful people who are invested in the structures that oppose wholeness, and Rome, who wants nothing to do with a rabble-rouser. Jesus knows that means his life will be cut short if he remains this committed to his mission. As Driggers puts it, “Jesus chooses death because toning down God’s healing love - to avoid death - is not an option for the Messiah. Jesus can only love at full speed. And Jesus knows that this same love will overcome death itself.” So, shout your hosannas today. Jesus will hear them. The next week is going to be hard. But these moments of celebration are pointing us to the greatest celebration yet to come.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.