God Is Making All Things Weird

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 03/24/24, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  Mark 11:1-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I was struggling a little bit with this sermon, because for me Palm Sunday feels a bit “preached out.” For someone like me, who went to church as a child, it’s so familiar that it almost becomes a cliche. It’s easy for me to start feeling like I already know this story so well, I don’t have to listen anymore. It’s tempting for me to imagine that I already understand what Jesus is up to here.

So as I’ve prepared to preach this morning, a part of my work has been to overcome my tendency to treat the story of Palm Sunday as well-trodden territory. I’d like to invite you to enter into this work with me. No matter how many times you have heard the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, let’s hear it again for the first time. What is Jesus up to here? What is God trying to communicate to us?

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this: ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 

They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said, and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, 

“Hosanna! 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!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Mark 11:1-11

I want us to enter into the world of meaning that Jesus and his fellow Jews were living in. It was a world of holiness and spiritual power. It was a concentric spiritual geography, with the most important place being the Holy-of-Holies – the inner sanctum of the Temple – where the Ark of the Covenant rested. This was a place where the high priest himself could only enter once a year to make sacrifices on behalf of the people. The very Spirit of God resided here. Truly, a holy place.

Each ring of concentricity out from the inner sanctum of the Temple was slightly less holy. There was the Holy Place, just beyond the curtain separating the Holy-of-Holies from everything else. This was a place only the priests could be. Then there was the Inner Court, where only men could be. Beyond that, an outer court, where women were allowed. Beyond that, there was an area where those who were not Jews or who did not meet the ritual cleanliness requirements to enter the Temple could be.

Jerusalem was the holy city. Israel was the holy nation. And the nations of the world could be seen as a vast “outer court”, where the nations raged in ignorance of God and his commandments.

This spiritual geography of Jews in ancient Roman Palestine is important to keep in mind, because it helps us to get into the headspace that Jesus and his followers, and especially the crowd, would have been in during the events of Mark 11. Jesus is moving from the outside to the inside, from a less holy place to a more holy place. Jesus moves from the hinterland, to the holy city, to the Temple. It is a rendezvous with the spiritual power that lies at the center of the whole Jewish cosmos.

Mark tells us that Jesus enters Jerusalem in a way that emphasizes his connection with the Hebrew prophetic tradition, which foretold the coming of a messiah who would save God’s people and establish an everlasting kingdom of righteousness and peace. It’s in this context of anticipation that Jesus enters into the holy city, riding on a donkey and surrounded by crowds shouting, “Hosanna! … Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

Beyond understanding the spiritual and religious geography that first-century Jews were inhabiting, it’s useful to be aware of exactly when the text of the Gospel of Mark was composed. Ched Myers, whose commentary on Mark I really respect, argues that Mark’s gospel was written by a Christian community in Roman Palestine during the period of the Jewish uprising against the Romans, which took place starting in 67 AD, and which was finally crushed by the Romans in 70 AD, when Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple laid waste.

It really shapes our perspective on what Mark is doing here, when we consider that his story may have been written in the midst of this uprising, this war for liberation. It was a war to establish the “coming kingdom of our ancestor David” by force of arms.

We have a rich account of the events of this uprising from the Jewish historian Josephus, and based on those accounts, it sounds like Jesus’ triumphal entry bears an enormous resemblance to the entrance of the rebel leader Menahem ben Yehuda into Jerusalem, in the early months of the revolt.

But let’s say Ched Myers is wrong, and the Gospel of Mark wasn’t written during the Jerusalem uprising: It’s still clear that Mark is making a connection between Jesus and many other would-be messiahs. Jewish rebellions and messiahs were a pretty common occurrence throughout the first centuries BC and AD. The revolt of 67 to 70 AD was itself modeled after the Maccabean revolution, which had previously overthrown the Seleucid Greek empire and established an independent Jewish state that lasted for roughly eighty years.

Our story this morning in Mark makes direct references to this earlier revolt, to a time when the revolutionary leader Simon Maccabeaus entered Jerusalem, as it is written in the apocryphal book 1 Maccabees, “with praise and palm branches… and with hymns and songs.” (1 Mc 13:51) The whole palm branch thing? That’s where that came from. It was a call to revolution.

So we’ve got this stream of revolutionary violence that we are meant to recognize when we hear this story. But there’s another stream here, too. The prophetic stream, coming to us from the Hebrew prophets of old, especially Zechariah.

Notice how Mark is careful to mention that Jesus and his disciples were approaching Jerusalem “at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives.” The Mount of Olives has powerful messianic resonance from the Jewish prophetic tradition. Zechariah writes, “On [the day of the Lord], his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives.” (Zec 14:2-4)

The prophet Zechariah is interesting, because he foretells a coming leader who will reign over Israel and establish a kingdom of peace and justice. That part is in line with the “kingdom of our ancestor David” stream of thought. But unlike the King David boosters, Zechariah doesn’t predict a warlord messiah like Simon Maccabaeus. Zechariah promises a leader for Israel that is less Che Guevara and more Mahatma Gandhi.

In the story Mark is telling here, Jesus stands firmly in the Zechariah tradition of messiahship, rejecting the warlord-David strain entirely. It’s Zechariah’s prophecy that Jesus is fulfilling when he sends his disciples to requisition a young colt that has never been ridden on before. Zechariah foretold the coming of the messiah in this way:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of 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.”

(Zec 9:9)

This prophecy has to be off-putting for those who are expecting a military messiah. We’re going to be really excited when Zechariah says that the messiah will be “triumphant and victorious.” But when he continues to say that he will be “humble and riding on a donkey.” That’s going to give us pause. A donkey? Really? I know we like our leaders to have the common touch, but maybe that’s a little bit too common, Zechariah. Maybe that’s a little too humble.

With Zechariah, we get this promise of a messiah who is triumphant and victorious, liberating Jerusalem. Yet at the same time, this liberation is distinctly non-military. It seems like we’re missing something here, doesn’t it? Victorious kings coming to liberate cities from foreign occupation don’t typically come in meekness and non-violence, do they? But that seems to be exactly what Zechariah is saying.

This is the prophecy that Mark is pointing back to when he tells the story of Jesus arriving on the scene, hailed as messiah by the people.

Everyone is shouting, “Hosanna!” – which literally means, “Save now!” Mark’s original audience didn’t need to have this explained to them, but for us modern readers it’s not necessarily clear why people would be yelling this phrase – though we can guess that it probably has something to do with the messianic expectation of the people.

It turns out that “hosanna” is used to address kings at a couple of points in the Hebrew scriptures, and it could also be used in Jesus’ time as a liturgical greeting for important leaders and rabbis. This phrase, “hosanna,” tells us a lot about the crowd’s mindset. According to Ched Myer, the cries of “Hosanna!” of the crowd “represent the prevailing orthodoxy, which presumes the rehabilitation of the Temple state in the ‘kingdom of our father David.'”

So again, we’re back to this ideological tension between the messiah promised by Zechariah vs the warlord-savior model of King David. Coming from the lips of the crowds, “hosanna!” means exactly what it sounds like. It’s the people saying, “Yay, Jesus! We’ve been waiting for a conqueror for so long, a conqueror who would conquer for us, rather than against us. Save now, Jesus! Beat those Romans to a pulp, and give us our country back! Make Jerusalem great again! Restore the kingdom of David!”

So which is it? Is the messiah Rambo King David, or Zechariah’s image of a humble donkey-rider? For the author of Mark, the answer is resounding and clear. Jesus is a Zechariah-messiah, not a David-messiah. In fact, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus rejects the title “son of David” altogether (Mark 12:35-37). That’s not the kind of kingdom Jesus has come to establish.

Thanks to the Gospel of Mark and the witness of the early church, we know that Jesus has come with an entirely different end-game in mind. We know that he has come not to conquer the Romans with the sword, but to conquer death, hell, and the devil with the power of self-sacrificial love. We know that Jesus has come to establish a kingdom of peace – not the peace that comes from the crushing hammer of violence, but the peace that comes from an unshakeable life grounded in God.

But the crowds don’t know this. Even the disciples don’t know this yet. The narrative of violent liberation and warlord kingship is very strong, and Jesus is misunderstood even by those closest to him.

When Jesus arrives at the Temple, everyone is sure there’s going to be a showdown. Jesus is going to establish his messianic authority and bring this whole triumphal procession to a head. There’s going to be a riot. Maybe this is the beginning of the uprising!

But instead of anything dramatic, or interesting… nothing happens. Jesus shows up in the Temple, he looks around, almost like a tourist, and then he retires to Bethany for the evening.

This is truly bizarre – even for those of who understand the donkey-shaped nature of Jesus’ messiahship. Jesus had all this momentum behind him. The crowds were super-charged, ready for a fight. And Jesus just… admired the view? This is absurd! But that is the point: Even for those of us who know that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, not the Son of David, we still cling to the old narrative. In spite of everything the Gospels have taught us, we’ve been drawn into the traditional messianic narrative. So it’s important to notice here that Jesus repudiates the way of brute force, the way of warlords, the way of both the Maccabees and Rome.

There’s another way of looking at this, too. What more powerful statement could Jesus have made than to arrive at the Temple with the masses at  his back and then simply look around? This is the center of the Jewish universe, the most holy place. Crucially, this is the place where all change is supposed to come from – it’s where the revolution begins! What does it mean that Jesus doesn’t seize the moment? What does it mean that Jesus isn’t impressed by the Temple, nor quick to seize it as a power base? What does it mean that, the next day, rather than glorify the Temple and call for its liberation, he disrupts its operations?

What does this wild, unexpected entry of the Messiah into Jerusalem mean for us, today? It’s not immediately obvious. And that’s OK – because this is part of the point that Mark has set out to make: Jesus’s strategy of liberation is not obvious. It’s not what we expected. If we want to understand Jesus, we have to stick with him. We have to listen. We have to open our hearts to the way he is breaking all our familiar stories about how the world works. The kingdom he brings is radically new.

In a world that worships coercive power, Jesus comes in humility. In a society that demands certainty and a story that makes sense to our broken frame of reference, Jesus offers the unexpected: He rejects the momentum of the mob and sets a different tempo. Instead of righteous anger, Jesus leads with curiosity. In a world that demands that we follow the script of redemptive violence, Jesus offers a way of love.

So this morning, on Palm Sunday, we can say “Hosanna!” – save now, Jesus!  We know that our God is mighty and powerful, fully capable of saving us from the mess we’ve created. But from the Gospel of Mark, we also know that this salvation will be creative, and unexpected. We should expect the kingdom of God to surprise us. This surprising kingdom has drawn near. There is a new heavens and a new earth. Behold, God is making all things weird. Even for those of us who have heard the story a thousand times, we must change our whole worldview and believe the good news of the savior on a donkey.