Liturgy of the Palms, March 28th, 2021


Manage episode 278337817 series 1950523
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We should by now have gotten used to the rapidly moving, briskly paced, ‘and immediately Jesus…’ style of Mark’s Gospel. Chapter One is exhibit A. So that when we arrive at the account of events leading up to Jesus’ death, and the crucifixion itself, overwhelming is just the opposite. Things slow down, enormous detail is provided, and we are present for the entire, careful, distended unfolding of these last events, covering all told but in just a few final days of a man’s life. The effect is to rivet us to our seats, as befits what is being said and its significance for the message of Mark as a total work. Mark has been called a passion narrative with a long introduction, a description which tries to convey just this truth, about how Mark has proportionalized what he gives us when it come to the man Jesus Christ, weighted for his testimony in death.

Because it is Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday together, this protracted aspect of Mark’s Gospel comes to the fore for us in church, giving us potentially 130 verses of text to hear. From the entry into Jerusalem to the death and burial of Jesus, with a stone rolled against the tomb. And even this leaves out scenes equally related to the final days of Jesus life, all of significance in the culminating presentation of Mark. Cleansing of the temple, exchanges with religious leaders, predictions of coming tribulation.

The juxtaposition of the reading concerning the triumphal entry in Mark 12 with the Passion story, beginning with anointing and Last Supper, and extending to flight of disciples, trial and crucifixion, is intended to capture one feature of theological significance, that indeed is there in Mark itself. The crowd that hailed Jesus at his entrance suddenly and genuinely without explanation calls for his death, enrolling itself as blood-thirsty allies against Jesus and leaving Pilate alone as confusedly sympathetic. Demonic possession, such as we see it earlier in the Gospel, appears to overtake the crowd now as Jesus comes to his final significant hour.

The careful listener may also notice the parallel structure of the entry account with the Last Supper account. In both cases Jesus tells his disciples what they are to do for him, and just how they may anticipate the encounters that will befall him in doing what he asks for. “If anyone asks you,” and bystanders do ask. “You will find a certain man, who will lead you to the owner of the house,” and so it happened. Disciples are indeed taking up their part, at least for now, before things darken beyond their strength.

In the first instance, moreover, scripture bears witness and oversees all that is transpiring. The crowds cry out Hosanna, straight from Psalm 118. The cry is addressed to God there and to Jesus here. John’s optional reading makes a bit more of this by explicitly identifying the conveyance on a colt with the prophesy of Zechariah, with rumblings of Genesis 49 in the background, details Mark is content to let speak for themselves at this level. One has a sense from John’s reference to an eventual remembering in time, that certain things in scripture were written about him, and that we are coming in contact with one of the most ground level realities about Jesus. During his life and after his death the scriptures were bearing witness to him even when it took time to read them and see them delivering precisely this further sense.

Though it could appear that Jesus is entirely outgunned and abandoned, at another level the text makes it clear he alone knows what is going on. And God has prepared by his word from scripture the unfolding last days and moments, down to minute details. Vinegar to drink, wagging heads, friends at a distance, parting of garments, failing strength, back to smiters, and even the haunting cry of dereliction itself. The colt and the hosannas are there too. And of course the general and crucial Passover timing. Jesus did not die on groundhog day, but in line with God’s word, in accordance with the scriptures.

So these events are not out of God’s control and here Jesus and God operate on the same secure ground of agreement and strength, in a march into disagreement, weakness, brutality and death. When at the end the Centurian says surely this man was God’s son he has been moved away from human sight and into a different plane of perception, has left the cruel soldiers, demonic crowd, bitter thieves, plotting authorities, hapless but powerful Pilate, and edged to the side of the women and Joseph of Arimethea in acknowledging this man was no ordinary executed criminal enrolled with the thousands who suffered this fate. Like a lot of people in this Gospel he probably says more than he can know, even if in this last testifying he is closer to the truth of the matter than either bellowing crowds or fleeing disciples or those present before this curious life-changing display of divine power.

The absolute control over things unfolding is displayed for Mark in God’s overseeing word of accordance from scripture, and in the resolute strength of the man Jesus who marches forward into the jaws of injustice, brutality, abandonment and refuses to stop the frame. He stays awake; they sleep. He receives the kiss of death and forbids retaliation: let the scriptures be fulfilled. Attacked by false testimony, itself at odds, evokes not a word from him but silence. When pressed, he cites scripture. In the middle distance we see a man broken on the wheel of his own vain promises, his strength exposed as fraudulent. No grief or contrition can slow anything down, just the same. They bound Jesus and led him away, though who is really bound except everyone but this man? Pilate is confounded, even as no one has the right to speak to him, the ruler of the world, as does the condemned man who answers questions with non-answers. The crowds prefer a crook to the one who had healed and taught and defeated sickness and death.

Almost in exact proportion to all going wrong as the world sees it, all is going to plan as God and Jesus agree to it.

Along the way Simon is enrolled. Jesus’ never wavering and pressing on as no man could, would or should, before or since, has taken its toll. His sons’ names are given in an odd moment of memorandum. That they are likely the men mentioned as members of the church in Rome means that at this darkest hour Jesus was winning souls, men not present, but soon to be enrolled as was Simon that day. Taking up a cross alongside in anticipation of the one we now carry a cross behind, in the wake of that saving victory in spent-ness and surrender. The final taunts are of a piece with all that has transpired thus far. What the scriptures are revealing was planned from long ago, and calibrated to this moment. Alone on the human plane, and after he has accomplished all God and he agree to accomplish, the centurion confirms the truth.

Here the lesson from Isaiah chosen for the day summarises what did not get said that day but was being said in its own silent, forward moving, strength-in-death way. The suffering servant, soon to be put to death in Isaiah’s prefiguring rendition, foreshadowing our Good Friday, opens here his mouth on behalf of Christ Jesus.

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.

Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.

It is the Lord God who helps me.

As promised in the opening verses, this strength inside assault is

instruction of the most educational kind imaginable, prepared in

the servant and his testimony long ago for the silent work of the

King of Kings. Sustaining the weary.

Isaiah has worked his way into the Epistle Lesson from

Philippians as well. The name above every name is that name by

which God himself swears in Isaiah 45, promising there solemnly

that every knee would bow to him, the LORD God. The name above every name, the divine name, The Lord, grounds the solemn prophetic oath. That name is the name bestowed on Jesus Christ, showing him so united to God that to call him Lord is to call on God himself, having emptied himself and taken the form of a servant, now exalted at God’s right hand in victory.

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