Palm Sunday Sermon Transcript
Here is a full transcript of my Palm Sunday sermon from yesterday.
PALM SUNDAY SERVICE
MARCH 29, 2015
1ST READING: PSALM 50:8-15
2ND READING: MARK 11:1-23
“WHAT GOT JESUS SO RILED UP?”
I did not grow up in the church. So even though I have been a Christian for almost 25 years, the rhythms of the church calendar are still somewhat foreign to me. But I think I get what Palm Sunday is supposed to be. It’s the Sunday before Easter, when Jesus enters Jerusalem to kick off what Christians call “Holy Week.” Palm Sunday is about this triumphant entry, and in fact what do you think of when you think of Palm Sunday service? If you grew up in the church, you think of getting a long palm leaf and parading around the sanctuary announcing Jesus’ triumphant arrival.
I want to take this morning’s sermon in a slightly different direction. I want to focus not just on Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but also on what He chooses to focus on right after this triumphant entry. Because I think this will give us another perspective on what Palm Sunday really means. So let me read this morning’s Bible lesson, but let me keep reading past the triumphant entry part so we can see what Jesus says and does right after.
[read Mark 11:1-23]
Did you catch the structure of Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ actions after the triumphant entry? Verse 11, he goes straight to the temple to scope things out. Verses 12 to 14, he has this somewhat strange confrontation with a fig tree. Verses 15-19, he’s back in the temple, this time wreaking havoc. Verses 19-26, he’s back to talking about the fig tree. Temple, fig tree, temple, fig tree. When you see this kind of structure in Bible-era writing, you know the author is making a connection between two things. So what is the connection between the temple and the fig tree?
Let me back up a second and provide some context. The Gospel according to Mark is a dance between three main themes: calling and instructing disciples, winning the hearts of the people, and raising the ire of the religious leaders. These three themes crescendo at the beginning of Holy Week: the disciples are eager to join Jesus in his triumph, the people are filled with worship, and the religious leaders are beside themselves with indignation. The Book of Mark is just good drama: the disciples and the masses can’t believe they have found the Messiah, the religious leaders can’t believe a mere man is acting like the Messiah, and no one could’ve predicted how the thing ends even though Jesus foreshadowed it over and over again.
But the ending of Holy Week is next week’s sermon. So tune in then! As for the beginning, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem with great fanfare, and you know this story. His disciples obtain a colt for him, the masses spread leafy branches in front of him, and he parades into town to cries of “Hosanna,” which means “O save us.”
But there’s something off here. The people are treating Jesus like a conquering ruler. The leafy branch treatment is what generals would get when they came back from a military victory. And, in case the people’s perspective isn’t clear from that, consider what they say. Verse 10: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David; Hosanna in the highest.” Translation: happy days are here again, because Jesus is taking us back to the glorious era of King David, when we were a free and triumphant nation with a conquering leader.
Only Jesus refuses to fit the part. A military leader would come in on a horse, the symbol of war. Jesus chooses a donkey colt, the symbol of peace. You could stop right there and have a pretty good Palm Sunday sermon message: the triumphant entry of Jesus is not a brawny and conquering one, but one characterized by peace and humility. That’s a good message.
Except that for the rest of the chapter, Jesus doesn’t actually act very meek. In fact, He’s pretty worked up. A fig tree riles Him up. And He gets downright violent in the temple. What’s going on here?
Let’s start with the temple. He goes straight from His donkey parade to the temple to check everything out. He leaves without incident. But when He comes back, all heck breaks loose. He’s driving out people, turning over tables, and speaking fiery words. What got Jesus so riled up?
More so than today, communal worship in a centralized place was important for people of faith. The temple was where you came together as God’s people, to give your sacrifices and offer your praises and listen to God’s law. It was a place designated for submitting oneself worshipfully to God’s authority.
What had happened over time was that people had set up tables where different animals could be purchased to be offered in worship to God. Maybe some of these merchants were slimy, thinking they could make a buck off of people. Maybe some merchants genuinely thought they were doing people a service by providing something they needed in a convenient and affordable way.
Regardless of their motives, they had turned the temple into a place of transaction. Not only their transactions, where they traded money for sacrificial items. But they also turned worship into a transaction, whereby praising God was boiled down to rendering a burnt sacrifice to Him.
Even worse, where they set up shop crowded out the space on the temple grounds dedicated to non-Jews who wanted to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is why Jesus says what He says. Verse 17: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a robbers’ den.”
The merchants were keeping God’s people from truly worshipping God, by turning the whole thing into a sacrifice transaction and by taking up the space for people from all the nations to come in the first place. No wonder Jesus was so violent and upset. The whole thing needed to be turned upside down. Some people were treating worship like a transaction rather than a posture of submission and obedience. And other people, from other nations, were being crowded out from being able to approach God altogether.
Which brings us to Jesus’ encounter with the fig tree. He’s hungry, He sees a fig tree in full bloom, He approaches it, He sees it has no fruit, and He curses it. Seems a little petulant, no?
But it’s meant to be a metaphor, which becomes clear when He explains things to His disciples, who ask Him about it later as they were passing by Jerusalem. Leaves and fruit usually go hand in hand. So when we see a tree in the distance and it is in full leaf, we assume it is bearing fruit. A fig tree in full bloom but with no figs is not only useless, it’s deceptive.
And so it was with the temple. Bustling with attendees and activity, from afar you could look at it and say that worship of God was alive and well. But look closer and you’d find people transacting with God rather than truly praising Him, and you’d find others longing to be part of the worshipping community but crowded out by useless activity.
This is the conquest Jesus is seeking as He rides triumphantly into Jerusalem. It is not the military leader defeating an outside enemy. It is the Son of God trying to open the eyes of the people of God to their own spiritual fruitlessness. What mountain do you think He is pointing to in Verse 23: “Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him.”
Jerusalem, you may know is on a mountain, surrounded by mountains. Jesus is not just saying that prayers of faith can move mountains, generically and metaphorically. He’s also saying that prayers of faith can take a place like Jerusalem – where worship has been reduced to a mere transaction, where God’s people are crowding out other potential worshippers, where leafiness is abundant but fruitfulness is scarce – prayers of faith can take a place like that and throw it into the sea.
I’m not enough of a Bible scholar to understand what that means, whether the sea is meant to be place of rebirth or a place of judgment. I fear it is the latter. You can tell from this passage that Jesus is hacked off with what is happening at the temple. What is happening there has gotten Him so worked up that He is cursing trees, driving people off temple grounds, and flipping over tables.
You may picture Jesus on that donkey colt, calmly receiving the shouts of adoration. But in the very next scene, He is anything but calm. This is the beginning of Holy Week, and while we may be among the people singing “Hosanna,” let us not mistake what kind of salvation Jesus is really offering. He is not redeeming us from some physical outside oppressor but rather from the spiritual waywardness of our own hearts and behaviors.
And so as you consider Jesus’ triumphant entry this Palm Sunday, and go with Him into the rest of Holy Week, I ask you to ask yourself the following three questions:
Number one: Am I bearing fruit or am I just trying to be leafy? Leaves can be seen from afar and they suggest a healthy tree. But God seeks fruit-bearers.
Number two: Am I crowding out people from worshipping God? In our hustle and bustle, we can be doing all good things, and yet taking up space that could be made available for those on the outside to come in and join in worship of God.
Number three: Have I boiled God down to a mere transaction? Do I consider worship to be about acts of sacrifice or offerings of obedience? Recall the psalm that was read earlier this morning. God doesn’t need our sacrifices. He does desire our praise and devotion. Call on him in the day of trouble; He will deliver you, and we will honor Him.
I think that, as in Jesus’ days, there are a lot of people in this country that are playing church. Looking all leafy from afar but up close no fruit. Doing good stuff but crowding out others in the process. Dealing with God in transactional terms instead of honoring Him by calling on Him in our day of trouble.
This week, Jesus is riding into Jerusalem for His triumphant entry. He aims to be the One cherished in our hearts, in whom we take root and through whom we bear fruit. Let us not be found leafy, crowding out others, transacting with God. Let us be found offering our “Hosanna!” to the One who is honored not by burnt sacrifices but by calling on Him in our day of trouble. Give Him room to be that God in Your life.