Summit Presbyterian Church
April 5, 2009 - Palm Sunday
Mark 11: 1-11
The Coming Kingdom
What was the crowd thinking? The many people who threw their cloaks on the road, and the others who spread leafy branches they had cut in the fields. They went ahead and behind Jesus as he rode on a colt, shouting "Hosanna," which means, "save us," or "help us!" They also shouted, "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." These words they shouted were scripture, a few words from a psalm that we echoed in our call to worship this morning. Who did they think Jesus was? What did they expect him to do? What was their hope?
I can tell you the answer I learned in Sunday School and other various and sundry places. The crowds hoped that Jesus was the Messiah who would liberate them from Roman rule. That he would lead a military revolt, get rid of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, and restore the House of David over the kingdom of Israel. The crowds were disappointed, this theory goes, when Jesus failed to do this. They were ready to turn on him when he was brought before Pilate, shouting "crucify him!" The crowds didn't get it, this theory goes: Jesus was not that kind of messiah. They didn't understand what it meant when Jesus rode in on a young, unbroken, colt. This was not the triumphant entrance of a military leader, but the humble entrance of a different kind of king. A king who would save through his death on a cross, through his teaching and healing, through his hospitality to sinners and outcasts. They couldn't see the new thing that God was doing.
This explanation has been popular for many reasons. It's true that Jesus didn't fit many people's idea of a Messiah: although there were so many schools of thought and competing groups among Jews of that time we really can't say there was a common understanding of the Messiah. It's also true that some people were fighting the Romans; perhaps some in the crowd and were disappointed when Jesus didn't join them. And it's true that Jesus was a different kind of king. But it's also true this theory about the crowd - who became identified with non-believers -makes followers of Jesus look good. They could see that Jesus came as the prince of peace, loving and non-violent, whereas "the crowd" placed their faith in futile, armed resistance. There are variations on this theme. I'm not going to go into the harm it has often done. But one problem with this theory is it doesn't fit the story as Mark tells it.
In Mark's gospel, the crowd who greeted Jesus was not looking for a military hero. They would only have heard this about him: that he was a teacher. A teacher who told parables, who interpreted scriptures, and who got into heated arguments with other teachers, such as scribes and pharisees. They would have also heard that he healed sick people, exorcised demons, and fed thousands from a few loaves of bread. They would have heard that he had stilled a storm and proclaimed the kingdom of God was at hand. They would have heard nothing about his organizing the masses - because he didn't. They would have heard nothing about his military exploits - because he didn't have any. They greeted a teacher and a healer. It's to this person they shouted "save us!" It's to this person they shouted: "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." It was a teacher of the scriptures who inspired them to cry, "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!" A kingdom, we can suppose, where Rome no longer ruled. A kingdom where the poor did not serve the rich, where children did not die from hunger, where people were not crucified. A kingdom where the sick were healed, the grieving were comforted, where wisdom was honored. What faith, what hope, those crowds must have had in the proper teaching of the word of God - and in the one who taught it! And when Jesus taught in the temple, said Mark, the crowds were spellbound. They delighted in his teaching. They delighted in his teaching and must have hoped that the kingdom was coming soon.
But then Jesus was killed at the hands of the Romans. Crucified, as were many other Jews and non-Romans, often for political offenses. According to Mark and the other gospel writers, the religious leaders also played a part, although we have to take this with a grain of salt, as they're not objective historical accounts. At his death, those who greeted him as he entered Jerusalem were doubtless disappointed, grieved and angry. Their hopes in the teacher were dashed. Most among the crowd doubtless moved on, accepting his death and remaining faithful to the God of Israel through Torah and synagogue. But there were others who experienced the Risen Christ. Appearances said it was all over, but they encountered the living Christ so they proclaimed otherwise! They continued to look to this teacher from Galilee, now the Risen Christ, for help and for salvation. They looked to the Risen Christ, through the holy spirit, to interpret the word of God in Scripture. They looked to the Risen Christ to bring about God's reign: partially, now, when justice is done and mercy practiced; and ultimately, in the future, when Christ will come again. They continued to insist, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."
We are the heirs of those followers, and it is to the Risen Christ that we look. But we must first travel the road that they did. Today, we greet Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. But in the days ahead we will follow him through his suffering, through his trial, through his last supper with the disciples and through the betrayal of his friends. We will have to face his death, to see that to all appearances, the hopes that he raised when he entered Jerusalem were dashed. And it is then that we will be prepared to hear of the miracle of the resurrection, and to go greet Jesus again, as the crowds did so long ago.