Sermon: Palm Sunday Selfies
Scripture: Mark 11: 1-10
You know there are many ways to judge a great writer. One way is by his or her imagination. You read their stories and you find yourself wondering, “Where did this story come from?” The story is so unique and unusual that we praise the writer, if not for the way the story is told, then for the originality that is evidenced in their writing. JRR Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Rings” comes to mind. And then there are those that we praise because of the realism of their writing. I remember as a teenager reading Truman Capote’s book, “In Cold Blood” (which is the true account of the murder of a family of four that took place in the 1950’s in a small town in Kansas) and being captivated by Capote’s writing. He made you feel the terror that that family faced at the hands of the killers. And when Capote was done, you had no doubt about their guilt. And then there are those writers that just have the gift of turning a phrase in a way that it becomes imprinted in your mind forever. Most of us could probably quote some of Shakespeare’s most meaningful phrases even if we don’t know the whole story. When I was a teenager I became fascinated with the poetry of Robert Frost and still remember some of his most well-known phrases. Like “Two roads diverged in the yellow wood. And I – I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference.” To this day, I can not come to a cross roads without remembering Frost’s admonition to go the way less traveled. Song writers have this gift which is why most of us can remember song lyrics from fifty years ago, but can’t recall what we had for breakfast yesterday. And then there are those writers who can paint pictures with their words and in doing so often transport us into the story. When Margaret Mitchell in Gone With The Wind, described the plantation Tara, it came to life and it was like I was actually there with Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes. And when she wrote about the burning of Atlanta, I was transported there. I could all but feel the heat of the fire on my face, surrounded by the panic and chaos that was all around me. She painted such a vivid picture.
I think the greatest writers are the ones who can paint such a vivid picture with their words that we find ourselves almost as part of the scenery, experiencing what the people are feeling. Seeing what they are seeing. We can’t remember the exact words that they wrote as clearly as we do the images that are created. I think the writers of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were masters at painting pictures with their words. The Bible comes alive because it is essentially a story told, not so much with words, but with word pictures. Think about the word pictures that scriptures give us. For instance when they describe Jesus as the Good Shepherd. What do you see? Or the Baby in the manger. Or Jesus on the Cross. Or The Empty Tomb. These four writers create pictures with their words that transform us. That place us with the shepherds at the manger and Mary and John at the foot of the Cross and with the women in the first light of Easter in the garden. And for two thousand years we have been trying to replicate those images through paintings and sculptures and pageants. Every time we offer the bread and the cup, we are trying to replicate the image that we have of Jesus at the last supper. And then there is this parade that all of the Gospels describe that took place on Palm Sunday. We call it the triumphal entry. It is a story told for the ages through word pictures. All of the Gospel writers tell of it, but it’s not really the words they write that we remember today. It’s the pictures that they paint that shape our understanding of this day. That invite us to become a part of the parade, and to take a selfie or two to remember the moment.
Let us pray
Of course, the children already helped us with the first picture when they started the service by waving the palms as they paraded through the Sanctuary to help us remember the picture that Mark gives us when he writes this: Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread palm branches they had cut. And they shouted, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” “Hosanna in the highest.” (show picture of people waving palms) When we read this description of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem for most of us the first picture that comes to mind are these people waving the palm branches. Most of those who waved the palms were the ones that Jesus called “the daughters of Jerusalem” – the poor and the outcasts who were forced to live outside of the city wall so that when the invading armies came, they would be the first to encounter them. They were expendable. Their primary occupation was begging at the gates of the city. You see, it was certainly not unusual for a visiting king or dignitary to be greeted with a great parade but those would be on the inside of the wall, not the outside. And the people would lay their finest cloaks on the road before the king so that the King’s feet would not have to touch the filthy soil. But Mark’s picture is a little different. Mark’s picture is of people most of whom can likely only afford one cloak and so rather than place that before the King, they pick up the next best thing, a palm branch, and they wave it and shout their praise and then lay it on the street in front of Jesus, as if He was coming to be their King. Mark’s picture is one of adoration, and hope, but also perhaps a picture of mistaken identity. You see, those on the outside of the wall honored Jesus as they would a King even though that really was not what they needed. Most of the Jews were looking for the Messiah to be a King to liberate them from Roman rule. But for these poor and outcast people, in their everyday lives there was little difference between the Roman rule of Pilate and the Jewish King Herod. No matter who lived in the fine palaces inside the wall, those on the outside were still outcasts – still poor – still unclean. So when Jesus came they did not need a king nearly as much as they needed a Savior. And we hear it in the words they shouted: “Hosanna” which means God save us.
A pastor tells about his inner city congregation which he says was full of the poor and outcasts like the ones who greeted Jesus that day. And he tells about one in particular man named Edgar, who lived alone in a nearby motel that was home to drug addicts and prostitutes and single mothers and others who lived on the margins. Edgar had adopted this pastor’s church but it had not always a perfect fit. Sometimes Edgar would get loud and demanding and even interrupt the sermon if he didn’t agree with something the preacher said. And so the pastor didn’t know what to expect when he found Edgar waiting in the sanctuary for him on Palm Sunday evening. He was tired and just wanted to go home but he knew that Edgar wanted something–probably a ride to the motel where he lived. On the drive to the motel, Edgar talked his ear off. He was unusually excited. Finally they came to the rundown motor inn. But in that most dismal setting, the most wonderful thing happened. A door opened and an elderly woman emerged from one of the rooms. She knocked on another door and a mother and her children emerged. And they rushed toward the pastor’s car as though they had been waiting for him all of their lives and they were joined by others who had been waiting in the parking lot. Then, from seemingly out of nowhere Edgar grasped in his hands some palm branches from that morning’s church service. Apparently he had promised the folks at the motel that he would bring them some palm branches and he was delivering on that promise. So there they were–mothers and their children, addicts, prostitutes, the mentally ill. The outcasts. And as they surrounded the car, the pastor thought about those who had greeted Jesus on that first Palm Sunday. He had pictured them in his mind so many times, and now here they were. “Let’s get out of the car,” Edgar said as he thrust the palms into his pastor’s hand. “Give them the palms!” And so the pastor distributed the branches among those waiting. And they began to wave them. “Now bless them,” Edgar continued. And so the pastor blessed the palm branches. “No” Edgar said, “I want you to bless the people” and to illustrate he started to place the Pastor’s hand on each forehead and asked the pastor to pray for each one individually. And as the pastor was driving home reflecting on what had just happened he realized that what he had just participated in was Palm Sunday, just as he had always pictured it but never really experienced it that way. But that night he had become a part of the picture. Part of the parade. Because Palm Sunday is a picture of hope and joy among those who have little hope and joy in their everyday living. So if that’s where you are today, then I invite you to come and pick up your own palm, and join the parade – become a part of the picture of Palm Sunday. Our first selfie is with those waving the Palms.
Then the second selfie of that day is with Jesus, riding in to Jerusalem on the back of a colt. Mark describes it this way: they brought the colt to Jesus, threw their cloaks on it and put Jesus on it. As He rode along, people spread their cloaks on the road. This has become one of the most familiar images of Jesus in all of scripture. King Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem – on a colt, a baby donkey. It is first the ultimate picture of humility because of it’s stark contrast to the practice of Kings and Caesars and Roman Governors who rode into Jerusalem not on colts – but rather on fine white horses. And this was how the people had envisioned the coming of the Messiah. It is how Jesus is described in the Book of Revelation. Riding on a fine white horse. But on this day there is no white stallion but rather a small colt. (Show picture of Jesus on the colt) Rather than majestic and all powerful, Jesus looks almost out of proportion, humble. And yet He was all the King that the Jews who gathered on the outside of the Wall needed. “Majesty, worship His Majesty” they sang. How foolish they must have looked to those Scribes and Pharisees watching perhaps from the wall above the city gate. “Hallelujah” they shouted which in those days was a two word phrase which literally meant “praise YHWH, the unspeakable name that the Jews had used to refer to God down through the centuries. And, of course, “Hosanna”. It is the picture of both a religious act of praise and a political act of defiance. In essence the poor and the outcast and the disciples were chanting “we have no King but Jesus” What a contrast to the crowd that would gather in the Roman Governor’s palace courtyard just a few days later and as Pilate had Jesus paraded before them adorned with a King’s crown of thorns and a tattered robe, he mockingly called out behold the one the rabble have anointed your King, the Jews who lived inside the wall chanted “we have no king but Caesar.” The picture of Jesus riding on the colt is a picture of humility and contrast. And these desperate people, the poor and the outcast outside the walls, did their best to elevate this humble servant into a mighty warrior, who would at long last rescue them from their wretched lives. They understood Jesus on the colt somehow as a challenge to the authority of Rome, a call to battle, and so they waived their palm branches which were the symbol of the Jewish State. At long last the Messiah had come, just as Zechariah and the other prophets said He would – lowly and riding on a colt. But you see in Zechariah’s day, when a King rode in on a fine white stallion he had come to make war, to conquer, but when a king road into the city on a colt, he had come to offer peace. Jesus riding on the colt is a picture of peace, not war. It signals the coming of a peaceable Kingdom in a world that was dominated by war. The Gospel writers paint a picture with their words of a scene of total chaos and confusion. The people waving their branches and spreading their cloak, just trying to touch Him and be “healed” of their miserable lives. And the Disciples surrounding Him, trying to protect Him from all that He had said was awaiting them in Jerusalem. And in the midst of it all, Jesus, who the prophet had said would come: “gentle and riding on a donkey.” It is a picture of the Jesus that often comes to us in the midst of our most chaotic times and offers us peace. Peace that comes only with His presence. Peace that seems so out of context, a stark contrast to the pain and chaos we endure in the world. Remember the Angelic chorus had sung it on the night of His birth, promising “peace on earth to all with whom He was present.” And in the midst of storm on the sea, when the Disciples thought that they were going to die: “Peace. Be still”. And on the verge of death: “my peace I give you.” The picture is clear, no matter what may be going on in the world around us, Christ will come to bring peace.
And then there is one more selfie to take. This one is best described by Luke when he writes: Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your Disciples. I tell you, He replied, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Show picture of stones with words written on them)
Now at first glance Luke gives us a picture of unbelief and opposition. There are many today who would picture themselves with these Church leaders who look at Jesus and only see the threat he is to the to the established order. Counter to the “conform and survive culture” that the Temple leaders, the priests and Pharisees, have worked so hard to preserve. There are many in our world today who see Jesus, and the church, and those of us who follow Him, as a threat to the prevailing culture, especially in America. Essentially they criticize the church for not being politically correct today. You see, as long as Jesus had been careful to hide who he was, then the Romans had not noticed Him or felt threatened by Him, but now the veil was off and the Messiah and His rabble followers were knocking on the very gate of Jerusalem, of power. This is a picture, I think, of that moment when the leaders of the Jews realized that they could not put a stop to this Jesus movement. John paints the picture this way: At first they did not understand Him. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about Him and that they had done these things to Him. But now that the crowd was with Him they continued to spread the word. And many people went out to meet Him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “This is getting us nowhere. The whole world has gone after Him! But I think there is more to this picture then just that. I think the Gospel writers also paint this as the moment that Jesus Himself realized that He could no longer stay hidden. So He tells the Temple officials that “Even if I could silence the people it would be too late, because all of creation would proclaim that the Messiah had come. The Rocks themselves would sing.” Understand as the priests and Pharisees looked out over the Wilderness, all they could see was rocks. (Show picture of rocks in the landscape) How could they keep the peace if all those rocks would rise up and proclaim the Messiah. And if we think about it, this was not the first time that the Gospel writers had used rocks to paint a picture of Jesus as the Messiah. In the wilderness, rocks had been part of the picture of Jesus’ resistance to the temptations of Satan. “If you are hungry, turn all these stones to bread.” If Jesus would do that, then not only would he address His own hunger but He too must have looked at all the rocks visible in the wilderness and thought of all the hungry people He could feed. But he knew that man does not live on bread alone. So the rocks of wilderness testified to the fact that God is all we need. And then at Caesarea Phillipi, when Peter first confesses his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, remember what Jesus says? “You are the Rock and upon you I will build my church Peter” The rock witnesses to our faith in Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah. And upon that rock He will build His church. And then when angry men bring the adulterous woman to Jesus for judgement and throw her at His feet, they were carrying the rocks they intended to use to stone her to death, but instead it was the sound of the rocks hitting the ground as the men shrunk from the picture of their own sin, that proclaimed forgiveness to this woman. “Listen”, Jesus said, “do you hear, do you see any condemning you now?” But all that could be heard was the thud of the rocks hitting the ground, proclaiming the grace of the Messiah. With the word pictures of Palm Sunday, the Gospel writers have now completed the picture of Jesus as the Messiah. But it’s not a portrait of a great King and warrior, but instead we take our selfie with a gentle, humble, grace filled savior who would rather die for us, then live without us.
But for the Priests and Pharisees, it is now a picture that called for a terrible response. John quotes the prophet Isaiah when he says: He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, so they can turn and I can heal them. It’s a picture of persons so consumed with fear, that they can picture this parade only having one ending,
a final picture of Jesus dead on the Cross of Calvary. As far as they could see it was now inevitable. Jesus must die. Palm Sunday made it so. But of course for Christians it does not end on the cross, there are more pictures to come. A stone rolled away, an empty tomb, a resurrected Lord. Pictures of eternity. And with each word picture the Gospel writers present they invite us to take our place in Palm Sunday and Holy Week. To to take our selfies in the midst of the parade, and with the money changers in the Temple, and the Disciples at the Last Supper, and at the Foot Of the Cross of Calvary, or perhaps on your own cross alongside the thief that found salvation that day. So where are you? Where are you in the picture of faith today, right now?