Entering a Tunnel of Darkness with the Light of God – March 28

A sermon based on Mark 11:1-19
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 28, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Today is both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. I read recently about a person being disappointed when they come to church on Palm Sunday and the Passion– that is the Holy Week suffering of Jesus– is discussed. Some of us sort of like to keep them separate. We get a sense of joy from the palm parade and “Hosannas!” as an upbeat warm-up for Easter the next Sunday.

In ordinary years without Covid, lots of people came to Palm Sunday services and even more, of course, to Easter services. But year-in-and-year-out only a few show up to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services where the Passion part of Holy Week has focus – that suffering, when Rome’s elite hunt down, try, convict and execute Jesus. It can be easy to avoid the ugly part of the Jesus story if the joy of Palm Sunday and Easter are all we focus on. We like the palms and “Hosannas” and sunrise resurrection and salvation offered, but ironically not so much the details of what makes them truly joyful and miraculous – they are the end result of the Passion part of Holy Week. Even the visuals with bright primary colors and sunshine for Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday contrast with the darkness and storms of the rest of Holy Week.

Of course, neither the first Palm Sunday nor the first Easter were rosy, they just appear that way because we’ve long known the outcome and we can, with our retrospective view, be joyful and happy. And rightfully so, but it is a shallow celebration and flickering joy and light if we do not take time to remember that the joy and the light we now bask in result from, and are on the other side of, the tunnel of darkness Jesus experienced and earthly power put him through. Jesus began to enter that very dark tunnel the first Palm Sunday and not because it marked his entrance into Jerusalem, but because it was the start of a pair of very public protests that he bravely and brilliantly decided to lead. His palm parade challenged the earthly Empire of Rome with the heavenly Empire of God.

The idea of the palm parade being a public street protest that Jesus led is not new. In their wonderful book on Holy Week called The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, note:

“As one of our professors in graduate school said about forty years ago. This looks like a planned political protest.
The meaning of the demonstration is clear, for its uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah in the Jewish Bible. According to Zachariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion) “humble and riding a colt, the foal of a donkey.” In Mark, the reference to Zechariah is implicit.
Matthew when he treats Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem makes the connection explicit quoting the passage: “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey , and, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. The rest of the Zechariah passage details what kind of king . . . Commanding peace to the nations he will be a king of peace.

Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession (which was marching in over there) embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision… The confrontation between these two kingdoms continues through the last week of Jesus’s life.”

Out on the dusty street, in that march – with the palms and donkey and hosannas– Jesus led a challenge to Rome’s empire, to its occupation, its government and it military. It was a holy and prophetic thing to do and gutsy and courageous too. The rights to free speech and assembly did not exist. Rebellion was frowned upon and had severe lethal consequences.

I added verses 15 to 19 to the Lectionary text from Mark 11 so we could hear how the next day Jesus led a second big public protest. That protest was addressed to Rome’s appointed Temple elite’s lack of action toward justice and kindness and the barriers to access to God that they’d set up. See, the elite had focused the Temple on offerings and sacrifices and worship, but were not focused on seeking justice and loving kindness. And actually, were a part of Rome’s unjust and unkind system. They had also set up tables in the outer court, a place where everyone including Gentiles were supposed to be able to gather. Those tables not only took away space for the gathering of people from all nations, but also impeded access to the inner areas for Jews like Jesus until they exchanged their money, paid for and acquired sacrifices as offerings. God was thought to reside in the Temple and Jesus’ protest in the Temple included literally knocking down barriers to access God. Jesus moves out of the way tables taking up the space that was supposed to be reserved for all nations, tables which also blocked free access to God and God’s forgiveness.

But Jesus was metaphorically knocking down other barriers too, the Temple elite’s participation in injustices and unkindnesses and their otherwise not seeking justice and loving kindness. Jesus proclaimed ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” The prophet Jeremiah made that same claim back in his day when he pointed out the Temple was not doing God’s justice work and kindness ending oppression of the least among them. (Jer 7:11). Providing worship and worshiping God has never excused the primary obligation of God’s people to seek and secure justice by working to end oppression and provide kindnesses to those in need. This is especially true for leaders of faith communities. To be a leader who doesn’t seek justice is wrong, to also be a part of a system like Rome which regularly imposed injustices is abhorrent. It is to rebel against God – and actually the Greek word translated as “robbers” means rebels. My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of rebels. We can hear that to mean rebels against God, and that those rebelling against God are Rome and its Temple elite stooges.

As our lesson indicates, the Temple protest by Jesus (probably in connection with the palm parade protest) led to Rome’s elite turning on Jesus. The text indicates they began “looking for a way to kill him.” Ironically the rebels against the heavenly empire hunt Jesus down and crucified him as a rebel against the earthly empire. They used every means within their power to destroy Jesus and his movement seeking to end his protests and barrier overturning and Way of love. Holy Week was an epic battle between two empires. One is run by earthly powers led by Rome and its agents Pilate and the Temple elite. The other is run by heavenly power and its agent Jesus. Crowds of people to this day cheer for Jesus when he enters the fray Palm Sunday, and when he exits it on Easter Day.

We should also cheer him in the Temple as he follows the Prophets’ way proclaiming that God’s call to act for justice holds sway. Over and over and over again this is what prophets in the Bible say. While we certainly do not want to cheer the violence and injustices Jesus endures for his acts of love and justice, we do want to make sure to always remember the courage of Jesus and his resolve toward justice and love for all. We want to remember too that earthly powers ways opposed God and tried to stop justice and that out of that darkness Jesus arose on Easter as a bright light that has served as a beacon for justice ever since.

That beacon only exists because of the deep ugly darkness Jesus went through all the while shining God’s Light of love for us, for all. Those actions in the midst of the horrendous torture and death he endured at the end of the week, and on that cross, transformed the world, and can transform us– you and me. Because as the new week started that first Easter Sunday God vindicated Jesus acts and let Jesus’ loving uprising win and be resurrected and alive forever. AMEN.