Mark 11:1-11 : The Triumphal Entry

This sermon was preached at a service of Holy Communion at St. Paul’s Church in Spennymoor on Sunday 25th March 2018.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Triumphal Entry; The story of Palm Sunday, is probably one of the most familiar ones for Christians. Jesus, the wandering miracle worker from Galilee rides on the back of a colt into the city of Jerusalem marking, as we now know, the start of his final week before his death upon the cross. For us, it marks the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent before Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when we celebrate his resurrection. It can be easy for us to let the days run away with themselves, to get swept up and skip over the happy celebrations of Palm Sunday as we reflect on the last supper and the dramatic events of next weekend. Yet I’d like to encourage us to slow down, to look around and reflect on a couple of elements in this scene.

We join Jesus and the disciples as they are walking towards Jerusalem. It’s a pretty significant walk. Unless you’ve been to Israel it can be pretty hard to form a mental map of the distances that Jesus and the Disciples walked. Since Chapter 8, with Peter’s Declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, Jesus and his Disciples have been walking from Caesarea Philippi towards Jerusalem.

To put this into perspective I spent some time looking on Maps and discovered that this would be the same as us walking here to Spennymoor… from Sheffield! Naturally, they’ve made several stops along the way, preaching, teaching and healing. But now, after a lot of walking, they’ve made it near to the Mount of Olives, about as far from Spennymoor as this side of Bishop Auckland. As they make their way towards us, Jesus sends two of his disciples ahead into a nearby village, which was likely in a similar position as Kirk Merrington (Newfield) is to us, to borrow a colt – a young horse or donkey. More specifically, one which had never been ridden before.
Some wonder about the arrangements for the colt – how did Jesus know that there would be one there? There’s two alternatives, either because it had already been arranged and that simply wasn’t included in the story, or it’s a prophetic act by the Son of God – the same one who fed the five thousand, healed the deaf, the blind and the lepers. Personally, I’m fine with either option because HOW the colt was acquired is far less interesting than the significance of the colt itself, because riding into Jerusalem on a colt would have had particular connotations for the Jews who were with Jesus.

We have to remember that Israel was under Roman occupation. Soldiers patrolled the cities and the roads. The Jews who lived there felt as though they were living under yet another foreign power, oppressing them and ruling the Holy Land which God himself had promised to Israel. They would have known the words of the Prophet Zechariah who, having said that the Lord would allow no oppressor to overrun them again, declares:

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.
10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
12 Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
On that day the Lord their God will save them,
for they are the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown
they shall shine on his land.
17 For what goodness and beauty are his!
Look, here comes Jesus humbly riding into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a donkey! I’m sure that Jesus was not the first man to ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, but he wasn’t just any man. John writes in his Gospel that after Jesus had fed the five thousand he had to hide from a crowd who not only believed that he was a prophet but wanted to take him by force and make him King! As we read Mark’s account of Jesus’s walk from Sheffield to Spennymoor – I mean, Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem – he starts with some disciples, and then crowds gathered wherever he was and by the time he was leaving Jericho, which would be roughly where Darlington is, he was accompanied by a large crowd.

A large crowd walking through occupied territory; territory that the Romans would defend zealously and violently if needs be. In Mark Chapter 10 we’re told that as they walked on the road to Jerusalem Jesus walked on ahead of them and people were both amazed and afraid.

We don’t have a lone traveller or merchant riding a donkey into town. We have this Jesus, this prophet journeying to Jerusalem with a large crowd in tow, who then gets on a colt and is riding into Jerusalem! More than this, he has specifically requested this colt. This is not a case of people mistakenly thinking it looks like Jesus is the king from Zechariah, this is an intentional act on Jesus’ part to not so subtly make a statement which would mean everything to the Jews watching yet which wouldn’t seem like much of a threat to the Romans.
“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.”

And when I say it would mean everything to the Jews? It meant everything!

They spread cloaks and leafy branches – the leafy branches represented by our palm crosses! – on the road while those who went ahead and those who followed shouted:

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!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

This should be a familiar phrase for those of us here, as we say it each time we prepare to receive Holy Communion. Having said that the Lord is here, that we lift up our hearts and that it is right to give thanks and praise to God the Priest invites us to say, with all the company of heaven,

Holy Holy Holy, Lord
God of Power and Might
Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory
Hosanna in the Highest
Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord
Hosanna in the Highest.

We say, ‘blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord’ because we remember Christ’s coming to Jerusalem, to the place where he offered himself once and for all as a sacrifice for our sins so that we might be forgiven and receive eternal life.

But why did the crowds say “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord”?

They shouted it because they knew the words of the prophet Zechariah and understood that by riding a colt Jesus was entering Jerusalem victoriously, triumphantly and because they also knew Psalm 118 – A Song of Victory. I won’t read the whole of it but here’s the highlights:

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!
Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
20 This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.[d]
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.

28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.

29 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever.

Jesus humbly rides on a donkey into Jerusalem and the crowds recognise the significance and sing and shout references to this song of Victory. This has become a festival, a celebratory event and that’s why they’re lining the streets with palm leaves, and not just the street but more specifically the path that leads to the temple, to the altar.

Jesus has been on his way and the crowds were amazed and afraid but now they sing and dance as he makes his way along that path to the temple.

It would be easy for us to skip on to the next part of the story, to move into Holy Week and on towards the Cross and resurrection. We know that that is coming, and we know that soon crowds of people celebrating will become crowds of people condemning him to death. But today is Palm Sunday, today is the day that we celebrate that Jesus has arrived at the temple. He has arrived in style…

and with a question.

We have imagined that Jesus’ journey was taking him from Sheffield to here. Where you sit and where we worship is the temple in Jerusalem.

Our passage ends with Jesus entering the temple and looking around at everything. Suppose that Jesus was to ride into Church on a donkey right now, and look at round at everything – what would he see as he sees all of us, meets with each of us?

Jesus arrives on a donkey as a symbolic way of declaring his identity as king.

Do we think that he is king? When we read scripture and when we listen to Matt and Lucy and others preach on Sundays, we hear these stories of a man called Jesus who was born of a virgin, who turned water into wine, who opened the ears of the deaf and the eyes of the blind. We encounter this man Jesus who prayed over some bread and some fishes and fed thousands. We watch as he walks on water, and commands the storms to be quiet. He debates with the religious authorities, he eats with ‘the wrong kind of people’ and tells stories, stories which puzzle and amaze, stories which give us glimpses of heaven, glimpses of the kingdom, glimpses of a love which is altogether more profound, sincere and beautiful than anything we’ve experienced before.

Do we believe that this man Jesus is King? Do we believe that he is a prophet, sent from God?

I believe that he speaks with the words of eternal life because I believe that he is not just a king but the King who is above all kings, he is the Lord who is above all Lords, he is one with God the Father and the Holy Spirit who was before all things, in all things and who made all things. And I believe that he as the King of all the heavens and the earth is the divine king who rides on a donkey into a human city, to a human church here in Spennymoor (Whitworth) to encounter us with humility.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

This Palm Sunday we are gathered to receive Holy Communion, to eat and drink the bread and wine which are for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We prepare to do this in remembrance of the king who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Coming to the rail to receive we are mindful that we come as sons and daughters of the King who has paid a royal ransom for our lives and who loves us with a love which is stronger than death itself. We know that Good Friday is coming, but let us today remember that the crowds who walked with Jesus to Jerusalem were not just afraid of Roman oppression, the hardships of life and the reality of all that is bad in our world, society and lives yet were amazed at this Jesus who walked with a quietly assured confidence, climbed onto a colt and entered Jerusalem as the promised saviour King.

As we remember those crowds shouting Hosanna and celebrating Jesus’ arrival at the temple may we join with them today and say with meaning:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.