Sunday’s Sermon: The Many Faces of Triumph

Palm Sunday

Texts for this sermon: Psalm 46 (NRSV) and Mark 11:1-11 (The Message)

  • The crowds are cheering and waving and smiling. They’re all lined up along the edges of the road – two and three rows deep in some places – everyone trying to get as close to the road as possible, everyone trying to catch a glimpse of the parade. Children are running around, playing and laughing. Adults are chattering animatedly. There’s anticipation and excitement in the air!
    • Scene played out in anywhere across the country during any yearly town celebration, from biggest cities to smallest towns → people filled with …
      • An attitude of celebration
      • A spirit of joy
      • Sense of eagerness … and triumph
        • Now, you might be thinking, “Triumph? What? But triumph means victory and accomplishment and conquest. What does that have to do with the atmosphere at a parade?” And that’s certainly true, but there’s another definition of triumph: joy, exaltation, delight. Today is Palm Sunday, a day that ushers us into all of the consolations and desolations of Holy Week – a week that both begins and ends in triumph, albeit very different kinds of triumph.
  • The week opens with the triumph of the crowds – the joyful, cheering, adoring crowd. → scholar: The Gospel of Mark describes the infatuation that many people had with Jesus – as if he were a rock star. … It is not hard to imagine the Woodstock scene of the 1960s when we think about Palm Sunday.[1]
    • Background: Jewish traditional revolutionary understanding of Messiah → King David-like figure who would militarily overthrow whoever was oppressing them at the time and return the people of Israel to a homeland they could call their own
      • Jewish people almost continually oppressed by other nations for centuries at this point → looking for salvation from a number of different oppressors
        • Babylonians
        • Assyrians
        • In the case of our NT text = Roman Empire
    • So all those people crowded along the edges of the road from Bethany into Jerusalem were looking for liberation. They were looking for someone to swoop in and triumph over the Roman Empire and bring them back into the golden age of Jewish power – the days of King David and King Solomon and the united kingdoms of Israel and Judea.
      • Scene itself lends credibility to their expectations = fulfillment of a prophecy – Zech: Your king is coming! A good king who makes all things right, a humble king riding a donkey, a mere colt of a donkey … He will offer peace to the nations, a peaceful rule worldwide.[2]
      • Hear this in crowds’ cries: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven![3] → “The kingdom of our father David.” Not “the kingdom of God” that Jesus was always talking about. “The kingdom of our father David.” The crowd was imploring Jesus to bring them back to those glory days – those days of independence and might.
    • Crowd’s triumph = hope-fueled triumph → They thought this Jesus character riding in on the back of a donkey was going to bring them deliverance, salvation. And they truly had no idea how right they were.
  • We can also imagine the triumph of the disciples as they walked along beside Jesus and that donkey.
    • Dusty, bedraggled pack of 12 who had been following Jesus from one place to the next for years → They’d been …
      • Listening – parables, pronouncements, lessons
      • Watching – healings, miracles
      • Encountering crowds in lots of places – hilltops, villages, sea shores → But this crowd was different. This crowd was treating Jesus not as a teacher but as a king. There was recognition and veneration and power in their words and actions and attitude.
    • You see, these disciples already believed that Jesus was the One. They were already wholly convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. But now an entire crowd was not only whispering it amongst themselves, they were literally shouting it in the street. They were laying down their cloaks and their palm branches on the road as they would have for any anointed king of Israel.
      • Triumph = vindicated triumph → Here they were entering Jerusalem (the Holy City) for Passover (one of the holiest celebrations of the year), and their beloved teacher was finally being recognized as a leader – even as a king! – right under the noses of both the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. The disciples had been right all along, and now even more people were going to know it.
  • Ahhh, but we can also imagine the triumph of those authorities as they watched Jesus enter Jerusalem in such a manner.
    • Wouldn’t have been much of a blip on the Romans radar (as long as he didn’t incite a riot)
    • But the Sanhedrin – the Jewish leaders – was a different story. → been stirring up trouble for them for a long time
      • Teaching when he shouldn’t be teaching
      • Violating the Sabbath prohibition on working by doing ridiculous things like healing people and harvesting grain for his hungry followers
      • Blatantly challenging their interpretation of Scripture → criticizing them for their hypocrisy and willful ignorance
      • Jesus and his ragtag band of followers had been a thorn in their side for so long. And this triumphal entry of his – the parade into the city – was going too far.
        • Triumphal entry = echoes of ancient Jewish kings riding back into the city after victory in battle
          • Historical precedent
            • Solomon riding into the city on the back of King David’s donkey for his own anointing as king[4]
            • People throwing their robes down on the ground before Jehu when he was anointed as king[5]
    • The Sanhedrin would’ve seen this type of entry as presumptuous, brazen. And as dangerous! I know the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin get a bad rap, but they weren’t picking on Jesus just for the sake of picking on him. In their minds, they were protecting …
      • Their faith according to what they believed about Jewish law
        • Specific ways to do and not do things
        • Specific rules to follow about cleanliness and the Sabbath and a myriad of other things
        • 613 in the Torah (sacred Scriptures)
        • And it’s true that Jesus wasn’t following all of these.
      • Their people and their way of life → Jews had more freedoms under Roman occupation than some of the other conquering nations that they had dealt with, but they were still closely watched and stringently controlled, especially in cases that may have led to revolt against the Roman Empire. Jesus was sure to catch the attention of the Roman authorities this time, and as the leaders of this community – the ones in charge, the ones responsible, that was a serious thread for them. Add that to a long list of Jesus’ other “offenses,” and it was enough to tip the scales against him for good.
        • Just a short time later in gospel of Mark: It was two days before the Passover and the festival of the Unleavened Bread, and the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.[6]
      • Sanhedrin’s triumph plays out in darkness of the week to come
        • Their triumph (soon to come) = vanquishing triumph
          • Scholar: Within a week, acclaim will turn into humiliation and mockery. Palm Sunday leads [necessarily] to Good Friday. The honored Jesus is also the humiliated Jesus.[7] → In their triumph is Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. In their triumph is Jesus’ pain and humiliation, being mocked and beaten, spit upon and paraded before a jeering, angry crowd – the same crowd that had triumphantly cheered his arrival only days earlier. In their triumph are Jesus’ last steps, last words, last breath. In their triumph is Jesus’ death.
  • But friends, this is where we find the greatest triumph of all. Unlike the crowds thronging the road into Jerusalem that morning, unlike the disciples, unlike the Sanhedrin, we know the end of this story. We know that at the end of the darkness and agony of the week to come is a bright and overwhelming light –the light of a resurrected Christ, the light of God obliterating death’s grasp forevermore, the light of triumph.
    • Ps this morning speaks to that triumph
      • God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.[8]
      • Therefore we will not fear![9]
      • God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved![10]
      • In the words of this psalm, we hear reassurance in God’s presence with and care for the world. We hear God’s powerful goodness and protection. We hear God’s steadfastness and holy presence. – The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.[11]
        • I imagine this is a reassurance that Jesus clung to throughout that week, maybe even as he rode into Jerusalem on the back of that donkey. Remember, though the crowds and the disciples and even the Sanhedrin were unaware of what was coming, Jesus knew.
          • Predicts death multiple times in gospels – e.g.s:
            • Jesus’ words in Mk: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religious scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.[12]
            • Jesus’ words just before triumphal entry in Mt: “Listen to me carefully. We are on our way up to Jerusalem. When we get there, the Son of Man will be betrayed to the religious leaders and scholars. They will sentence him to death. They will then hand him over to the Romans for mockery and torture and crucifixion. On the third day he will be raised up alive.”[13]
      • With this knowledge in his head and in his heart, I can imagine Jesus turning to the psalm we read this morning in his time of need.
        • Need for courage in the face of chaos
        • Need for strength in the face of shame
        • Need for purpose in the face of pain
        • Need for triumph in the face of treachery
  • It may be true that in the Sanhedrin’s triumph is Jesus’ death, but in Jesus’ death is God’s great triumph of salvation. This is what we have to cling to as we travel through the darkness of Holy Week with Jesus and with each other. This is the joy and the triumph that moves us to shout our “Hosanna”s. This is the hope that we have and the light that we share. God is our refuge and strength. God is our comfort and protection. And God was and is and will be triumphant in the face of whatever darkness is to come. Amen.

[1] Michael Battle. “Sixth Sunday in Lent (Liturgy of the Palms) – Mark 11:1-11, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 154.

[2] Zech 9:9, 10.

[3] Mk 11:9-10 (emphasis added).

[4] 1 Kgs 1:38.

[5] 2 Kgs 9:13.

[6] Mk 14:1 (NRSV).

[7] Margaret A. Farley. “Sixth Sunday in Lent (Liturgy of the Palms) – Mark 11:1-11, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 154.

[8] Ps 46:1 (NRSV).

[9] Ps 46:2 (NRSV).

[10] Ps 46:5 (NRSV).

[11] Ps 46:7, 11.

[12] Mk 8:31-32.

[13] Mt 20:17-19.

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