Did you notice something un-expected in our Gospel reading today from Mark?
Just to replay what you may think you heard, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a triumphant welcome, the crowd waving palm leaves, strewing their coats and singing Hosanna.
We might even have a song going through our head: ‘Hosanna to the son of David, hosanna to the king of Kings, glory in the highest heavens for Jesus the Messiah reigns’.
And, because we know how the story ends, we know that this will all go horribly wrong by the end of the week, with the same people shouting out for his crucifixion. But, for now, they are with him.
Then Jesus gets to the Temple with the crowd behind him wondering what’s going to happen next. We would expect a wonderful climax wouldn’t we? Will it be an amazing prayer to his Father? Perhaps it will be a voice from heaven again? Or maybe it will be a big bust-up with the Temple authorities…
Jesus – the tourist
But, instead, we get, well not much of anything really. In Mark it’s un-expectedly a bit of an anti-climax. Frankly, Jesus acts like a day-tripping tourist. The coach has arrived and he and the rest of the group have 30 minutes to ‘do’ Jerusalem, before getting back on the coach to go to the next destination.
Because our reading says that he ‘has a look around at everything’ and then leaves because it’s late! Maybe it’s Bank Holiday half-day closing in Jerusalem? Jesus goes back the way he came, down the hill, back to Bethany. Just him and the disciples. The crowd are presumably looking for their cloaks that they had spread along the way, thinking about the dry-cleaning bill and what the heck the fuss was all about.
Then if you read on in Mark, you’ll find that, on the following day, Jesus has a falling out with a fig tree and it’s only then, presumably hungry and grumpy on an empty stomach, that he goes back to the Temple and cleans it out.
Playing with expectations
From a distance it has all the trappings of a royal progress. But Mark seems to be having fun, playing with our expectations of what a Messiah should be like – and it draws me back to look again more closely at the rest of the passage that we read today and see if that is all it seems too. Did we hear right the first time?
If you have a Bible with an Apocrypha in it, you’ll find 1 and 2 Maccabees. These were Jewish Scriptures that didn’t make it into our regular Bible but related stories that would have been very familiar to people at the time Mark was writing. They told of events a little under 200 years earlier where traditional Jewish worship was re-established after an armed revolt.
There are a number of similar tales in those books but one in particular tells of Judas Maccabeus defeating his enemy and coming back to Jerusalem amidst joy and cheers and giving burnt offerings for their safe return (1 Mac 5:45-54).
Another tells of crowds waving branches and palms and offering hymns of thanksgiving to Maccabeus after the Temple had been cleansed from being violated (2 Mac 10:1-8). And this day was to be celebrated each year by the whole nation – it’s still celebrated today as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
And there was a big celebration at Passover too where the nation remembered deliverance from oppression in Egypt. But just so the population didn’t get any ideas about getting rid of a new oppressor, the Roman Governor of the day would parade into Jerusalem, through the Western Gate, the largest in the city. He’d be on a warhorse, in armour, with his troops marching before and behind, holding banners.
And it’s these stories that Mark is tapping into: Judas Maccabeus from the not too distant past and Pilate from the present. But Mark subtly undermines these tales and just when we think we know what will happen next, he does something different. Jesus comes but not as expected.
Yes, Jesus rides into Jerusalem – but it’s on a donkey not a war-horse, to fulfil a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. He comes after a healing, that of Bartimaeus, rather than after massacring his enemies as Maccabeus had. And we’re told he comes from Bethany which is in the East. So, Jesus comes but not as expected through the Western Gate: he rides in through the smallgate on the Eastern side of the city.
Then if you look at the shouts they are for ‘one who comes in the name of the Lord’ and for ‘the coming Kingdom’. The shouts don’t name Jesus. These are shouts that could have been made for any pilgrim making their way into Jerusalem and the first is taken from our psalm for today (Psalm 118: 26a). And they come from those ‘who went before’ and ‘those who followed’. Could that be just his disciples and Bartimaeus who had tagged along, rather than the whole crowd?
I’ve been in a busy Jerusalem and maybe some of you have too? Its narrow streets, tall stone buildings, twisting alleyways leading to the top of the city. Lots of people, colour and noise. Perhaps think of the Whit Walks that we used to have here. It would be easy for someone to get lost in the hustle and bustle.
And you start to wonder if what Mark is showing us here is Jesus riding into Jerusalem almost under-cover, incognito? Amongst a crowd already there, waving palms to celebrate a religious festival, is he just one of a number of pilgrims? And, if it was on the same day, are indeed most of the crowd on the other side of the city watching Pilate? Is Mark showing us a Messiah easily missed? Hidden in plain sight.
How often does Jesus ride through our lives and we miss him because we’re looking elsewhere – or following a different parade? Perhaps we should be paying more attention and looking around at what’s happening. Where is Jesus going and where can we join-in?
Then, probably like many others, Jesus comes to the Temple but not as expected to do something grand. It’s near to closing time. So, he’ll come back again, some other time.
Certainly, you’d think that if it had really been such a big entrance then the authorities would have done something. But nothing. That only happens when he comes back and cleans the Temple of the money changers and traders. But even then, it’s only Jesus doing it. Everyone else seems to be looking on, not joining in, letting him get on with it. Not quite sure how to react.
Perhaps you might be a little unsettled by what I’m saying – and I’m not looking to burst any bubbles. But all through Mark he portrays Jesus as a Messiah who wants to keep his identity a secret. He hushes people up. He tells them not to tell. And, just when we think we have him pinned down, he does or says something unexpected. At the same time, it both was and it wasn’t the journey of the coming King to the Temple.
And in truth, perhaps many of us are more comfortable with that modest version of Jesus? A Christ who quietly makes his way in. As his hands and his feet on earth now, most of us go about doing his work without fanfare. We don’t expect or want people to sing our praises – we want people to think about God’s Kingdom. To be fellow pilgrims with us. It’s in quiet, humble service that Christ is at work. It’s in the selfless, understated giving of the time and talents of people who can slip through a crowd unnoticed.
But… just when we think we’re OK with imitating that version of Christ, he does something completely different. In Mark, he comes back to the Temple and unexpectedly turns everything upside down, including the tables and chairs. I wonder which of our metaphorical tables and chairs he would over-turn now?
Because God also needs those radical people amongst us who aren’t happy with ‘normal’. He also needs the people who can unsettle, provoke and unnerve. People who, in the immortal words of Michael Caine, can ‘blow the bloody doors off’! Which, of course, is exactly what Jesus does… a week from now.
Are we being called to be more radical? To be more vocal, to stand up for something, even if everyone else looks-on? To shatter or exceed expectations? How should we respond to the table-turning Jesus?
But before the door of the tomb is blown off on Easter Day, we have Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. If you follow Jesus’ parade you have to go there first. To the room where he washes feet and breaks bread. To the night that follows where he is betrayed, abandoned and denied. And then to his cross and his death.
It’s been a tough year. Most of us have felt vulnerable at some time and may still be now. Today as much as ever, we need to hear the story of how God became completely vulnerable for us in Jesus Christ, of how despair and hope can ride together. We need to choose to follow Jesus, who has travelled this road before us. Because it’s in his company that pain un-expectedly turns to praise and death become life.
Come thou long un-expected Jesus. Amen.
- Anderson, H. (1984 reprint). The Gospel of Mark. Grand Rapids: Eeermans
- Nineham, D.E. (1986 reprint). Saint Mark. Harmondsworth: Penguin