When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and 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. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11Then 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.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Every kid knows how the story goes. If it begins with “Once upon a time,” it will end with—“and they lived happily ever after.” There’s a predictable formula that allows kids to anticipate the movement of the story. That formula carries through every faerie tale we know. It doesn’t matter how familiar that formula is, kids just love the comforting repetition.
Adults have those familiar formulas too. How many of you have ever watched a Hallmark movie? I hesitantly admit that I’ve watched more than my share. But in watching, there are certain things that are consistent: the main character is engaged but to the wrong person; the main character meets the right person but just doesn’t get along with them; the main character’s best friend is black; there is a straight-talking wise elder who advises the main character to follow her/his heart. It doesn’t matter how many story lines follow that pattern, people keep watching them.
This isn’t new. Every good little Jewish girl and boy knew how the story went. The Hebrew army, against incredible odds, pulls off an amazing victory against a godless nation. In recognition that God has given the victory, the commander—often a king—leads the victorious army into Jerusalem and, riding upon his mighty war stallion, is met with adoring crowds who throw their coats onto the road ahead of him and shout “All hail the king! Thanks be to God for this great ruler!”
Then the victorious king rides directly to the temple and offers sacrifices of thanks to the faithful God who has, once again, shown the might of his arm and saved the good people of God from defeat! Just read 1 and 2 Maccabees in the Apocrypha and various parts of the Hebrew scriptures to hear it for yourself.
It was a familiar formula. And it taught kids a lesson: God is mightier than our enemies and stronger than other gods. And as long as you are faithful to this God you too can be granted mighty victories.
Don’t we still kind of like the formula for that story and expect life to work that way? As long as we love God and confess Jesus, we are supposed to be granted victories in health, in wealth, in power. There are preachers on TV who swear by this. And they attempt to prove it with huge houses and luxurious cars. If you give them money—because you love God, of course—you can receive these same rewards. A mighty victory for the faithful!
Unfortunately, there’s Jesus. Including Palm Sunday. The way gospel-writer Mark tells it, this same beloved formula is followed, but opposite. Jesus is really kind of making fun of it here. It’s satire. Instead of a mighty military victory over godless foes, Jesus has been merciful to beggars, the sick, the demon-possessed, and the blind.
Instead of coming into Jerusalem on a mighty war stallion, Jesus comes in on a young donkey. Greeted with shouts reminiscent of hailing a mighty and victorious king, here the poor cut branches from the fields in the countryside to throw down before him. And instead of offering a sacrifice of thanks in the temple to the God of might, Jesus, kind of irreverently, walks into the temple, looks around, and leaves.
A familiar formula, but a completely different message. The kingdom of God isn’t like that. It isn’t about might and strength and power and victory in war. No, God’s reign is pretty much the opposite of that. It’s about humility and generosity and compassion and mercy. Rather than overcoming enemies, Jesus loves them. Rather than intimidating your foes, Jesus forgives them. Rather than being more righteous than those who believe differently, Jesus cares for them. Rather than putting sinners to death, Jesus dies standing up for them.
Make no mistake, Jesus shows us on Palm Sunday, these two kingdoms are not the same. These two world views are not complementary. They are opposites. One based on overpowering, intimidating, ruthlessly beating your opponents. The other based on mercy, compassion, even loving those who oppose you. As we will find out a week from now, one of these ways leads to death, the other overcomes it.
This is all well and good, and certainly fascinating! But as Christ’s church, the body of Christ, it’s more than that. The kingdom that Jesus reveals so clearly on Palm Sunday is the way of Christ. To follow Jesus includes embracing what he shows us about God’s way. A show of force and intimidating power only leads to death. It opposes God’s way. Jesus mocks it, ridicules these displays of strength.
To the very end, Jesus stands firm in forgiveness, grace, compassion, humility as the way that overcomes death. It is love that leads to life, and Jesus stakes everything on that.
To the very end, Jesus brushes aside our versions of power. Even though that power put him to death, he faced it with forgiveness and compassion, and he was vindicated on the third day.
The worst that our world’s power could throw at him, execution and death, was not enough to overcome the power of love and mercy. It is what Jesus shows us on Palm Sunday and the week following. It is the way of life.
How do we, as a congregation bearing Christ’s name, deal with our world’s versions of power which leads to death? It’s tempting to buy into it, to trust the might, the show of force, the power. It’s easier to follow the old formula of God’s might overcoming evil. But as Jesus shows us, it is God’s grace that does that. It is God’s love that saves us. It is God’s mercy that gives us life. And the power of this world can never touch that. We follow Jesus into compassion, mercy, and love. Because that is the reign of God, it is what Jesus shows us on Palm Sunday, and it is the way to life.