Sunday, March 28th, 2021

Sunday, March 28th, 2021

Palm Sunday

Holy Gospel: Mark 11:1-11
Rev. Phil Schmidt

When I was giving religious instruction at a public school in Frankfurt, I sometimes used a trick to attract the attention of the class. I would show them a Kit-Kat and tell them that I would give this chocolate bar to the first person who could answer a question. Bribing pupils in this way was highly improper behavior, but it worked. For the sake of the Kit-Kat they would search eagerly for an answer.  One of the questions which I liked to ask in this situation was: “What does it mean when we say Jesus Christ? Why do we call Jesus the Christ?” I would explain that Christ means Messiah, and I would give them some background information. I had some good discussions with pupils as to why Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  However, no one ever won the Kit-Kat, which is no surprise. According to the gospel of Mark, the identity of Jesus as Messiah is an enigma – a mystery – which is so incomprehensible that only one person in his gospel recognized the true identity of Jesus as the Christ. In other words: only one person in the gospel of Mark would have won the Kit-Kat.

Mark’s depiction of Jesus as the Messiah begins with his entry into Jerusalem on a young donkey. Jesus has arranged an exact location for the donkey to be picked up, “near the entrance to a village, tied near a door, outside in the street.” Jesus has set up what appears to be a secret code with the owner of the donkey: “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”

However, despite offering such specific details, Mark is also extremely vague. He does not name the village in which the colt was located.  He does not name the two disciples whom Jesus sent, nor the name of the owner of the colt. The disciples have no contact with the owner, but with so-called “bystanders”, who allegedly just happen to be standing near the colt.  Everyone involved in this colt-gathering mission remains not only anonymous, but unidentifiable. This “protective anonymity”, as it has been called, suggests that all of the people involved in this colt-gathering action were in mortal danger of being arrested for conspiracy –either at the time of Jesus or at the time that Mark’s gospel was publicized.

This account of the preparations for entry into Jerusalem, which is a combination of detail and vagueness, conveys that Jesus is about to do something extremely dangerous and that he is doing it deliberately. Jesus is orchestrating his public appearance as the Messiah. With his entry into Jerusalem he is “coming out of the closet”, presenting himself to Jerusalem as the Messiah, an information which he has suppressed up until now. By staging himself as the Messiah, the King of Israel, he was committing an act of treason against Rome. Rome, as the occupying force in Palestine, did not allow anyone to question their absolute sovereignty. By claiming the title of Messiah, King of the Jews, Jesus was, in effect, signing his death warrant. The inscription on his cross gave the exact reason for his execution: “The King of the Jews”.

Therefore, Jesus had to organize his entry into Jerusalem with the utmost secrecy, so that he would not be prematurely arrested. He needed an interval of safety so that he would have time and space to define his role as Messiah.

The donkey colt is the key. It indicates that Jesus is fulfilling a message from the book of the prophet Zechariah, which was regarded as a Messiah expectation:

“Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Riding on a young donkey was a sign that Jesus did not intend to be a military conqueror. A conqueror would have ridden on a war horse or a chariot. He entered the Holy City in a humble, gentle way, indicating a non-violent approach to his role as King of Israel.

The people who greet Jesus use words which indicate indirectly that they consider him to be the Messiah King:

“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!”

“Hosanna” means “Save us!” Originally, it was an expression of desperate pleading, a begging for help, but at the time of Jesus it had also become an expression of jubilation. With the word Hosanna, the crowd celebrates Jesus, but does not explicitly call him a king. The expressions “He who comes” and “blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” are indirect language for the Messiah, which people with inside knowledge would recognize, but not Roman soldiers.

The ultimate revelation occurred – not when Jesus entered Jerusalem -, but when he was taken out of Jerusalem to be crucified.  Mark describes the exact moment when Jesus decisively became the Messiah. As Jesus was hanging on the cross:

The chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.”      

This was the climactic moment. The moment when Jesus is about to become the Christ (in Greek Christos: since Greek was the international language at that time, Jesus is the international Messiah, not merely Messiah for the Jews). Jesus was challenged to prove that he was the Messiah by giving a public demonstration of supernatural power, by coming down from the cross in a miraculous manner. However, Jesus demonstrated that he is indeed the Messiah, the King of Israel, by not coming down from the cross. He became the Messiah by embracing his crucifixion, by accepting his public humiliation. He became the Christ by giving himself into death with a prayer in which he embraced all people who feel that God has abandoned them:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

With this prayer he became the representative of all people who feel that their situation is hopeless.

At the moment of death, one person recognized the true identity of Jesus:    

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Up until this point in Mark’s gospel, only demons had recognized Jesus’ identity as God incarnate. For the first time in this gospel, a human being recognized that Jesus was the “Son of God”. For Jews, “Son of God” was not a divine title; it was another indirect Messiah designation. But when a Roman officer called Jesus “Son of God” he was confessing that in the death of Jesus God Himself had revealed his authentic identity. The centurion – a non-Jew, a non-believer, is at this moment the representative of humanity. He saw how Jesus died and recognized that he was standing in the Presence of God. His insight is also our insight: we look at how Jesus died on the cross and we see God Himself embracing us.

This final revelation is an enigma. When Jesus died, he was a nobody. He was literally naked, his body had been desecrated, he had been completely humiliated, he could not possibly be the Messiah because he had been executed as a criminal. He could not possibly be the Son of God because he had apparently been forsaken by God.  He was destined for eternal darkness and total extinction. His death was – to all appearances – completely meaningless.

The centurion saw all of this. He saw exactly how Jesus died. But despite all outward appearances, he saw and confessed something which was outrageous – not only outrageous, but treasonous. In the Roman Empire there can be only one Son of God, and that is the emperor. Son of God was one of the emperor’s divine titles. An estimated 182 Roman emperors were called “Son of God”. By calling Jesus the Son of God, the centurion had committed a capital offense. But his illegal confession is the focal point of Christian faith. Jesus, as Son of God, is a challenge to the Roman empire and to all empires which deify power.

The confession of the Roman officer signifies that Jesus’ death on the cross embraces all people.  Jesus on the cross – as he breathed out his dying prayer – embraced all people who are naked, broken, powerless, humiliated and godless. He encompassed all people who are criminal outcasts and destined for a meaningless death. In death, Jesus established a bond to all people who seem to be hopelessly lost. In death, he has become their Messiah, their Savior, their God. He has become Jesus the Christ.

In Jesus’ crucifixion God Himself has penetrated death; he has infiltrated eternal darkness with his unconditional love. At this moment, all people of all times and in all places have been embraced by a love which is more powerful than death.  Cyril, the bishop of Jerusalem in the 4th century, stated: “God stretched out his hands on the cross in order to embrace the entire earth.”

As Jesus died on the cross the words were fulfilled which were spoken in jubilation at his entry into Jerusalem:

“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!”


Holy Gospel: Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus 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.