Sunday 29 March 2015
It’s all a misunderstanding. Back in chapter 8 of Mark, Jesus had talked with his disciples about who he is and what he is meant to do. He asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” “They think that you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets.” Then he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers for them, “You are the Messiah. You are the Christ. You are the Anointed.”
From that point on, Jesus and disciples are working against each other. Jesus keeps telling them, “You don’t understand. I’m going to have to die. I’m the Messiah.” And the disciples keep telling Jesus, “You don’t understand. You can’t die. You’re the Messiah.”
The youth group studied it a couple of weeks ago. Mark has two stories of men being cured of blindness. And in between the two stories about blindness, Jesus predicts his death three times. Three times Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to have to die, and they never get it. They are sure that he is wrong. Mark puts Jesus’s predictions of his own death between those stories about blindness for a reason: Jesus may be able to cure people of physical blindness, but no matter how hard he tries, he cannot get his disciples to see the truth. He cannot cure their blindness.
The second of those stories about Jesus healing a blind man comes right before our gospel lesson today. Jesus and his disciples are traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they’re almost there. They’re in Jericho, just down the hill from the holy city. As they are leaving Jericho, a blind beggar named Bar-Timaeus cries out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy!” The crowd tries to shut him up, but he keeps yelling, “Son of David, show me mercy!”
Jesus has a lot of titles. He calls himself Son of Man. Mark calls him the Son of God. Peter calls him the Christ. Pilate calls him the King of the Jews. And I’ve mentioned before that what those titles usually mean for us today is not the same as what they would have meant in Jesus’s time. For example, many people besides Jesus were commonly referred to as Son of God, chief among them the Roman emperor.
But with the title that Bar-Timaeus uses, there isn’t much confusion. Son of David. Everyone knows that Jesus doesn’t actually have a father named David. We’re not talking about a name like Bar-Timaeus’s own, which literally means, Son of Timaeus. No, there is only one David that is being referred to here: it is David the King.
So, who is the Son of David? The Son of David is someone who will do the same things that David did. David was a warrior. He was a conqueror. He fought and defeated the Philistines. He established Israel as a kingdom to be reckoned with. Under David, Israel was strong, Israel was independent, Israel was united, Israel was feared. Surely the Son of David would be able to make Israel strong, independent, united, and feared again.
So, when Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a colt, we have to remember that our expectations and the crowd’s expectations are very, very different. We’ve heard this story enough that we just assume the crowd knows what’s going to happen next. Isn’t it obvious that Jesus is going to be crucified? That’s the whole point of Jesus, isn’t it? Isn’t it obvious that he’s going to die for the sins of the world and then be raised from the dead and then ascend into heaven? No. In fact, that possibility is so incomprehensibly ridiculous that even though Jesus tries to explain it to his disciples three times, they still don’t get it. No one expected Jesus to enter Jerusalem to die. They expected him to win.
You can tell by what they say: “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” What does Hosanna mean? I had to look it up. It’s just that word that we always say on Palm Sunday. And it’s there in the communion liturgy, too. It’s Aramaic, and it means, “Save us!” Rescue us! Liberate us! They are expecting Jesus to liberate them from Roman rule. They are expecting him to rescue them from the debts imposed on them by the upper classes. They are expecting him to save them from oppression.
What else do they say? “Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Who is it who comes in the name of the Lord? It’s a king. A conquering king would come in the name of the Lord to re-establish God’s rule on earth. The one who comes in the name of the Lord would make sure that Israel was not answerable to any foreign power, but only to God.
But here is the clincher. What the crowd says next removes all doubt about what it is they want, what it is they expect of Jesus. “Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” The coming kingdom of our ancestor David. They know the stories about David’s kingdom. He defeated every one of Israel’s enemies. He expanded Israel’s borders. He established a dynasty. And he did it all with armies. With God’s help, to be sure, but with God’s help in the form of armies.
The crowd that welcomes Jesus to Jerusalem welcomes him like a king. And they expect that he will live up to his side of the bargain, that he will do what it is that kings do. They are expecting him to save them. They are expecting him to fight. They are expecting him to win.
It’s all a misunderstanding. And it’s much more ironic than anything in an Alanis Morissette song. They greet him like a king, but the only crown he will receive is a crown of thorns, the only throne he will have is a wooden cross, the only battle he will win is to kill death by dying.
What they are saying about him is true, but not in the way they think it is. Jesus is king, but not of some petty state in the Middle East. Jesus is savior, but he doesn’t save with weapons or armies. Jesus does come in the name of the Lord, but not to bring a political victory. They are right about everything, but they will think that they were wrong. Isn’t it ironic?
Jesus obliterates everyone’s expectations of him. He is nothing like what they are looking for, what they are praying for. He is a complete surprise, and a surprise that will only be understood after his death and resurrection, and then only after mystical experiences of the risen Christ and deep prayer and study of the scriptures.
It makes me wonder what sort of Christ we expect Jesus to be. What sort of Kingdom of God are we looking for? Do we have a clear view of who Jesus is and what God’s Kingdom is like, or are we just as blind as those early disciples were. How is it that we expect Jesus to enter our world? How do we expect the Kingdom to come?
I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure myself. Being certain that we can predict God is an easy way to be led into self-delusion. But I have my suspicions. If today’s gospel lesson is any indication, I suspect that when we conjure up images of glory and power and dominion and victory, we might be missing the point. If we are expecting the kingdom of God to be ushered in by force, I think we might be getting it wrong. Left Behind Christians are really looking forward to Jesus returning in a blood purge that wipes out most of humanity. That’s what they think the Kingdom of God is. And there are plenty of other Christians who don’t have such bloodthirsty dreams, but who think that God, Jesus, and the Kingdom are best expressed in glory. We want to be on a winning team, which often means that we want God to crush the competition.
But the Kingdom of God seems to be much more subtle than that, and much more insidious. A mustard seed that grows into a tree. Yeast that grows to permeate an entire batch of dough. The Kingdom of God expresses itself in surreptitious ways, from the bottom up, from the inside out. In an addict conquering addiction, one day at a time. In enemies finding forgiveness and reconciliation. In the choice of simplicity over extravagance. In the choice of grace over judgment. In listening and understanding. In feeding the hungry. In visiting the imprisoned. In comforting the grieving. In the steady effort to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. This is where I see the Kingdom of God. This is where I see Jesus Christ entering the world. Not in the pomp and spectacle, but in the humility and quiet service, following the Christ who gave himself up that we might live.