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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Mark 11:1-11
“Unimpressive Entry”
March 29, 2015 - Palm Sunday

         He waved as he slid by. One of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire books starts with the story of how a grandfather finds himself being dragged along behind a 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado. He was up on a roof clearing a chimney and had tied himself off with a safety rope draped over the peak. The other end of the rope was attached to the Oldsmobile. But his grandson’s girlfriend didn’t know that. She came out and got in the car and drove off to the convenience store in town.

         She didn’t even realize grandpa had been pulled up over the top of the roof, down the other side, dropped briefly into a snow bank, and was skidding along the icy, snowy road a hundred feet behind the car. Several passing drivers called 911 and a sheriff’s deputy finally pulled her over. Johnson writes that if she hadn’t been stopped, “the seventy-two-year-old man would have made the most impromptu arrival into the town of Durant, Wyoming, in its history.”[1]

         We could say that Jesus made one of the more impromptu entries into the city of Jerusalem in its history. You and I tend to see this event through centuries of Christian experience and worship that has made Palm Sunday into a rather grand and glorious parade. We’ve brought together elements from all the other Gospels, the palms which are only mentioned in John, the two donkeys described in Matthew, and the multitude of disciples, complaining Pharisees and celebration of Jesus as king which Luke tells us about. But none of those features appear in Mark’s account that we are reading today. Mark wants us to see this event differently. It’s not triumphant. It’s low-key. It’s unimpressive.

         Harry helped me put this together when I complained to him about our palms this year. Two weeks ago I discovered that the outfit from whom we’ve bought palms for the last twenty years is no longer selling them. So off I went to a florist to order some for which we paid more and got less of a type we’ve never used before. I was griping about this to Harry, worrying about handing out some scraggly, ugly palm leaves, when he said, “Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? They didn’t grow or order perfect, beautiful palm branches for Jesus. They just used whatever they found.” Exactly. That first Palm Sunday was a whole lot less impressive than we typically imagine it.

         To start with there’s the donkey. Mark doesn’t even say it’s a donkey, just a colt, and an unbroken, unridden one at that. But Mark pays a lot of attention to the critter. Count it up. Mark takes 6 out of 11 verses about Palm Sunday to tell us how Jesus sent two disciples to find this animal, borrow it from its owner, and bring it back for Jesus to ride. This Gospel wants us to get the impression of Jesus bumping along on an unruly ride, the beast so young and small that His feet were probably dragging on the ground.

         It’s a borrowed ride. See how Jesus in verse 3 tells the disciples to explain to the owner that they will send the donkey right back when He’s done. The disciples didn’t have any animal of their own. They didn’t have enough luggage to need a beast of burden to haul it around with them on their travels. So when Jesus wanted a lift into Jerusalem, He had to borrow whatever was available.

         Matthew and John explain the donkey for us. They quote our Old Testament lesson this morning, Zechariah 9:9 speaking to Jerusalem, which says, “Lo, your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey…” With that connection we can see that Jesus was arriving in God’s city as the Messiah, the king. But Mark doesn’t explain it. He wants us to feel as confused as the disciples and the other people there along the road to Jerusalem that day. What’s He doing this for? Why is Jesus riding into the city instead of walking in like all the other pilgrims coming for Passover?

         Within Mark’s limited perspective all we can see is Jesus arriving unimpressively, and in peace. Ancient kings rode horses to war, so anyone riding into the city on a horse was a conqueror or the agent of a conqueror,. Pilate probably arrived in his horse-drawn Roman chariot. Alexander the Great likely rode into Jerusalem in 329 B.C. astride his famous white horse Bucephalus. But those rulers who came in peace in times of peace rode a beast of burden, a donkey.

         Jesus didn’t come in noisy, impressive triumph. He came quietly and humbly to bring peace to a city which badly needed it, a city which still badly needs peace today, as we prayed this morning. And He wasn’t going to bring that peace by invading with force. He brought peace bouncing along on the back of a little donkey.

         A church father named Ephrem talked about Jesus’ willingness to associate with the lowest and humblest people on earth, even with the lowest and humblest animals, the animals that carried loads. He said, “He began with a manger [where a donkey might eat] and finished with a donkey, in Bethlehem with a manger, in Jerusalem with a donkey.”[2]

         Mark spends 6 verses to make sure we’ve got the picture of Jesus on that young donkey firmly in our minds. He makes it clear all along that Jesus directed His disciples to the donkey. Verses 2 and 3 are Jesus’ orders on how to find it. Verse 6 tells us that they said just what Jesus told them to say. Jesus wanted to ride a donkey. He wanted to look unimpressive and humble. Verse 7 shows us Jesus deliberately sitting down on the beast He requested.

         Verse 8 might give you the impression there actually was somewhat of a show then, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. People laid down their coats and spread branches along His path down into the Kidron Valley and up into the city. It feels a little like rolling out the red carpet as we do for visiting dignitaries or for film stars walking into the Oscars, with everyone crowding around to get a look at the famous person now arriving.

         The fact is that what they did for Jesus was the same as what was done for any group of pilgrims showing up in Jerusalem for Passover. Everybody got welcomed that way, with branches on the ground and as verses 9 and 10 say, with shouts of “Hosanna!” We’ve got the notion that “hosanna” was some sort of praise for Jesus, like that the other Bible word we’re not saying again until Easter, the one that also starts with an “H” in Hebrew. But “hosanna” was not a shout of praise, it was a cry for help.

         Look again in your bulletin at our psalm for today, 118 verse 25. Those festival greeters were shouting bits of that psalm verse. Read on down and see how verses 26 and 27 fit the whole picture of pilgrims arriving at the altar in the temple in Jerusalem with branches being waved and spread before them. They said these words for anyone coming up the road to celebrate Passover. It wasn’t some special shout of praise for Jesus.

         Now look at how “hosanna” is translated in Psalm 118:25. It literally meant “Save us, we pray!” But folks in Jesus’ time had forgotten the literal meaning. People’s everyday language was Aramaic. Some Hebrew words were more about the feeling they expressed than about what they actually meant. Like people saying “Gesundheit!” when you sneeze or “Voila!” when they show you something, that Jerusalem welcome committee had little idea what “hosanna” meant in its original language. It just made them feel good to say it.

         But Jesus just accepted all that. Jesus wasn’t trying to make a statement that would impress everyone at that moment. He simply arranged things so His disciples and you and I could see the significance later, could remember what had happened in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s what Matthew, Luke and John are doing when they tell us about Palm Sunday, explaining the reference to Zechariah 9, having the crowds actually call Jesus king, having the Pharisees worry that Jesus was attracting too big a following. But Mark wants us to know just how ordinary and unimpressive and pretty much like everyone else, except for the donkey, Jesus came into Jerusalem that day.

         Even if that group of well-wishers along the road had totally and completely understood and acknowledged Jesus as Messiah and king when He came to Jerusalem, it still wasn’t that impressive… for Him. Augustine says that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was “a condescension, not an advancement for the one who is the Son of God, equal to the Father, the Word through whom all things were made, to become the king of Israel. It is an indication of pity, not an increase of power.”[3]

         Do you get it? Jesus was God, the king of the universe who with the Father and the Spirit created everything and ruled over it from eternity. So an announcement that He has arrived as king over a tiny country in the backwater fringes of the great Roman empire doesn’t really amount to much from His own perspective.

         It’s like making a big deal out of the fact that Bill Gates has bought and is now CEO of some tiny startup tech company or celebrating the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is the star of a little film being shot by college students. It might mean a lot to that company or those students that these famous people would pay attention to them, but in the lives of Gates or Lawrence this is no great honor or advancement.

         It’s only by pity, through compassion and concern for His people in Israel and ultimately for us, that Jesus came to Jerusalem and let Himself be celebrated as king in this unimpressive, almost unnoticed way.

         Jesus didn’t come to Jerusalem to ascend the throne and become the king. He came to Jerusalem to ascend a cross and become the Savior. He came as an answer to that shout which the shouters didn’t even understand when they cried “Hosanna!” He came to save them, to save us. So even though He was truly and rightly and completely their king, no one knew it or really understood it. He had come to die.

         In case you are still worrying about Grandpa in the Longmire story, he made it through his wild ride pretty much O.K., just a dislocated shoulder. But he died later in the book as a murder victim. And that’s pretty much how it went for Jesus. He arrived in Jerusalem unimpressively but just fine, only to die later as the murder victim of the whole human race, nailed to the Cross by the very people He came to save.

         So the first thing to take away from Palm Sunday is the deep, deep compassion and love of Jesus. He put up with, even partially arranged, that whole silly, unimpressive Palm Sunday show for our sake. Jesus humbled Himself to a donkey ride that hardly anyone noticed or cared about for us, for you and me. That’s a love and care we can trust. That’s a Savior who truly wants to save. I hope you will believe and trust Him to save you.

         Then the next lesson from Mark’s telling of Palm Sunday is Jesus’ example. We’ve been talking all Lent about how to follow Jesus, even to the Cross. How do we pick up our own crosses and get behind this Man who doesn’t care about making an impression, who isn’t too concerned about getting acknowledged or praised?

         The only way I can see to follow a Savior like Jesus is to work at being unimpressive, at not drawing too much attention to ourselves, at letting go of all our ambitions and desires for making a big entry into this world.

         It’s a lesson even for pastors. I remember a person who attended Valley Covenant over 20 years ago. He was a minister in another denomination who came to our church with his family for awhile before heading off to be a pastor. He told several of us how he had his career path all planned. He would pastor a church of a couple hundred for a few years. Then he would be “promoted” by a call to a larger congregation of several hundred, and finally end up as a denominational leader of some sort.

         That pastor’s ambitions got off to a good start, but derailed a bit when he ended up divorced. But the troubling thing for me was that I could see myself a little in him. I’d never say what he said out loud, but I had my own fantasies of pastoring big churches and writing best-selling books. Now I see very clearly that that’s not how Jesus did it and not how I should do it either. Jesus’ way to ministry is unimpressive.

         Jesus did make some slightly more impressive statements there in Jerusalem that week before His crucifixion. As Mark shows us, He went and cleansed the temple the next day, on Monday. He got in arguments with the leaders and authorities. He finally attracted quite a bit of notice, a lot of it unfriendly. But look at what He did late in the afternoon on Palm Sunday in verse 11.

         The disciples and Jesus did not have accommodations in Jerusalem during Passover. They were too poor for that. They were staying with friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany about two miles outside the city. So He couldn’t stay late, probably not after dark there in the city. So verse 11 says that Jesus simply, “went into the temple… and looked around at everything.”

         I’m going to suggest that’s the Palm Sunday task for you and me, to take a good look around at the “temple” of our lives where God wants to be worshipped. Jesus saw the money changers and animal sellers who needed to be chased out of the Lord’s house of prayer. You and I may need to whip some distractions out of our own hearts so that we can pray better.

         But you can also take a look at all the ways you try to make an impression on others, all the ways you seek attention and praise and reward for what you do. Then look for the Jesus road to Jerusalem, the unimpressive entry into the kingdom of God. Do something for the Lord or for others that no one will ever notice. Give up some reward or honor or even a word of thanks in such a way that nobody knows you gave it up.

         Many of you have already traveled the unimpressive road. You know it well. You do little acts of service here at church behind the scenes, not asking for attention. You give faithfully and regularly of your finances with some extra when it’s really needed, never expecting to be noticed for it. You help each other quietly, even anonymously, letting Jesus take the credit. You’ve got it. That’s the way to Jerusalem, the road to the city of God. It’s the unimpressive, humble path which follows Jesus. Just keep going.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Junkyard Dogs (New York: Viking Penguin, 2010), p. 2.

[2] Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 155.

[3] Ibid., p. 156.

Last updated March 29, 2015