Palm Sunday. The day we remember what we call “the triumphal entry”. We have enjoyed the parade of children this morning, and we sing and rejoice, joining in the ancient triumph of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. “Ride on, King Jesus! No one can hinder thee!” Palm Sunday begins what we call “Holy Week”, which culminates in Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. This is the centre of the church’s year, when we remember and re-enter the mystery of God’s work in God’s Son to redeem the world and reconcile the world to himself.
This year we read the account from Mark 11. I will describe the passage briefly and then expand on one basic point that impressed me as I read the story again this year. In the first verses we find Jesus and his disciples at Bethany (and Bethphage). Bethany is a little less than two miles east of Jerusalem, and Jesus stayed there quite regularly with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He sent two of the disciples on ahead of the rest to find a donkey, which Jesus told them they would use for his entry into Jerusalem.
The disciples found the donkey and brought it back, and they all went into Jerusalem together, with Jesus riding on the back of the donkey. Soon a crowd had gathered around Jesus. I am guessing that they recognized Jesus as a teacher and miracle-worker, and put his actions and words together with the action of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s back.
Why a donkey? What did the people see? They would have remembered the words of Zechariah 9:9 and 10: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Perhaps they would have also thought of the prophecy contained in Jacob-Israel’s blessings for his sons in Genesis 49: 9 and 10, which serve as deeper background to Zechariah.
Zechariah’s prophecy is a Messianic passage, and the people could hear the promise of the restoration of God’s reign in full. They may have thought that Jesus was a country prophet, come to fulfill a vow at the Passover Feast and remind people of the Messiah (so argues William Lane in his commentary on Mark). In any case they joined in the fun, although they did not grasp the depth of what God was doing in front of them.
The use of a donkey indicates that God has won the victory, and that God’s Messiah now comes in peace—not on a warhorse, but on a humble donkey. So the people cheer for God’s victory and for a future of peace and prosperity. Then the passage ends with a strange sort of anticlimax: “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” Mark is the only one who records this interlude, as the big parade turns into a small sightseeing excursion.
There are at least two reasons for this anticlimax. The first is that it happened. When Jesus and the disciples had completed the entry, they took the donkey back to its owner and spent the night in Bethany. Mark probably collected much of his account from Peter, who told the story many times within the early church community. Mark also was probably there, and remembers what happened. After looking around for a bit, everyone went back to Bethany for the night.
The second reason is the one I want to focus on for the rest of our time. Throughout his account of “the Gospel of Jesus Christ”, Mark emphasises the way that Jesus moved from climax of healing or exorcism to anticlimax of “Don’t tell anyone”. Here again Jesus steps back before he moves to the climax of his whole ministry. Quietly now!
The Power of Smallness
This quietness leads me to look again at the triumphal entry. Imagine with me that one of the people watching this is a reporter for The Jerusalem Times. This reporter is normally assigned to cover events in the capital of the Empire, in Rome itself. Just a week before he came home for the Feast of the Passover he covered a real Triumph. Here is a description of a Roman Triumph, from Wikipedia:
On the day of his triumph, the general wore a crown of laurel and the all-purple, gold-embroidered triumphal toga …, regalia that identified him as near-divine or near-kingly. He rode in a four-horse chariot through the streets of Rome in unarmed procession with his army, captives and the spoils of his war. … [Over time] increasing competition among the military-political adventurers … ensured that triumphs became more frequent, drawn out and extravagant, prolonged in some cases by several days of public games and entertainments.
Now he watches this Palestinian peasant riding on a donkey into Jerusalem. He can’t help thinking to himself that people would not cheer so loudly if they could have seen what he has seen in Rome. The donkey, on the other hand is a strange and humble animal—not nearly so proud as a war horse. Yet the donkey carried the King of Kings into Jerusalem. G.K. Chesterton wrote a poem called “The Donkey”:
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood,
Then surely I was born;
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
This idea (of finding God’s power in small things) is a repeated note in the Bible. It is the way that God works. As the Lord said to Samuel: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) We look at power and prestige and think that these God at work. But God is at work where God chooses to work. Listen to the way that Paul says it in 1 Corinthians 1:22-29:
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.
God is at work in history, but not where we often look. God is at work in in the small places of our world, in your life and in my life, among and in ordinary people, to bring the Reign of God into the whole world. God uses you and me, just as God used the donkey and the crowds and the children, to make our world right.
Allow me to illustrate with some examples I have learned about in the past two weeks. A week and a half ago I had lunch with a man we’ll call John. He and his wife worked in Pakistan for many years with a Baptist Mission. Now they are based in Winnipeg, working with indigenous churches in Pakistan and Nepal. They travel back to Pakistan periodically and to Nepal more frequently.
John told me about a group of Christians he works with in Pakistan. They come from a Pakistani Hindu background. As John told me, the Hindu minority in Pakistan is small, about 1% of the population of the country, and they are at the bottom of the social pile—practically speaking most of them are slaves. Over a period of time a small group of Christians grew up in this Hindu minority, about 35 house churches by the time he left the country two years ago. This year he went back to Pakistan and provided some Bible training for their leadership. He found that they had grown from 35 to 100 house churches.
Now this is not the kind of movement that people look at and say, “Wow! Two million new believers!” Rather it means perhaps a thousand new followers of Jesus from the Hindu minority of Pakistan. This is not the sort of thing that will make the international news, nor will many people be impressed by it; but this is God at work in our history. This is God at work in the small ordinary places of our world.
Sometimes these small things result in events that do get reported in the news. You may recall an event several months ago in Kenya. Last December a militant Somali group named Al Shabab stopped a bus travelling in northern Kenya near the Somali border. They started to separate the Muslims from the Christians in order to execute the Christians, when the Muslim passengers took action. One man, named Salah Ferah, stood up and told them that they were all brothers and would not separate. The Muslim women on the bus started to give their hijabs to the Christian women so that the armed men could not tell them apart. The gunmen shot Salah and two other men and then they fled. Salah later died of his wounds. This is a wonderful story of Muslims and Christians pursuing peace together in the midst of conflict. There is more to the story than I will tell here, but you can sense the echoes of God entering Jerusalem on a donkey’s back, bringing peace to the world.
God is at work in our world in ways that you would never guess. If you are focussing on the big events in the news, you could be like that reporter in Jerusalem who thought the important Triumph was in Rome, and missed the entry of God’s own self into human history.
A teacher at Providence was telling me about a student in her class—we’ll call him Sam. When you watch Sam, you notice his awkwardness and loudness, but his teacher told me he is really a good person. I was walking to the Student Centre this past week and passed Sam. He greeted me awkwardly as we passed each other and I saw two things: I saw the socially awkward young man, and I saw goodness shining in him. I said that to his teacher, and she told me of a conversation Sam once had. A fellow worker at his job was talking about the hardships he has experienced, which made it hard for him to believe in God. Sam has had a harder life than most, greater than the person talking to him could know, but he responded simply that God loves him and he loves God. His friend was silent for a bit, and then he said, “I’ll have to think about that.” In that conversation you can see, if you are looking for it, God at work in history. There was a little triumphal entry, with voices calling, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
This is the beginning of Holy Week. We remember this great climax of Jesus’ life and ministry, as he dies on the cross for you and for me. Often we think that we are not important enough to join in the parade, but that’s just the point. Jesus wants to enter your life and my life in triumph.
It doesn’t matter if you’re young. As Randy reminded us last Sunday, God wants young people to do his work in the church and in the world. We need you. God needs you! It doesn’t matter if you’re middle-aged. You may be focussed on career as you enter the time you can become a real success. But real success is found in following Christ, in allowing Jesus to enter your life in triumph. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting older. I’m reading a lot about the beginning of Brethren in Christ Missions. The first missionary group went from North America to Zimbabwe in 1898—one young woman in her early 20s (Adda Engle), one almost middle-aged woman in her mid 30s (Frances Davidson), and one older couple of 60 years old (Jesse and Elizabeth Engle). God used all four of them. Adda eventually married another of the early missionaries, who died in the 1920s following an attack by a lion. Frances worked there until she was in her 60s, when she returned to the States. Jesse died after only two years, and Elizabeth returned to the States. Each one of them was part of God’s work beginning the BIC Church in Zimbabwe.
The only thing that matters is that Jesus wants to enter into every one of us and work in our world through us—old or young, married or single, parent or child, blue collar or white collar, awkward or graceful or anything else. We find God in history when we find God in each other. I pray that you are part of his triumphal entry into our lives this morning.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
20 March 2016
Palm Sunday: Mark 11:1-11