April 5, 2009
Mark 11:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11
Today is Palm Sunday – the day we mark the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem for the last week of his life.
From the biblical story we know that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem took place during Passover. Passover was the event in which the Jewish people celebrated their liberation from the oppression of Pharaoh.
The festivities of Passover often brought the Roman rulers to Jerusalem – the Roman seat of power in Palestine. King Herod usually stayed away from Jerusalem but for these festivities he would march into town with his large entourage of wealth and power on display.
Pilate, the Roman governor, preferred to stay on the coast in Caesarea but for this celebration he also felt like he needed to be in Jerusalem. Passover often brought out those who hated Roman rule and many folks used this time to protest against Caesar’s rule.
Pilate hated these zealot protestors and so he rode into town demonstrating that he was in control. The Roman procession was always very dramatic.
At the head of the procession was a golden statue of an eagle. It was followed by the pennants and battle flags of Rome.
Then came the trumpeters, soldiers, cavalry, and the chariots. Sometimes at the end of the parade there would be prisoners in chains.
This royal entrance into Jerusalem by Herod and Pilate was meant to reinforce their power and control over the people.
However, this particular Passover included another parade.
We learn from Mark’s gospel that Jesus spent his last night in Jericho before walking the 16 miles to Jerusalem. This difficult journey over rough terrain would have taken Jesus about 6 hours to walk.
As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, near the Mt. of Olives, he sends two of his disciples to go find a donkey. I find it interesting that Jesus, after all this walking, now wants a donkey to ride on.
It seems clear from Mark’s gospel that Jesus had prepared well for this occasion. He prepared for it as much as Herod and Pilate had prepared for their own entrance into Jerusalem.
By asking for a donkey to ride, Jesus is giving a clear sign to the people that he is the long awaited Messiah.
The prophet Zechariah, 550 years earlier had talked about the Messiah coming on a donkey. In Zechariah 9:9 it says – “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The people also sense that Jesus is there for a purpose and they begin to shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Hosanna literally means – “save us”. The Jewish people were hungry for liberation and they are pleading for Jesus to save them.
The waving of palm branches and the laying down of coats by the people was also no accident.
Palms had become signs of victory and of military achievement. The Romans gave palms to the victors in the Roman games and emperors gave them to their subjects following military conquests.
The Jewish people had picked up on this and during the time of the Maccabeen revolt, about 160 years before Jesus, when the Jewish people won back their independence they celebrated by waving palm branches.
Judas Maccabeus, the military leader whose nickname was the “hammer”, had led them to victory. Judas Maccabeus had cleansed the temple of an altar to Zeus and rededicated the temple back to God.
Judas Maccabeus also adopted palm branches as a symbol of his victory. He even put the image of palm branches on his coins and had them used in temple feasts to celebrate his victory over Rome.
So when the crowds reached for palm branches during Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem it wasn’t just because they were convenient. They were remembering Judas Maccabeus cleansing the temple and overthrowing Rome.
Jesus on a donkey and people waving palm branches signified a royal procession. The crowds believed that Jesus was the king who had come to establish Israel’s independence from Rome.
But Jesus doesn’t do what they expected. No sooner is Jesus in the city and he leaves again.
In verse eleven it says “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
Now, one of the questions is – what did Jesus see as he looked around the temple? What did Jesus think about as he went to bed that night? Did he get much sleep or did he pray through the evening?
We don’t know what Jesus thought about but the next morning he knew what he had to do.
Mark tells us that on his way back into Jerusalem he curses a fig tree for having no figs on it. The symbolism of the withered fig tree is that Jesus had expected to see the fruit of justice and mercy and love and righteousness from God’s people, but instead all he saw was the outer trappings of faith in the temple courts.
After cursing the fig tree, Jesus enters the temple for the second day in a row. This time, though, instead of looking around, he acts. He chases out the money changers and he overturns their tables.
And then Jesus boldly proclaims for all to hear – “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Jesus cleanses the temple because the religious leaders had turned the temple – meant to be a place for all people – into an exclusive “members only” club.
My suspicion is that when Jesus walked into the temple the first time and looked around he discovered that his followers were not welcome.
Jesus, we know, had a reputation for hanging out with all the wrong people.
He befriended women of dubious reputations.
He touched lepers.
He dined with tax collectors.
He did favors for despised Roman soldiers.
And he even held up Samaritans as heroes.
I think when Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday he had all these kinds of folks following him and waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna”.
And when he got to the temple – he found out that all of his friends were not welcome there. So he left. He left to pray and he returned, determined to make room for them.
Now, for us this morning, Lent is a time that we look inward at our own hearts and motives. It is a time for each of us to ask ourselves – when was the last time I was genuinely concerned with how we welcome outsiders to our church?
What have I done lately to reach out to the visitor or the stranger and to welcome them into my home and life?
Lent is a time for us to ask ourselves – how often do we share Jesus’ passion to be with those different from us?
How excited do we get about our church being a place that welcomes the homeless?
That receives the hurting veterans returning from war?
That embraces with Jesus’ love the teenaged mothers who need to know they are loved?
That accepts the wealthy executive who has just been laid off.
It is important on the day we wave palm branches and cry hosanna that we remember again how Jesus cleansed the temple so that all of his followers would have room to pray.
So, today I invite us to examine our own hearts to see how open we are to the strangers among us. Is the doorway to our heart getting narrower or is it expanding to make room for all of God’s children to find salvation?
But lent is not only a time to ask ourselves how concerned we are with welcoming the outsiders into our church.
Lent is also a time to ask – am I on the right path?
Like the disciples then, we want a kind of Jesus – a Messiah – who will overthrow our oppressors. We want a Jesus who will bless our politics, bless our wars and battles, and be on our side against all of our enemies.
The only problem is – Jesus isn’t that kind of Messiah.
Jesus’ triumphal entry was not like that of King Herod or Pilate. Jesus rode on a lowly donkey. The donkey revealed Jesus to be a humble peasant on a mission of peace.
The Gospel of Luke says that on Palm Sunday Jesus wept as he entered Jerusalem because the people did not know the things that make for peace.
Jesus knows that the people will reject the path he is on. He knows they will stop shouting “hosanna” and they will start shouting “crucify him.”
Jesus completely turned upside down all of their views on what a Messiah is to be like and on how they are to live their daily lives.
Jesus taught his disciples to turn the other cheek. To carry a soldiers backpack a second mile. To love your enemy. To forgive those who sin against you. To be leaders who actually serve people – not lord it over them. To give food to the hungry and clothes to the naked.
Jesus chose this humble path for himself and he invites us to follow him on this same path.
In Philippians 2:5 Paul writes – “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 on the form of a slave.”
The Jesus path reveals to us what God is like and how God rules in the world. God rules with humility.
I think all of us wish the Jesus path was easier and not so demanding, but the truth is it can be hard. And yet it is also the path that produces life and hope and peace.
Over the last few weeks I have been listening for stories that illustrate the path Jesus invites us to be on.
The last issue of Marketplace, a Mennonite magazine that encourages a Christian witness in business, had an article by Andy Dula.
Andy is Chief Financial Officer for the EG Stoltzfus company that works primarily in residential home building and renovations.
The company he works for is 40 years old and to celebrate 40 years in business the whole company went on a retreat.
The place they were going to stay sent the company a list of the best rooms and asked which people from the guest list were senior managers. They wanted to make sure the senior managers got the best rooms.
Instead, the human resource person told the retreat center, “no, no – give the senior management team the smallest, least desirable rooms.”
There was this long pause from the hotel representative but finally she said – “you want to give your top management team the worst rooms?”
The company spokesperson then said – “some of the people coming on this trip will never again have the opportunity to stay at a place like this and we want them to have the very best rooms.”
Later on the hotel manager told Andy that “no one had ever requested those kinds of room arrangements before.” He said – “your company understands what makes a really good company.”
I think Andy and the company he works for know something about humility and what it means to follow the Jesus path.
I also read in Urban Connections – a Mennonite publication for urban leaders – about a young couple who started a restaurant in Denver named “SAME Café”
SAME stands for “So All May Eat – Café”. Brad Birky and his wife Libby volunteered a lot at soup kitchens and one day they decided they wanted homeless people to eat better.
So they started this non-profit restaurant as a way to serve great food to everyone. There are no prices on the menu and everyone pays what they can afford. If you can’t pay anything then you are asked to volunteer an hour helping in the café.
The café has a menu that changes daily but it always features food that is made from scratch and is largely organic. Brad buys most of his supplies from Whole Foods.
Brad and Libby’s vision for this Café grew out of their faith commitment. Brad grew up Mennonite in Illinois and Libby grew up Catholic. They had similar values and they wanted to bring people together as well as give them good food.
Libby says the café has “really opened our eyes. When you’re poor, sick or living on the streets, you tend to eat badly, which makes you feel worse. I think everyone deserves to eat really well. When you’re putting good stuff in your body and you’re feeling good about what you’re taking in you can put good energy back into the world. If nothing else it alleviates a lot of health-care costs.”
Brad and Libby were told that a restaurant like this would never work but already they have had to expand their space and it is serving people from all across the economic spectrum.
Brad and Libby are following the Jesus path and are learning what it means to live and work with humility.
Last Sunday I read in the Post-Gazette about how churches are responding to the economic crisis in their communities.
One church, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, in Jeannette has seen giving to their church go down, but the church hasn’t cut its outreach to the community.
It serves free meals to the public. They have a pizza party after every home high school football game. They had a fall dinner that served 550 people.
This year the church is adding a Chili Night out on New Years Eve. The youth group made 150 Easter baskets for shut-ins, including low-watt light bulbs donated by Allegheny Power.
The church also offers a class on budgeting. The church does all of this on a budget of $183,000.
The pastor says – if the spirit of the congregation is turned outward in ministry to the community it seems to be more vital and more able to increase its ministry.
Holy Trinity Church is following the path of Jesus in being a community that humbly serves its neighbors.
Here at PMC I know many of you are following the path of Jesus in humble service to others through your work or through volunteer opportunities.
Randy, Bernie, Maria, and Irene just came back from being in Honduras where they used their medical gifts to serve others.
A couple of weeks ago a number of you walked in the 2nd Annual Water Walk for Women’s Rights and contributed money to support women’s rights in Tanzania.
Last Sunday we made a congregational decision to purchase the Swissvale United Methodist Church building. After we made the decision there was an opportunity to share your dreams and visions.
Karen Howard talked about her dream to help grow the daycare there and to maybe expand it into a school.
Jen Seaman saw the building as an opportunity to expand our Sunday School program and to make it a nurturing environment to teach our children.
Wes Horst talked about his vision for reaching out to community youth.
Tracy Baton envisions the church as a community gathering space.
Marilyn Bender talked about hiring someone to do community development as we embrace the community.
Many exciting ideas were shared. I don’t know what will happen in the near future but it is exciting to hear about the dreams God is placing in our hearts to serve others and to serve our community.
The path of Jesus is always one of making room for the stranger and humbly serving others.
Lent is a time for us to ask – am I on the path of Jesus that leads to peacemaking, healing, and renewal or am on the path that leads away from God to violence and hatred and self promotion?
In Revelation 7:9 the Apostle John sees a vision of God’s people in heaven. He writes – “After this I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying – salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb.”
The thing I noticed here is that God’s people in heaven, those who have followed the Jesus path of humble service, are all holding palm branches in their hands.
These palm branches, though, are not for a military victory. They are now signs of martyrdom and of victory over death for following the nonviolent Jesus. These palm branches proclaim victory to the slain Lamb who died for us.
As followers of Jesus, we can join with all God’s people in waving our palm branches as a sign that our salvation also belongs to God and to the Slain Lamb.
So, I invite you right now to take your palm branches and to wave them high as your own commitment to staying on the Jesus path of humble service to others and of making room for all of God’s children to pray.
(Wave palm branches) As you wave your palm branches repeat after me these words.
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the Prince of Peace who rides on a donkey!
Hosanna in the highest heaven! Amen!