Who Is This? (Isaiah 50:4-9; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 11:1-11)
For those of us who have put in some years inside most any church, today’s Gospel story is familiar. It occurs in all four Gospels, and we read one version of it every year on this day. We recognize it readily: the procession, the palms, the “hosanna’s” are things that I have either heard preached or preached myself for most of my life. Baptists tend to be better at Palm Sunday and Easter than we are at Lent or Good Friday. I’ve engaged in ecumenical dialogues on this where it’s been suggested that Baptists don’t have an adequate theology of the cross, or sin, or death. I can own some of that, but I think it’s more simple. We just aren’t very good at the liturgy of Lent and Good Friday that seems like it’s asking us to pretend that we don’t know how all this comes out on Easter. Indeed, Palm Sunday is the down payment on the fact that we do know that it does end in triumph and that’s more important than anything. At least that’s my story
This year the Revised Common Lectionary has us read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from Mark, the oldest written gospel. It is probably at least 15-20 years older than either Matthew or Luke, and 30 older than John. Both Matthew and Luke, though clearly dependent upon Mark for the outline, enhance his narrative at a number of points with what Hollywood calls special effects. Their stories are studded with more spectacular details than the older, less complex Mark.
To turn now to the Gospel of Mark. We find the centre of this story of Jesus in Peter’s response to the question, “Who do you say that I am”? in chapter 8. From the moment that Peter responded to Jesus’ question in verse 29: “You are the Messiah,” Jesus has been heading to Jerusalem, and a showdown with the powers that defined who and what the Messiah had to be for an entire people. Mark immediately followed Peter’s confession with many words of Jesus about his suffering and death. He also had many things to say about the kinds of disciples that follow such a suffering, dying, rising Messiah, and it is pretty clear that such a Messiah will run up against a stone wall as far as being accepted in the religious structures of Jesus’ day. It is also clear that Jesus’ expectations will also run into another stone wall in his own disciples who didn’t understand it themselves until after Jesus had died, and they had experienced his risen presence for themselves.
It is also quite clear that the Jesus we meet in Mark’s Gospel did not invent his idea of who the Messiah was, but took it from portions of Isaiah 40-55 in his Bible (we call it the Old Testament). These chapters feature a figure called the Servant of the LORD who suffers, dies and is vindicated on behalf of the people of God. One of the key passages that contains this picture is our Old Testament Lesson for today from Isaiah 50. The picture is of one who thinks of the call of God as a call to listen to God and others in order to be enabled to teach and encourage others with words. The Servant learns to be wise enough to be open and vulnerable with others, even though such attitudes cause suffering. The Servant says, “Because God is with me I have set my face like flint,” or steadfastly, “to remain faithful to this mission of being able to encourage the downhearted and discouraged.”
As we read Mark’s account of Jesus against the background of this figure from Isaiah 40-55, we see how he filled that picture full of meaning in his words, his works, and his willingness to go to Jerusalem for to oppose those whose view of God and Messiah was that God existed to be God of only a few that had their doctrine right, and that the role of God’s Messiah was to crush and overrun the enemies of God’s people (those who, in other words, had their politics right). Jesus stood foursquare against such a view of God, of power and of the Messiah. Mark is clear that Jesus’ victory was to be through suffering and death. God’s power existed to give away not to hold onto for us and all those who are just like us ethnically, religiously, or politically.
Now although Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels, he was not the only nor the first to bring Isaiah 40-55 to bear on the life and ministry of Jesus. At least a decade earlier the Apostle Paul had written a letter to a small church in the Macedonian town of Philippi. This church was full of wonderful people, who were, nonetheless, experiencing internal strife because of external pressure from those who did not share their convictions (we’re not sure who they were or why they were doing it). Paul was concerned to encourage the Philippians to remember that the way congregations live and even thrive through such difficulties was to continue to love and care for one other and their community, and, indeed, to count others more important than they counted themselves. At one point in his epistle Paul cited that hymn that we read from chapter 2. This hymn said the reason why followers of Jesus ought to hang onto one another rather than be overcome with individualism is because Jesus lived his life by living for others, and Jesus’ followers are to imitate him. Here, again, are some of the words:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross, in which God also highly exalted him…
The text does not say that Jesus was exalted as a reward for the service he rendered by found in humble human form, but rather that his exaltation to the right hand of God was in the act of self-abasement on a cross. Jesus was never more in the form of God than then. That’s what God does and what God is like. That is exaltation. So, both Mark and, earlier, Paul saw Jesus’ Messiahship this way. I do not think they invented this view either, but that they held it because Jesus did. There is no rising without dying; there is no exaltation without self-emptying. Even more, exaltation consists in the abandonment of self on behalf of others. Paul says it is true of Jesus, and true of his church.
With all that as background, let us come to the Gospel story. When Mark gave us his account, it is interesting how many places he left us free to read or hear the story in different ways, and asked, in essence, “What do you think”? “Who do you say that I am”? For example, had Jesus made prior arrangements to have that colt ready for him to ride into town, or was it his wonderful foreknowledge that allowed him to know that the animal would be there? Mark doesn’t say, and asks, “What do you think”? When Jesus instructed his disciples what to say to those who might inquire of them when they untied the animal, he said, “Just tell them “The Lord has need of it.” Who is the Lord? Is it Jesus? Is it God? What do you think? It’s probable that the best translation of the Greek is that “the lord” of the colt (that is, it’s owner) needed it and the owner would bring it back as soon as Jesus was done. That’s what the word “lord” meant in quite a number of everyday contracts that have been found in the Palestine of Jesus. Of course, in a sense, “the Lord” is Jesus, and certainly God as well. Mark doesn’t tell us what he means, and asks us to decide.
Psalm 118 (“Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”) was a song sung to welcome pilgrims to Jerusalem for various festivals. Is that what is going on here or is there more? Normal pilgrims would walk into Jerusalem, it was nobility that rode. Jesus rode. Was he making the political claim that he was a challenge to Rome as some kind of King? Or a religious claim that he was the Messiah? Mark lets it hang. What do you think? Does that parade that forms around Jesus really understand who they are cheering? From what else Mark has told us in his Gospel we know that he believed Jesus to be the King and the Messiah, but does not say that the crowd really grasped it. He gives us but one hint of what he thinks of Jesus’ status here. It happens when those in the parade say to Jesus, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” But Mark does not say the crowd, nor even the disciples, understood things the way he does. “What do you think”? Who is this?
To begin to address this issue, I found that, as I read this story again this year two things struck me. First, I was struck by how fragile and humble Jesus is, even as he rides like nobility or royalty into Jerusalem. Remember, one clear point in that ambiguous story of this man who rode into Jerusalem on a colt: he’s riding on an animal borrowed from some unknown person. He doesn’t even have his own horse. That’s remarkable for a King, let alone the Messiah. This led me to think more about how much of Jesus’ life actually depended on borrowing things from others and patching things together from others. In the next chapter of Mark, we’ll find him borrowing a coin to make a point about Caesar and taxes. In the Galilean town of Capernaum, he lived in borrowed lodgings. According to Luke he began life in a borrowed feeding trough, and, according to all four Gospels, he even borrowed his grave. Not the kind of thing we might expect from a King or big-time politician, or a televangelist, let alone the Messiah, at least in the examples we have in front of us. In these, humility is often simply a gesture to make people think folks are “down home types,” when the fact is, they’re not at all. Humility is used as a way to make speeches, and a tool of control. The picture of Jesus is humble, first to last.
This leads to the second thing that struck me about Mark’s portrait of this one whom he takes as king and messiah, and that is that Jesus doesn’t use any of this as a way to make speeches and a tool of control. The last thing he says in our story has to do with the colt. In the parade in his honour and in its aftermath, Jesus is silent. He says nothing. At the very end of the story, he went to the temple silently. In all three of the other Gospels, Jesus goes roaring from the parade into the temple and throws out the money changers. In Matthew the story ends with the religious leaders in an uproar, in Luke with Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, and in John with the Pharisees lamenting that the whole world has gone after Jesus, and determined to put a stop to him. In other words, in the other three stories, there’s chaos at the end. Here in Mark, Jesus comes to the temple. He walks around, looks around, and turns around and goes back to Bethany, without uttering a word. “What kind of a King or Messiah is this?
Benjamin Dueholm in a recently published sermon on this passage emphasized this difference between Mark and the other Gospels here. The reaction to Jesus in those works is, as I said, chaos and resistance. Here is it silence, not only of Jesus, but, from the words of the story on the part of the temple and the city. It’s almost as if no one is there or nobody cares whether Jesus is there or not. This may speak more to our age than would the chaos and resistance. Our world is like the “empty” temple. Not interested. Not disinterested. Not engaged. Silence and indifference. “If Jesus wants to ride into town, let him, just don’t disturb my life.” I’m too busy on social media to care about such old fashioned things as that. And still, Mark inquires, Who is this? Is he worth our time? What do you think? Who do you say that I am? The ball’s in your court.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.