A sermon preached by Graham Low at the online Parish Eucharist on 28 March 2021.
From as long ago as the fourth century churches have gathered on Palm Sunday for a two-part liturgy. In part one palms are blessed away from the church, the gospel we have just heard is proclaimed and then the people have processed, often though streets to their church, where, in part two, one of the very lengthy passion narratives is read. The power of the words of passion narrative has meant that there has rarely been any preaching afterwards. Today’s constraints have made us depart from our usual pattern, giving us an opportunity to reflect on Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
Immediately before today’s passage Mark speaks of how the blind beggar Bartimaeus receives his sight and immediately follows Jesus from Jericho to Jerusalem. This road rises steeply through desert over several thousand feet and then through Bethphage, Bethany, and the Mount of Olives to the city centre. Today we hear that two disciples are sent on a pre-arranged expedition in the outskirts to find a colt on which, alarmingly, nobody has ever ridden: unsurprisingly, those around are puzzled to see the colt being untied. They are told that Jesus needs it and that it will be returned. It seems like a hijacking.
The disciples throw their cloaks on the donkey and others cut leafy branches from fields and put them and their cloaks on the road ahead of Jesus’ followers and the colt. As the crowd walks towards the Temple in the city centre they cry out verses from Psalm 118, which prefigures the victorious entry into Jerusalem. Note here that the crowd sing hosanna, which in Hebrew not only indicates praise but also “please save us”. It seems that Jesus is not thrown off the beast of burden, and the procession ends without more drama. We are simply told that Jesus goes to the temple, and as it is late, he leaves with his disciples for Bethany.
This passage has the usual hallmarks of Marks’ brevity and directness, but it leaves us with questions. The unusual choice of a small and young animal, the odd way in which it is procured, and the placing of disciples’ cloaks on its back are all at odds with the usual style of a procession of a royal figure. Having made his long-expected entry into the temple, there is no victory speech, no message to say that as king he will send the occupying Roman forces away. Instead, in an apparently extraordinary anti-climax, Jesus merely looks around the temple and departs for Bethany.
The meanings of words such as majesty, pomp, glory, triumph, honour and kingship which are familiar in the hymn we would have sung as we processed to the church are turned upside down in Mark’s account. Mark leaves us in suspense. As we prepare to go with Jesus into the Jerusalem of Holy Week, perhaps we can first pause and reflect at a place like Bethany. And then, can we see, that we face two Jerusalems? One is the outwardly splendid city Jesus entered and all that happened to him there. The other is the inner Jerusalem of our own hearts. Just as the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day needed challenge and cleansing, so ours may too. We have inner gates, watch towers and walls: they contain both a temple and a place of judgement.
Perhaps as we journey through Holy Week we can ponder how things would be if we welcomed Jesus again into the Jerusalem in our own hearts. Who is in charge of its affairs? Is it occupied by an inappropriate outside force? Is there a golden temple which absorbs our attention, and time, and money, so that we ignore other more important matters? How does the part which deals with money prioritise spending, either for our own comfort, or for the needs of others? Are we in charge or is there a Pontius Pilate there, beholden to an alien power, or are there advertisers seeking to manipulate us into a false sense of what we need? Where do out loyalties lie? Can we invite Jesus into our inner Jerusalem? And if we let him in, are we ready to receive his unbounded forgiveness and love? Amen.