Is it Palm Sunday for you? Passion Sunday? A glorious, or messy, mix?
The two texts for Palm / Passion Sunday offer us interesting contrasts. On the streets of Jerusalem, Jesus makes a public proclamation, using street theater and familiar symbols to say who he is. In a private dining room, a woman abandons all expected behavior to make her own dramatic proclamation.
In Mark 11:1-11, Jesus plans his entrance into the city with care, arranging for a colt that has never been ridden. He enters the city as people wave “leafy branches,” and shout Hosanna, or “Lord save us.” Mark takes care to tell us that Jesus comes from the Mount of Olives, where Israel’s deliverance was expected to begin in the last days. (Zechariah 14: 2-4)He ends the day at the temple, looking around, and we’re left to wonder if the looking around is in curiosity, or anger, or sorrow, or some combination. The temple is a familiar place for him – what mixture of emotions come over him this time he sees it?
In Mark 14:3-9, an unnamed woman takes Jesus by surprise, stepping into the room to anoint him in a costly gesture. Using a little bit of her ointment would have been stunning enough, but she breaks open the jar and pours it out, evoking the breaking of Jesus’ body and the pouring out of his life in a few says. She takes a great risk by coming into the room, interrupting the dinner, and making a spectacle of herself in this group. Her actions follow the revelation that the chief priests are plotting to kill Jesus. They’re planning in secret, but she announces her anticipation of his death to everyone present in the room. Her action is generous, and curiously tender. The monetary cost is stunning, and so is the personal cost, as she reveals her love for Jesus to everyone in the room.
The religious political powers in Jerusalem are arrayed against Jesus, but this woman demonstrates a different kind of power. She proclaims a truth about Jesus that the other people around him don’t seem able to see, or to face. Before the week is over, Jesus will be beaten, insulted, stripped and flogged, and on his way to a violent death. Her action is one of the few gestures of love that he will experience all week.
The entry into Jerusalem is familiar, and we add the four gospel accounts together for our mental picture. The “very large crowd” and the city in turmoil (Matthew), several mentions of the Mount of Olives (Luke) and the crowd coming out to meet Jesus, with (finally!) palm branches and shouts of joy (John.) C. Clifton Black at Working Preacher observes, “On close inspection Mark has not narrated a “triumphal entry”; he has lampooned it. Such narrative subversions match the character of the gospel Jesus preaches (Mark 10:13-31, 42-45). God’s reign is erupting with Jesus as its matchless vanguard — but neither that kingdom nor its Christ is at all what we expected.”
Whether it’s Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, the two illuminate each other. Each holds the awareness of the other, incomplete without the other side of the coin. The entry into the city is poignant because we know Jesus’ death is coming. The celebration is hollow because of the death that awaits, and yet the coming death promises to redeem all of our dashed hopes and incomplete celebrations, transforming all of our human efforts in the light of God’s resurrection grace.
The sermon might explore:
- The woman who anoints Jesus announces her devotion to him in a room full of skeptics. As Christianity is increasingly rare in our culture, how do we announce our faith by what we do? Are we willing to enter the curious vulnerability of proclaiming that we are also devoted to Jesus? How do we do it in her generous, non-demanding way?
- Jesus is making a public point about who he is, even for people who fail to see what kind of king he may be. How do we, as his followers, conduct ourselves in the public sphere, especially in this election year, when a particular brand of Christian faith is much in the news? If we follow him into Palm / Passion Sunday, how does that translate into our public lives?
- How does following Jesus confound our expectations? Where does the reality of faith bump up against what we’ve been taught to expect? Our cultural idea is that big churches are more successful, and that they must be doing something right. Many people are firm followers of the prosperity gospel, expecting wealth and health in exchange for faith. Kate Bowler recently wrote for the New York Timesabout being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and holding that experience up next to the teachings of the prosperity gospel. “The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil… It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you.” The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end.” In contrast, Jesus is giving up control. How do we manage to follow him into the same kind of mystery?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We invite you to continue the conversation in the comments section below.
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