“When the Cheering Stops”

Mt. 21:1-11 (VOICE)
South Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship of Faith
March 25, 1018 – Palm Sunday
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift

 Mt. 21:1-11

21 Jesus, the disciples, and the great crowds were heading toward Jerusalem when they came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Jesus stopped and beckoned to two of the disciples.

Jesus: Go to the village over there. There you’ll find a donkey tied to a post and a foal beside it. Untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone tries to stop you, then tell him, “The Master needs these,” and he will send the donkey and foal immediately.

He sent the disciples on ahead so His entry into Jerusalem could fulfill what the prophet Zechariah had long since foretold . . .

So the disciples went off and followed Jesus’ instructions. They brought the donkey and foal to Jesus, they spread their cloaks on the animals, and Jesus sat down on them. The great crowd followed suit, laying their cloaks on the road. Others cut leafy branches from the trees and scattered those before Jesus.

 And the crowds went before Jesus, walked alongside Him, and processed behind—all singing.

Crowd: Hosanna, praises to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Eternal One! Hosanna in the highest![b]

10 And that is how Jesus came into Jerusalem. The people noticed this strange parade. They wondered who this could be, this humble bearded man on a donkey who incited such songs.

Crowd: 11 This is Jesus, the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.

= = =

 What a day of celebration.

Jesus enjoying his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Everyone cheering. All of his followers filled with excitement and joy – with big plans for the future. I mean, this was the culmination of their last three years of slogging around the countryside, living with the Master, learning his ways.

They had seen it all from the inside out. They’d witnessed the healings … they’d    seen him best those who tried to trip him up with theological questions. This was IT!!! Entry into the sacred city – the CAPITAL. This was the major leagues … the BIG show … and the crowds were going wild!

In the 1960’s there was a book about the latter life of Woodrow Wilson’s life, titled, When the Cheering Stopped and I couldn’t help thinking about that title as I reflected on Jesus and the disciples.

I mean … what happened AFTER today? How did we get from HERE to there?

We KNOW what happens at the end of the week … Good Friday, the crucifixion, and the glorious miracle of Easter Sunday.

But what happened in-between?  How did our Teacher … our Rabbi … our JESUS … get from here to there?

A few years ago, one of our classes at South read the book The Last Week by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. It looks at this week from the perspective of Mark’s gospel, so I’ve taken a few things from there as snapshots on the week to help us get to know what happened on THAT week, when the cheering stopped.

Monday

After the excitement of Sunday with all the crowds greeting them, Jesus and his followers headed back to Bethany to stay with friends.

The next morning, as they walked back to Jerusalem, they were hungry and tired when they came upon a fig tree. It had no fruit on it, and Jesus cursed it by saying “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” and the disciples heard that.

Once they got in the city, they went into the temple and drove out those who were selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He wouldn’t allow anyone to carry anything THROUGH the temple, and he said, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL the nations? But you have made it a den of thieves.”

That REALLY set the priests and leaders on edge. After all, they were in charge and they had allowed it. But the crowd was spellbound.

Now, if we didn’t know any better, we might think that these are just nice stories that demonstrate how Jesus was human, after all, and that he got angry sometimes. His righteous indignation took over on behalf of God and the treatment of God’s holy temple.

But for those of us who like to STUDY the Bible, these two incidents are coupled together by Mark for a reason … they inform each other.

The thing is that this was the month of Nisan, or March-April. This time of the year where we are now.

It was not the season for figs. There WOULDN’T have been any on that tree. And everyone with him at the time would have known that … but so would Mark’s first-century readers. So, this story is about something else. And knowing that about fig trees and the time of year that it was, we know that Mark is looking at this SYMBOLLICALLY, not literally.

Scholars tell us that Mark OFTEN put stories together for a reason, so if we pay attention to them, then the whole TEMPLE story should be taken the same way, as well. It was a SYMBOLLIC destruction of the temple because the “Fruit” was lacking from it.

“In Jeremiah 7, God tells Jeremiah to stand in front of the temple [– this very temple –] and confront those who enter to worship (7:1). Confront them about what? About their false sense of security. They were clinging to the refrain “This is the temple of the Lord,” (7:4) while taking it for granted that God’s presence in the temple GUARANTEED the security of Jerusalem and their own security as well. Do you think, God asks through Jeremiah, that divine worship EXCUSES you from divine justice?” … that all God wants is regular attendance at God’s temple rather than LIVING your life for justice and service?[i] It’s not enough to go to worship – we have to work for JUSTICE in the world.

So, the “den of thieves” that Jesus talks about, is referring to peoples’ everyday LIVES makes THEM like the thieves because they think that just being IN the temple will save them.[ii]

Sadly, I know that some people feel that way about church today.

When Jesus overturns those tables, he is saying that worship can’t be SEPARATED from practice.

When we take these two stories together, then, we know that even though it’s not the season for the fruit to be in abundance yet – even though the KOG is not totally HERE yet – still, we are called to work for justice and not hide behind our rituals that make us think that we are being holy.

And that was only Monday.

 

TUESDAY

They walk BY the same fig tree that he cursed and it’s all withered away. And Jesus uses this as a chance to teach about faith … of COURSE it responded to his curse, he says … and if YOU have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, nothing will be impossible unto you, either. They’re going to NEED that faith in the days ahead.

Tuesday was a busy day … three chapters in Mark are devoted to that one. It’s the longest day in Mark’s story of Jesus’ final week. “About 2/3 of it consists of conflict with temple authorities.”[iii]

“When he and his followers get to the temple, the authorities and their associates challenge Jesus with a series of questions intended to trip him up and discredit him in the presence of the crowd. Jesus responds in an EQUALLY challenging way, sometimes turning the questions back upon them, sometimes directly indicting them.”[iv] He was a smart cookie.

When his authority is questioned, he turns around and asks them a counter-question … which always gets them stumped. He tells them the parable of the vineyard and how the workers kill the owner’s son out of jealousy and envy, and then they suffer the retribution of the owner. Then he talks about paying taxes to Caesar, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God, that which is God’s.”

It’s a clear message about politics and religion … or even about religion and the state. But what’s often missed is a more subtle reality … in those days, there were TWO forms of currency in Jerusalem because Jewish law prevented anyone from having any graven images so Rome developed OTHER coins without the picture of Caesar on it that the HEBREW people used. But THESE corrupt leaders, when asked, took coins out of their pockets. And guess what!  They carried coins with them that HAD Caesar’s picture on it.

They were discredited among their people. “They are exposed as part of the politics of collaboration.”[v] But it raised the larger question – what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? If everything belongs to God, it leaves NOTHING for Caesar. Nothing.

Boy — THAT got the authorities mad at him even more! They were called OUT by Jesus. And they were embarrassed in front of the people.

Now, there’s more to Tuesday, but let’s move on to Wednesday …

 

WEDNESDAY

In Mark 14, we learn that the leaders were looking for a way to arrest Jesus. They’d had it with his teachings AND his followers.

Jesus and the disciples were in Bethany at the home of Simon, the Leper, and while they were there, a woman came in with a very costly ointment. She broke open the jar and poured it on his head.

Some of his people got really upset because it was EXPENSIVE and they felt that she was wasting it on HIM when she could have sold it and donated the money to their cause.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you want; but you will not always have ME.

“She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

And it was there and then, according to Mark, that Judas began to look for a way to betray him because he realized, I think, that Jesus’ motives were not about making money and successfully supporting themselves over the long term. Jesus was interested in something else – the Kingdom of GOD.

 

THURSDAY

“On Wednesday Jesus had been anointed for burial by an unnamed woman follower and betrayed to the authorities by one of the twelve men closest to him. On Thursday, the events set in motion by Wednesday begin to unfold, rapidly.”[vi]

A little Bible study for a minute … we’ve been focused on Mark’s gospel. That was the first Gospel account of Jesus’ life and it was written about 40 years (a generation) earlier than John’s Gospel – the last one written.  In THIS case, talking about Maundy (or Holy) Thursday, the accounts are very different between Mark, and what would later be written in John.

In Mark, the meal that Jesus shares with his disciples – the Last Supper – is a Passover meal, but in John, it’s NOT.

In John’s gospel, the shared meal is the day BEFORE Passover which means that the lambs to be eaten at the Passover Seders on Friday evening would be killed on Friday afternoon at just about the same TIME that Jesus died on the cross.[vii]

In MARK, Jesus speaks the words that we hear during our communion services … “This is my body, this is my blood.” But, instead, JOHN’s story has Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. There is no Last Supper with those words in it.

Interesting, huh?

“Jesus must have known that … the cross was approaching. He could NOT have been oblivious to the hostility of the authorities, and he may well have regarded his arrest and execution as inevitable – not because of divine NECESSITY, and not because he had any supernatural foreknowledge …  but just because of what he could see happening around him”.[viii]

Meals were “one of the most distinctive features of Jesus’ public activity. [Did you ever notice that?] He often taught at meals, banquets were topics of his parables, and his meal practice was often criticized by his opponents.”[ix] This meal in Mark … this Last Supper … had “both religious and political significance: religious because it was done in the name of the Kingdom of God; political because it affirmed a very different vision of society.”[x]

HIS meals were always about INCLUSION. And the meals of Jesus were not just symbolic … they really FED people. They were practical. Just think about him feeding the 5,000.

Thursday is the night that they go from the dinner table to the garden of Gethsemane and the disciples fall asleep. This is where Jesus fervently prays to have this ending … taken away from him. But, ultimately, it was a prayer of submission … “not MY will, but THINE be done.”

This is the night when Peter DENIES Jesus three times.

And then we are at FRIDAY and the crucifixion.

Today the crowds are cheering FOR him. And five days from now, another crowd would yell, “CRUCIFY HIM, crucify him.”

Imagine what that must have FELT like for him to hear???? Crowds of people SCREAMING for him to be put to death.

Imagine what it must have been like for his MOTHER to hear … for his friends … his chosen FAMILY … his followers … his DISCIPLES who had been riding HIGH just 5 days ago on the first Palm Sunday.

 

 

And it makes me think about crowds today … and cheering …

There were huge crowds around the world yesterday.

800 cities world-wide were demonstrating for common sense gun laws and I kept thinking that the “little children shall lead them.”  Or, in this case … TEENAGE children.

Every year, according to the most recent census data, 4 MILLION  17 year-olds turn 18 and gain the right to vote in this country. 4 million people. That’s an average of 11,000 a day.

I think we have awakened a sleeping giant!

At least, I HOPE so.

These young people have a VISION of what the world can, and SHOULD, be like. We have taught them WELL to see without color blindness … to honor LOVE over hate … to believe – really BELIEVE that things can change.

Yesterday’s march in Rochester, I’m told by one of my friends who was there, wrapped around Court Street and Broad Street together.

At the rally in D.C., at one point they chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.” There were close to a million people on the street leading up to the capitol building.

 

But the real proof in the pudding will be … what do we do when the cheering stops?

JESUS went right on teaching … and ACTING … and working for JUSTICE … and INCLUSION. He didn’t let the cheering deter him – or get him off course. HE stayed the course and showed us how to live with commitment and compassion for others.

He held his people to the highest standards for their OWN behavior – to live out their beliefs … and he is holding US to the same thing … the highest standards to live out OUR beliefs … to work to make THIS land a better place than it is right now.

 

So, my questions for each one of us here today are pretty simple …

Where will YOU be when the cheering stops?

What will YOU do with the time YOU have left?

How will you live out YOUR values and your faith because Jesus was pretty clear that this world around us is NOT the Kingdom of God just yet. And we are to continue WORKING for that … not just coming to worship to feel good and think that that’s enough.

Friends, we have our work cut out for us.

Let us make this, and EVERY week … HOLY week … dedicated to living as Jesus did.

Let us Eliminate Negative Thinking by working for the POSITIVE things that he taught us … living to honor the spark of GOD that is within each human being.

And let the people of God say, “Amen.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Crossan, John Dominic and Marcus Borg. The Last Week. Electronic location 752 of 3342.

[ii] Ibid. – location 758 of 3342.

[iii] Ibid. – location 923 of 3342.

[iv] Ibid. – location 930 of 3342.

[v] Ibid. – location 1047 of 3342.

[vi] Ibid. – location 1667 of 3342.

[vii] Ibid. –  location 1681 of 3342.

[viii] Ibid. –  location 1702 of 3342.

[ix] Ibid. –  location 1730 of 3342.

[x] Ibid. –  location 1738 of 3342.

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