Psalm 118 | Mark 11:1-11 Palm Sunday.
So here we are .. Palm Sunday.. the beginning of Holy Week
This is the most vivid week of the church year. It’s why the liturgical colours go from Lent’s purple to red!
In this vivid week the human story is written on a cosmic canvas.
In this week we see Jesus embrace it all – the extremes of human experience.. the joys, the hope, friendship, excitement and love; but also betrayal, loss, silence, desperation and desolation.. self-doubt, the horror of torture and a violent death.. and a final most-unexpected surprise from beyond our imagining.
He experiences it all… God experiences it all.. These are experiences that we face in our lives too.. the extreme moments in life which can challenge us, enrich us, inspire us, push us too far, forever change us.
Maybe we can find some hope in this holy week.. could it be that these very human extremes might actually be the places where we too are closest to God.. It’s easy enough to say.. but it will take a lifetime unpacking.
Let’s get down to the surface.. down to the dusty ground outside Jerusalem.. lets imagine ourselves there so many years ago… maybe you are a disciple, (women and men), maybe an onlooker caught up in the excitement of the crowd… we can imagine in the heat of the day, rich aromas in the air and a growing crowd, a sense of excitement.. branches waving in the air.. hands raised voices singing, chanting, laughing and cheering.. We are carried along with the crowd, and hoping against hope maybe we find ourselves also thinking..
“Could this really be the one? the liberator.. a king, a messiah?
Could the ‘hosannas’ really be true, could we really be saved from our oppressions?”
But not everything was going to turn out as we expected… even now on this most joyous day something is not right with the script…
Kingship usurped… And The absurd drama of the grand victorious entrance!
Remember this is Marks Gospel.. the urgency of his writing adds to the sense of drama.. Mark knows how to write.. each new moment like an act in a play, yet running through this radical story of a suffering messiah there is a seam of subtle, understated, humour.
And here-on the first Palm Sunday- Jesus is playing the fool.. can we see the humour?… and absurd performance art maybe? . . lets look again;
Beneath the text, what none of us could be expected to know, is a type-scene common in antiquity:
“Hail the conquering hero.”
In Hebrew tradition, which Jesus would have been familiar with, The book of First Maccabees (5:45-54) recounts such a story with a self-importance: the return of Judas Maccabeus to Israel following a triumphant massacre. In ancient Jewish literature the details vary, but the format is predictable, (we just heard it in the beautiful Psalm too); Amid cheering throngs, the military victor enters a city and offers thanksgiving at a religious shrine. This kind of tale was familiar to Mark’s audience.
But Mark twists the Maccabeus story on its head. There’s no blood on Jesus’ sword. (He doesn’t carry a sword!) Jesus rides in, not on a Champion’s Horse, but on somebody’s donkey. The crowds do not hail him as “the Son of David” (Matthew), “the King who comes in the Lord’s name” (Luke), “even the King of Israel” (John). Mark plays his trump card at the story’s end, when we expect Our Hero to do something dramatic. It’s time for the general to head for the shrine and offer sacrificial thanks to God for having slaughtered hundreds. Not in Mark!
We expect Jesus to march into the House of the Lord and do the religious thing. What we get is Jesus the tourist, looking the place over. “Well, it’s late. Let’s pack it in guys.” What would the Twelve make of that? How about the exuberant multitudes? Do they pick up their garments and leafy branches with a shrug? “well that’s not quite what we were hoping for..”
Jesus is ridiculing the image of Kingship. The anticipation of Power is subverted, and Mark is using a subtle humour to allow truth to get in; Jesus is not, and never will be, as we expect – he is not the liberator we imagined, he doesn’t follow the script, doesn’t act the way he’s supposed to. If you think you can contain him, you will get it wrong every time. The joke is on us.
Yet things get even weirder later – with a dead fig tree, and then some table-turning antics… We cannot fence Christ in.. and thank God for that. Because if we did there would be no gospel, only the stale clichés of our own religious construction. And that is the genius of Mark – not merely saying things, but actually drawing us into the experience – laughing all the way into God’s upending grace.
Jesus is changing everything – but not as we like to presume. Nothing will be as we had expected…
And here we imagine ourselves on this first Palm Sunday;- we cannot fully know the depth of what the week will bring.. the most unexpected turn of events.. the most searching of questions will confront us; by the end of the week we will be left wondering who we really are; who Jesus really is; and where our hope really lies. (Can you hear the crowds calling for their saviour Barabbas?)
Some 2000 years on, Holy Week still breaks through our comfort zones and – if we let it – asks the most searching questions.
We don’t know the future, we don’t know what will happen when we leave the church this morning. We are vulnerable, weak.. easily tempted.. that’s what makes us human. Sometimes calamities from outside our influence; bereavement, loss, illness, unemployment, family issues, problems outside of our control ….
Maybe God didn’t know either.. is that possible..? Could it be that Jesus didn’t know what was really going to happen in this week…until maybe it was all too late? Yet he experienced it all.
Holy Week reminds us that uncertainty – not certainty – is the path of faith..… it’s what we do with uncertainty, unknowing that makes the difference…
And I would suggest it is through accepting uncertainty; allowing us to be realistic about it; that we might yet find hope and solidarity.. we might find a new way of relating to the word ‘faith’.. Often wrongly construed as ‘sure and certain belief’, but instead something far more vulnerable, experiential.
Sometime the rug is pulled from under us. Yet in uncertainty, even in our most extreme moments, voicing “God why have you forsaken me.. ” we hear the echo of Another .… we are still not alone.. It’s not necessarily a comfort, (in a simple ‘arm around us’ sense) but it is a comfort in a more real way.. Jesus speaks these words too – we are not alone!
But we are also reminded that we are not alone in the moments of delight and wonder…
Life is made of these contours, and the deep valleys help us appreciate the mountain tops even more.. delight in the stars.. in the summer breeze upon your skin, the embrace of a much-loved friend… all of these – pain and joy – are the moments when we are most alive.. and where we catch a fleeting glimpse of God ever dancing beyond our containment.
So, where does this leave us? .. As those on that first Palm Sunday were to discover, the future is uncertain and we find ourselves daily facing the challenge of faith – our fragile response to such uncertainty. Faith forms through unknowing, and God shakes off our grand expectations anyway…
But we trust, we hope, we find comfort, we share together. We are not alone; we have friends, family, community; in all these moments.. in all the extremes… we may yet dare to say ‘God is with us, meeting us in our experience, we are truly not alone’
So wake up and face each new day – with everything that we cannot know;
wake up and face the new day; you are alive – and maybe that’s faith enough.
May God bless you in your journey through this Holy Week. Amen.