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The God We Need

Mark 11:1-11

Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Last Sunday is referred to as Palm/Passion Sunday. It’s ironic that the waving of palm branches suggests celebration and joy but passion is often thought in this context as suffering and ultimately crucifixion. The truth that gathers us on Maundy Thursday is ironic.

It’s like the theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy. It’s usually the hot water switch on the left and the cold water one on the right. It’s like how all of us have experienced at least one time in our lives when in the middle of deep sadness, we find ourselves laughing at something amusing. It’s like when someone is set out to do something ends up just doing the opposite. It’s ironic.

We’re welcoming our king, but he rides in on a lowly donkey. We sang hosanna to the Messiah, but by the end of the week those same acclamations become transformed into a demand for the messiah’s crucifixion. This week is the irony of the God we did not expect. The irony is that our expectations for God to do something in the world were not what God had in mind in Jesus of Nazareth.

Palm/Passion

Jesus is king and he triumphantly rides into Jerusalem as a king, and with us waving palm branches in his honor. But you know that the Gospel story tells a slightly different tale. It tells a tale of great expectations and hosannas on Sunday and the acclamation “crucify him” on Friday—and perhaps in some cases by the very same people. We start off with the brightness of the morning and will end up in the darkness of night on Thursday and Friday.

Therefore last Sunday was a sobering reminder about what happens to a group of very religious people when you work up their expectations of a major victory at the beginning of a week and by the end of the week dash those hopes so that even the inner circle of disciples had denied, deserted, or betrayed Jesus by late Thursday. And as for the crowds, things really turned ugly when Jesus was handed over to the Roman authorities for crucifixion.

We must ask ourselves how a week that began so well could have ended so badly. It’s ironic that the same people who shouted “Hosanna” would be crying out “Crucify him!” Jesus appears to have so little interest in meeting our heartfelt expectations. He was not the God we wanted; he was the God we needed.

What We Wanted

We like Palm Sunday because what we want is a God who would come and vanquish our foes and put us up in a position of power over others and over our lives. We feed off this excitement of victory at last.

But then Jesus came to serve and give his life as a ransom for sin. It wasn’t what we wanted, but it is what we needed. Because when we’re honest, we must admit that the true heart of our problem is not the acquisition of more political power. It is the overcoming of good old human sin.

Jesus told us in Mark 7 that it is from us—from our own hearts—that war, adultery, murder, slander, and all manner of human sadness come. Jesus quotes from Isaiah to say,
            This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition (7:6-8).

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Our politicians, then, as now, tells us that our greatest problem is to protect our borders from alien persons when we know down deep that our real problem starts with borders we erect within our own hearts.

According to the history of early church fathers, there are no less than 12 other triumphal entries similar to what we read and heard last Sunday. These accounts talk about the great leader who enters and rides in the head of the grand possession. The crowd shouted, “Hosanna!”

Palm branches were used to celebrate the Maccabean victory nearly 200 years before. The Jewish militarily conquered their pagan overlords and placed Jerusalem once again in Jewish hands. Surely that was what the crowds hoped for when they saw Jesus riding into town. They thought of great King David or King Solomon when Israel was the summit of international power and how these kings would swagger into the capital city after their great victories. But if they thought that, their thoughts of royal power were shattered when they saw the kind of animal Jesus was riding.

The only time that Jesus elevates himself above the crowd was not mounting on a warhorse as we expected. He climbs on a donkey and bounces into town, taking the town, not with a sword in his hand, but rather in peace.

Biblical scholars estimate that at Passover, Jerusalem went from being a town of 50,000 to a town of 500,000, and if you want to make existing authorities—including both Jewish and Roman ones—nervous, then ride into town in some sort of royal ceremony. Then march right into the religious center of the city and say things and do things that could be interpreted as depicting the destruction of the temple. Go and take a whip in hand and clear out the money-changers from the temple and see how the authorities will respond.

Even among his own disciples, Jesus apparently raised their hopes and expectations. At last, they must have thought! At last Jesus is going to stand up, take charge, kick butt, take names, run the Romans out, and act like a real Messiah.

But by that Thursday night, things had taken an ironic turn. Jesus was at the table talking about his body and blood, rather than up at the palace or in the temple talking about seizing power. His disciples became disillusioned and fearful. It was becoming an ironic turn of events.

What We Needed

By Thursday and Friday, both the crowd and the disciples had their expectations tortured by Jesus. Jesus was not the sort of king we expected who would run the Romans out of town. He was a king who climbed on the back of a donkey and then was hoisted high and lifted up to die on a cross, dying even for the sins of the enemies of Israel.

It’s no wonder that we find the truth of this day to be incomprehensible. To this day we tend to think that military solutions to our world problems are the only realistic solutions. We tend to think that political power is the only power worth having. We say, “This is the way the world works,” or we say, “This is reality.”

But this last week of Jesus’ earthly life tells us this is not so. Look at our world today—the world that we live in today—and can you say that we have really advanced in our battle with the sins of our own hearts?

This day Jesus disappointed both the hopeful crowd of pilgrims and his own disciples. And if you came to church last Sunday and you were waving your palm branches quietly hoping for some kind of world victory that is about to happen, I am sorry that Jesus disappoints you.

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Holy Week is filled with ironies. The grand hopes for Jesus will be dashed and Jesus will end up on a cross.

While it is a joyous day to witness Bonnie Lim who came to be baptized last Sunday with family and friends present, this day of celebration shouting hosanna and singing with joy about the coming of the true king, the prince of peace, we will also remember Jesus’ word when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me.” It’s ironic that on that day of great joy, you who received Baptism today is your first day to carry your cross to follow Jesus.

Personal Decision

In Mark 11, the account of the Jesus’ triumphant entry to Jerusalem ends rather awkwardly. “And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

This is not a dramatic ending for such a glorious dramatic beginning. Perhaps this concluding verse is a key to our interpretation of the events of the Palm/Passion Sunday irony. This great entry into the holy city just does not go as we anticipate. Our expectations are thwarted. Our messianic hopes are dashed.

Jesus just looks around. Does he look around at the glory that could have been his but would have been unfaithful to his mission? Does he look around the temple with contempt and rejection of this grandeur? Or does Mark simply mean for us to marvel at how a day that began with such expectation ends with such anticlimactic disappointment?

Jesus is left alone with his own thoughts as he walks down a way that nobody wants to go, the obedient way of self-sacrificial, suffering love, a way walked by few of the world’s powerful.

In this quiet and rather anticlimactic conclusion, it’s also an invitation for each one of us tonight.

Last Sunday, we came with high expectations for a king, a messiah to take care of business. But Jesus did not come to meet our expectations of what a king should be like. He came to meet our need, not what we wanted, to bring us peace we could not have on our own. He came to meet our deepest needs—our need for a means to God that is not self-devised, our need for salvation that is more than a political solution, our need for truth about who God really is rather than who we hoped God would be.

Let these days ahead follow our unexpected Savior down the path that few of us are expected to walk.

Let us pray.

Jesus, as we welcome you into Jerusalem, give us what we need to welcome you into each of our lives. You come to us with an identity and a mission that we did not expect. We want glory from you; you came to us as a lowly servant. We thought that you had arrived among us to solve all of our problems; you brought to us problems we would have never had without you. We expected you to answer all of our questions about God; you raised among us questions about God that we had never asked.

Give us gifts to walk this whole week, this entire way, with you. Instill among us a love for you that enables us to obey you, to follow you regardless of our preconceptions and expectations of you. Amen.

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