Sermon - Sunday, 25 March 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 25 March 2018.

Scripture: Psalm 118: 19-29 / Mark 11: 1-11

Text: Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but because it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.                                                            (Mark 11: 11)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

It is over twenty years since I first stood on the Mount of Olives.

Although the modern city of Jerusalem spreads out in different directions, looking down from the Mount of Olives across the Kedron valley, the walled city of old Jerusalem is clearly visible.

Today the view is dominated by the golden domed Mosque of el Aqsa built on top of the Temple Mount.

Two thousand years ago it would have been the sight of the 2nd Temple, Solomon’s temple, which greeted the pilgrims as they made their way to the Passover festival.

Unless you have been to the Holy Land, you will not know that the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, the ancient pilgrimage route, involves a long, hard climb.

At 800 feet below sea level Jericho is the lowest city on earth, while Jerusalem, only some 12 miles away, is situated nearly 3,000 feet above sea level.

The road linking the two cities winds its way through hot, arid desert to the top of the Mount of Olives where you are suddenly greeted with the first sight of green vegetation and the first sight of Jerusalem itself.

Even today, with the city spread out before you, it is a remarkable sight and for the pilgrims of ancient Israel, having walked for days from Galilee in the north, their first glimpse of the temple must have been quite overwhelming.

Beautiful for situation, writes the Psalmist, the joy of the whole earth.[1]

Within the calendar of the Christian year today is Palm Sunday, the day Jesus finally reached Jerusalem, and Mark has rushed his readers to get here.

Whereas the opening sections of his gospel offer brief and often sketchy details of Jesus’ words and actions, it is noticeable that upon reaching Jerusalem the gospel narrative slows and deepens and over one third of Mark’s gospel is devoted to the final week of Jesus’ life.

Soon we will hear about Jesus cleansing the temple, predicting its destruction and coming into confrontation with various religious leaders.

He curses a fig tree, confounds the Pharisees in a debate about taxation, commends a poor widow’s offering, delights in another woman anointing him with oil, makes arrangements with his disciples for the Passover meal and predicts their betrayal and desertion.

As you know, it all ends with his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane where he prayed as his disciples slept.

Paraded first before the High Priest, Caiaphas, and then the Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin, Jesus is brought before Pilate where he is condemned, scourged and led out to be crucified.

Of course the story does not end there and next Sunday we celebrate the extraordinary events of Easter dawn when women find the tomb empty, hear the angel’s message that Jesus has been raised from the dead, and flee the scene in terror and amazement.

All of that is to come however.

Today, Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, and Mark reports in surprising detail the arrangements for Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem.

Two disciples are sent to a nearby village in order to fetch a colt.

The animal has never been ridden and once they find it, they are instructed to untie it and bring it to Jesus.

The men are told what to say if they are challenged and each detail of Jesus’ instructions is carefully recorded.

We then learn that having brought the colt to Jesus, the disciples throw their cloaks over it for Jesus to sit upon.

Descending the Mount of Olives a crowd soon materialises.

Garments are laid down on the road and branches are spread before him and as Jesus descends the Mount of Olives those who went ahead and those who followed shout(ed), Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

As they have studied the text, the Biblical scholars have noted that Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem was elaborate and purposeful.

Arrangements were carefully made, nothing was left to chance, and having been at pains up until now to keep his true identity secret, Mark impresses upon his readers that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was nothing less than a royal procession.

However, all is not as it might first appear for as well as being elaborate and purposeful, the Palm Sunday procession is also enigmatic and we do well to pay attention to the rich mixture of irony, pathos and mystery present within it.

As Jesus descends the Mount of Olives he is greeted as a king and yet rather than using a horse, the warrior’s animal, he rides a humble colt, the animal of peace.

The cries of welcome ring in his ears yet soon the cries of the crowd will be very different and demand his crucifixion.

The shout is Hosanna, meaning the God who saves, and yet when the time comes Jesus does not act to save himself even when given the opportunity to do so.

The crowd recognise Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem as a blessing, one that signals the coming kingdom of their father, David, and yet in the coming days his sovereignty as the Son of God is unacknowledged and unrecognised by nearly everyone he meets.

And having started with a great fanfare, the day ended as a damp squib as Jesus looked around the temple and then, because it was late, went back to Bethany.

Purposeful, deliberate, yet filled with irony: in his commentary on the Palm Sunday story New Testament scholar, Hugh Anderson, wrote;

Mark preserves the paradox that in the lowly pathway of the Son of Man to his passion and death, still not fully understood either by the disciples or the people, resides his divine authority. [2]

Some weeks ago I was visiting one of the members of our congregation, a woman with a life-long connection with the church and someone who has been much involved in the worship and activity of Cramond Kirk.

She told me that although her faith was strong, she harboured all sorts of doubts and anxieties.

In particular she was aware that at different points in her life she had not only let other people down, she had let God down too.

With its rich mixture of drama and irony, the Palm Sunday story is told for people like her.

And if this woman’s concerns resonate with you, then the account of Jesus’ final arrival into Jerusalem is told for you too.

The disciples, the ones with whom Jesus had spent so much of his time, teaching, instructing and explaining things, didn’t fully grasp the significance of what was happening.

Soon they would betray, deny and even abandon him in his darkest hour.

The crowds didn’t understand what was happening.

They fooled themselves into seeing what they wanted to see and failed to grasp the deeper truth of the dramatic events being played out before their eyes.

Caiaphas and the religious authorities knew enough to realise the threat Jesus posed to their position and power but failed to see it was they who were in the wrong, not the one who stood in chains before them.

…….it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish was Caiaphas’ chilling conclusion.[3]

And in the end, although far from persuaded of Jesus’ guilt, Pilate was content to wash his hands of the whole affair.

Yet throughout it all Jesus will not be distracted by human adulation or deterred by human betrayal.

His hour has come and God will be glorified.

Whatever else it does, the story of Palm Sunday offers the profound reassurance that God’s concern and compassion are not reserved for people who get everything right in life, neither is the kingdom of God restricted to people who have never made mistakes, let other people down, let God down.

Seated on a donkey, and surrounded by excited followers we are invited to look beyond the crowds and the palm waving parade to see the one who loved the outcast, healed the sick, befriended the lonely, exorcised demons, fed the hungry, welcomed strangers, forgave sins and let us glimpse what God is like and what the kingdom of God is like. 

Nailed to a cross, Christ shows us God’s way of identifying with humanity, sharing human suffering, overcoming evil and conquering death with the power of love.

In other words, it is not our grasp on God that matters but God’s grasp of us.

And as we hear again of Jesus descending the Mount of Olives a donkey riding king, there is the gentle yet insistent reminder that by his death everything else is brought to life.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen

 


[1] Psalm 48:2

[2] Hugh Anderson, The New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Mark, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, USA, 1981, p263

[3] John 11 : 50