Sunday, March 24, 2004
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 & Mark 11:1-11
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

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Today marks the beginning of Holy Week. The most important week of the Church Calendar. As many of you know I didn’t grow up in the church so I learned about what Holy Week is later in life. When I attended Princeton Seminary I realized that many of my classmates, although they had grown up in the church, didn’t have a clear understanding of Holy Week either. For them, it was a week when their families would attend extra worship services with even more beautiful music that led up to Easter. And yes it is all of the above, but to know why we have extra worship services and special music makes those worship services even more special. I’d like to take a moment to reflect on why this week is so special and why it is holy.

The beginning of Holy Week is today, Palm Sunday, when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to much fanfare. It’s known as Jesus’ “Triumphal entry.” When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, it was almost the Jewish holiday of Passover when Israel remembered how God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. Many faithful Jews far and near traveled to Jerusalem by this point so Jerusalem’s population had doubled in size, like it does in Grand Haven during Coast Guard. There’s already excitement in the air of the city.

Adding to this, people gathered to welcome Jesus with waving palms and shouts of joy. On Maundy Thursday a few important things happen. Jesus shares the Passover meal which is to be his last meal (or last supper) with the disciples, but it’s at that meal he introduces the sacrament that we know today as Communion. On this night he also washes the feet of the disciples to show that while he is the king, he came to humbly serve his people. Maundy Thursday is also when he is betrayed by Judas and handed over to the authorities. 

Good Friday is when Jesus is tried, found guilty, crucified, and dies. Why we call such a day “good” is because while we remember Jesus’ painful and violent death for us and our salvation, it foreshadows what is to come, which is of course Easter – when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. 

But let’s get back to Palm Sunday. There was a lot of love for Jesus the day he arrived in Jerusalem. But as Michael Battle pointed out in the quote on your bulletin: “The Gospel of Mark describes the infatuation that many people had with Jesus–as if he was a rockstar. The problem was not the lack of love for Jesus. The problem was that it was the superficial kind.” 

I think we’ve all been there. We get so excited about a person we’re infatuated with, whether it’s a romantic infatuation or a charismatic politician who we believe will save our country. We imagine how great it would be to be in a relationship with that crush or how much better life will be once that politician is in office. We then become so certain that our expectations will become reality. 

I met Jared Jameson when I toured Princeton Seminary as a prospective student. Not his real name by the way. The friends I visited at Princeton introduced me to Jared and I was smitten. Jared was tall, dark, and handsome and he was in a Christian band. After my visit, we kept in touch via email (this was before social media existed and before texting), but the fact that we were even emailing one another I interpreted as Jared being just as smitten with me. When I moved to Princeton I was so excited to reconnect with him. When we finally reconnected, however, I quickly realized that he was much different than the Jared I had created in my mind. He wasn’t as charismatic as I imagined him to be. The connection that I had with him in my mind was much stronger than our connection in real life. Jared Jameson couldn’t compare with the Jared Jameson I created in my active imagination. It didn’t help that he quickly started dating someone else so there went my fairy tale. 

It was one of many instances in my life where I found myself in love with love rather than a real person. 

The crowd who welcomed Jesus in Jerusalem that day were more in love with the idea of Jesus. In the preceding passage, Jesus heals a blind man named Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus called Jesus “the Son of David,“ a reference from the Old Testament about the future Messiah. By calling him that, Bartimaeus showed that he believed Jesus to be the Messiah. The healing of Bartimaeus was one of many miracles Jesus did and was part of the reason why Jesus gained a big following. 

Those drawn to Jesus were enamored with Jesus’s powers, teachings, compassion, and kindness. Naturally, they expected big things from Jesus when he finally arrived in Jerusalem. Jesus would take the throne of the Roman Emperor who wrongly proclaimed himself a god. Jesus would take over the Temple, their holy place of worship, where faithful Jews from near and far would make a faithful pilgrimage every year. 

With his arrival in Jerusalem, they hoped Jesus would bring about a new age of God’s peace, power, and justice. Oppression such as unjust taxes and Jews being treated like second-class citizens would come to an end. Israel could reclaim their land and the holy city of Jerusalem would be theirs again instead of just a part of the Roman Empire. Israel would again have their freedom and autonomy. They were not wrong to want these things. God wanted to restore freedom to Israel and God was indeed going to make that happen through Jesus, but not in the way they expected.

First off, Jesus chooses to enter Jerusalem on a donkey. Normally a big procession into any Roman city was a big show of victory and power. When Titus reconquered Jerusalem for Rome, his procession comprised of troops marching through with loot they had taken from the Temple, which they destroyed. This image of Titus’s triumphant parade shows just that. The Arch of Titus still stands in Rome. We see how Titus wanted the rest of Rome to view him. In this particular place on the arch, we see the goddess of Rome leading Titus, who is on a chariot pulled by not one, but four magnificent horses. Titus was portrayed as having the gods on his side.

Jesus instead chooses to ride in on a donkey. A much less impressive creature than a war horse. Jesus’ arrival is like waiting for a much-anticipated date to pick you up, but instead of showing up in a souped-up Jeep they show up in an old minivan. I imagine the crowd who were so excited to see Jesus say to each other: “Well the donkey is a nice touch, Jesus, it’s cute, and we’ll let that slide. But surely we’ll see his real power when he gets to the Temple.” In the meantime, they lay down cloaks before Jesus on the donkey and wave palm branches to welcome his arrival.

When Jesus gets to the temple, however, it’s anticlimactic. Jesus simply looks around in the Temple. He doesn’t give a rousing sermon or perform miracles like healing Bartimaeus’s blindness in the passage before. Jesus does a quick look over and then leaves to go back to Bethany. The crowd also seems to quietly disperse.

It’s safe to say that the crowd was disappointed at what was supposed to be Jesus’s “triumphant entry” into Jerusalem. But while they had quietly dispersed they didn’t give up on Jesus just yet. It’s only when Jesus allows himself to be arrested and eventually killed that the crowd, including the disciples, abandon Jesus. They leave Jesus because, from their point of view, Jesus was a huge disappointment.

How could Jesus, who healed the blind, drove out demons, and spoke about God with wise authority allow himself to be so easily arrested? He could’ve wiped out the Roman soldiers who came for him with a simple snap of his fingers. Jesus’ followers thought they were supporting an all-powerful Messiah. They thought they were following a winner, not a loser who was all too easily defeated by the Roman Emperor’s henchmen. They wanted the Messiah to exercise power, not peace. They wanted Jesus to execute revenge instead of relationships. Especially relationships with those who Israel saw as enemies or outsiders. We see this time and time again in the choices of company Jesus chose to keep and even in his last moments when he engaged in gracious yet philosophical conversation with Pontius Pilate regarding truth.

But we’re not that much different from the crowd. We too tend to worship Jesus of our minds rather than Jesus himself. We want Jesus to be Lord only if he works according to our agenda. We tend to be more in love with our idea of Jesus rather than Jesus himself. Essentially, we tend to make God in our image. 

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Priest, author, and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation wrote: “Your image of God creates you—or defeats you. There is an absolute connection between how we see God and how we see ourselves and the universe. The word “God” is a stand-in word for everything—Reality, truth, and the very shape of our universe. This is why good theology and spirituality can make such a major difference in how we live our daily lives in this world.”

When we’ve made Jesus in our image we’ve made Jesus too small. God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is much bigger than our ideas about God’s love. When life happens in a way we didn’t plan or expect we tend to conclude wrongly that God has turned away from us because God didn’t do what we think God should’ve done for us. We want a God we can control. A Jesus who does our bidding. A God who is predictable and a God who we completely understand. 

That isn’t the God of the Bible. That’s not how Jesus related to others. God has made it clear that God loves us, but that isn’t synonymous with life working out perfectly and us receiving everything our hearts desire. Because sometimes what we desire isn’t what we actually need. At the end of Matthew, Jesus, in what is called the Great Commission, said to the disciples before he ascends to heaven: “I will always be with you” not “I promise your life will be free of disappointments and challenges.” What we do know is that Jesus is with us in the midst of the disappointments and challenges of life.

We know this because Jesus remained committed to the crowd even when the crowd left him. Eventually, everyone would leave Jesus. Even the disciples, his closest friends and followers. Jesus could’ve thrown in the towel the moment the crowd dispersed at the Temple. Seeing their lack of faith and trust in him he could have easily said: “They don’t understand or realize what I’ve done and what I’m about to do for them. So I’m not going any further into Jerusalem and leaving the cross behind.” That’s something anyone else would do, but Jesus isn’t just anybody.

When we allow Jesus to be who he is and not who we want him to be we come to understand just how vast and powerful God’s love is for us. God’s love for us is seen in the unlikely ways Jesus chose to live and die. Jesus’s actions went against human understanding and plain common sense. Especially his decision to basically put himself in arms reach of those who would eventually arrest and execute him. 

His death and resurrection were not just for those who believed, but for those who did not. God’s love through Jesus Christ is available to all. But it’s up to us to receive it, as God never forces us to follow him. Jesus could have forced Rome to make him the Emperor, but then God would not have accomplished what God wanted to accomplish. And what God wanted to accomplish could only be done at the cross. For God’s ways are not our ways. And the more we get to know the true Jesus of scripture we are more comforted and encouraged that Jesus does not act according to our agendas or understanding. We come to embrace all that we don’t understand about God, but at the same time we come to better understand God’s love for us. 

In premarital counseling, I tell couples to expect their first year of marriage to be rocky. That’s because reality sets in and the honeymoon is over. Your ideas about what it will be to actually live with your partner will be destroyed once you realize how loud your partner breathes, chews and how many piles of their stuff they tend to leave around. The key to getting through that first year is to be honest. Honest about how their quirks might affect you, but also be open about how your quirks may affect them. Through honest conversations done well, couples learn how to be better listeners and partners for one another. They get to know each other better. You realize that when one’s partner is annoyed by dirty dishes in the sink in the morning it’s not just about the dirty dishes. It’s about that partner wanting to not feel pressured to do the dishes before they head out the door to start their day. It’s also about learning how to compromise. Maybe it means taking turns doing dishes at night or simply understanding that maybe your partner who left the dirty dishes in the sink had a stressful night and forgot about them. Through such conversations a couple gets to know each other better. They learn what their partner needs, what’s important to them, and how they feel best-loved. Through that process, they learn to better trust one another because there is a deeper understanding of what the other person needs and how they can help meet that need. 

The more we are in scripture reading about what Jesus said and did and reasons behind his words and actions we, with the help of the Holy Spirit, know Jesus better. And when that happens, we are less likely to know Jesus for who he is not who we think he should be. Jesus becomes much bigger than our idea of him and we are able to trust him more deeply. We come to a place where we realize that while we can’t fully know Jesus with our finite human mind we can fully trust in his love and faithfulness for us.