Text: Mark 11:1-11
Note: This sermon was delivered on April 5, 2009 at the Cape Elizabeth Church of the Nazarene.
You can listen to the sermon podcast here:
I know that this is the season of Lent and not Christmas or Epiphany, but I want to start with Matthew chapter 2: the story of the Wise Men traveling from afar, following a star, in order to find Jesus.
Have you ever thought about the conversations those Wise Men must have had as they approached Jerusalem? Have you ever wondered why they went to Jerusalem in the first place? After all, Bethlehem is six miles to the southwest of Jerusalem. And yet, they went to Jerusalem to stop and ask for directions. This star had been guiding them so far… and we learn later on in the text that when they resume their travels, they were overjoyed to see the star again… and that the star led them directly to the place where Jesus was.
Why, then, did they stop in Jerusalem? The text doesn’t say anything about the star leading them to Jerusalem. The implication is that when they started heading toward Jerusalem, they lost track of the star, and didn’t see it again until after their encounter with Herod—why else would they be overjoyed when they saw the star again?
So why did they stop in Jerusalem? How do you imagine their conversation as they traveled? “We’ve been following this star for two years now… we must be close!” “Look, the great city of Jerusalem… that must be where we’re supposed to go!” “But the star is heading off to the south… we should go that way.” “But look at Jerusalem! Look at the great city! Herod lives there! I’ve heard he has a great and beautiful palace in Jerusalem… and owns 11 different fortresses scattered throughout the countryside. Surely, this star must be leading us to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem… where else would a king be born?” “Maybe the star is done leading us… look, it’s heading off toward that small village. There’s no way a king would be born there among all that poverty. Not when there’s so much wealth and power right here in Jerusalem.”
I don’t know how it went down – maybe they took a vote. If there were three of them, maybe it was two against one. Maybe the oldest Wise Man got to make the decision. We don’t know for sure, but the text certainly suggests that even though the star was leading them toward Bethlehem, the Wise Men made the conscious decision to head into the city of Jerusalem, to seek an audience with King Herod.
We know the rest of the story—Herod consults the priests and the teachers of the law, and they suggest that the Wise Men go to Bethlehem. The Wise Men leave Jerusalem, and as they do, the star appears again. They are overjoyed upon seeing the star, and they follow it all the way to find this baby; a baby who was born in the humblest of all circumstances, to a family that was probably quite poor. I don’t know what they thought. I don’t know what went through their minds, or what they said to each other. But they came to see Jesus, and they laid their rich gifts before Him.
Those Wise Men almost missed out on seeing the Christ Child because they were distracted by wealth and power. They almost didn’t find this baby, because they stopped following the star, and began following their own instincts. They stopped trusting in the divine guidance they had been receiving, and instead trusted their senses. They saw Jerusalem. They knew of the wealth and power that Herod held. They assumed that this king they were seeking must be from the kingdom of this world. They believed that he must be a king of great wealth and power—why else would there be a star announcing his arrival. The Wise Men almost missed the kingdom of God, because they were seeking after the kingdoms of this world.
Jesus’ birth demonstrates that He was going to be a different sort of a king, with a different sort of a kingdom. The story about the Wise Men serves to highlight the differences between Jesus and Herod. Herod’s kingdom was built on wealth, power, and oppression. Jesus’ kingdom was built on poverty, humility, and affliction. And Matthew chapter 2 implies that we face a choice in our lives: do we go chasing after the Herods of our world? Or do we follow Jesus? Do we seek wealth and power? Or do we seek poverty and humility? Do we fashion our lives according to the kingdoms of this world? Or the kingdom of Heaven?
Fast-forward with me now about 30-to-35 years. Again, we are in the city of Jerusalem, but this time, we are not watching the Wise Men as they argue about which way to go. Instead, we observe Pontius Pilate make his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
No… no… I didn’t misspeak there. I’m not up to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem yet. We’re going to talk first about another parade that would have happened, probably within that same week of Jesus’ entry—maybe even the same day. This would have been Pontius Pilate’s entrance into Jerusalem. And make no mistake – this would have been quite a production!
You see, Pilate didn’t live in Jerusalem. Pilate was a Roman Prefect, responsible for all of Judea, and would have lived in Caesarea-By-the-Sea, about 70 miles northwest of Jerusalem. While Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great) had some influence and power among the Jews, he was really just a puppet king. Rome held all the real power. And the face of Rome in the province of Judea was Pontius Pilate.
Pilate lived in Caesarea, where the majority of the Roman military force was headquartered and garrisoned. But Pilate would make a point to be in Jerusalem whenever there was a major festival. Oh… not so that he could worship… but so he could remind the Jews who was really in charge. He came to “check up on them.” He came to put on a show… a display of power and authority. He came to remind them that all of their little festivals and holidays were allowed only by his good graces… and that if anyone stepped too far out of line, he would call down the legions of Roman forces upon them to squash any hint of revolt or rebellion.
We don’t know exactly when it happened. But we know that Pilate was in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. And so whether it was the same day, or just sometime earlier in the week… we know that Jerusalem had seen the power of Rome displayed in an Imperial procession.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe the procession this way:
Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.
Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. It began with the greatest of the emperors, Augustus, who ruled Rome from 31 BCE to 14 CE. … Inscriptions refer to him as “son of God,” “lord” and “savior,” one who had brought “peace on earth.” … His successors continued to bear divine titles, including Tiberius, emperor from 14 to 37 CE and thus emperor during the time of Jesus’s public activity. For Rome’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession embodied not only a rival social order, but also a rival theology.
Suddenly, the Palm Sunday story that we know so well becomes so much more than simply a funny parade with palm branches and a donkey. It becomes a “counter-procession,” or maybe even a public demonstration. You might even say that it is a parody of the Imperial Procession, with Jesus providing a stark contrast, illustrating once again the differences between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of Heaven.
Read Mark 11: 1-11.
One procession comes from the west—Caesarea By-the-Sea. The other from the east—the Mount of Olives. Pilate rides on a war horse. Jesus rides on a donkey. Pilate is surrounded by soldiers carrying spears and shields. Jesus is surrounded by disciples and women and children, carrying palm branches and coats. Pilate is greeted with trumpet blasts and all are reminded that he comes in the name of Caesar. Jesus is greeted with simple songs, reminding us that he comes in the Name of the Lord.
And so, we realize that the Palm Sunday narrative provides us with a choice. Which ruler do you follow? Do you follow the one who commands legions of soldiers? The one with the grand display of power and authority? The one who comes in the name of the powers and principalities of this world? Or do you follow the One who comes on a donkey, lowly and humble? Do you follow the one who comes in peace? The One who comes, not to liberate us from Rome, but to set us free from the power of sin and corruption? The One who comes, not in the name of Caesar, but in the Name of the Living God—and shows us the way to live in the kingdom of God? Which procession are you part of? Which crowd do you cheer with?
Now fast forward just a few days to the day of the crucifixion. Jesus has been arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin. He’s been taken to Pilate who wanted nothing to do with him and sent him to Herod. Herod sent him back to Pilate, who tried to get out of this by invoking a yearly tradition of releasing one prisoner during the Passover. As you know, the people cry for the release of Barabbas, and demand the execution of Jesus.
We often have an image of Barabbas as a crazed serial killer, and we can’t understand why the people would want Barabbas released. And while Barabbas was a murderer, this is what Luke has to tell us about Barabbas in Luke 23:19: “(Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)” Matthew calls him a “well-known prisoner,” (27:16) and John tells us that he had participated in an uprising (18:40). And so, our best picture of Barabbas is not that of a serial killer or a psychopath. Most likely, Barabbas was a Zealot… a Freedom Fighter who was involved in organizing other Zealots in a revolt to overthrow the Roman Empire’s control of Judea.
Suddenly, the choice before the people on that crucifixion day takes on new meaning for us. They were not simply being given the choice between a likeable Rabbi and a crazed murderer. They were being given the same choice that was presented to the Magi. The same choice that was presented to the people in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The choice was this: Which kingdom do you want to be a part of? Which battle plan are you choosing to follow? Are you going to pick up your weapons and fight? Are you going to go after the power, wealth, and corruption of this world? Or are you going to adopt the pattern set forth by Jesus?
We know which path was chosen that day. And we know that the subsequent revolts against the Roman Empire led to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, and the slaughter of countless Jews.
I want to suggest to you that Jesus’ entire life showed us a picture of the kingdom of God. Jesus showed us a battle plan that was diametrically opposed to the battle plans of this world. In His birth, His entry into Jerusalem, and His crucifixion, Jesus showed us a picture of the kingdom of God that stands in stark contrast to the kingdoms of death and destruction, of power and corruption, of wealth and influence. In other words, the kingdom of Heaven is nothing like the kingdoms of this world.
For when we are wronged, we pick up our weapons. We gather our soldiers together. We exaggerate the hurt to others. We gather people who are on our side, and we march out after the one who wronged us. We attack them with our words and with our actions. When we are struck, we strike back. And sometimes we even preemptively strike, in hopes that we won’t get hurt.
Our global culture is full of systems that are built upon power, wealth, and oppression. Political empires are built through scandals and manipulation of the media. Financial kingdoms are expanded through purchasing political influence. Corporations often grow through the systematic oppression of people. Empires are built upon the control of resources, keeping people in bondage to others. And we find ourselves in bondage—to debt, to our employers, to our neighbors, to habits, to the very systems of corruption that drive most of the world.
But Jesus paints a different picture—He teaches that when we are struck, we should turn the other cheek. He tells us not to hold a grudge, but to forgive 77 times. We’re told to go the extra mile, to give up the shirt on our back, and to live at peace with all men. He blesses the poor, the meek, and the afflicted. He calls us not only to love our neighbor, but to love our enemy as well. And as we look at Jesus’ life and at His teaching, we see a portrait of the kingdom of God that stands in stark contrast to the kingdoms of this world.
When Matthew tells us about the entrance of Jesus, he mentions a prophecy found in Zechariah chapter 9:
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
The word “lowly” in verse 9 (“your king comes…, lowly and riding on a donkey”) is the Hebrew word “ani.” While this word can be translated as “lowly,” “gentle” or “humble,” it has two other meanings that we should mention today. One of those meanings is “poor,” and one of them is “afflicted.” English speakers tend to look at that one Hebrew word and wonder which meaning should be the correct translation. But a Hebrew speaker would read that passage and hear all three meanings at once: poor, lowly, and afflicted.
Jesus, born into poor circumstances, shows us that the kingdom of God is not about wealth, or about owning property or resources. Jesus shows us that His kingdom is not like the kingdom of Herod. To follow Jesus means that we don’t chase after the kings and rulers of this world who build their empires on wealth, but that we follow God’s star until we find the baby in the manger. “See, your king comes to you, poor and riding on a donkey.”
Jesus intentionally chooses to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, humble and gentle. And in doing so, he shows us that his kingdom is not like the kingdom of Pilate, who comes on a warhorse with soldiers, spears and shields. To follow Jesus means that we are to be meek and humble, forgiving others, believing the best of others, and loving even our enemies. “See, your king comes to you, lowly and riding on a donkey.”
And Jesus becomes the afflicted king when he goes to the cross. Even as the people of Jerusalem chose the way of Barabbas, Jesus continued to choose the way of the cross. He became the suffering Messiah. He forsook all wealth and power, and instead was obedient to the Father, even to death on the cross. “See, your king comes to you, afflicted and riding on a donkey.”
So perhaps we should no longer call this “The Triumphal Entry,” but we should call it “The Poor, Lowly, and Afflicted Entry.” For Jesus shows us the model of what the kingdom of God really is, and how it is different from the kingdoms of this world.
As we conclude our journey through Lent, the choice before us is the same choice faced by the Wise Men… it’s the same choice faced by those who gathered at the parades in Jerusalem… and it’s the same choice that Pilate gave the crowds on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion… Which king will you follow? Which kingdom do you swear allegiance to? Which model will you pattern your life after?
It’s a choice you face every morning when you get up. You have opportunities to celebrate the kingdoms of this world or the kingdom of God. We face those decisions when we go to work, when we spend our money, when we participate in our communities. That choice influences the words we choose, the way we cast our votes at the ballot box, and the way we care for our families. That choice even dictates the way we respond to our enemies. Which king will you follow? Which kingdom do you swear allegiance to? Which model will you pattern your life after?