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Palm Sunday Reflections
Sermon #1 Mark 11:1-10
Mark doesn’t waste words.
As we saw during the past month, in just 45 short verses of his opening chapter, Mark laid out the priorities of Jesus’ entire ministry.
In Mark’s gospel, every single word counts.
So, why would Mark devote six entire verses to details about Jesus borrowing the colt for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem?
After all, Jesus and his disciples had money … so why didn’t he just send his disciples to buy a donkey just like everyone else?
Well, armies could commandeer animals on behalf of their king.
So, Mark needed for us to understand that before Jesus took his first step in the procession he acted like a king by commandeering the colt.
Then, after that, Mark invested three more verses to illustrate that the crowd understood Jesus’ point by lining the road to Jerusalem and shouting the words of Zechariah’s ancient prophesy,
(9:9) Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
This prophecy of a liberating king had been told for generations to children on the laps of grandparents.
And beyond all that, everyone had heard of the miracles Jesus had done: healing the sick, raising the dead, and teaching with amazing power.
So now he was entering the holy city on a commandeered foal of a donkey – without a doubt, here was the savior king they had been waiting for.
We are all waiting and searching for something, or someone, who can fix what is broken in our lives.
Last week, Nick Slatten of Sparta, Tennessee stopped at the grocery store while on his way home from a hard day of laying tile.
While there, he bought a lottery ticket and dreamed of what a win could mean to him.
You can imagine his excitement when he saw that he had the winning number of the $1.1-million lotto.
He put the ticket in his pocket to run some errands, but when he reached into his pocket to show it to his fiancée it was gone.
Somewhere between the grocery store, the auto parts store, and other stops he’d made, it had slipped out of his pocket.
We need to be careful about what we think will save us – they can be gone in a flash.
People invest millions of dollars every day on lotto tickets, but their chances of winning anything significant are minuscule.
You can breathe now because I’m happy to report that after a frantic search Nick Slatten did find his winning ticket in one of the parking lots where he’d run his errands.
Someone calculated that for a recent Mega Lotto, your chances of winning are 260 times less than that you’ll be struck by lightning next year.
But despite how unlikely it is that we’d win, millions of us stand in lines to throw money away on a dream of how the mega-millions could fix our broken life.
That also is why we keep changing jobs, changing relationships, and maxing out our credit cards in search of the next thing that promises to fix us.
That is why those along the road to Jerusalem began to shout, “Hosanna! Redeem us! Save us!”
But as we already know, they assumed they’d found a warrior king to save them.
Jesus had sent his two disciples to a village to borrow the colt with the instructions, (11:3) If anyone asks, “Why are you doing this?” just say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”
The hope the true Savior brings is carried on the back of what you loan him.
The owner of the colt could have said, “No, this is my colt; go get your own.”
That would have fundamentally changed the salvation story.
Without the borrowed colt, Jesus could not have fulfilled Zechariah’s prophesy.
Without the borrowed colt, Jesus could not have made his triumphal entry that has been recounted for 2,000 years.
Without the borrowed colt, Jesus could not have made clear that he was establishing his kingship.
You have to wonder what the owner of that colt thought after Jesus returned it.
Each time he looked at it, he would recall the day when Jesus used it to bring salvation to Jerusalem.
What was once just a regular donkey had become the means by which salvation arrived.
It is no different today.
Jesus doesn’t just invade your own little Jerusalem.
His redemption arrives on the colt you entrust to him.
That may be your money, or your talents, or your time.
That may be your hurts, your habits, or your hang-ups.
Without letting him use what you are holding, Jesus cannot get into your life.
Every time I have given something to Jesus, he has changed it and given far more back to me.
Now I can look back and see that incidents of shame, resentments, and reminders of my inadequacies have come back to me as milestones of growth because of what God did with them once I handed them over to Him.
When I give him money, I always end up with more than I had before I gave some away.
When I give time and energy to His mission, I always feel more fulfilled and energized than before I made the sacrifice.
When I give prayer for others, I always feel more peace and assurance than before I began.
It’s a strange economy: Jesus multiplies our gifts.
So, the gospel writer Mark was investing his very limited words to be sure we see that we cannot simply wait for the Savior to barge-in and magically fix us.
We have to let go of some of the things we are holding onto so tightly.
Your work, your talents, your time, your pain, your disappointments, your regrets – all of these can be the means of redemption when put in the hands of Jesus.
That is how redemption arrives – on the back of what you are now holding.
So, the question for Palm Sunday is: What have you been holding tightly – maybe secretly – and what would happen if you let go and let Jesus use it?
Sermon #2 Mark 11:12-21
Sin roots itself in our institutions and in our lives ever so subtly.
It might grow so gradually that we barely notice that our life has become unbalanced or corrupted.
And so it was at the Jerusalem Temple.
At the time Jesus entered Jerusalem, the Temple was one of the most magnificent structures in all the Middle East, its splendor rivaling anything found in Greece, Rome, or Egypt.
Its supporting platform was nearly five football fields long and made from precisely-cut stones some of which weighed 100-tons.
The Temple stood on the site of Solomon’s original temple which was built on the peak of Mount Mariah where Abraham had prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.
So, the Temple was the center of Israel’s history and hope, as well as the center of its religious life, to which every Jew was expected to travel to offer a sacrifice.
Its size and grandeur, its bright limestone glistening in the sun, the constant aroma of sacrificed meat, the crowds speaking so many languages … it must have been a breathtaking experience.
How could one not feel the presence of the mighty God of Israel?
If you entered from the north, you would walk up a massively wide set of stairs and onto an expansive outer court known as the Court of the Gentiles.
This was designed as a place where even non-Jews could behold the glories of the Temple and offer sacrifices to the Lord.
Tour guides would greet you and offer to show you around.
This outer court also did a thriving business with vendors offering various animals you could take to the priests as your sacrifice, and with moneychangers who would exchange your Roman coins for Temple coins appropriate for offering within the holy grounds.
So, you see, the vendors and moneychangers offered a legitimate and necessary function for worship at the Temple.
So, what sparked Jesus’ angry outburst in the Court of the Gentiles?
Well, first we need to step back and see how this narrative is framed – within Jesus’ encounter with the fig tree.
It was the morning after Jesus’ celebrated entry into Jerusalem and before he entered the Temple, that he spotted the fig tree.
In the tradition of the prophets, Jesus was about to act-out a lesson about the spiritual condition of Israel – a kind of living parable.
Jesus was not literally angry with this particular fig tree.
Everyone understood that while the tree was covered with leaves, it was not the season for figs.
But throughout the Old Testament, the fig tree was used by the prophets as a symbol of Israel.
A fruitful tree became a sign of blessing and obedience, while a tree without fruit was a sign of Israel’s spiritual bankruptcy and corruption.
The fig tree Jesus approached had many leaves (an apparent sign of vitality), but had no fruit (meaning there was no substance).
So here was the massive Temple built to the glory of God, the elaborate priesthood and billows of smoke from the continuous sacrifices – but there was no sign of true righteousness.
Jesus was speaking as a prophet by acting out a parable to drive home the fact that there was no true righteousness in the land.
And the parable is concluded with the withered tree, a sign that Jerusalem and its Temple would soon come under the judgment of God – this given as the explanation of why Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple and again underscoring his role as God’s agent.
But wait a minute.
Was Jesus condemning the business of selling doves and sheep for sacrifice?
Was Jesus condemning those who made a business of exchanging Roman coins for Temple coins?
But Jesus was outraged at how it had all gotten out of balance, how what had once been a beneficial practice had morphed into sin.
So many of our sins start out innocuous, even helpful.
But over time they grow until one day we find ourselves deep in the muck.
The thing is, that while the vendors in the outer court served a useful function, they had not been part of the original plan for the Temple.
There were already four marketplaces on the slopes of the Mount of Olives where pilgrims could purchase doves and other objects for sacrifice in the Temple during a pilgrimage.
But hey, since they were so successful, why not expand?
What’s wrong with offering more customer convenience?
What’s wrong with picking up some impulse sales?
As a matter of fact, why not put the expanded business directly under the control of the priests, right there on the Temple grounds?
Slowly but surely the spacious Court of the Gentiles transformed from a place of grandeur and worship into a bazaar and cattle mart.
Jesus saw that this had evolved into nothing short of blasphemy because business had displaced worship as the priority.
Whatever you put first in your life becomes the lord of your life.
All three synoptic gospels describe Jesus driving out these merchants from the temple with as much force as he could muster, and referencing Isaiah 56:7 “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
We don’t have to go to a temple to step onto holy ground.
Every moment of life is holy, a blessing from God.
Every relationship we have is with someone who also is a blessing from God, sharing this holy time and holy space with us.
What if we hold a mirror up to our life, to our relationships, to our private moments, to our thoughts … where might we see that we have begun to stray, to allow something once holy to get out of balance?
Where might we find the early stages of some sin rooting itself into our life?
My invitation for this Palm Sunday is that we face such places before they become so deep-seated and familiar to us that we don’t even recognize their harm anymore … and that we confess them so that along with the Grace of Jesus we can change those ways.