BLOWS AGAINST THE EMPIRE
A Palm Sunday sermon on Mark 11:1-11
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
March 28, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Then [Jesus] 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. Mark 11:11
Well, here we are on another Palm Sunday. It is the beginning of the climax to the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus. Throughout the gospel of Mark, everything has been pointing toward this week. In the chapters leading up to today’s reading, Jesus and his disciples have been on the road and coming to the city of Jerusalem. He has been teaching and healing as they went. I think that, on some level, the disciples could sense that something big was going to happen when they got to Jerusalem. And it all began when they arrived at the outskirts of town. Something extraordinary was about to happen…
It’s a familiar story that many of you have heard on a regular basis during this time of the year. Jesus and his disciples approach the city of Jerusalem from its western side, near the towns of Bethany and Bethphage. He calls his disciples together and commissions two of them to go into the city and bring him back a colt to ride. He gives them very specific instructions as to what to do, and upon arriving in the city, they find things exactly as Jesus had described them. Mark tells us that they bring the colt to Jesus and then they threw their coats on it as a makeshift saddle. Jesus gets on the colt and begins to ride into the city.
Meanwhile a crowd gathers by the side of the road. It’s a rather ragtag assortment of Galileans, fishermen, beggars, and women. They throw their coats on the ground in front of Jesus as he passes by. They also go out into the nearby fields and cut off leafy branches to wave and lay before the Lord.
And there is singing and shouting. Lots of things are being said, but they all center around the people calling out for God to deliver them. They shout out “Hosanna,” a word that translated means “Lord, save us!” They quote a section of Psalm 118, a portion of which was read in your hearing earlier in the service: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”
It would be hard to miss the implication of those words. Those words were associated with the coming of the Messiah, God’s chosen One who would usher in a time of peace and justice with the arrival of the coming kingdom of God. I also find it interesting that this psalm is used as part of the
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Temple worship for the celebration of the Passover festival.1 This is the festival that would be taking place in Jerusalem that very week. That’s why everyone was there.
These are the bare bones of the story of Palm Sunday in an abbreviated fashion. But I want to focus the next few minutes of our time together on verse 11. It’s the final verse of today’s passage. There it says that, after his entry into Jerusalem to the adulation of the crowd, Jesus headed straight for the Temple. We are told that, once he got there, he took a few minutes to survey the situation. But because it was already late, he and his disciples left Jerusalem and went out to the nearby town of Bethany—about two miles away—and there they spent the night.
Note a couple of ironies described in this passage. Matthew tells us that, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred with the news of this prophet from Nazareth.2 Jesus entry into Jerusalem had generated quite a buzz in the community. The city was no doubt rife with rumors and speculation as to what might happen next—of what Jesus might do—of what Jesus might say. After his entry into the city, apparently the crowd quickly dispersed. I would have expected Jesus to take the opportunity to address the crowd while he had their undivided attention. But he did not do that. It does not appear that he spoke to the crowd at all. And not only that… for all the excitement that had been generated by his entrance into the city, when Jesus got to the Temple, there was no one there to greet him.
But there’s another Irony to be noted here as well. The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish religion. This was the place where it was said that God’s presence dwelt in a very special way that was different than anywhere else. It was the most important location where God was to be worshiped and adored. It was the location where the three major Jewish religious festivals—the Day of Atonement, the Festival of Booths, and the Passover—were held every year. The Temple was where the high priests, the teachers of the law and the other religious professionals lived and worked. It was the most sacred space in 1st Century Judaism.
In addition, the Temple was the site of a prestigious school of religion. It was the Ivy League equivalent for the training of rabbis—those who wanted to learn and to teach the laws of God and the traditions of elders. Surely the folks at the Temple must have heard the news of Jesus’ arrival earlier in the day. How could they NOT have? His entrance was the talk of the town. Yet no one at the Temple was there to put out the “Welcome Mat” for Jesus.
Think with me for a moment: God’s own Son comes to the Temple. You would think that the religious professionals there would be on hand to greet him with open arms. But the theologians and teachers of the law who were supposed to be the ones most in tune with God if anyone was didn’t have a clue. Jesus arrived at the Temple unnoticed…
1 Tremper Longman III, “Psalms,” The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 402.
2 Matthew 21:10-11.
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Honestly, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised by that. And I doubt that Jesus was surprised either. After all, for much of his life, Jesus seemed to be ignored by the religious leaders at the Temple. For example, when Jesus was born, we are told that Wise Men came from the east to Jerusalem to inquire about the newborn “King of the Jews.” King Herod called in his advisors to explain what was going on. The chief priests from the Temple met with him and were able to tell Herod where the Messiah was to be born according to the scriptures. That much the chief priests knew. But that was all. And I think it is remarkable that the appearance of the Wise Men did not pique the priest’s curiosity even a little bit. Once they had answered Herod’s question, Jesus was “out of sight, out of mind”—at least for the time being.3
Then, eight days after Jesus was born, we are told that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and consecrated to the Lord. This was in accordance to the Jewish religious tradition. While they were there, a Godly old man named Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and blessed him. And a prophetess named Anna gave thanks to God for the child and spoke of him to all who would listen.4 But the chief priests and teachers of the law at the Temple? Once again, they were nowhere to be seen. MIA. Missing-in-action. No indication that they had any idea who Jesus was. So once again, the Son of God was not welcomed by the same religious professionals who were supposed to be the ones looking and waiting expectantly for him…
Jesus eventually did get the attention of the priests and religious leaders though. It was when he started preaching and teaching in the Galilean hillside. But the attention that they gave him was not in a good way. As you all remember, the gospels tell us of a number of occasions when the chief priests of the Temple and the teachers of the law came to hear Jesus and test him. Not unsurprisingly, these were not friendly encounters. Instead they were exchanges designed to show up Jesus in front of the crowds. The chief priests had actively become our Lord’s antagonists. And of course, they failed in their effort to discredit him. Jesus bested them in every contest. So when he came to Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday, it is probably not surprising that the priests and teachers of the law did not greet him…That’s because, after all of that, they still did not recognize the Son of God for who he was…
So in today’s text, Mark tells us that Jesus went to the Temple, looked around, and then left with his disciples to go to Bethany to spend the night. While he was at the Temple, what did he see? What caught his attention? What did he notice there?
I wonder if his mind went back to other times when he had been at the Temple. He had been there plenty of times before with his family. At twelve years old, we are told that he and his family traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. There he stayed behind after his family had left to return home. When Mary and Joseph found him three days later, he was there sitting among the teachers of the law, listening to them and asking questions. They were all amazed at his
3 Matthew 2:4-6.
4 Luke 2:21-38.
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understanding and his questions. (I wonder if any of those teachers were still there at the Temple some twenty years later…and if they were, I wonder if they recognized Jesus as that little twelve year old boy…)
Perhaps he reminisced about the healings and the miracles he had performed there.5 Perhaps he recalled the times when the crowds came to him in the Temple courtyard and he taught them many things including such things as, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within him” and “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish…I and the Father are one.”
Maybe as he cast his eyes around the Temple, he took note of the tables and booths of the merchants set up in the courtyard. The market place where sacrificial animals could be purchased and currency could be exchanged. He would be back the next day to run them out of the Temple, driving out their animals and scattering their money all over the floor. Perhaps even then he could feel his anger begin to rise within him. He would have to do something about it…But that would be tomorrow—not today…
As he stood there preparing to leave with his disciples to go to Bethany for the night, maybe his heart became heavy. He knew that this was not the way it was supposed to be. The Temple was supposed to be a shining light—a shining light for all the nations. Didn’t the Psalmist say something about how God would bring salvation to all the nations of the earth and that all the nations would praise the Lord and sing for joy?6 Our Lord had to have silently wondered to himself, “When did things get so turned around? How did things go so wrong?” It had to have broken our Lord’s heart…
Palm Sunday is kind of a two edged-sword in the church calendar. On the one hand, it is a celebration as Jesus enters into the Jerusalem to the acclaim of the people. It is a festive occasion with special rituals like processions and decorations. There are songs that are sung usually only on this Sunday of the year. (I’ve actually had one person in a former church tell me that it just wasn’t Palm Sunday if she didn’t have the opportunity to sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” that day. I tend to agree with her…)
But there is also a dark side to Palm Sunday—for it is the beginning of Holy Week. By the end of the week, our Lord would be betrayed by one of his closest friends. He would be arrested and run through a sham of a trial. And after that miscarriage of justice, he would be beaten, led outside the city gate, and made to endure the humiliation and unspeakable anguish in body and soul by being crucified. He would hear the very same voices that today shout, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” change their tune and shout out “Crucify him! Crucify him.” He was utterly abandoned by everyone he knew and loved—even his heavenly Father turned his back on him. There were no deeper depths to which our Lord Jesus could descend. And then when it was all over, he would be laid in a stone
5 See John 2:23.
6 One example of many that could be cited is Psalm 67.
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cold tomb. All the dreams, all the hopes, all of the expectations of the coming Kingdom of God seemed to be buried right in there with him.
In the inscrutable wisdom of God, it had to be that way. Jesus was not caught off-guard by the reactions to him and his teaching. He was fully aware of what he was getting into when he entered the city. Yet he faced it unflinchingly…
20th Century Baptist minister Clarence Jordan probably summed up the situation with our Lord as well as anyone ever has. He wrote, “It was God’s will that His Son should be on this earth [and] that he should be in a crucifiable situation. I think the kind of life that he lived was inevitably a life lived in the shadow of crucifixion. It was a life in such tension with the world—it was in mortal combat with the world—that either the world had to die or Jesus had to die. It was a fight to the death.”7
“A life in tension with the world.” Jesus struck blows against the empire—blows against the things that the people in his day—and still in our day—hold dear. Things like political authority, religious respectability and even the democracy of the crowd that voted to do away with him. And he calls all of it a sham in the light of his teaching and his death. The story of Holy Week is a grim portrait of who we are. He was deserving of our best—and he received our worst.
But hold on…Sunday’s coming…
Let us pray:
O Lord, hear our prayer. As we begin Holy Week, we are filled with the knowledge of its mystery. As we approach Good Friday and all of its horrors, we are humbled by the lengths to which You would go in seeking us and bringing us back to You. Help us not to be blind. Help us that we may see more clearly how we often neglect to heed the voice of Jesus—and thus crucify him anew in our lives. Draw us close this week that we may receive a deeper understanding of what Palm Sunday truly means—and what the cross of Calvary really means…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.