Below is the prepared manuscript of a sermon I preached at First Baptist Church-Marissa, IL on April 1, 2012. Naturally, the moment of delivery is never identical to the moment of conception, so discrepancies exist between the text of this sermon and the sermon those in attendance heard (moreso in this case than seems normal for me).
Has anyone else here ever wanted to travel through time? It fascinated me when I was younger. I would think about returning to the day when I met a friend of mine just to observe our first interactions, or going way back in time to some historic era like when dinosaurs were still on the earth. Maybe some of you would go back to the day when your first child was born, or to a birthday party that was really special – just so you could feel that excitement over and over again.
But despite our best wishes and the dozens of movies made about time travel, no Delorean is going to get us back to the future – or the past. The best we can currently do is to imagine what it would be like. I wonder if we could try to visit a couple of places in the past, together. This is a little risky for the first time you preach somewhere; somebody might end up stuck on a remote island back in the Dark Ages with no one around to bring you back. If that happens, we’ll make sure to send a Great Rivers Region Area Minister to scour the annals of history for someone with amazingly good dental work for the time period so that we can try and bring you back. Think we can handle that?
First, imagine yourself in the city of Jerusalem, around the year 30 AD. If you’re having trouble getting there, open your Bibles to Mark 11:1-11. Amazingly, this happens to be our scripture passage for today, Mark’s account of Jesus entering Jerusalem just a few days before he was crucified. —
Mark 11:1-11 – “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
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!’
Then 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.”
See, time-travel’s not so bad. It’s like you never even left the room!
The words of this scripture passage are probably familiar to most of us, though there is always more we might understand when we read the Bible. We’ll come back to this place soon. Next, though, go back about 40 more years, from AD 30 to 9 BC, about five years before Jesus was born. This time we’ll end up in modern-day Turkey. Quick history quiz – Anyone know who was Emperor when Jesus was born? (A: Caesar Augustus). What I’m about to read is not from the Bible, but was written on an ancient piece of rock that archaeologists found and translated. I think it can help us understand the meaning of the passage about Palm Sunday. See if you hear any words that sound like they’re describing someone we talk about in church a lot.
Priene Inscription Excerpt: “‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [excelled even our anticipations], surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him,’” (emphasis mine)
This is kind of amazing, isn’t it? Five years before Jesus is born, this inscription is talking about one given by Providence to benefit humankind, calling him savior for us and our descendants, that he might end war (we might call him a prince of peace?). Caesar Augustus, according to what’s written on this piece of rock, was better than all the people who came before him with no hope of being better than him. “And since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings of the world that came [through] him.” That is so much of what we say about Jesus, written about somebody else – Augustus, the emperor, the king. This kind of thing didn’t stop when Augustus died, either. Later Roman emperors claimed these same kinds of divine titles for themselves. I don’t think humility was part of the application requirement.
So we have this piece of rock that calls Caesar Augustus a savior, says that the king’s birthday was the beginning of good tidings for the world. And some of you are thinking, “Yeah, sounds like Jesus. So what?! Why are we talking about some old piece of rock in church?” Anybody thinking that? You can be honest, it’s ok. If you can’t be honest in church, where can you? Anybody thinking that?
Now look back at Mark 11. Notice in verse 2, Jesus tells the disciples where to go and what they’ll find and what to say, and it happens. Jesus is the one making this story happen. Jesus is in control; what he wants, happens.
What are the people saying to Jesus when he comes into town?
“Hosanna!” – Save us!
“Coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” – They’re referencing another king, one of their own kind who they hope will rule again. The thing about having a king, is that usually only one person can be the king at any given time. If Caesar is already the king, how can there be another one? What do you think Caesar would think about this kind of talk? Jesus, the one making this story happen, hears people talking about David’s coming kingdom when he arrives. Hmmmmm….
And what does this man who controls the story ride in on? Jesus wants to ride on a donkey, so he does. In those days, the donkey was the animal princes and kings would ride when they wanted to signal peace to the place they were entering. There’s probably also a reference here to Zechariah 9:9 – “Lo, your king comes to you;//triumphant and victorious is he,//humble and riding on a donkey.” Jesus rides on the animal mentioned in Zechariah when talking about a victorious and humble king coming. Jesus is putting this story together and riding the animal that signals peace to the townspeople.
Now add to all of this what some scholars believe about that particular day. It was the beginning of the week before Passover, when some of the Roman authorities would come into Jerusalem as security forces. How many of you know that when big crowds gather, it can be more dangerous for people who are there? When big crowds gather, some folks might get ideas of trying to start some trouble. Trouble had happened before in Jerusalem during Passover week, so the Roman authorities probably came in that very day to keep the people in line. When you want to do that, you don’t ride in on donkeys; you bring the war horses to make sure everyone can see your power. Fear is a powerful motivator, after all.
So on one hand, we have a powerful empire that rides in on warhorses, striking fear into people who are gathered. Their allegiance is to Caesar and no one else. Caesar claims divinity for himself – and no one outside the royal family. The Romans say Caesar is Lord, and Caesar is in control.
The Gospel of Mark says something very different. In Mark, we have a group ruled by a man who’s about to die, riding in on a peace donkey, birthing hope in people who have been waiting for someone to free them from the fear they feel under the Romans. Mark’s allegiance is to Jesus, and Mark hopes our allegiance is to Jesus – and no one else. Mark claims divinity for Jesus – and no one else. Mark says Jesus is Lord, and remember what we said before – Jesus is in control of this story. Now you see why that old piece of rock was worth talking about.
Palm Sunday makes very clear that we have a choice to make. There are two powers that are part of this story. One is Rome – it leads by fear and war and intimidation. It says Caesar is Lord. It is the easy way to fit in, and it will live for at least another 400 years.
The other power is Jesus – he leads by love and peace and invitation. Mark says Jesus is Lord. Following Jesus makes it hard to fit in, and to make things harder, Jesus is going to die in five days. Mark knew this when he wrote, and Mark’s readers knew it when they read.
So our choice is simple and hard at the same time. Do we live for 400 years through fear and intimidation, or do we live for five days through love and peace? Do we “go along to get along” or are we “All to Jesus I Surrender” kind of people? Are we like the crowds of Palm Sunday who by Good Friday have changed their cry from “Hosanna” to “Crucify”? I am here to tell you; there are no time machines to help with this question, and it is complex. You are not left to your own ways to decide; you have the Spirit and the church to help you. But you have a choice in the matter. Your choice is always, “Now which way will I go?”