When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! 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!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. (Mark 11:1-11)
This Lent we have been following A Disciples’ Path, and this Sunday is the final installment in the series. This week we look at the Path of Witness. And I’m going to get to that… but this being Palm Sunday I’d like to talk about Palm Sunday first!
Palm Sunday is kind of a strange holiday. On the one hand it’s a celebration, and on the other hand it’s a day of gathering gloom. On the one hand we celebrate the arrival of King Jesus into His royal city… and on the other hand, this is the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life.
Looking at our reading from the gospel of Mark, let’s become people in the crowd for a moment. As people born and raised in Jerusalem back in those days, what would we see? What would we hear? What would we know?
We know Jesus has arrived in town. He’s the prophet from Galilee everyone’s talking about. They say he heals the sick. They say he gives sight to the blind. They say he even raises the dead. They say he’s the most amazing teacher – he speaks with authority, not like the scribes and the Pharisees. They whisper this must be the Messiah. They don’t say it too loudly because the rabbis say anyone who says ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ will be put out of the synagogue. But with all the amazing things he has done, who else could he be?
We’re walking through a small town called Bethany, where Mary and Martha and Lazarus live – Lazarus being one of the people Jesus raised from the dead. Jesus and his disciples are there, and Jesus tells his disciples to go find a colt and bring it, and they do. And he gets on the colt and we all start out in the direction of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem: the city whose name means ‘God’s peace’ is being visited by the Prince of Peace. And as the crowd moves we start to shout and sing. The crowd gets bigger as we walk from Bethany to the Mount of Olives, about a mile’s journey. As we walk, people are cutting palm branches and throwing them in front of Jesus as a sign of praise and respect. At the top of the Mount of Olives, Jesus and the crowd stop for a moment, looking out over Jerusalem.
I’d like to pause our story here just for a moment to share some photographs with you so you can picture what they saw. This is the view of Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives. The city wouldn’t have been quite as large back then, but the old Temple Mount can be seen just to the right of the gold dome.
The path down the mountain passes through the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s a very peaceful place, and these are olive trees we see, some of them old enough to have been touched by Jesus as He passed.
On the far side of the Garden the path crosses the Kidron Valley before ascending to the Temple Mount.
So picking up our story, Jesus and everyone in the crowd are at the top of the Mount of Olives looking over Jerusalem. And the crowd begins to sing a praise song written by King David: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And at the thought of King David, the words of the song change and become, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.”
Jerusalem is the City of David, and Jerusalem is the city of David’s heir, the Messiah. We begin to realize that this, today, at last, is the day our people have been waiting for, for over 1000 years. The king is finally here. The Son of David will sit on David’s throne again! As it says in the prophecy of Zechariah:
“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.” (Zechariah 9:9)
But as the crowd continues to celebrate, the people closest to Jesus begin to realize something’s wrong. In the middle of the celebration, Jesus is weeping. He stops again midway down the mountain, and says, ‘oh Jerusalem!’:
“If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)
As the crowd reaches the city, Jesus does not go to the palace (as expected) to overturn the throne of Herod and claim the throne for himself. Instead Jesus goes to the Temple and overturns the tables of the moneychangers. The crowd is happy to see this, but a little confused. And then Jesus and the disciples walk back to Bethany for the night.
And the crowd is left wondering: what just happened?
Jesus was right. The people of Jerusalem didn’t know what it was that made for peace. They didn’t understand that God’s kingdom is not of this world, and that Jesus’ mission was not to overthrow the civil authorities but to bring in a heavenly kingdom.
In the Old Testament King David wrote:
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.’” (Psalm 122:6-7)
We see in the Palm Sunday story how passionately Jesus loved this city, and across the centuries we join King David in praying for Jerusalem, not just for an end to hostilities, but that the people who live in Jerusalem and the people who visit, as tourists or as pilgrims, will know the Prince of Peace, who is the only one who can bring lasting peace.
So that’s the story of Palm Sunday: a blending of celebration and sorrow, and the beginning of God’s kingdom on earth.
So where does that leave us today, and how does it tie in to the Path of Witness?
The book A Disciple’s Path has a lot to offer in its final chapter and I recommend the whole thing to your reading. But for today I’ll just pull out two important questions: What is witness? And what is our story?
Christian witness is primarily sharing Jesus’ love and Jesus’ teaching. Christian witness is also, like Palm Sunday, often a blend of celebration and sorrow. The author of A Disciple’s Path suggests three ways to get started on the path of witness:
- begin with friendship,
- listen well, and
- know our own story and be prepared to share it
Which leads to the second question: what is our story, and how do we share it? The author of A Disciple’s Path gives us an example. He mentions the story of Coventry Cathedral in England. Some of you may remember this or may have heard your parents tell the story.
Coventry Cathedral was built over 1000 years ago. It stood in the center of the town of Coventry, a small English city about the size of Erie PA. There’s a lot of manufacturing in the area around Coventry, not in the town itself, but surrounding it.
During World War II, German bombers targeted the town. There are a lot of stories about why things happened the way they happened, but the bottom line is the bombers somehow missed most of the strategic targets and hit civilian areas instead. On the night of November 14 1940, bombs fell on Coventry for 12 straight hours, dropping over 500 tons of explosives on the town. One of the first things hit was the cathedral. By the time morning dawned, over 500 people were dead and over 1200 injured. Schools, hospitals, churches, shops and over 50,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
In the months and years that followed, the people of Coventry chose not to clear up the rubble of the old cathedral, but to leave it standing as a witness to the depths of inhumanity human beings are capable of. Yet “shortly after [the bombing]…the cathedral stonemason… noticed that two of the… roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins… [with the] words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the… wall [nearby].”
The people of Coventry built a new cathedral right next door to the old one, and their mission is to tell their story and to work for peace and reconciliation. They have created what they call “The Community of the Cross of Nails” – a fellowship of churches that were bombed during WWII, including those in Germany bombed by the Allies. The Coventry Cathedral website says this:
“Because of our history, and especially the events of 14 November 1940, we believe Coventry Cathedral has a special responsibility to take the message of reconciliation across the world. We consider this ministry to be our particular calling from God – sometimes described as ‘God’s thumb-print’ on us.”
What I would like to leave all of us with today, each one of us individually and all of us together as a church, is to ask this: What is our history? What is our story that we can share? Where can we see ‘God’s thumb-print’ on us? Can we put it into words and share it with a world that needs to hear it?
So to kind of pull things together…
Did you know in Greek, the word for ‘witness’ is spelled m-a-r-t-y-r? The truth is A Disciples’ Path is difficult. The Christian message is not one of easy grace or easy prosperity. A disciples’ path requires prayer and a spirit of generosity and sacrifice and sometimes letting go of what is good for the sake of what is best.
Like Palm Sunday, the Christian message has aspects of celebration and of sorrow. The writer of Hebrews says:
“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus… who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:1-2, edited)
The joy that was set before Jesus is… us! And the joy that is set before us is eternity with Jesus. This is our witness… and this is the good news we share. AMEN.
Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hilltop United Methodist Church, 3/30/15