The Inverted Triumph
Spinning Gold from Straw - Sermon #06 - The Inverted Triumph
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • April 09, 2017 • Anna Hillaker, Pastoral Associate of Formation & Care
Over the past few weeks of Lent, we have been spending time in the book of James. This letter is a delightfully blunt and challenging book, that invites us to see that our faith reveals itself not in just what we think or how we feel, but how we act and engage the world. It calls us to love those who we may be inclined to overlook, to seek justice, and to extend profound care to those who need it most. Last week, Pastor Nigel invited us to to consider James’ call to heroic patience— a patience that is active and engaged, one that is filled with hope.
Today, we transition into Holy Week, a time in the Christian faith that dwells on the events leading up to the death and Resurrection of Jesus. This is a week where we get to practice heroic patience. We stand in the gap, holding the tension that comes with serving a crucified and resurrected Lord. The first day of this week is Palm Sunday. Many of you who have been around the church for awhile are pretty familiar with this story. Even if you haven’t been around the church much, you might have a vague and possibly somewhat embarrassing picture of a bunch of adults singing Hosanna and waving palm branches. What is all the fuss about anyway? Isn’t all the celebrating supposed to happen at Easter?
When it (Doesn’t) all Come Together
Do you know that build-up to a big, anticipated event, one of those moments in your life when you’re sure that it is all finally about to come together?
- Graduate, get that job, marry that person, have a baby, take that trip, get out of that tricky situation, get to the next level in candy crush?
- You know, that moment when the Chariots of Fire theme song begins to swell, and all is right with the world?
But what happens when you arrive at this Moment, and it’s not everything that you expect?
- Can’t find a job, lots of adjustments, harder than you thought, not glamorous— simply not as easy or satisfying as you thought.
The story of Palm Sunday in the book of Mark is a lot like this. Up until now, Jesus has been “on the way,” as Mark likes to say. The way Mark tells the story, everything is fast-paced, the tension and anticipated building as Jesus and his disciples work their way toward Jerusalem. Everything happens quickly. Mark loves the word “immediately.” But when Jesus and the disciples reach Jerusalem, the narrative Mark is telling slows down, focuses in. About 1/3 of the gospel of Mark focuses on the last week of Jesus life. This is it, what the entire narrative has been hurtling toward. And it all begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in Mark 11:
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, jesus sent two of his disciples , saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’
They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields.
Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed in he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed in the coming kingdom of our Father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
This moment in Mark feels like one of those life moments where everything is supposed to come together, where the promises that have been hanging in the air for so long will finally be realized. This was Passover week— the time each year when the Israelites celebrated their liberation from Egypt. As a people living under the occupying forces of Rome, a people who were promised this land as their inheritance, I wonder what his disciples and followers were thinking and feeling? “Finally! Things are really going to get rolling now!” Maybe they thought Jesus was going to confront Rome, liberate them to be an independent kingdom.
Jesus’ entry into the city was certainly drawing on a lot of rich material that may have filled them with expectation. It draws on something that Jesus’ followers would have been very familiar with: Imperial processions into the city.
- cloaks thrown, branches waved, things shouted
- a display of power and authority
- riding a horse or in a chariot
- usually ends in the temple
- fancy clothes, slaves, soldiers (PNTC, Witherington, Crossan/Borg, etc.)
As Mark tells it, when Jesus enters the city, it draw on many of these themes, while at the same time echoing some specifically Jewish expectations for the Messiah:
- spreading of branches and cloaks
- plus Messianic overtones: rides and unridden colt— for sacred purposes
- coming down from the Mount of Olives (linked with Messianic judgment)
- into Jerusalem— the city of God— the temple as the locus Dei (where God dwells)
- picks up on Zech. 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
- V. 10— they link Jesus’ arrival with the kingdom of David
- Shout “Hosanna”— can be interpreted as exuberant praise, or homage/welcome
With all this, it seems like something big is about to happen! Even as we read this passage today, we are filled with a sense of expectation. But there’s more. In the traditional imperial processions, they end in the temple. There’s a speech, a sacrifice, and a feast. It is yet another display of power and ownership, or even a claim of deity. But let’s look again at Jesus’ procession. See, there’s one more verse left in this story. Here is verse 11:
“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.”
With Jesus, there is an anticlimax. The procession brings him to the gates of the city, but in Mark, he enters Jerusalem alone, which is marked by a shift to the singular tense in the Greek. He enters the temple as the evening sets, looks around, and then quietly leaves. He stands alone, and nothing happens. He goes back to where they were staying in Bethany and goes to bed.
A Quiet Triumph
What is going on here? After all that build-up, all that expectation, this great procession ends not with power and prestige, but with Jesus, quiet and alone. Imagine you were one of Jesus’ disciples, or one of the onlookers cheering and laying branches in the street. What might you have felt? Confusion? Disappointment? Might it have felt like one of those moments we were talking about, when all the expectations we place on a big event are upended? When it’s all building up to this one thing, then wham, nothing. Or not enough. Or disappointment. Or failure.
But what if Jesus’ plans and expectations for his arrival into Jerusalem were not the same as those of his disciples? What if his entry into the city is saying exactly what he wants to say about power, about kingship, about Yahweh’s plans to bring restoration and wholeness to the world? A look of some of the subtle contrasts of Jesus’ entry with both the imperial processions and the messianic expectations of Israel might enlighten us a bit as to what Jesus was thinking.
Jesus is embodying a sort of parody of traditional forms of power. He is also gently critiquing Israel’s own expectations for what exactly a Messiah would bring them. Hans Leander identifies Jesus’ entry as an “almost-but-not-quite” triumphal procession. Jesus rides a colt, which is sort of like a grand war-horse, but not quite. Yes, cloaks and branches were placed before him, while cheers echoed around him. But these were not the cheers and cloaks of the powerful elite, but of peasants who cut the branches from the fields themselves. And those cries of Hosanna? They have a dual meaning. The word can be a word of welcome or praise, but it can also be a cry for help. It can also mean, “Rescue us! Save us now!” Jesus, the son of God, enters Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God, but not as its ruler. He enters as a man who knows that he will be put to death. Jesus here is showing us a different way. But not a glamorous one, not an easy one, not even a very tempting one.
The Upside-Down Kingdom
Pastor Donnell loves to invite us all to “follow Jesus through the narrow gate into life.” And this is it. This is the invitation present in Jesus’ entry. “Follow me,” he invites us, “but it won’t be a lavish display of wealth and power. It will be sacrificial. It will be difficult. And chances are pretty good that it will up-end your expectations in untold ways. Let’s look at a few verse from the book of Mark leading up to today’s passage that highlight this invitation to step into the inverted kingdom that Jesus offers:
Mark 10:13-16 say,
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuke them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”
The kingdom of God is not a place for kingly processions filled with extravagance and power. It is for the joyful, creative innocence of children. Today after communion the kids in our Children’s Ministry are going to process through the sanctuary, waving palms. But I invite you not just to see them for the joyful, creative, adorable, and intuitive selves, but also as an illustration of what it looks like to receive the kingdom of God. While we often find kids wonderful in themselves, we rarely seek to be like them. Instead, we label things “juvenile.” It is usually not a compliment if you call an adult a child. But Jesus invites us to release our grip on our adult power and control, and receive the kingdom like a child.
And furthermore, In Mark 8, Jesus has an interesting exchange with Peter and his disciples. In verse 31, he begins to foretell his own death. Peter quite naturally reacts strongly, and rejects Jesus’ claim. Jesus in turn rebukes him and begins to teach the following:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
That is a pretty difficult thing to hear, much less to accept and follow! This kingdom doesn’t sound like a lot of fun! This isn’t really a great sales pitch, Jesus! We do an awful lot to avoid death.
Meeting Jesus in Humility
See we’ve all had moments in our lives when our expectations have been subverted, where things didn’t look how you thought they would. Let me tell you one of mine:
- Felt called to leave Vancouver and look for ministry work. Moved to Toronto. Bright-eyed, ready to fulfill my calling.
- Suffice it to say, it didn’t go as planned: remember the Waffle Incident? Also, multiple incidents of getting stranded, long commutes in Toronto traffic (sometimes in a blizzard), mind-numbing data entry job, almost passing out at work, car backed into, not to mention not finding ministry work.
- Did something I said I would never do: moved back, moved in with my parents (thanks, guys!). Working as a cashier at a big box store, applying for ministry jobs. Rejected.
Let me tell you friends— it was really, really hard. I thought I was following God’s lead, seeking to do something great for the kingdom, and it was going disastrously. I was at the end of my rope.
- Finally, I demanded three things from God: a place of my own, meaningful work that payed better, and a way to do ministry.
- Within weeks, a family friend came through my lane and offered me an amazing job. I connected with someone at Vineyard who offered me a room in her apartment. I began talking with Pastor Donnell about working here at Vineyard.
But I will also tell you about how I saw Jesus, and the evidence of the upside-down beauty of his kingdom during this time. So many people cared for me extravagantly and sacrificially during this time. People drove hours to pick me up, made me meals, took me to the doctor, found me temporary jobs, took me into their homes. My heart was softened towards the poor, the sick, anyone who has found themselves where they never thought they would be.
The gift of the upside-down kingdom is this— when it all falls apart, Jesus, the humble, loving shepherd, not the magnificent warrior king, is right there with us, attending to our needs. The wonderful elderly woman I work with has many favorite verses (she always asks me “Is that underlined?”). She particularly loves Romans 8. Here is part of it:
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all— how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerers through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Jesus’ kingdom may not come with a lot of fanfare, or the traditional trappings of authority. But it is powerful. It is transformative. It is life-giving. It may indeed subvert our expectations, but it will not leave us hanging.
Today is the beginning of Holy Week, the last week of Lent. I find that we often like to jump straight to Easter, to all that joy, resurrection, and candy. But let’s try not to. Let’s use a little of that heroic patience and try to sit in the difficulty of what this week means— that we serve a God who is willing to give it all up. Who does not grasp at power, but instead makes himself a servant. We like the happy ending, the satisfying resolution, our brains are actually wired to seek it. But why not use this time to connect our unsatisfied longings, our expectations, and our pain to those of our great High Priest?
Since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are— yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
- Attend a Holy Week event (Seder Meal, Good Friday).
- Sign up for Baptism— a symbolic dying to self & rising to life.