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Branches

When we picture Jesus entering Jerusalem, do we imagine the whole of the city turning out to celebrate the arrival of the Messiah? Or is there something altogether stranger happening? What does it all mean?

A sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA on Mark 11:1-11 for the Liturgy of the Palms Year B on 24/3/21

We love a good parade in Melbourne, or at least we used to before COVID. Is it weird that we have a public holiday here in purely order to allow us to go to a parade on Grand Final Even? Or does that just show how far I have to go to become a true Melbournian, even after nineteen years here?

We love a parade, and we  love a festival. Which puts us squarely in the human family. Think of royal weddings and state funerals in the UK. Think of Bastille Day in France and May Day in Russia. And, of course, our own ANZAC day.

All parades, all festivals, marking important national events. Or, in the case of Grand Final Eve, the quasi-religious event of the AFL Grand Final on the sacred site of the MCG.

That’s the context of our story. A huge national festival, with people thronging to the city, bearing leafy branches which they waved in the air as they sing, just like victorious football fans waving their scarves in the air while they sing the team song at the MCG.

Into this all-too-human scene Jesus steps. Or, rather, rides. Once again we are forced to ask: Who is he? And what does it all mean?

There are three scenes in the story. The colt, the parade, and the temple. I think it’s worth briefly looking at each of them as they intensify the question of what exactly is going on here.

Has anyone been taught that Jesus’ instructions about the colt was an example of exact foreknowledge? That it was miraculous? Or, perhaps like me, you were taught that Jesus must have sent someone ahead to make arrangements?

Frankly, the text doesn’t say. But there is a bit of a puzzle there when you think about it. Did Jesus essentially get his disciples to appropriate someone else’s colt?

One of the ways in which Jesus disturbs us is that he isn’t quite as concerned with property questions as we might like. When the friends of a paralyzed man cut a hole in someone else’s roof, he doesn’t tell them off for destroying private property. When he causes a miraculous catch of fish which comes close to damaging the nets, he isn’t apologetic. When he drives a legion of demons into a nearby herd of pigs, which then leap off a cliff to their deaths, he seems remarkably unconcerned.

And so on.

It’s almost as though there are more important things at issue than who owns what. Some more fundamental ownership. Some fundamental right at play.

Jesus tells the two disciples to say “the Lord needs it and will return it immediately.” So it’s a loan, not a military requisition. Soldiers take what they need, and they don’t always bother to pay the owners. This borrowing fits better within Mosaic law – after all, the colt will be returned – but it’s still pretty peremptory. 

In fact, it’s shockingly authoritative.

One of the themes within Mark’s Gospel is technically known as the “messianic secret.” Jesus is forever telling people, and indeed spirits, not to talk about him. When he drives out the demon in his Capernaum, it cries out “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” and Jesus says: “Be silent, and come out of him.”  Which it does.

This secrecy a thread throughout Mark’s account of the good news. But suddenly, right here, it all changes. Jesus acts out of his authority. The coming king requires a colt, and no-one seriously questions it.

The second scene is the “many” people entering Jerusalem with the singing and the waving of the branches and great rejoicing.

In the Hollywood version of this scene, pretty well the whole city turns out to welcome Jesus. It’s like the Grand Final Eve parade, only starring Jesus as the one and only champion.

Or, more exactly, it’s like the entry of the King. The soldiers march by in their serried ranks, and in the midst of his elite honour guard, the king himself, riding on a chariot. Behind him stumble prisoners from his recent victorious campaign, at waiting on his word to decide whether he will enact magnificent clemency, or to condemn them to a horrible fate.

Power at its most spectacular and most raw.

The power of life and death.

Power to make the very gods envious.

The Romans were particularly good at this sort of display. In fact, they were so good,  that they got worried about it. So they had a slave stand behind the triumphant general, holding the laurel wreath of victory over his head, and whispering in his ear: remember that you are only a mortal. Otherwise, they feared that the victorious general would get above himself and insult the gods with his hubris, bringing a terrible fate upon himself and the whole nation.

If this scene outside Jerusalem is a triumph, it’s a pretty funny one. There are lots of cheering people, but no soldiers – just Jesus and his motley crew of disciples. Instead of a triumphal chariot, a colt who had never been ridden before. There are crowds, but while they shout their hosannas now, they will shout to condemn him a few short days later.

And, of course, it is not the prisoners trailing behind his chariot who are facing a horrible fate. It is Jesus himself. He chooses it himself: he lays his own life down, it is not taken from him. He does it for our sake, not for his own self aggrandizement.

It’s a strange, ironic triumph.

A triumph of, and over, suffering and death.

And what if the shouting and singing and waving of branches wasn’t directly for Jesus at all? There were a few different festivals which involved cutting branches from the trees. The psalm they sang “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, the psalm we said together just a few minutes ago, is the psalm pilgrims would sing as they came up to Jerusalem for festivals. It’s quite possible Jesus has placed himself in the middle of a festival at which he is not the focus after all

What if the crowds – the “many”, “those who went ahead and those who followed”, were actually there for a festival, not because they somehow recognised Jesus for who he really was?

In John’s account, the alternative reading for this week, he says that “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.” (John 12:16)

Sometimes, it’s only after the event that its true meaning becomes apparent.

In this case, the irony would become even stronger. Even when Jesus, the rightful king was entering the city, the religious folk were busy with their own affairs and missed it.

Which brings us to the final, brief, scene in which Jesus looks around the temple, decides its too late to do anything, and heads back to his bed for the night. I love this passage, but not for a good theological reason. Rather, it just seems so human. We’ve all been there – the train was a bit delayed, we got a little lost on the way to the hotel, and we needed a coffee and a sit down before w got properly stuck into our sightseeing – which means that, by the time we are admiring the frescoes in the cathedral, they are packing up the snack bar and starting to shoo the tourists away, and we decide to call it a day and come back tomorrow.

I think it’s in the text, in short, because that is more or less how it happened. Mark the story-teller left in the telling scene not to make some particular point, but because that’s how it went down, and he wants to put you in the story as much as he can.

But, having said all that, it does has meaning. Just like the crowds outside who failed to recognise who Jesus was, the temple authorities too completely fail to recognise who Jesus is and what he means. Whether it was because they were expecting an old school king like Judas Maccabeus come again to expel the Romans, or perhaps because their festival took priority over the arrival of some unauthorised nobody teacher come down from the bush for the festival, or for some other reason – it doesn’t really matter. They should have been paying attention, but they were looking elsewhere.

Jesus looking around the temple, without any interest from the authorities, is a profound image of what is really going on.

How does it feel to consider that, rather than a whole of city event, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was something which took on meaning only afterwards? That instead of a big event, it was a small one? Instead of a great cultural welcoming, it was a countercultural event which passed mainly unnoticed?

I know I found it a disturbing question when I gave it serious thought. What about you?

What if the Kingdom is found in the small, as much as the big – or even rather than the big? The overlooked, the humble, the grief stricken rather than the triumphant, the powerful, the exciting?

I personally strongly feel the draw to a more straightforward triumphal entry. I want the Romans driven out and a realm of peace and justice to replace the empire. I want Easter Day without the crucifixion first. I want a linear life of ever- increasing success, not of transformation and suffering. I want, in short, the Hollywood version.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. I think it’s a perfectly natural desire. Who wants to suffer?

Perhaps for our increasingly post-Christian culture it cuts a little deeper. Lying beneath our one-dimensional need for success is a nihilistic suspicion: that it is all meaningless. That there is no point to it all, and triumph and disaster really are the same. That we have this brief shot at making ourselves happy and devil take the hindmost. We need to grab any success or pleasure or happiness going with both hands because there is no broader context. No meaning to anything. Nothing but distraction vying with despair.

We look like we love success, but I wonder sometimes if it is really a denial strategy to distract ourselves from the deep sadness, even existential dread, which lurks in the background of our world from which all traces of God seem to have fled.

Christians, however, are Easter people.

Which is to say: we know that the fear of our culture is correct. Without God, there is no meaning to anything. The thing our peers merely suspect, we know to be true. We know it both as theoretical truth, but also because we saw the best human hope executed by the people who should have recognised him, who should have taken him to their heart, who should have allowed themselves to be transformed.

There is no human hope because there is nothing so good that human sin can’t spoil it. And if it can’t spoil it, it will destroy it.

But God took the worst thing possible, the worst thing we could think to do to God, and made it the best thing.

Humans killed Jesus.

And God raised Jesus up on the third day.

Easter only comes after the horrifying shock of Good Friday. The exalted king of the universe is revealed in the broken body on the cross. The wisdom of God is not revealed to the wise, but to the foolish. For the rich, the Kingdom of God is like trying to get a camel through the eye of the needle. Blessed are the poor, as Jesus says so mysteriously to our ears.

Salvation isn’t a laborious ascent through various levels of enlightenment. New life in Christ isn’t moving from triumph to triumph like an idealised career beginning at the company mailroom and ending as CEO.

Salvation is something that God does. Hope is a gift that God gives. Not a human hope of us all working harder and somehow muddling through, but the hope that, when all is lost, God will prove himself faithful once more. Just as he did on that first Easter Day.

This is the final week of Lent. The final week of our preparation for Holy Week and Easter.


Soon, we will be deep in the paradox of the God who created the universe, revealing herself in the body of a dying man.

God enters deeply into our pain and suffering. God is cast as low as can be.

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 the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

This is half the paradox.

And this is the other half:

Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

Image:

AFL – Richmond vs Essendon (Round 9) (CC) BY-NC-ND Charles Van den Broek from flickr.com

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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