A sermon preached on Palm Sunday, 2012 based upon Mark 11:1 – 11.
Jesus had lived the better part of thirty years on this earth before he undertook his ministry. Something had been slowly taking shape in the course of those years – something that finally crystallized the day Jesus went down to the Jordan River with so many ordinary, struggling people longing for a new life, and entered with them into the dark water of John’s baptism.
Those waters symbolized nothing less than death itself, and as he came up out of those waters, it was as if he had already passed through death and come out the far side. The sting of death – the fear of death – was overcome as heaven itself opened up to him. It was that moment when he heard the words he realized God longed to whisper in the ear of every human being: “You are my beloved child!” It was as if he himself no longer mattered. The very Spirit of God was now in charge and calling the shots, and what mattered now was the mission to which he felt himself called.
A vision was given to him that day, a vision that was fleshed out in the forty days he spent out in the wilderness, where the evil One who rules over this world tried his best to distort the vision – tried to tempt Jesus to water down the vision with something other than pure, holy love of God.
So Jesus came forth from the wilderness with his vision clear and strong; the vision had a name: “the kingdom of God,” he called it, though sometimes it was also called the “kingdom of heaven” – they were one in the same. You could say the vision was of what life could be like, but that’s not really strong enough, because, in fact, the vision was about how life already is at the deepest level of reality – that is, beyond time in heaven.
And catching people up in this vision was what his ministry was all about. His message was simple and direct: “Repent,” he said, “for the kingdom of God is at hand. Now is the time to let go of everything that is within you that blocks the full expression of God’s kingdom.”
The time had come, Jesus realized for all the dividing walls that stood in the way of the kingdom taking hold on earth to come falling down – the walls of hostility that separated people one from another, and separated people from their truest, most authentic selves, and beneath everything, separated people from the God who created them and longed to hold them.
The vision was fully formed in Jesus’ own soul, and so, as he began his ministry up there in Galilee – the northern country of Israel – the people he encountered in the small towns and villages there were simply astonished by the spiritual authority he exercised. At his command the walls came tumbling down. The sick were healed, the lame stood strong and whole on their own two feet, the blind restored to sight, and in general, so many people who had felt outcaste and unworthy and left out of the circle of God’s love, were amazed to find themselves included in God’s great party; embraced, included, loved and empowered to live whole lives.
The vision involved a new kind of community, one that encompassed all people, where sharing and caring and forgiveness and love were the norm, not the exception — where the little ones were loved every bit as much if not more that the high and mighty ones valued by this world — where people were loved and money used, not money loved, and people used.
His ministry provided glimpses into this kingdom. A particularly powerful glimpse was provided the day that thousands of simple folk travelled out in to the wilderness to be with Jesus and absorb his presence. When the sun began to set, and the empty bellies began to grumble, the old fears of the disciples that they had learned in the kingdom of this world began to take hold. Jesus responded to their fear by modeling what it was to trust God in everything. Jesus took the little bit of food that he and the disciples had brought with them and shared it with all of the people, and sure enough, in doing so God had provided for all their needs. A barnstorm of sharing took place, and the old fear and the selfishness that arises from that fear was left behind, and everybody got fed that day, and people experienced what it was like to care as much if not more about their neighbors as they did for themselves. They felt what it was to be a part of a community where every last one of them was treasured, and there was always room in the circle.
It was a miracle for sure — one they would never forget.
From the very beginning of his ministry, it was clear that there were demonic forces that were dead set on resisting the Kingdom of God with every fiber of their being. In those early days of Jesus’ ministry, however, these dark powers seemed no match to the power of God’s love embodied in Jesus. In his presence, the unclean spirits were sent packing in a way people had never seen before – those dark powers that for so long had kept people in that kind of bondage that manifests itself in paralyzing fear, or in a black hole of shame and unworthiness — those dark powers intent on deceiving people into forgetting altogether their birthright as God’s beloved children.
In Jesus’ presence, it seemed quite possible that the will of God could be done on earth, as it was already done in heaven – that heaven could be here on earth.
Or so it seemed.
Though the dark powers had taken a beating it seemed up there in Galilee, they were rallying themselves for the fight ahead, and it was down in the big city of Jerusalem where their dominion was most deeply entrenched.
The thing about evil is that it doesn’t simply take up residence in individual people. No, it takes hold in the systems that organize human life. The religious, political and economic systems that control our thoughts in ways we don’t even realize, determining what we think is possible or impossible.
It is these demonic systems — referred to in the New Testament as “the principalities and powers” – that can take an otherwise good person and lead them to do evil things.
Up in Galilee, for the most part the opposition to Jesus was located primarily in the Scribes and Pharisees. For the most part, these were not what we think of as “evil men.” But they were prisoners themselves to demonic systems that went unquestioned. The scribes and Pharisees took their marching orders from the power structures that were headquartered in Jerusalem, where the Roman soldiers held sway, and the rich and powerful maintained their power through a perverted system of that presumed to dole out the favor of a God presumed to be reluctant to render blessings.
Very early on in his ministry, Jesus saw that eventually he would have to go to the place where the dark powers were their strongest – go to the very center of the darkness, so to speak. He had to go to Jerusalem to confront the powers of darkness with God’s holy light. That’s where the center of the problem was. To stay in Galilee would be simply piddling around the edges of the problem.
He knew it wouldn’t be easy. In fact, he recognized early on that this confrontation would more than likely end up in his death. That’s how strong the dark powers were. But he also realized that ultimately his life didn’t matter. What mattered was for the kingdom of God to clearly confront the kingdom of this world. What mattered was for the light to expose the darkness.
He didn’t want to die, but having already confronted his own death in John’s dark waters, and in the wilderness experience that followed, Jesus was willing, if necessary, to do so if that is what witnessing to God’s kingdom required.
There would be plenty of voices, including those of his own disciples, that would seek to persuade Jesus that the powers of darkness could be fought with more darkness. But if the kingdom of God is all about love, well then, there was no way when he got to Jerusalem that he could take up arms against his adversaries.
And so on that day we call Palm Sunday, Jesus arrived at the city where evil’s death grip had its strongest hold. He took pains to make it clear the manner in which he was coming, though many were not ready to recognize his intentions. He arranged to ride into town on a humble, young donkey rather than on any sort of war horse. He came in the eyes of the world in weakness and vulnerability. But for those who look through the eyes of faith, we recognize in his coming a power that is far greater than the powers of this world.
There is extraordinary courage in his choice to enter this city on that donkey. He will not back down. He intends to confront the powers of darkness, whatever it takes.
Mark tells us that when the parade was over, Jesus went to the Temple, took a look around, presumably seeing what he expected to see. The Temple wasn’t about God; it had become a place where the dark powers of fear and shame had taken up residence with their love of money.
The day was getting late, so Jesus retreats to a village nearby to spend the night. The next day he will return and drive out the money changers and those selling the pigeons. No one is killed, or wounded. No real violence is committed. It is a symbolic act he takes; the next day the merchants will be back doing business as usual. And yet his intentions are clear, and in this act of cleansing the Temple, he seals his fate. The dark powers begin immediately to conspire to have him killed.
They will succeed, and yet in doing so, they will expose the fraudulence of their authority to all who have eyes to see for ages to come.
So here we are 2000 years later, remembering the courage of Jesus. What are we to make of this? They same struggle continues to take place between light and darkness — between the power of love and the power of brutality and fear.
There is that story I’ve told so many times; you may be tired of hearing me tell it. A man was down on his hands and knees at night searching for something under a street light. Another man comes by, and asks him what he is looking for. “I lost my house key.” Wanting to be helpful, the man gets down on his hands and knees as well and begins to search for the lost key. After several minutes of fruitless searching, he asks the man, “Where exactly did you lose your key?” “Oh, I lost it halfway down the street, but the light is better here.”
Jesus knew the missing key wouldn’t be found up there in Galilee, even though the light seemed brighter there. He had to go to Jerusalem.
It occurs to me that there are ways in the lives of all of us that we piddle around the edges of our lives instead of confronting head on the problems that the powers of darkness have wrought in our lives.
For each of us this means different things, and each of us will have to discern how this might be so in our lives.
We may be expending enormous amounts of energy around the edges of our lives, impressing ourselves with how hard we’re working, but all the while attending to things that are relatively easy to address, and through it all avoiding confronting the real problems.
We do so, perhaps, because we are afraid. We do so because we’ve become attached to the status quo, even though the status quo is dysfunctional, ridden with fear and hostility rather than with an open-hearted, truth-telling love.
Perhaps there is a conversation you have avoided having with someone significant in your life – dealing with a truth that has been steadfastly avoided being spoken – because when you imagine the conversation taking place it scares you. You imagine that the outcome of the conversation could make things far worse, and so you are afraid, and you cling to the way things have been, even though the way things have been is miserable, underwritten with fear and resentment as well as a sense of tedium and meaninglessness.
Perhaps this conversation needs to happen with someone near and dear – or maybe someone you work with. Only you and God know where that conversation needs to take place.
What dysfunctional, fear ridden system that impacts your life needs to be confronted with love and light, even though in doing so you risk paying a severe price?
Jesus is with us as one who gives us courage to do what needs to be done. In a little while you will be coming forward to receive the bread and the cup that symbolizes the body and blood of Jesus that he was willing to sacrifice in order to confront the deep darkness.
I invite you to think of the cup this morning as a cup of courage, to empower you to confront the fearful dark places of your life. Trust God, and walk in the light that shines in the darkness.