Mark 11:1-11; Joel 3:9-21
First Congregational Church of Anchorage: 25 March 2018 (Palm Sunday)
20 years ago I traveled with my family to New York. My sister’s college choir was singing at Carnegie Hall, and we went to watch. We met my mother’s uncle there as well. We did all the tourist sorts of things. As I remember back, I can’t think of any major item we missed. It was nonstop walking and exploring a city that was beyond wild for people who had lived in rural Kansas most of our lives.
But not knowing how to do something has never stopped me from trying. That seems to be a family trait. One day we went to Grand Central Terminal. We were walking along and either my dad or I saw an unmarked elevator sort of tucked around a corner.
The two of us broke off from the group and pressed the call button. We walked into a small elevator. The walls were covered with a cloth padding kind of like a really soft packing blanket.
No one else was on, so we pressed the button to the top floor. At the first floor we came to, the door opened and a man dressed in a very well-made suit entered. My dad no doubt was wearing jeans, a western style button-up shirt, boots, and a hat. I was likely in shorts and a t-shirt. He asked where we were going. We said we did not know, we were just exploring.
He asked us if we wanted to see something interesting. Of course, we did. That’s why we were on this elevator. I suppose I was hopeful that his idea of interesting was somewhat similar to ours. I wondered why the walls were padded.
We got off on the 3rd floor. It was a plain hallway with heavy metal doors lining the walls. It kind of reminds me of a utility corridor at a mall. He stopped at one of the doors and pressed a button. At least I think that is what happened. The door clicked as someone on the inside pressed an unlock button. We walked in the front reception room and we were definitely someplace interesting.
The couches and chairs were white velvet with red accents. The floor was the same color thick carpet. There was an attendant sitting behind a plush counter. He greeted our new friend by name. He did not ask who we were, and we were not introduced. We continued to walk into the next room. It was more austere. There were a few aged chairs and couches arranged on plain carpet in a darker room looking through a large plate window.
The window overlooked two full-sized tennis courts. There was the top half of a big round window at mid-court overlooking the street below. Later upon further inspection outside, we discovered it was the window over the main entrance into the terminal.
Our new friend, whose name I do not remember, though I really wish I did, told us that the room we were in was the old control room for a CBS TV studio, and the court was where Walter Cronkite sat at the newsroom desk as he announced live that President Kennedy had died at 1:00 pm Central Standard Time, 2:00 pm Eastern Standard Time.
We talked for a moment, then he walked us to the door and showed us to the elevator. My memory seems to recall that the third floor had a security key, but I am not completely sure. There are many details of the story that I am not completely sure of.
We walked off the elevator downstairs, back among the noise of Grand Central, and rejoined the rest of our group who were in the lobby fairly with what must have been smiles of utter disbelief.
I suppose now I would have pulled my phone out and searched for tennis courts in Grand Central, but in 1997, that was not an option. Strangely, I have never searched for those courts until I started writing this sermon. I now know it was the Vanderbilt Tennis Club.
It became a tennis club in the sixties. By the 1980’s it was rundown. It was then leased by a real estate developer and turned into to a very exclusive cash-only club until he dropped the lease in 2009, I guess so he could eventually run for president.
I think I liked the story better before I knew all the details. It is such a great story that more facts seem to make it worse. Sometimes being able to accurately explain something ruins the purpose for wanting to explain it in the first place.
This is the reality of this week beginning with the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem and the temple. It is tempting to attempt an explanation of why what is about to happen is important to reflect upon. But the urge to explain is a sort of circular argument. Professor of preaching, Karoline Lewis, describes the problem this way. She says in jest: “Holy Week is important because it’s Holy Week; and Holy Week is important.”
The experience of an impromptu tour in Grand Central Terminal fascinated me for years because it was ridiculous and the place was sort of otherworldly. Knowing what I know now makes it seem more reasonable, but not necessarily better. The added information threatens even to change the way I tell the story.
Instead of reimagining the moment by moment tour through a younger version of myself, it now turns into a history lesson of the place itself with facts taking a more prominent role.
In a small way, the entrance of Jesus and his followers into Jerusalem and the temple is a similar type of story.
Mark has been moving Jesus’ ministry from Galilee in the beginning chapters, through Caesarea Philippi, towards Jerusalem. Until this point, Jesus has been focusing on and ministering to those who are considered outside of the larger culture and foretelling what will happen in Jerusalem.
The entrance into Jerusalem is the moment when Mark shifts that ministry focus and disrupts the cultural inside of Jerusalem. That shift ultimately leads to Jesus being killed. But before that happens, Mark needs to build tension.
Following the initial Jerusalem entrance, temple visit, and quick exit of 11:1-11, verses 12-25 elaborates Jesus’ entrance and authority as he enters the temple a second time. Because verses 1-11 refer back to the Jewish idea of a returning Davidic kingdom and defer anticlimactically to the second entrance and to the power that Jesus claims over the temple, it is possible that this passage was a later addition to Mark in order for Jesus to be described as fulfilling the Hebrew prophetic tradition.
Jesus wasn’t replacing Judaism, as Christians have wanted to claim for centuries. But this sort of addition is a rereading of Jesus into an existing story to make it more authentic and authoritative. But I am not sure it is that helpful. Knowing what I know now about the tennis club’s history does not make that story better, but it does make it more believable. It is now not just a magic tennis court in my mind.
Nevertheless, the triumphant entry of Jesus tells its own story. There is a sense of irony in the celebration of Jesus’ entry parade when it leads to such a lack of response by anyone except those who are themselves in it. The lack of response may say to the reader that even if the Davidic kingdom was to return, Jerusalem would likely not recognize it as liberation, but deny it as a threat.
To look at it another way, we might ask: what are the odds that Jesus and his followers believed that Jerusalem would recognize him as the king of the Jews? I think not good.
Mark seems to be saying that the odds are not that high, and in fact did not happen in any way they would have imagined. We as the reader have to ask what Jesus’ entry really means in light of the ironic celebration narrative of the arrival of the Messiah in the person of Jesus to a seemingly empty Jerusalem and temple.
In light of Jesus not being the expected triumphant Messiah, Christians should wonder what the kingdom of God is now supposed to look like, regardless of what the story seems to be saying.
More details do not mean that we understand any more about what it means to follow Jesus. More details might help, but they might also distract, or even misguide us if we are not measuring what we read first by the story of Jesus that grounds our faith in a God whose steadfast love endures all things, who’s unending shalom, God’s all-pervasive peace, is the promise of salvation we seek in the world.
Before we can declare what Jesus’ entry means, we have to make a claim as to what the Good News is.
So with this, let us deal finally with Joel. I have attempted to walk through our time with Joel keeping my larger issues in check, not wanting to be too quick to dismiss, and try to read closely. But this reading has pushed too far. Joel is wrong.
I don’t care that it is in the Bible, I reject this closing diatribe. 17 pages after Joel’s call to war and violence, in the same Bible, Micah 4:1-4 says the exact opposite. And I mean the exact opposite.
Micah, like Joel, says that God will judge the nations, that being the people who have harmed the Israelites. But this time God will settle the disputes and people will beat their swords into plows, their spears into pruning tools. Nations will forget how to make war.
Joel talks of God’s steadfast love enduring forever, and then follows by building swords and killing people in the name of the same God. I refuse to follow this path. And you know what? That is exactly what we are here to do.
We can look at our sacred text and read it as if it is an unending rulebook from cover to cover, or we can take what these people have written seriously and use them as an arguing out of our own faith.
In this way, we can look at all of the Bible as a sort of faithful argument that challenges us to pay attention and reflect seriously. That means that how you read the Bible, what passages you claim as authoritative for your life says more about your own theology than it does about the Bible.
And that is a good thing to remember. When confronted with the likes of Joel and Micah, which way do you choose?
The story of Jesus is no different. We have the choice of whether we will follow an all-powerful triumphant God-king coming into the city with a grand military-type parade and all the markers of power and might,
or a peasant anti-king entering in weakness so that people might see another Way to be human, and live into God’s unending shalom, God’s hope for the salvation of the world.
Jesus and his followers must have known that they were probably coming to their death in Jerusalem, yet for a moment they were in on the joke with nothing to do except celebrate. They were absurd because that is what the Gospel is. They were probably not that optimistic, but surely full of hope in spite of the reality they faced.
Which Messiah will we welcome?
Which one will we follow?
This is the working out of Holy Week.
Through celebration, defeat, death, and celebration,
what does our faith say about what we experience?
Don’t take my word for it.
What do you have to say about it?
Jesus has entered the city,
Choose now which Way you will follow after.