Mark 11:1-10; Philippians 2:1-4
During high school, and then later in the Army, I had my fill of parades. First there were the uniforms. Dressed up in outfits that were stylish in the 1940s, we children of the Beetles looked like Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band. Then there was the music. When it came to parades, the composer of choice was Sousa. I am sure his music was rousing in the 1890’s but few people today sit around listening to El Capitan. When I was in the 492nd Army band some of us requested we play Sousa’s The Liberty Bell. Our director never caught on that it was the theme song to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The band, and some folks along the parade route, enjoyed our bit of fun.
Parades always seemed to be a mindless exhibition of endurance and dexterity. You have no idea how difficult it is to play a trumpet while glancing down to see what gifts the horses ahead left in your path. Parades were long and often in freezing weather. Yet regardless the conditions, parades always bring out a crowd. From Hampton Virginia to Pamunjan Korea, when there is a parade, the folks along the sidewalks appear to be in a festive mood.
Imagine Jesus and the disciples sitting around planning their weekly calendar. One of the disciples noticed Passover was just around the corner and said, “Hey, why don’t we spend this Passover in Jerusalem? I used to go to the Temple all the time. No offense Jesus but some of those preachers they bring in for the high holidays put on a real good show. The music is great and you can’t beat the food.”
Peter spoke up, “Are you nuts? Why would you want to go to Jerusalem? Aren’t we in enough hot water here in Galilee? Jesus only gets away with what he says now because people like him. But if we go to Jerusalem, we will be the Passover lamb they slaughter.”
John piped in, “Both of you are right. There is nothing like Jerusalem at Passover but it might be dangerous.”
Bartholomew, who never said much of anything, spoke up. “I’ve got some friends with a room above their place. We can travel in pairs, slip through the gate, and meet up at their house. No one will ever know we were there.”
Judas put in his thirty cents worth. “Bart, that is a great plan. If we are careful, what could go wrong?”
“What could go wrong?” Peter screamed. “We could all get arrested and spend the rest of our days in prison. Come on Jesus. Talk some sense into these guys.”
Jesus sat quietly for a moment. All the disciples leaned forward so they wouldn’t miss a word. “Boys, let’s go to Jerusalem. Bart, contact your friends and see if they can give us a place to stay. Matthew, round up the food we will need for the Holy Meal. Judas you go take care of your business. James and John, find me a colt. If we are going to Jerusalem, let’s enter the city in style.”
Peter whispered, “You are such a bunch of fools.”
I confess being about as big a fan of Palm Sunday as I am of parades. For years I have tried to make sense of what we are suppose to do on this Sunday before Holy Week. On Palm Sunday some preachers will paint a picture showing the paradox of Jesus riding a colt when most parades are lead by generals on a white horse. I am certain you have all heard that sermon. Some choirs will sing an endless chorus of triumphant music which almost sound like they were written by Sousa. Some folks celebrate Palm Sunday as a prelude to Easter and skip Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. And then there are the ministers, choirs and congregants will scratch their heads and wonder what it all means. Count me among that group.
Why doesn’t Jesus just slip into Jerusalem? Why the big parade? Why tell everyone, particularly the religious leaders that he was in town? Why did Jesus proclaim he was bringing in the kingdom of David to Jerusalem? And when the Pharisees witnessed the crowd screaming hosannas and begged Jesus to calm them down, why did Jesus respond, “If they were silent, the stones would cry out.” On Palm Sunday Jesus makes a mockery of protocol, lampoons the religious elite, brings focus upon himself and his little band of marauders, and pretty much announces their world is about to be turned upside down. The arrival in Jerusalem seems comical, dramatic, and foolish. All it lacked was a marching band playing Sousa’s, The Liberty Bell.
And then nothing happened. Mark 11:11 reads, “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. He looked around and then left with the twelve to go to Bethany for the evening.” No one arrested Jesus. No one asked if he might drop by and discuss his upcoming plans to overthrow the Roman Empire. The religious elite did not him engage in a theological discussion. Jesus did not even do an interview with CNN. He just went home.
This may not seem odd to you but as someone who prides himself on being a biblical scholar this is pretty strange. The most often used word in the Book of Mark is “Immediately.” Jesus immediately does everything. He immediately heals the sick, he immediately gathers folks around to hear his latest story, he immediately travels from town to town but now, at the beginning of the biggest week of his life, he just goes home.
What a perfect way to end Palm Sunday. For all the pomp and circumstance, for all the bluster that was in the air, for all the anticipation, nothing happened. Understanding Palm Sunday in this way helps to take a giant step toward understanding Jesus. The Apostle Paul characterized him by saying, “Jesus did nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but humbly regarded others before himself.”
How might this inform our understanding of Palm Sunday? What if Palm Sunday was an exhibition of the humbleness of God? What if Palm Sunday or even Holy Week is not about Jesus?
If you haven’t fallen asleep yet you have got to be thinking, “How can that be?” Not about Jesus? Jesus died. No worse than that, Jesus was crucified. Next week we will have folks we haven’t seen since Christmas showing up to celebrate the resurrection. How could I even suggest the coming week is not about Jesus?
On that morning Jesus paraded into Jerusalem he faced opposition from too powerful entities. The first is the power of Rome. Pax Romana ruled the world, or at least the world known to the folks living in Jerusalem. From India to the British Isles the power of Rome was legendary. Anyone threatening Rome would be held accountable.
Perhaps less obvious was the power of the Temple. While Rome owned the body of anyone living within the empire, in Judea, the Temple owned their souls. The Temple defined God. The Temple confirmed when and where God would be worshipped. The Temple declared there was no other God but Yahweh.
And then there was Jesus. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem he did not stand in opposition to the power of Rome or the authority of the Temple. What he celebrated was the lowliness of God and that drove both Rome and the leaders of the Temple a bit crazy.
If all you can understand is power, then you can deal with power. But humility? There is no answer for humility. Jesus met the hosannas of the crowd with silence. Jesus met the demands of the Temple with a whisper. On that particular day Jesus had not come to threaten Rome or challenge the Temple. He had not come to win over the self-proclaimed rulers of the universe or the interpreters of the Law. Yet there he was and neither Rome nor the Temple had an answer for this humble presence.
Remember the conversation Jesus had with James and John over who would sit on Jesus’ right hand. Jesus said, “You want to be first. You want to be important. You want to be great. I didn’t come here to make you powerful. I came to show you how to serve.”
In this day and age of doing everything possible to reach the top, those words seem foolish. Yet if you have a heart filled with grace and a soul generated by love, serving rather than destroying others becomes your goal.
The Jesus we find portrayed in the book of Mark was not there to bring glory to himself. He was there to offer a moment of respite, a moment of joy, a glimmer of hope, to those standing along the parade route. That what a parade does. Parades bring a smile to a child. Parades present a break from an overly crowed day. Parades turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Palm Sunday is not about Jesus. It is about children who pick up palm branches and follow a dream. It is about fathers and mothers who have lost their way. It is about the disciples of any age who sometimes wonder what we are supposed to do next. It is about the voices of authority becoming perplexed by such a foolish demonstration.
Jesus came, not for himself, but for each person observing this parade called life. Jesus came not to overthrow, not to overwhelm, but to help someone with a word or song. Jesus came to show someone who was traveling wrong. Jesus came to serve someone as a Christian ought. He came to spread the message his master taught. Jesus came and his living was not in vain.
Sing it Bill.