Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 | Mark 11:1-11
Our reading today tells the story of Jesus’ “triumphal entry,” which is celebrated every Palm Sunday. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem as a king, albeit a humble king. As Jesus descends the Mount of Olives on the back a young donkey, he is greeted by a group of “many people” who spread cloaks and leafy branches on the ground ahead of him, and they cry out “Hosanna (which means “God save us”)! 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!” It’s not hard to see why this is referred to as a “triumphal entry.” Everything’s “coming up Jesus” in this story – from the free colt to the cloaks spread across the road to the shouts of Hosanna, this is triumphal.
But the triumphal entry is tempered by its context. I’ve always been conflicted on Palm Sunday, and I’m probably not alone. On Palm Sunday we sing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,” we process with palm branches, we celebrate. But we know that in less than a week Jesus will be hung on a cross, deserted by friends, mocked by enemies, forsaken – or at least feeling forsaken – by God the Parent.
While the crowd around Jesus celebrates as he descends the Mount of Olives, Jesus knows, and we know, that in a few short days he will ascend Golgotha – the place of the skull. And in the place of celebration the crowd will be jeering and mocking. It seems hard, then, to fully celebrate on Palm Sunday.
The contradiction we experience on Palm Sunday isn’t only in the story of Jesus, it’s in our church season as well. We’re in the midst of the 40 days of Lent. Lent is meant to represent Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. During Lent many people fast in one way or another. We focus on repentance. We embrace our limitations and accept the unknown. Lent is the most somber time of the church year. And yet, here we are, today, singing “Hosanna!”
The Revised Common Lectionary, which gives us our Scripture readings, has two options for today’s readings: we can celebrate “Palm Sunday,” Jesus’ triumphal entry, as we are today, or we can observe “Passion Sunday,” where we hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, as we did last year at this time. The fact that these two options exist side by side is fitting. The triumphal entry is inextricably linked to the crucifixion. But, we should also be quick to say that it goes both ways. The crucifixion is also inextricably linked to the triumphal entry. Neither overrides the other. Neither neutralizes or nullifies the other. Instead, they paradoxically, unexpectedly, bolster one another. They’re two sides of the same coin.
Maybe the conflict I feel on Palm Sunday comes from my misunderstanding the way both the triumphal entry and the cross are true, and they are only true together. Maybe I’d been thinking that the cross somehow nullifies the triumphal entry, making it a sham, or at the very least less potent, less true.
But the Jesus Christianity professes is the crucified king. He is never not both. He is, to those of us who come later in history, always crucified and he is, to those of us who have confessed him as Lord and Savior, always our king.
The absurdity of such a claim, that Jesus is both crucified and king, is at the heart of the Gospel. The God of Israel, Yahweh, has from the earliest days challenged the world’s assumptions about who has power, and what powr looks like.
We’re in the midst of March Madness right now. And this year, even more than normal, the Cinderella teams are making waves. The underdogs are ousting the favorites. Most notably UMBC (the University of Maryland Baltimore County) beat Virginia to be the first ever 16 seed to beat a 1 seed in the tournament. Such an upset is shocking in college basketball, but it’s par for the course in the Bible. God’s always on the side of the underdog.
God was on the side of the underdogs when God began God’s saving work for the whole cosmos with an old, barren couple: Abraham and Sarah.
God was on the side of the underdogs when God chose to work not through the powerful Egyptians, but through the poor Israelites they had enslaved.
God was on the side of the underdogs when God chose the youngest of Jesse’s sons, David, to be the king of Israel, through whom God would send the Messiah.
God’s love for the underdog extends from the Old Testament into the New Testament letters with Paul saying, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are…” (1 Cor. 1:27-28).
And James says, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5).
Jesus’ mother, Mary, herself poor and of the lower class, understood that God is a God of the underdogs when her heart was filled with joy and she sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for [God] has looked with favor on the lowliness of [God’s] servant…[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty handed” (Luke 1:47-48, 51-53).
But no one spoke of and exemplified God’s preference for the lowly, the poor, the marginalized – the underdogs – more than Jesus of Nazareth, who made the audacious claims of the Beatitudes, proclaiming the most despised of society as the most blessed. Jesus, who said the kingdom of heaven belongs to children. Jesus, who said the tax collectors and the prostitutes were entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of the religious leaders. Jesus, who said that you find your life by losing it. Jesus, our crucified King.
Central to Jesus’ life and message was his challenge to the world’s ideas of power. Our Gospel reading today shows how Jesus is the one true King, but he is not like the kings of the world. Mark tells us that through his triumphal entry Jesus asserted his authority, but at the same time he also challenged, confronted, and subverted the world’s idea of who a king is and how a king behaves. In Jesus, the crucified King, we see that God does, indeed, use the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God is, indeed, on the side of the underdogs.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is surely meant to represent a military procession, but at every turn he mocks the expectations of a military conqueror as much as he mimics them. Chuck Campbell, a professor of preaching, explains all the ways that Jesus’ triumphal entry is meant to flip the world’s idea of power on its head, the way Jesus identifies himself as one who is with and for the underdogs. Chuck Campbell says,
The whole time…Jesus is turning imperial notions of power and rule on their head. In his “triumphal entry” Jesus lampoons the “powers that be” and their pretensions to glory and dominion, and he enacts an alternative to their way of domination. Riding on a colt, his feet possibly dragging on the ground, Jesus comes not a one who lords his authority over others, but as one who humbly rejects domination. He comes not with pomp and wealth, but as one identified with the poor. He comes not as a mighty warrior, but as one who is vulnerable and refuses to rely on violence. Jesus here takes the role of a jester, who enacts in a humorous, disorienting way, a totally different understanding of “rule” and invites people to see and live in the world in a new way. The event takes on the air of a carnival…where those on the bottom of society festively unmask and challenge the dominant social order.
By entering Jerusalem the way he does, Jesus is making a statement. He’s a king, a conqueror. But at the same time, he’s mocking and undermining the world’s expectations of a conquering king. He’s showing the world, he’s showing us, a different way to have power.
This theme continues up to the very end of the story. The triumphal entry reaches its climax very anti-climactically. In both Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the triumphal entry, as soon as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, he visits the temple and “cleanses it.” Meaning he flips over tables and drives the money changers out.
But in Mark, Jesus shows up, looks around, then leaves. How different from a conquering hero, riding into a city he has just conquered! Surely such a hero would take over the place of power and set up shop there, feasting on the pillaged goods of the conquered. But not Jesus. Jesus will cleanse the temple in Mark’s Gospel, but not until the next day. Mark wants us to understand what Jesus is about. He’s about peace. He rides in on a donkey, not a war horse. He defies expectations of violence and instead heads home early.
There is power in Jesus’ powerlessness. While he says nothing as he enters the city, his actions speak volumes. With every step the young donkey takes, with every cry of Hosanna – God save us! – from the crowd, Jesus asserts that the way of God is the way of peace, in the face of a world that, today as much as in Jesus’ day, claimed that salvation comes only through domination.
Jesus knows and we know, that this royal procession will ultimately lead to victory, but it won’t be the victory the crowds expect. It will be victory by way of defeat. It will be the triumph of life passing through death. The crowd doesn’t know this. Some of them will turn on Jesus when they find out what kind of king he is. They will cry out, in a few days, “Crucify him,” while the cloaks they wear still bear the hoof prints of the donkey Jesus rode in on, when they laid those very cloaks before him and cried out, “Hosanna!”
If we take the time to look closely, we may see ourselves in the crowd. Do we only choose the stories and the teachings of Jesus that we like, shouting that we should crucify the Jesuses that don’t meet our expectations?
As Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he knew what was coming, and the crucifixion that is to come doesn’t nullify the reality of Jesus’ kingship. There’s nothing ironic about celebrating the king Jesus is on Palm Sunday, even as we see the cross looming before us on Good Friday. There’s nothing inconsistent with singing Hosanna in the midst of Lent.
If we think there is, we’ve misunderstood the kind of king Jesus is, and we’ve misunderstood Lent. Lent is a reminder of God’s presence with us in the midst of our times of trial. It’s an assertion that the Jesus who was tempted in the wilderness, who begged God to save him in the Garden of Gethsemane, who was stripped naked in public, tortured, abused, and crucified, is the King. He is always the King. Never is he not the King. On the cross, the powers that be tried to dethrone him, but they couldn’t. They tried to dehumanize him, but they couldn’t do that either. Nothing they did could change who Jesus was and is.
This crucified king, Jesus, is the very one who walks alongside the dehumanized and downtrodden among us. In Protestant churches, we displays empty crosses to remind us that death could not hold Jesus, which is a wonderful point to make, but in the Catholic church they display crucifixes, with Jesus still hanging on the cross, to remind us that Jesus is always present with the oppressed and the hurting, the crucified of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Jesus is with the underdogs. Just as Jesus remained the King, even as he hung on the cross, so those who suffer under the weight of injustice will remain children of God. The powers that be couldn’t change Jesus’ identity, and they can’t change anyone else’s.
As we face the troubles of our world, as we wrestle with the scars of trauma, the fear of violence, the feeling of helplessness in the face of the world’s overwhelming uncertainties, Jesus’ journey to the cross reminds us of his constant presence among us. We do not walk alone.
But more than that, our story today asserts that Jesus is King in the midst of all that. That there are, in the midst of all the troubles of our lives, moments of triumph, when we catch a glimpse of who God is.
Many of us aren’t just in a season of Lent figuratively, we are facing very real hardships in our lives. There’re health concerns, financial difficulties, problems at school and at work, and uncertainties about our futures.
But in the midst of these moments there is a God who promised to never leave us or forsake us. There are moments of celebration even in the midst of struggle. There are moments of laughter even in the midst of grief. There are triumphal entries, even on the road to the cross.
There is a King who will be crucified on Friday, but who will reign for eternity.
 Charles Campbell, “Mark 11:1-11: Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, 157.