March 20, 2016 Sermon: “Triumphal Entry”

March 20, 2016

“Triumphal Entry”

The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray

Mark 11:1-11 (NSRV)

11 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10     Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 Then he 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.


I’ve been contemplating the strange way that things get named.  For example, Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, is named for Colonel Sir George Everest, a Welsh surveyor who never surveyed the mountain or even climbed it, and it was named in his honor despite his protests.  And he even pronounced his name Eve-rest, rather than Ever-est.

America supposedly got its name from Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian cartographer who explored Brazil and the West Indies.  His name was latinized to Americus and then feminized to America, and he was apparently unaware that his name was ever applied to the land he explored because the maps didn’t arrive in Spain until after his death.  And it is possible that Amerigo died believing that he had reached the East Indies in Asia, rather than a brand new continent.

Nowhere in the biblical text itself is Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passover festival referred to as a “triumphal entry”. This title was added later by editors trying to create titles to give shape to Jesus’ story.

I wonder if he would have embraced or protested that title.

Because the great triumph lay ahead of him, not behind him, and even then the great triumph would turn out to be profoundly different from what the crowds believed was going to happen.


We can get a sense of what they expected by looking at the details that Mark includes in his telling of Jesus’ biography.


Mark tells us specifically that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem from near the Mount of Olives.  That geographic detail means very little to you and me, but it would have meant everything to people steeped in the Hebrew scripture and waiting for a messiah.


According to the prophet Zechariah, the Mount of Olives was where the assault on Israel’s enemies would begin (Zech 14:2-4), and the cheering crowds might have even have wondered if Jesus would storm the temple and take it by force.


The people cut leaves from nearby fields (only in John’s account do we find the word “palm”) and spread them on the roads.  Nowhere in our Old Testament is there anything quite like this, the cutting of branches or leaves and waving them or creating a veritable red carpet with them.


But, we find mention in 1 Maccabees (1 Maccabees 13:51) which is a historical book not included in our Bible.  There we find a tale of crowds of people waving palm branches in praise and celebration of the crushing and driving out of an enemy.  They signified a celebration of a military victory.


So again we get a glimpse of what was in the minds of the crowds that day that rushed to line the parade route.


Finally, Mark tells us what the crowds were chanting from Psalm 118: “Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”


Hosanna had become a standard greeting, meeting literally “save us.”

I went on a mission trip with an exchange student from Ireland who found it so strange that when someone sneezes here complete strangers will say “God bless you”. I wonder if “Hosanna” had slipped into a similar kind of usage.


The crowds shout “Save us”, thinking that being saved meant regaining political and religious power, driving out and punishing the Roman occupying forces.  “Save us” meant revolution and taking power back by force.


Theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that into Jerusalem on that same day came not one but two parades.


One was Jesus, on his donkey, a picture of humility.


The other was Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, leading an imperial procession ahead of a column of the imperial Cavalry.  Pilate’s procession demonstrated the power of the empire and Roman theology, after all the Roman emperor was considered the son of god.


Borg and Crossan suggest that Jesus’ march was an intentionally planned counter-procession, proclaiming a different kind of kingdom.  But no one surrounding Jesus or yelling and waving leaves had any idea what this different kind of kingdom would be – they were readying themselves for the clash that would come when these processions of power met, and God would be victorious.


If we had been there, we would probably have thought the same thing.  Jesus’ closest followers thought the same thing.  They didn’t want a savior like Jesus, they wanted Superman.  They didn’t want a savior who would die and be raised from the dead, they wanted a savior who was invincible, who wouldn’t die in the first place.


I think that, sometimes still, we would prefer God in Jesus Christ as Superman: God who will be mighty and powerful, who will keep us from harm, who will protect our parents from getting Alzheimer’s, protect our children from getting bullied, protect our friends from depression and addiction, a superhero God who will fight evil with a show of force, quiet the earth when is shakes, and keep the darkness away.


But the Triumphal Entry was not that kind of parade, and Jesus is not that kind of savior.  Are we surprised then, that the crowds that cried out “save us” only days later cry out “crucify him” when it is very clear that Jesus is not who they were expecting?


We still have moments when we would like to write off God for not answering our prayers the way we would like, for not protecting us from the things that happen inside our bodies or from the terrible things that people do to each other, for not being the God who meets our expectations.


Mark’s account of Jesus entering Jerusalem is strange.  Clifton Black who is a Markan scholar (and who was also my New Testament professor) writes that it is almost humorous.

On May 26, 2007 in Knoxville, Tennessee a protest by the Klu Klux Klan was met by a counter-protest by a group called the Coup Clutz Clowns.  As the Klan shouted “white power” the clowns appeared to mishear them and joined in enthusiastically with shouts of “white flour” and proceeded to have a big flour fight.  Then the clowns decided they must have heard wrong and the Klansmen were having a rally for “white flowers” so the clowns handed out white flowers.  And then the clowns decided the rally must be about “wife power” so they put on wedding dresses and danced.  This is wasn’t by accident but a carefully planned peaceful protest to meet hatred with humor.  And perhaps this is not so different from what Jesus was trying to do.


Jesus takes the spectacle that is meant to “hail the conquering hero” and instead of riding on a war horse he rides in on someone’s tiny donkey.


And then we expect our hero to do something dramatic – like offer sacrifices on the altar of God for the victory – and instead we are told that he goes to the temple and looks around but it was late so he left.


Some commentators believe Jesus was intentionally lampooning the victory march, or perhaps he was trying to make a point:  God does not do what we expect, God is not who we expect.  If Jesus had come into town waving a sword, inciting riots and revolution, capturing and killing, and taking power by force, it would have confirmed our beliefs that this is how the world really works – when you get hit, hit back; when you are insulted, give it back worse than you got it; and when you are hated, hate back.


But the Palm Sunday story is that this is not our gospel at all – the gospel story is a scandal, and it is not at all what we expect.


Franciscan friar Richard Rohr writes about the remarkable transformation in the apostle Paul’s life when he encounters Jesus in a vision on the Damascus road.


And the transformation is not that he stops hunting down Christians, but that his whole understanding of who God is changed completely.


Rohr points out that in all of Paul’s writings, which make up a hefty chunk of our New Testament, Paul uses the term “Almighty” to describe God only one time in all his writings, and even then it is used as a quote from the Old Testament.  And this would be very unusual for a well-trained Jew steeped in Hebrew Scriptures.


Rohr writes, “[Paul] recognized that he had been chosen by God even “while breathing murderous threats” (Acts 9:1), and that the God who chose him was a crucified God and not an “Omnipotent” or an “Almighty” God . . . Paul’s image of God was instead someone crucified outside the city walls in the way a slave might be killed, and not of a God appearing on heavenly clouds.


Christ was not the strong, powerful, military Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for throughout their history. He was in fact quite the opposite. This was Jesus’ great revelation, surprise, and a scandal that we have still not comprehended. God is not what we thought God could or should be! . . .


The revelation of the death and resurrection of Jesus forever redefines what success and winning mean, and it is not what any of us wanted or expected.”


What do we do with our expectations?  We expected our lives would be different, that our marriage would be different, our jobs, our children, the world around us would be different.

And perhaps we had different expectations of God, who God would be, what God would do, what God’s church would be and do.

God continually confounds our expectations.

So what do we do with this?  How do we struggle with this?  What are our choices?

Either, we have to reject God (we are the ones who cry out “crucify him”) or we have to say “teach us”.

We can still cry out “save us” to God but we have to know that salvation might look and feel very different what we thought, and our lives might look very different from what we thought, and that God might be wholly different than our expectations. Amen.