This is an edited version of my sermon manuscript for Palm Sunday, 2015. It’s based on Mark 11:1-11.
At the beginning of Mark’s Triumphant Entry narrative Jesus got ready to enter Jerusalem I want to unpack three things about how Mark set’s this up.
First, we’re not sure if Mark was intending this passage to demonstrate Jesus’ super-natural insight. At it’s core, I think what Mark wanted to show was Jesus’ authority. His description of where the two disciples were going to find the animal, and what to say if they were questioned when they took it, could have emerged from a pre-arranged plan. We find out later that Jesus stayed in Bethany during that first Holy Week, so this is certainly a possibility. There are some people who believe that in requisitioning the animal Jesus was claiming royal privilege, or even a rabbi’s privilege, and this doesn’t contradict either the idea of super-natural insight or a pre-arranged plan.
Second, the animal in Mark is not, technically, called a donkey. Though, admittedly, the Greek translation of the Old Testament the word used by Mark is drafted several times to refer to a “male ass.” The word used in most English translations is a “colt.” What animal comes to mind when you hear that word? Probably a horse, right? This word does typically refer to a horse in Greek, but can also be used to refer to the young of any large four-legged animal. Including, by the way, Elephants. Jewish readers would have likely seen allusion to the humble king arriving in Jerusalem, as found in the prophet Zechariah, and mentally seen an donkey. Most Greek speakers would probably have envisioned a young horse. Cross cultural communication is grand.
Third, the “LORD” in Jesus’ statement, “Tell them the LORD needs it” is probably not a reference to Jesus (the Sunday School answer doesn’t work here, sorry). In fact, Jesus is never called LORD in the Gospel of Mark – at least, not in the way it’s phrased here in this passage. The construct in Jesus’ statement is referencing the LORD of Israel – whom we Christians would typically say is “Jesus’ Father.” Jesus’ message to the animal’s owner was more than simply the requisition of a authority figure. When the disciples uttered Jesus’ words they were saying the animal was needed for a divine purpose. It’s an incredibly bold statement.
So, the disciples went and got the animal, placed Jesus on it’s back and with that the celebration began. People placed their outer garments on the road as a sort of “red carpet” for the one they honored. Those who were not able to lay down their garments cut branches (again, they are generic in Mark – only John specifically calls them Palms) and laid those in the roadway. In this way Jesus was shown great honor.
The crowd surrounding Jesus was an interesting group. Many probably started out with Jesus when he began his trek toward Jerusalem, but others probably joined the group as he went along. If the last few chapters of Mark are in chronological order the bulk of the people would have been with Jesus as he passed through Jericho and responded to a blind beggar’s plea for the “son of David” to have mercy on him. I often wonder if that formerly-blind beggar wasn’t in that crowd. At any rate, not only did they see Jesus respond to the cries for the “son of David,” they also would have seen him give sight to the blind man. This fixed into the crowd’s minds that Jesus’ mission was kingly in nature – specifically messianic because he was making things both new and whole – and when he mounted the animal and started up to Jerusalem they couldn’t help but break into celebratory shouts. Jesus was the one who was “coming in the name of the LORD.” He was the one who was going to establish the Kingdom of “our father, David.” The crowd went before and after him, Jesus was literally surrounded by praise – and he accepted it.
He couldn’t have do a better job announcing that, with his arrival, the status quo was over. Once he finally got into the city plans were laid which would show his arrival into Jerusalem was just the tip of the iceberg.
We often will joke the the triumphant entry is rather anti-climactic in Mark. I mean, there’s no big confrontation or anything. Jesus comes in to the city, looks around the Temple, and then shuffles off to his camp. I can imagine both the Roman Garrison and the Jewish leadership breathed a sigh of relief when he left. It really isn’t anti-climactic, though. When he arrived in this city Jesus scoped out the territory and made plans for what he was going to do the next day. What does Jesus do the day after the Triumphant Entry? He cleans house in the Temple. With Jesus’ arrival, everything was about to be disrupted – but not with calls to violence or hatred, but by calls for integrity, and a submission to the will of God. A submission Jesus himself would follow to the Cross.
My question for us is this, “On this day when we celebrate the triumphant entry of Jesus, where do we see ourselves in the story?” You see, while the only response to Jesus’ actions we see in this passage is that of the crowd, there are other responses to Jesus’ actions which emerge a bit further on in Mark. Do we see ourselves among the adoring (if somewhat partially-informed) crowd? Do we see ourselves among the other pilgrims in the city, looking at a group from Podunk Galilee celebrating Jesus and wondering what all the fuss is about? Do we see ourselves among the Jewish leadership, desperately trying to put down an upstart to maximize our own security? Or are we among the Romans, considering whose heads we have to bonk in order to keep the peace? I’m sure we know where we’re supposed to be, but as Jesus comes marching into our life as Central Baptist where are we really? If we see ourselves standing in a place we find not quite comfortable, what will it take to move us in a positive direction?”
I believe the Gospels answer that for us. To respond positively towards Jesus and his call on our lives, we must move toward the cross and celebrate his death and resurrection on our behalf. Welcome to Holy Week. Come follow our Lord to the cross, and beyond. Amen.