“Shifting our Gaze” Colchester Federated Church, March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday (Mark 11:1-11), Reflections on the Heart Sermon Series

When taking a Sabbatical from my former church, I spent a month in the Holy Land and participated in the Tantur Ecumenical Institute’s Continuing Education Program.  One of our lectures was on Biblical Geography where scholar Paul Wright shared that people somehow become more alive to the Bible in the Holy Land.  We can think of the Holy Land as the Fifth Gospel—once one knows the land, one can understand the four Gospels in our Christian Bible on a deeper level.  Spending time in that particular place helps us to understand the connectedness between past and present.  We could focus on how the Biblical writers understood their context and how people who live in these places now understand the land and themselves. 

Maybe this seems like a no-brainer, but people continue to live where Jesus once lived.  We even know the likely path that Jesus and his followers took on Palm Sunday.  That path will be walked today by Christian pilgrims and is aptly called the Pilgrim Walk.  Here we are in this sanctuary in Colchester and watching from all of your homes celebrating Palm Sunday while people in Jerusalem are quite literally walking the path that Jesus and his followers walked that fateful day.

Looking back at the journal I kept throughout my month in Israel and Palestine, I found this quick reflection that hopefully highlights how Biblical Geography can help us understand a Gospel story.  On July 12, 2016 I wrote, “Went to the Mt. of Olives yesterday and did the Pilgrim Walk beginning at Bethphage Church, going down the mountain, crossing the Kidron Valley, and going up into the Old City—ending at the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.  Walking up all the steps in the middle of the day was so hot!  But walking how Jesus may have walked from Bethany into Jerusalem was amazing.”  Are we surprised that I complained about the heat that July day in Israel?  One of our church families (who were avid hikers) had gifted me trekking poles before I left.  The Pilgrim Walk was the only time that I used those trekking poles on the trip because the Mount of Olives is quite steep, and my clumsiness knows no bounds. 

What I didn’t realize until walking the Pilgrim Walk was how much Jesus would have been on display for all to see on Palm Sunday no matter where people happened to be in the city.  In that journal entry, one can hear the movement—the Biblical Geography of the Palm Sunday processional path that pilgrims continue to travel.  Down the mountain, crossing the valley, going up into the city.  Jerusalem is actually tucked inside a valley.  There are mountains that one can still sit atop and look down into the Holy City.  The Mount of Olives is one of those mountains.  There’s Mount Scopus.  There’s Mount Herzl.  But the Temple is on its own mountain within that valley—the Temple Mount. 

So maybe try an exercise and close your eyes for a moment (if you’re willing, keep them closed and I will tell you when to open your eyes again.)  Now imagine Jesus approaching Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives.  Imagine his followers bringing him a colt.  Imagine him placing clothes upon that colt, sitting atop it, and slowly riding down the mountain into the city below.  Many people are spreading their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields.  Those in front and those following shout, “Hosanna!  Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![1]  Imagine Jesus processing up into the Temple.  He looks around at everything going on within its high walls.  It’s like a busy marketplace in the outer courtyards.  Because it was getting late, Jesus returns to Bethany with the twelve disciples.  (You can open your eyes now.) 

It’s rather anti-climactic in some ways.  All eyes were on Jesus.  Quite literally.  Because he rode down the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, and up into the Temple that sits atop the Temple Mount.  People are shouting “Hosanna” which means “Save us!”  Save us from those in power?  The religious leaders?  The Romans?  Jesus hears the cries of the people who gathered before him.  He walks into the Temple to look around.  Then he simply heads back the way he came.

What was Jesus thinking?  What was he looking for? 

Because the next day the story continues and that’s when it gets even more interesting.  Jesus curses a fig tree because he’s hungry and it was bearing no fruit.  Even though it wasn’t the season for figs, Jesus curses that fig tree.  Jesus goes back into Jerusalem.  This time Jesus walks down the mountain, across the valley, and up into the Temple and he flips out.  Jesus throws out everyone who was selling and buying there.  He pushes over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of people who sold doves for sacrifices.  Mark tells us that Jesus said, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?  But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.”[2]  This action sealed Jesus’ fate—this is the moment that the religious leaders realize how dangerous Jesus really is and attempt to find a way to destroy him.  Why did those in power regard Jesus as dangerous?  Mark tells us that it’s “because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching.”[3]  One can’t help but wonder if it’s also because of those cries of “hosanna”—“save us” that were echoing throughout the valley just the day before.

Palm Sunday causes our gaze to shift.  Because we can imagine Jesus walking with determination to perform the prophetic actions that will lead to his death.  Jesus died as a political insurrectionist on a Roman cross.  He dared to call the Temple sacrificial system into question, a system that preyed on the poor.  He dared to anger the Romans because he disturbed the Pax Romana—the peace of Rome—and he did so when tensions were heightened because of Passover (a celebration of liberation.)  Walking into Jerusalem and into the Temple and performing these prophetic actions cost Jesus his life.  Perhaps when he walked down the mountain, across the valley, and up into the Temple on Palm Sunday he was steeling himself for what was to come.  For we know that God was with him. 

We can’t know for certain what Jesus was thinking and what he was looking for that day.  But we know where the rest of Holy Week will lead—to the Passover Meal in the Upper Room, to Jesus predicting that everyone will falter in their faithfulness to him and Peter will deny three times that he even knows him, to praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, to Judas betraying Jesus, to a mob carrying swords and clubs arresting him, to his disciples leaving him and running away, to a hearing before the Sanhedrin, to his trial before Pilate and being condemned to die, to being tortured, to hanging on a cross, to the women not abandoning Jesus and watching his death from a distance, to his battered body wrapped in a linen cloth and laid inside a tomb.  All that is to come will come.  The past and present are connected. 

Let us continue the journey.  Let us shift our gaze to where Jesus will lead us next. 

“Ride on, ride on in majesty!  In lowly pomp ride on to die,

O Christ, your triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin.”[4] 

Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

[1] Mark 11:9-10, Common English Bible.
[2] Mark 11:17.
[3] Mark 11:18.
[4] “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty” in Worship & Rejoice, Hymn 268, verse 2.

Photo taken during CEP Trip to Tantur.