A Palm Sunday Sermon preached March 20, 2016 at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
This is the Psalm Mark has quoted by the crowds as Jesus enters Jerusalem—“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”.
But the connections in the two texts goes much deeper. These texts are each subversive in their own way. They use perfectly acceptable behavior in ways that turn the status quo on its ear.
Perhaps this is language we’ve grown up hearing, so it doesn’t feel particularly subversive to us. But gods in antiquity were detached, angry, fearsome, and stern. Gods were not described as either being “good” or as being full of “steadfast love.” The Hebrew root of “steadfast love”, or “hesed”, is the word for a mother’s womb. The powerful love that gives and nurtures life.
So, by describing God’s love as good, nurturing, steadfast, and eternal, the Psalmist is making a radical claim. And even if we might be familiar with his language choices, don’t think the claim isn’t still radical today. We live in a world where people, even people in this very room, live as if they are unloved or unlovable. Or we live as if we believe that God is out there, just waiting to judge and condemn us.
Friends, hear the good news. “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is GOOD; God’s steadfast LOVE endures FOREVER!”
And the Psalmist doesn’t just leave us with that claim. The psalmist reminds his listeners that God has saved in the past and then turns to the future, making claims and requests of God. “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” In this psalm, thanks and praise and cries for help are all mixed together in the same breath.
This psalm is often sung at Passover, when the Hebrew people remember the formative events of the Exodus story. And the act of remembering the past is not just to remember the ‘good ol’ days’. We remember the past to create a new and better future. Remembering subverts the world of death and pain in which we often find ourselves by insisting that the God to whom we give our praise and thanks is not done with creation.
God has provided help for God’s people in the past. And God is the God whose steadfast love endures forever. So, we’re called to remember as an act of faith for a future in which God will deliver and save again.
So, when Mark’s audience heard the account of the entry into Jerusalem, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”, they would have heard the connection to Psalm 118.
We’ve actually jumped back a few chapters in Mark’s gospel, compared to what we’ve heard in the past few weeks. Immediately before this passage, was the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man who cried out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And after he was given sight, Bartimaeus joined Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem. And then we have the story we just heard. Bartimaeus, with his new sight, is seeing quite a spectacle! I wonder if it was what Bartimaeus expected to see.
By quoting Psalm 118, Mark is making a claim about what how God is acting through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever.” And Jesus will quote this psalm as well, in chapter 12—the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, a passage we read on our 60th anniversary, last month. This entry into Jerusalem, this beginning of our most Holy Week, is bathed in the language of God’s saving, steadfast love that endures forever.
Mark takes the subversive Psalm 118 and runs with it. He gives us a lot of details about how Jesus orchestrated this event. Why do we care where the colt came from? We care about it because it shows that Jesus planned this entry with great detail. This was not a spontaneous moment in Jesus’ life.
Every year, the Roman governor of Judea would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west to be in the city for Passover — the Jewish festival that swelled Jerusalem’s population from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000. He would come to town during a celebration of Liberation with a reminder of his military might and power, to make sure nobody got any actual liberating ideas during the Passover. Roman governors did not want their occupied citizens remembering the past in order to make a better future.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe it this way in their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem:
“A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot solders, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
Additionally, tradition claimed that the Messiah would enter into Jerusalem for the final battle for salvation from the Mount of Olives, at the other end of town from the Roman governor. So Jesus begins his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. But rather than entering on a horse, as the governor was doing on the other side of town, or surrounded by an army, as the governor was, Jesus enters on a colt.
Jesus takes all of the traditions of kingship, of messianic deliverance, and honor and turns them upside down, an act of civil protest.
The crowds spread out branches and their cloaks. They run ahead and follow behind, shouting “blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.”
Jesus’ entry on a colt unmasks the charade of power the governor is enacting across town that would tell us that political might and wealth will have the final say.
We know how the story will play out. Unlike the crowds waving palm fronds, caught up in seeing Jesus through their preconceptions, we know that he entered the gates of the city to suffer. We know that he entered the gates to die.
And just as we are called to believe that God’s steadfast love endures forever, so are we called to believe that we are to follow Jesus through the gates of the city. We enter with him into his radical claim that God is not yet done with this world.
We remember the past actions in order to re-member the future.
To claim that the suffering and death of this world do not win.
That the powers and principalities of this world do not win.
It is God’s love that endures forever, even beyond death on a cross.
So, we enter the gates of the city with Jesus.
We find concrete actions that show the world that their preconceptions are wrong.
We stand up for the downtrodden.
We have solidarity with the outcast.
We give our voice to those who have no voice.
We invite people to join us in love, rather than out of fear.
We care for our environment and our earth as if stewardship is different than domination.
We show the world we help ourselves by helping others.
We protest, with our lives and our bodies.
Today, across the city of Chicago, religious leaders are leading peaceful protests against the violence that has plagued the city. They will be handing out palms, just like the ones we are waving, at police stations. Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
I’ve been thinking about the contrast between how the governor and Jesus entered the gates of the city, and it has me noticing the contrasts in how followers of Jesus often enter the gates today.
To be clear, none of us, as followers of Christ, perfectly live into our call to follow where Jesus leads us. I want to own my own failure in this regard as we consider this. And I recognize it is a fine line between protesting unjust situations and disrupting legal events. How we navigate that line is worth conversation.
But Palm Sunday was protest. It was intended to be a contrast between the power of Rome and the power of God. It was intended to remind people of the liberating power of God. If God could defeat Pharaoh, surely God could defeat Caesar.
This week, the Bishops of the Episcopal Church in the United States issued a statement I’d like to share with you:
“On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.
In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.
In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.
We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.”
I join them in this prayer. As a nation, we are struggling with which gates are the right ones for us to enter.
Do we enter the gate with the parade of military war horses and political power? Or do we enter the gate, waving palm branches and calling on God to save us, Hosanna?
The crowd that Mark describes was making a sacrificial claim. By cheering his triumphal entry from the Mount of Olives, by throwing branches and cloaks on the ground as they cheer “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming of the kingdom of our ancestor David!”, the crowd is being treasonous to the Roman Empire. They were making a claim for God’s rule over Caesar’s rule. “Long live the king (of David!)”.
Through which gates will you enter?
The way we choose to enter the gates of the city makes a claim about what we believe and who we choose to follow.
This week, as we prepare for the celebration of Easter, let us ask God to help us set down our comfort and power and privilege. Let us ask God to help us live in confidence of God’s steadfast love that endures forever. Let us ask God to help us protest the injustice we see around us and speak clearly and peacefully against violent and dehumanizing rhetoric when those who would lead us try to lead us toward the wrong gate.
Let us spend time in the biblical text, preparing our hearts and minds for the good news of Easter that only arrives through the suffering of the cross.
Let us pray for the courage to enter through the gates of righteousness accompanying our Lord through the final days of his earthly life.