“Behold Your King!”

Part Six of “The God Who Makes Promises”

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday

Mark 11:1-11 

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 (NRSV). 

If you were anywhere near Monument Avenue yesterday, if you watched the news last night or read the paper this morning, you know that between about nine o’clock and noon on Saturday, March 31, some 40,000 runners and walkers went rumbling by the front doors of this church.  Some of you were standing out there watching, cheering on the members of Team First, and if you were then you probably saw some of the people who were running in costume. 

I remember seeing that at my first Monument Avenue 10K a few years ago.  I had already finished the race and was standing there on the sidewalk when I saw a man coming down the avenue in a familiar hat, with a whip in one hand, a golden idol in the other, and a huge, round boulder bouncing along behind him.  It was impressive.  And if you’ve seen the movie you know who it was: Indiana Jones.  And then last year, when I was running just as hard and fast as I could, somewhere around mile five, I caught up with a woman with long, red hair, and a fish’s tail following along behind her, holding a bunch of balloons shaped like dolphins.  It was the Little Mermaid, and she was fast! 

So I was wondering yesterday, since it was so close to Palm Sunday, how it would feel if you were standing there in front of the church and saw a man riding by on a donkey, with some people laying their coats down on the road in front of him, and others waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  There might be some people on Monument Avenue who didn’t know who that was supposed to be, who might nudge you and ask, “Who is that guy?” but you would be able to tell them, wouldn’t you?  Of course you would: “It’s Jesus.”  But the question is the same question people were asking on that first Palm Sunday, and the answer wasn’t as obvious then as it is now. 

“Who is that guy?”

On that first Palm Sunday there were thousands of people on the roads leading into Jerusalem.  They were coming for the Festival of Passover, the celebration of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt all those years ago, its deliverance from slavery.  And so it was a kind of Independence Day celebration—a Jewish Fourth of July—complete with the first-century equivalent of fireworks and parades and backyard barbecues.  Only these people weren’t really free.  Their little country had been conquered by the Roman Empire, and now they were being ruled by a Roman governor, with Roman soldiers patrolling their streets.  It must have seemed a bit…ironic to sing songs about freedom when someone else’s flag was flying over the capitol.  But they had this hope that one day the Messiah would come and deliver them.  Just as Moses had led them out of slavery, just as David had conquered their enemies all around, the Messiah would come and drive out the Romans, restore the nation of Israel, and rule over them with wisdom and justice.  So they kept singing their songs, saying their prayers, and dreaming their dreams.  During Passover their Messianic expectations were concentrated and compressed as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims streamed inside the walls of the city for the celebration, packed like gunpowder into a Fourth of July skyrocket. 

All they needed was someone to light the fuse.

And that’s just what Jesus did.  He sent two of his disciples ahead of him to borrow a donkey.  They found one in the next little village, tied by a door, outside in the street.  They started to untie it and some of the people standing there said, “What are you doing, untying that donkey?”  They said, “The Lord needs it.”  And they let them take it.  They brought it back to Jesus and spread their cloaks on it and he got on the donkey’s back and off they went, up over the Mount of Olives and down the road leading into the city.  As they went people started spreading their cloaks on the road in front of the donkey, and others laid down leafy branches they had cut in the field, doing everything they could to roll out the red carpet for Jesus.  And that’s when those who were going before and those who were following along behind began to cry out, “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!”  And that must have been when everyone else began to look around and say,

“Who is this guy?”

Some people said he was a carpenter from Nazareth.  Others said he was a prophet, mighty in word and deed.  But Jesus wanted them to think something more, and he was giving them every clue he could.  He was like that man I saw dressed as Indiana Jones—the hat, the whip, the golden idol, were his ways of letting us know who he was supposed to be.  Or the woman dressed as the Little Mermaid—the red hair, the fish’s tail, the balloons shaped like dolphins, were all meant to reveal her identity.  Jesus came riding into the city of Jerusalem, on a donkey, during the Passover, and for those who knew the Scriptures it couldn’t have been much more obvious.  There’s a verse in the Book of Zechariah—just after the prophet has pronounced God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies—that says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter 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.”  Whatever else Jesus may have been doing he was almost certainly presenting himself as the king all Israel has been waiting for: the Messiah.  The crowd went wild, thinking their deliverance had come at last.  But here’s the thing about messianic expectations: they’re hard to live up to.

I was talking with a colleague last week who was remembering how things were when he came to his last church.  He said people were so excited they could hardly contain themselves.  They were jumping up and down.  Every one of them absolutely sure that this time they had called the pastor who would be the answer to all their prayers.  He said, “You know, it was funny.  Some people were excited about having a pastor who would fill the place up on Sunday morning, like they used to do in the old days.  They’ve been a little disappointed.  And some were excited about having somebody in the pulpit who would preach from the Bible—finally!  But apparently my kind of biblical preaching wasn’t the kind they had in mind.  And there were some who thought that with a new pastor their money problems would be over.  We’ve been meeting our budget, but just barely.”  He said, finally, “It’s like that thing they say about pastor search committees, that they’re not looking for all that much really, just a pastor who is a gifted preacher, a skilled administrator, a wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the Prince of Peace.  They have all these impossible expectations and then they seem surprised when the new pastor doesn’t live up to them.”

And that’s what happened to Jesus.  People had all these high hopes for him, all these expectations of what he should do and be, and when he didn’t live up to them they were disappointed—sorely disappointed.  And when it turned out he had a different agenda than they did, that it wasn’t so much about getting rid of the Romans as it was getting right with God, they turned their backs on him: let the Jewish authorities condemn him to death and let the Roman authorities nail him to a cross.  We like to think that it wouldn’t have been that way if we were there; we wouldn’t have let them to do that to Jesus; we would have accepted him just as he was.  And yet I wonder…would we?  Those people were shouting “Hosanna” that day because they thought Jesus was going to be the answer to all their prayers.  So I’ve been thinking: what kinds of things do we pray about, and for what kind of Messiah would we shout “Hosanna”?

We pray for health, and we would love a Messiah who would come to us with a cure for cancer, old age, and every other kind of infirmity; one who would empty the hospitals and nursing homes and have us all on our feet again, leaping, dancing, and running 10-Kilometer races.  What we don’t like is sickness and weakness, and we have to put up with far too much of it.  There are some times, honestly, when we wonder if Jesus cares.

We pray for love, and we would love a Messiah who would give us the love of our lives and then keep that love alive forever; who would give us lots of friends, and no enemies at all; who would give us relationships within our own families that were always easy and comfortable and fun, full of giggly pillow fights and long walks on the beach.  Jesus often talks about relationships, but he doesn’t often talk about them like that. 

We pray for money, and we would love a Messiah who would relieve us of all our worries, who would pay off our debts, pay off our mortgage, and put some money in our bank account.  That’s why people go to those churches where the prosperity gospel is preached, where someone says over and over again that God wants to bless us with houses, cars, and land.  Jesus doesn’t seem to say those things over and over again.  He says other things, things that we don’t always want to hear.

We pray for solutions, and we would love a Messiah who would just fix things, whatever they are: one who would get us through school, find us a better job, fix our broken-down car, pay our rent, make that bully leave us alone, cook our supper, raise our kids, rub our feet, and (if it’s not too much trouble) bring us a mug of hot tea, please.  Again, Jesus doesn’t seem all that interested.

We pray for salvation, and we would love a Messiah who would save us from our sins, wash them away in the waters of baptism, and promise us that once we were saved we were always saved, and that when we die we would go to heaven and not to hell.  But Jesus doesn’t only want to be our savior, he wants to be our Lord, and that’s different.  That’s harder.

There are other things I could mention, but I think you get the idea that the Messiah who rode into Jerusalem that day was not the kind of Messiah we would shout “Hosanna” for, not once we got to know him.  In fact, I would guess that the people who shouted the loudest were the ones who knew him the least.  So here’s what I’m wondering: I’m wondering first of all if we can get to know Jesus for who he is, rather than what we want him to be.  Could we read the Gospels carefully, paying attention to the things he says and does, making note of all those places where we wouldn’t shout “Hosanna” and asking ourselves why?  I’ve seen those T-shirts and bracelets that say “What Would Jesus Do?” but I don’t think we can answer that question accurately until we know what Jesus did.  Otherwise we tend to make him in our own image; we answer the question by thinking about what we would do if we were Jesus.  That’s not the same thing.  Secondly, I’m wondering if we could we let him have his way with us instead of having our way with him.  Suppose he knows what we need better than we know ourselves?  Suppose all he wants to give us is abundant and everlasting life, and we keep turning it down because we’d rather have a little more spending money, and a bigger house, and a nicer car?  What if we did it his way?  What if we allowed him to be the king that he is, and rule over our lives in the way he wants?   

There’s that line from the Book of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion; Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem.  Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey.”  I’d like to think that today we could receive him with great rejoicing, and with shouts of praise.  I’d like to think that we could, in our hearts at least, shout “Hosanna!”  Not for who we’d like him to be, but for who he already is.  Look, First Baptist Church—your king is coming! 

What are you going to do?

—Jim Somerville 2012

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