First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
March 25, 2018 – Palm Sunday
“Bring It On”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Mark 11:1-10 (NRSV)
1When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”
They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it.
Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”
They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!”
We start this day with joy and excitement, with a parade! The children lead the way and we wave the equivalent of first century balloons. It’s all to commemorate what the church calls “Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.”
Triumphal? Really? We know what happens later this week. All this joy, all this excitement—it will get all wrapped up in betrayal and denial and end in darkness. The triumphant one will be arrested, tried in one of the most kangaroo-est of courts and sentenced to die—executed by the Roman state for sedition, for treason. That’s what crucifixion was reserved for—the ones who posed a threat to the mighty Roman Empire.
So how can we be so joyous and excited at the beginning of this week? How can we be so excited to see Jesus heading towards catastrophe, towards torture, towards death?
Because the people who first welcomed him into Jerusalem were waving more than palm branches in the air. They were waving their highest hopes. The people who first lined the streets of the parade were strewing more than their cloaks on the ground. They were laying their very lives before the one who rode that unsuspecting, un-ridden colt. The people were shouting more than hurrahs…. They were shouting “Hosanna” Save us. Save us.
This wasn’t just a triumphal entrance by an itinerant rabbi. It was a parade of protest. It was a display of dissent. It was a mocking march of mutiny against the Roman Empire and the Roman Emperor. Jesus, by riding into Jerusalem on that particular day, in that particular fashion, was basically calling out the Roman authorities in one of the most tension fraught times of the year. Everything about this parade was Jesus’ way of thumbing his Jewish nose at Rome. If you thought protest marches were something new with the American Civil Rights movement, think again. Jesus had this non-violent protest thing down to a tea and his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem was the highlight.
I remember how, as a youth (a few decades back), we believed that this was indeed a great parade. I recall images of Jesus entering through the main gate into Jerusalem and the whole city was there to greet him and cheer for him. And it never really made sense because in just a few days, the entire city turned against him. But there was something that we weren’t paying attention to 40 or 50 years ago. We were spending so much time looking at the Jewish Passover we didn’t see the Roman aggression. We were so enthralled with what Jesus and the disciples were up to, we weren’t watching what the empire was up to. We were so busy trying to relate to Judas and his denial and Peter and his betrayal that we lost sight of Jesus and his treason. We were so busy being the crowd that went from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” that we didn’t see Pilate ramp up the forces that were wordlessly declaring “Behave or else…..” with their show of military force.
You see, it’s now believed that, because the Jewish population in Jerusalem almost tripled during the Passover, Rome feared an uprising. It was a time when the Jews made a pilgrimage to the temple, offer a Passover sacrifice, and remember the saving acts of God that freed their ancestors from the tyranny of the Egyptian Pharaoh. They were once again living under the oppressive rule of a foreign government. The Jews were anticipating the coming of a new messiah to repeat what Moses had done. The peace between Rome and the Jews was tentative at best. Uprisings were held at bay by Rome’s military presence in the city.
It’s believed that early in the week, Pontius Pilate, a prefect or governor from Rome, came to Jerusalem with military reinforcements. It was all to let the Jews know that things were being beefed up a bit and discourage them from getting any ideas of rebellion. To make the point very clearly, Pilate entered Jerusalem through the main gate of the city, ahead of the troops. This would have been the big parade. This would have been the one with blaring trumpets and waving banners. Pilate would have been upon a great horse, followed by chariots and then foot soldiers. It would have been impressive. It would have served its purpose.
When Jesus comes to town, he comes in through the back door, from the Mount of Olives, riding on a colt, surrounded by peasants and shouts of Hosanna. You might imagine that these two parades stood in direct opposition of one another. Jesus would have known that Pilate would be coming to town leading a military expansion. Jesus would have known that any hint of disturbance would lead to, at least some surveillance, at most, crucifixion. But he’s got a job to do an the time was right. For the last three years, he had been proclaiming that the realm of God had come near. It was time to bring it home. By coming in through the back side of town, off the mount of Olives, he is, in a sense, mocking Pilate, chastising Rome. The Mount of Olives held a specific place in Israel’s sacred memory. The Prophet Zechariah set forth that it was from the Mount of Olives that an assault on Israel’s enemies was to begin (Zechariah 14:2-4).
And the whole throw the cloak down on the ground thing? It’s what people did to indicate a royal procession. It wasn’t just a matter of recognizing Jesus. It was a way of ridiculing Rome. Jesus, and the crowds that greeted him with their shouts of Hosanna, Save us! were basically telling Rome to “Bring it on!” Bring it on.
For somewhere, somehow in Jesus, folks had seen the working of the God who had indeed brought their ancestors out of slavery. Somewhere, somehow in Jesus, people recognized the God who had provided bread and water in the wilderness. Maybe it had something to do with the multitude of people who were fed as they sat on a hillside wondering how they were all going to eat from five measly loaves of bread and two scrawny fish.
Somewhere, somehow people saw in Jesus ways that were life-giving: compassion, justice, resistance to corruption on any level, care for the most vulnerable. Maybe it had something to do with the way he stepped out of what was safe and acceptable and went directly to those who had been shut out, shut up, locked up and passed by and brought acceptance, healing and hope.
Somewhere, somehow, people saw in Jesus the inspiration of the former days when prophets spoke truth to power and power spoke through unearthly wisdom – you know, the kind that doesn’t make sense but is right anyway. Maybe it had something to do with them hearing words of blessing on a hillside that proclaimed that those who the world saw as cursed and invaluable were the ones to inherit the earth and children of God.
Somewhere, somehow, people saw in Jesus the fulfillment of the faith of fathers and mothers who died longing for freedom from the ways of death. Maybe it had something to do with the raggedy band of disciples that followed in the wake of his life-giving touch: The once blind that now see; the once lame that now walked; the once dead that now lived. Maybe it had something to do with the way he stepped away so often in soul-grounding prayer.
Jesus had already stood up to forces of evil that brought suffering and death in ways that spoke again of the steadfast love of God. Rome was just another expression of the evil that tended to melt away when it encountered the goodness of this itinerant, colt-riding, life giving, crowd feeding, blessing giving son of a carpenter from Nazareth. So, yea, bring it on, Rome. Bring it on fear. Bring it on, misguided power. Bring it on, corrupted military might. Bring it on, powerful elite. Bring. It. On.
Because we know what happens later this week. But getting there will be hard. It will be a hard week. There will be struggle. There will be denial. There will be betrayal. There will be suffering and there will be death. There will be power, not in denial but in forgiveness. There will be faithfulness, not in betrayal, but in mercy. There will be life, not in corruption or greed, but in the depth of sacrifice. There will be celebration, not just in heaven but on earth as the one who came to town in opposition of the world’s power opens up the gates of heaven to let love’s power pour across the land, in spite of what the world brings on. And there will be life, no matter how deep the pain, no matter how hard the suffering, no matter how frightening, no matter how convicting. So, bring it on. Bring on this week. For soon, soon, there’s going to be an even bigger celebration.