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Mark 11:1-11, Psalm 118:24-25, Zechariah 9:9, Zechariah 12:10, Zechariah 13:7, Luke 19:42-44
Today is Palm Sunday – the first day of Holy Week.
In the Christian calendar Sunday is the first day of the week – Saturday the last.
We often forget that – Sunday worship sets us up for the week ahead – we get the food we need for the journey we’re on and carry on courageously into the week – armed with the gospel of God’s love and power.
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Holy week begins with Sunday. It’s the week that Jesus was crucified, during Holy week we think about what Jesus went through – we rethink our attitudes and we prepare ourselves for Easter day – the beginning of the next week – Jesus resurrection in which everything we thought we knew about the world is changed.
The day that marks a new beginning – but today we journey on this side of Easter – through Holy Week.
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Palm Sunday challenges us to think again about what we look for in our King. To think about how we should respond to Jesus.
Early on Sunday morning, while it is still dark – Jesus and his disciples are in Jericho where they have spent their last Sabbath together.
The twelve disciples and other followers probably all set out at the same time – on their way to Jerusalem for passover.
Their journey will last 7 hours or more – depending on their pace. Twenty Five Kilometers through mountainous desert like terrain from Jericho 250m below sea level, to Jerusalem 800m above.
Using Satelite Technology we can sweep over the terrain that Jesus, the disciples and a crowd of pilgrims traversed on their way to Jerusalem.
After the long journey Jesus and the disciples arrived at Bethany, near the mount of Olives. Jerusalem was over the next hill, from here Jesus sent his disciples to fetch a colt, the foal of a donkey on which he would process to Jerusalem – intentionally fulfilling Zechariah 9.
“See your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
From Bethany pilgrims would journey over the mount of olives and into Jerusalem.
From the crest of the mount of olives pilgrims would get their first site of Herod’s massive temple complex.
Parts of the temple, adorned with gold, flashing in the sun.
Crowds of pilgrims streaming into Jerusalem.
The smoke of sacrifices.
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Mounted on the donkey Jesus begins the final leg of the journey to Jerusalem through the Kidron Valley and up to the city gate.
It is along this stretch of the Journey that pilgrims wave palm branches and shout:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our father David!”
Hosanna in the highest!”
– Mark 11:9-10
Literally meaning ‘Save us, rescue us’ son of David.
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Yet Jesus rides a baby donkey, not a battle horse, and early icons even represent him riding ‘side saddle’ – a completely non threatening approach to Jerusalem not to do battle, but to offer himself as God’s son, the Messiah, the King of Judah and Israel.
The Triumphal Approach
As they march along the valley – in the shadow of the temple and towards Jerusalem the people with Jesus wave palm branches and shout:
‘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!’
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Words which echo Psalm 118:25:
“Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!
O LORD, we besech you, give us success!”
– Psalm 118:24-25
Psalms 113 – to 118, known us the Hallel were regularly sung at the passover – these words would have been on the people’s lips.
They wave palm branches, celebrate victory and imagine Yahweh returning to the temple to reign over Judah and Israel.
Their idea of God’s victory is however a little different to the kind of victory which Jesus brings. On other occasions when people have sung these songs and waved palm branches it was because enemies had been driven out of Jerusalem by force.
The temple taken back by the people.
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The temple was overshadowed only by the fortress Antonia, near the gate through which Jesus and the Pilgrims would enter. The Antonia fortress hosted the Roman Garrison responsible for keeping the ‘Roman Peace’ in Jerusalem.
The Romans even kept the vestments of the high priest in this fortress – they and only they allowed the high priest to be the high priest.
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Jesus marches into Jerusalem in the shadow of Herod’s temple – in the shadow of the fortress Antonia – reminders that the Jewish people are under the rule of somebody else and they cry:
Save us, rescue us!
But what hope does Jesus have in the face of such power, such might… he rides in on a baby donkey – not a battle horse; a symbol of gentleness and peace…
Travelling towards Jerusalem – towards his Father’s house, the temple – to take up his rightful place as Israel’s King, not by force, but just because that is his rightful place.
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Now, if Israel was to accept him as King the journey would have continued for the Son of David – crowds gathering – people celebrating right into the town and into the temple where he would be anointed and enthroned.
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But the gospel writers tell us that this procession happened outside of the town.
It fades away before Jesus goes into the city gate.
Jesus enters the citadel quietly Mark tells us:
“…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.”
– Mark 11:11
The King arrives in his castle – but nobody really takes notice.
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God, personified in Jesus, the one for whom the nation has been waiting, the one to whom the people cry out “Save us” – “Rescue us” – “Hosanna” returns to Jerusalem, to the temple, ready to save… and there he becomes just a tourist.
Looking at everything that is going on.
The people too busy with religion to notice God among them.
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Why don’t we notice?
Why would Jesus end up as just a tourist in the temple – instead of enthroned as King – why wouldn’t people see who he was?
The gospel writers point to two major themes – a failure to recognise Jesus for who he is, and an unwillingness on the part of those who do recognise him – to respond.
Failure to Recognise
The people’s failure to recognise Jesus is illustrated in the release of Barrabas instead of Jesus.
According to custom Pilate may release one prisoner – a presidential pardon – he asks the people who they want:
Barrabas or Jesus. Barrabas, Mark tells us, was part of an insurrection – a revolutionary terrorist – someone who probably tried to stir people to violence against the Roman oppressors.
People want tangible results, they want a battle they want a victory – they don’t recognise a King who comes humbly and riding on a donkey.
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Only later will they understand – when they read further in Zechariah’s prophecies – after Jesus is crucified:
“…when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”
– Zechariah 12:10
Many of us have very fixed ideas about who our God should be and unless our God meets us on our terms we will have nothing of it.
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Can we open our eyes and minds a little wider – just in case God is trying to surprise us.
With new ideas, new ways of thinking – less religion and more life.
Failure to respond
Another theme that runs through the events of this Holy Week is the people’s failure to respond.
That which they are up against seems too powerful – too great to be defeated in such a gentle way.
Another prophecy from Zechariah which Jesus mentions in his last week:
“…strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.”
– Zechariah 13:7 / Mark 14:27
The disciples will flee in fear.
The crowd that marched in with Jesus from Jericho on Sunday doesn’t have the courage to stand against those who will call for his blood on Friday.
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A story doomed to constant repitition – who of us can not identify with the diciples in their fear?
Do we really have the courage to respond to the gospel Jesus has given us?
The Mount of Olives
On the side of the Mount of Olives is a little chapel – overlooking the site of the Old Temple, and now the sight of the Dome of the Rock.
They say this is where Jesus stopped on his way into Jerusalem – Luke tells us that he wept, saying:
“If you, even you had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
– Luke 19:42-44
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‘If you had recognized the things that make for peace…
…you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’
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Forty years later if Jesus had crossed the mount of olives he would have found nothing but smoke and fire on the other side. Rubble piled up.
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In about 66 a Roman prefect would steel funds from the temple treasury provoking a rebelion of the already frustrated Jews.
This rebellion would be a violent one – with swords and battle horses.
Jesus came on a donkey.
Titus (who would be Caesar) was brought in with four legions to attack and retake Jerusalem.
The seige lasted for four years – at the end of the battle Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple raised to the ground, its treasures stolen and taken to Rome.
The devestation of Jerusalem is also foretold in Zechariah.
The inside of the arch of Titus in Rome records Roman soldiers plundering the temple treasures.
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What Jesus said would happen, happened – he wept, according to Luke, because he foresaw what kind of things would happen to the people of Jerusalem because of their rejection of him.
‘…you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God.’
Because they failed to recognise:
“…the things that make for peace.”
– Luke 19:42
I fear that our fate might be similar to the fate of Jerusalem – as we fail to recognise Jesus and respond to him.
Not because God will be angered and send down fires to destroy us – but because we continue to mess things up.
Always seeking to dominate and control, to become more powerful and more wealthy – but seldom adopting the position of a servant.
Surrendering ourselves to the Lordship of our humble King.
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I invite us – not as individuals, but as a community – to see how we can recognise, and respond to Jesus this Easter.
To encourage one another, and pray for one another, as we seek to be more faithful disciples of Christ.