This Week’s Sermon – A Long Way to Go

SCRIPTURE – Mark 1:1-11 – 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,

“Hosanna!
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10     Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 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.

SERMON
A Long Way to Go
Mark 11:1-11
March 29, 2015

One of my fondest memories growing up in the Louisville area was the Derby Festival. Now, if I were still serving in Chicago, I’d have to take about 10 minutes to explain what that is and why we made such a big deal over a two-minute horse race. But here in Lexington, I can just say “Derby Festival” and you all know what I’m talking about. My favorite event of that festival was the Pegasus Parade. My family would arrive downtown hours before the start time to make sure we got a good seat. We set up our camp along Broadway and I would look down the street, imagining what it would be like when I heard the first faint notes of the marching bands or saw the first flashes of color from the floats. I remember one year the Grand Marshal was William Shatner. I remember thinking, “Wow, William Shatner! Who’s that?” I can remember my little-kid excitement as I watched it pass by, and the disappointment I felt when the last of the trailing police cars left and we packed up our lawn chairs and headed back to the car.

What we have in our Mark passage today is a parade. There aren’t any marching bands, but there is singing and shouts from the crowd. There may not be any beautiful floats, but we have laid-out coats and palm branches. And, of course, we have a grand marshal, somewhat of a celebrity of his time, riding not in a convertible but on a donkey.

This story is overflowing with symbolism and meaning that would have been apparent to the first-hand onlookers but might slip by those of us witnessing this parade from 2000 years of distance. For example the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah are invoked when Jesus requests a colt, a young donkey, be brought to him. The prophet Zechariah says, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus’ entry into David’s royal city in this manner sends the message that the successor of David has arrived, the long-awaited king is leading this parade.

Riding on a donkey carried even further significance for the statement being made here by Jesus. Our image of a donkey may be Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh or some lowly beast of burden, but donkeys once carried a special meaning. In those days, kings rode horses in times of war; in times of peace, they rode donkeys. Obviously, Luke is making a statement about the nature of Jesus’ kingship and if the people had been paying attention, they would have sensed that this king is going to be different than the one they are expecting.

But no one is thinking about this on Palm Sunday. No one is even questioning that Jesus will vanquish the Romans and free the Jews from their oppression. Of course he will! Have you see what this guy has done? He’s healed lepers, made the blind see, made the lame walk. He’s even gone so far as to forgive sins and confront the Pharisees. This is the kind of messiah we’ve been waiting for, and we know he’s really going to give it to those Romans. How ironic that the crowd is shouting the equivalent of “Long live the king!” when you consider what this week will bring.

So Jesus gets the red-carpet treatment as he makes his way into Jerusalem. No crown of thorns or angry mobs or frightened followers. Just Jesus on a cuddly donkey, cheered by the crowd on a sunny day. There were probably butterflies floating around, maybe a rainbow in the sky, even a bluebird on his shoulder singing a happy tune.

Have you ever had a day like that? Those are good days, aren’t they! Days when your knees don’t creak when you get out of bed, the coffee tastes just right, gas has dropped a few cents a gallon and you catch all the green lights. Days when people have nothing to offer but compliments, well-wishes, and likes on your Facebook page. Days when we feel like we’ve got this all figured out.

Those days don’t happen enough, do they? Ask anyone who’s enjoyed a taste of fame or prestige or even a run of good luck and they will all tell you it is fleeting. Good times don’t last forever, nor do the good things people say about us. In the span of one week Jesus will move from famous to infamous, from the red carpet to the cross, and our lives can turn that quickly, as well. Days that started out healthy and ended with a bad diagnosis. Days where we started with a job and ended unemployed. Days that started filled with love but ended filled with grief. We all have had those days.

And when life takes that turn, we wonder why. What did we do to deserve this? What happened to the good times? Why is my parade being rained on? In my last church there was an 82-year-old man named Tom. I got a called one day that Tom was in the hospital, so I went to visit him. While we talked I learned that this was the first time in 82 years that Tom had been hospitalized. What a good life! I said to Tom, “I can’t believe this is the first time you’ve been hospitalized.” He said with a sigh, “I know, I’m stunned, too. I knew this would happen someday, I just didn’t think it would happen this soon!”

While I can relate to Tom’s disillusionment, I have to wonder why we think that way sometimes. I can’t ever remember being promised life would be good or easy or pain-free, but at some point I came to expect that, so bad times were the exception to the rule. And when they would come, I would say to God, “What happened to my red carpet? Where are the cheering crowds? Things were going so good. I liked life that way. Why me?”

Well, why not me? Jesus says in John’s gospel, “In this world you will have trouble.” Not, “You may have trouble” or “Every once in a while, something not so good could happen.” He says, “You will have trouble.” The truth we learn from scripture and from Jesus’ triumphal entry is that in this life good times are to be savored because they are fleeting. We have this dream that we’d like to live a perfectly normal life, but can any of us even say what a perfectly normal life looks like? None of our lives are perfect or normal and that shouldn’t surprise us. The followers of Jesus were surprised when he didn’t turn out to be the king they wanted them to be. Their cries of “Long live the king!” quickly turned to “Crucify him!” and the crown they were ready to place on his head became a crown of thorns.

How do we react when our red carpets get pulled out from under us? How do we react when God doesn’t deliver the high life we asked for? Do we accept Jesus as the kind of Savior he presents himself to be or do we get angry because he doesn’t make things the way we think they should be? It’s easy to grin when we are at the front of the parade. It’s easy to praise God when life is good and all our fears seem small and manageable. But can we still praise God when the cheering crowd turns to an angry mob? Can we still shout “Hosanna” when pain or grief or fear of the future threatens to overwhelm us? Can we still speak Jesus’ name when it would be easier or safer or more prudent to just stay quiet? Sometimes life can turn from good to bad to worse in such a devastating way that our faith is called into question and we’re not so sure God is on our side anymore.

If you’ve felt that way, or if you feel that way, let me finish Jesus’ quote in John: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” If we have the courage to speak Jesus’ name, even in the midst of our most difficult times, we are testifying to the power of God in our lives. If we only have good days, we’ll never be able to tell how God saw us through the bad times, we’ll never be able to bear witness to others about how Jesus walked through our dark valley with us.

One of the things that you almost miss in this parade story is the very last verse: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple.” Jesus has just come from this mountain-top moment where he’s been cheered and adored by the crowd. And he knows in a few days that same crowd will call for his death. So where does he go in between? He goes to church. He goes to the one place where he knows he is accepted for who he is, not who people think he should be. He anchors himself in his identity as God’s son, which gives him the grounding to handle all the shouts of “Hosanna” and “Crucify him!” that he’ll hear this week.

My dogs love me. They think I’m great. I know this because every time I come home, they get so excited. I could rob three liquor stores and run a few stop signs and they would greet me the same way. But here’s the thing: We’re never as good as our dogs think we are, and we’re never as bad as our enemies think we are. If we’re not careful, we’ll let the voices of others drown out the voice of God and we’ll start thinking too much or too little of ourselves. We’ll start feeling like someone should throw us a parade, or like someone is trying to crucify us. But what God’s voice reminds us is that we are who we were created to be, no more and no less. Even when we stray from that fact, it doesn’t mean it stops being true.

After a week full of love and hate, after a week full of exultations and inquisitions, after a week full of kudos and criticisms, we come to church, because church is the place where we can re-ground ourselves in God’s love and forgiveness, and be reminded that God walks with us every step of our journey, whether on the parade route or into the fiery furnace. God is there.

The Palm Sunday crowd thought they knew who Jesus was. But he was so much more than that. If we are willing to walk with him through his arrest, his trial, his betrayal, his crucifixion, we testify to our belief that he walks with us through our own trials and betrayals. But in order to claim that power in our lives, we can’t just pack up our lawn chairs and go home as soon as the parade is finished.

Palm Sunday is not the end of the story. And it doesn’t end on Maundy Thursday. And it doesn’t even end on Good Friday. If we accept Jesus as a humble and lowly king who doesn’t rescue us from trouble but who walks with us through it, then we’ve got another surprise waiting for us. Stick with him, worship with us on Maundy Thursday, spend time in prayer on Good Friday, stagger with Jesus to Golgotha, let your heart be sealed up in that dark tomb. Then be sure to come back next Sunday, when the real parade begins. There may not be palm branches or Hosannas, but there’s going to be one divine Grand Marshal. Thanks be to God.

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