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Palm Sunday

Preaching Mark's Gospel
A Narrative Approach
"When they were approaching Jerusalem." These words open the Palm Sunday text. Jerusalem has been the destination of Jesus for the last several chapters in Mark. We come, therefore, to a geographical shift in the location of the action in the Gospel of Mark. We move from Galilee to Jerusalem. We also move from Part One to Part Two of Mark's Gospel.

Mary Ann Tolbert has given detailed attention to this shift in the story. She notes that each part of Mark's Gospel begins with a kind of summary of the action that will follow. Mark 1:14-15 announces that Jesus came into Galilee, where Part One of the story will take place. He came preaching the Gospel. He came as the Sower of the Word! The words of Jesus give full expression to what is to come: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). Part One of Mark's story is set in Galilee, Jesus sows the Word, people are called to believe the Word they have heard. The plot synopsis of Part One, the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20), makes it clear that there will be a variety of ways in which people hear the Word. We have spoken much about the Parable of the Sower as the plot synopsis of Part One of Mark's Gospel.

Mark 11:1 announces the geographical change. Jesus leaves Galilee. He comes to Jerusalem. The role of Jesus in this part of the Gospel is proclaimed by the crowd. "Hosanna! ƒ Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David" (Mark 11:9-10). In Part One of the Gospel the emphasis was on the message. In Part Two, the emphasis is on the nature of the messenger. "Both of these elements, however, are part of the same interconnected and interwoven story, for the preacher of God's good news is the heir of David's throne in a world deeply gone awry."1 The plot synopsis for this part of Mark's story is the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-11). The "heir of the vineyard," the "beloved son," is killed by wicked and evil men.

Tolbert points out, furthermore, that Mark 1:1-11 also introduces some of the "major shifts of emphasis that characterize the second part." For the first time in the Gospel story Jesus knows in advance what is to happen in the immediate future. He sends his disciples ahead into a village to secure a colt for his entry into Jerusalem. Nearly every word in the story rings out with overtones of Old Testament imagery. Another striking difference between this story and what has gone before is the public acclamation of Jesus' identity. All through Part One of Mark Jesus asks that his identity be kept secret. Now, however, the whole world is to know!2 "Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!' " (Mark 11:9).

The standard commentaries and the footnotes in a good Bible give us the many Old Testament references in these few verses. Mark has not drawn so heavily on the Hebrew Bible before in telling his story. There is an obvious signal here that the event taking place, the entry into Jerusalem, is of utmost importance to our storyteller!

One of the Old Testament stories that is seldom given as a reference but which is of great importance in grasping the nature of this event is 1 Kings 1. This story comes at the end of one of the two oldest pieces of Hebrew literature, the Succession Document: 2 Samuel 6:16 „ 1 Kings 2:46. This document is understood by many students of the Bible as the story of the succession of Solomon to David's throne. How was it that Solomon succeeded David? That was one of the most important questions that the people of Israel ever asked. The Succession Document gives the answer.

The theme of the Succession Document is stated clearly in 1 Kings 1:20, 27: "ƒ who should sit on the throne of my lord the king after him?" David answered the question by saying that God had revealed to him that it would be Solomon (vv. 29-30). David then called for Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoida and told them to make preparations for a royal coronation. Solomon was to ride to the coronation on a mule! (v. 33). The trumpet was to blow, and when it blew the people shouted: "Long live King Solomon" (vv. 34, 39). "And all the people went up following him, playing on pipes and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth quaked at their noise" (v. 40).

This story of Solomon's coronation is clearly the model for what happened on Palm Sunday. Jesus took action to make the entry into Jerusalem an event parallel with this story of Solomon! It was clear to everyone on hand that day what was happening. A king was ascending his throne. A coronation was in progress.

The people must have loved it! They had been waiting a thousand years for this event. "Are you the one who is to come or do we look for another?" That was the question of the ages in Israel. And now it had come to pass. The king was here. The promise was fulfilled. The time of power and glory and triumph was at hand. That is, of course, the irony of the whole event. The people who took part in this coronation entry into Jerusalem were filled to overflowing with hopes for this One. But we come to this event in the context of Mark's Gospel. We have heard Jesus utter three "passion/resurrection" predictions. We have heard it over and over that Jesus comes to Jerusalem to be delivered to the chief priests, to be condemned to death, to be spit upon and scourged and raised up on a tree of death. A king will be crowned. This is so. But the cross will be the place of coronation.

Homiletical Directions

Story One for a Palm Sunday sermon might begin in the Old Testament with the story we have referred to of Solomon's coronation in 1 Kings 1. This story, too, needs some background. The key messianic text in the Old Testament is 2 Samuel 7:8-16. This is God's promise to David that God would raise up David's offspring after him to rule in his place. "I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever," God says to David. "I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me ƒ Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:13-14, 16). The coronation of Solomon is the first great fulfillment of this promise of an everlasting monarchy. God made a promise. The promise has been fulfilled. That's the heart of the telling of these stories from 2 Samuel and 1 Kings.

The history of God's fulfillment of this promise, however, ran into hard times. The exile was the end of the monarchy! How was God to fulfill the promise now? For the most part Israel did not lose faith in God's promise. "Are you the one to come or are we to look for another?" Every generation of Israel raised this question. And then one day, there he was. Jesus rode into Jerusalem just like Solomon did! Telling the story of today's text with ample reference to Old Testament references can be our Second Story for today's sermon. It is a joyous story. God's word of promise is fulfilled. It's party time.

But ƒ those of us who come to this story through a reading of Mark's Gospel cannot be filled with joy. We have heard Jesus predict his passion three times: Mark 8:31; Mark 9:30-31; 10:32-34. We might want to tell of these "passion/resurrection" predictions in order to change our mood about this Palm Sunday joy! We know why Jesus enters Jerusalem. It is not to reign in triumph. It is to be hung on a cross.

The Palm Sunday story in itself is a story of great hope. We can celebrate. When we look back, however, we see these "passion/resurrection" predictions that darken the mood for us. When we look forward we encounter the same mood of darkness and foreboding. It might be well to tell at this point the story of the Parable of the Tenants. We have referred to this story as the plot synopsis of Part Two of Mark's Gospel. It is a story, however, that will not appear in the pericopes for the Markan year. Palm Sunday might be an appropriate time to tell this story which is so vital to Mark's carefully structured tale.

The Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard is a story which casts instant light on the Palm Sunday story. The Heir of the Vineyard enters the city in triumph. This parable, however, makes it abundantly clear what it is that will happen to the Heir. "Finally he sent him (the beloved son!) to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But those tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him ƒ ' " (Mark 12:6-7).

Palm Sunday is, indeed, coronation Sunday! The God-promised king has come at last. This is the one we are looking for. But the world will have none of it. Evil raises its head. The "beloved son" is overpowered. He is condemned and murdered just as Jesus had foreseen. We learn something vitally important about God here. God does not come to overpower us. God does not come to override our human evil and impose a king upon us. God comes, rather, in the weakness of love. God is revealed in hiding, as Luther often said. God is revealed in a cross. God is revealed in death. This surely is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief!

The word spoken to us by the "beloved son" who rides in the Palm Sunday parade is not a word that calls us to join him in celebration. Ultimately, the word of the "Palm Sunday God" goes something like this: "I have not come as a Mighty God to meet you in your strength. I have come as a Crucified God to meet you in your weakness. I have come to meet you at the depth of your human suffering. I have come to meet you when you walk in the valley of the shadow of death. I have come to meet you when you stand at the very gates of hell. I have come to walk with you in your darkness. I have come to walk with you in the night that you might one day walk with me in the light. Amen."


1. Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing The Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 114-115.

2. Ibid., p. 119.

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