Jesus as Messiah

What We Want

Mark 11:1-11 (NRSV)

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
   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!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.


Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the crowd, while certainly varying in size and makeup, acts like an individual character in the story. Mark’s crowd also represents every person trying to interpret the nature and ministry of Jesus.

So, what does this teeming crowd of Jews gathered for the Passover want? And more importantly, what is the crowd missing as the day unfolds?

Instant Gratification

What the crowd wants is for Jesus to act—now! He has made clear his claim to be the Christ; this planned act to ride a donkey colt into Jerusalem screams out the prophecy the Jews knew from Zechariah 9:9.

These are for the most part an oppressed people who cry, “Hosanna,” which literally means, “O Lord, save!” There was an expectation that the messiah would do a lot of uprooting and overturning, leading a rebellion against the hated Roman Empire and their puppet Jewish leaders.

In other words, the people in the crowd wanted a messiah for their time. It is interesting how anticlimactic the end of this passage is in Mark. I get the impression that the crowd, having not seen fire fall from the sky or heard a call to arms, has melted away, perhaps more than a little disappointed.

In Mark, Jesus will continue to arouse people in Jerusalem from time to time, cleansing the temple and teaching lessons that anger the priests and other Jewish leaders. The crowd never gets what it wants, however, and likely is the same crowd eventually calling for Jesus’ death.

The Bigger, Bloodier Picture

Thank God, however, that the crowd did not get what it wanted, a worldly warrior king. A messiah for their time certainly would have affected us, but not in the powerful ways Jesus changes our lives. Jesus proved his kingship not with worldly might. Instead, he rose to the throne over all creation by making himself a sacrifice for sin, from a human perspective an almost incomprehensible strategy.

To understand the radically sacrificial nature of the messiah, we have to back up in the story and see some of the subtle signs Jesus gave as he made his journey.

We are told Jesus approached Jerusalem from Bethphage and Bethany, meaning he traveled through the Kidron Valley, entering Jerusalem through its eastern gate. Being the time for Passover, the trip itself abounds with symbols of sacrifice.

Animals destined for slaughter at the temple would have been driven along the same route, up from the fields where they grazed. The great sacrifice, the ultimate atonement for all people in all times, the Lamb of God, traveled the road with the little sacrifices of the day.

The Kidron Valley also reminds us what a bloody religion Judaism and Christianity are. What went up through the valley also, in a sense, came back down. The blood from thousands of lambs had to be flushed from the temple, and this blood mixed with water drained directly from the temple mount into the valley. Some Bible dictionaries suggest that the word Kidron may derive from a Hebrew word meaning, “to become black.”

That one great, bloody sacrifice—God in flesh, hanging on a cross—made possible salvation for all the world. God loves the Jews, but he was working through them to save the whole world, to do more than just prop them up as a dominant global theocracy.

The crowd expected God to do great things. They just couldn’t imagine how great.

Nothing New Under the Son

We are so often like the crowd in Mark. Even as followers of Christ, we limit our expectations of an infinitely wise and loving God.

Much too often, we root our church planning and even our theology in what we want, rather than what God seems to be planning for the world now that Christ has made possible salvation. We too often want Christianity for our time and place.

I see this on a small scale in the local church. On more than one occasion, as a congregation has prepared to make changes to better reach people for Christ, I have had members ask me, “Can you not wait and do that after I die?”

One member was in her 60s and in reasonably good health, and she asked the question without a hint of irony!

On a larger scale, denominations—especially our own—are wrestling with whether biblically based beliefs should be modified to better fit contemporary issues. When we do this, what we seek is a messiah for today, rather than a Savior for all times, one who guides us toward the holiness revealed to us through Scripture by an unchanging God.

We have to ask ourselves some hard questions: Do I think the work of the church is about me and the time in which I live? Or do I think the work of the church moves us toward a time God has promised us, a time when we are gathered from across eras and places to dwell with God forever?

When we were children, our parents taught us an important lesson: Running with the crowd can be dangerous.

Our parents were right.


The featured image is “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem,” a fresco at the Nativity of the Theotokos Church in Macedonia.

Advertisements

God’s Pawn

Life can seem pretty tough at times, even if you are certain you are following God’s will. In a world filled with evil, being on the front line for God can be exhausting, and exhaustion can lead to doubt and even despair.

We see it in the Old Testament in the prophet Elijah. At the height of his ministry, he overcame the priests of Baal in a battle of prayers and worship, bringing the destruction of those who were leading the Israelites astray. And yet, when faced with the evil Jezebel just a short time later, Elijah for all practical purposes ran away and collapsed in a heap in the wilderness, asking God to take his life.

We see it in our New Testament text for this third Sunday in Advent. Jesus would declare to the crowds that John the Baptist is “Elijah”—that is, John the Baptist was the prophet the people had been expecting, the one sent by God to declare the arrival of the Messiah. And yet, in the story, John the Baptist comes across as uncertain and even confused as he sat in prison.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” he asked Jesus through messengers.

When you consider all of John the Baptist’s story, it is an astonishing question. If he was not certain, who can be certain?

To understand John the Baptist, you have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the mother of the Messiah before he has seen the world.

We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate how much time they spent together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.

When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he seemed certain enough, preaching a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus came to be baptized, he seemed certain enough, protesting that Jesus should baptize him and not vice-versa. In the Gospel of John, he seemed certain enough when he first saw Jesus, declaring, “Here is the Lamb of God.”

It would seem the uncertainty crept in during imprisonment, which happened after the prophet rebuked Jewish King Herod for taking his brother’s wife as his own. Just as it was with Elijah, there’s no telling what caused doubt to creep in. Certainly, for a man who had lived all his life freely outdoors, eating locusts and honey and going where the Spirit drove him, being locked in a cell must have been disorienting.

Perhaps as a prophet, John the Baptist also began to sense where all of this was going. He wasn’t going to leave the cell alive. In fact, he was going to have his head delivered on a platter to a dancing girl and her spiteful mother. Had John the Baptist heard of chess, he might have begun to use the word “pawn” to describe himself, feeling like a disposable piece in God’s grand plan.

Jesus’ answer to his cousin’s question was not the obvious “Yes, I am the one,” the answer that would have provided comfort. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus told the messengers. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Here is what I hear in this response: “John, you are a prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit. You know the signs; you know the answer.”

We do not know how John the Baptist received that response. The range of possibilities would run from despair to joy, I suppose.

I believe that like his Old Testament predecessor, Elijah, John the Baptist at least moved from doubt to strength. An angel of the Lord ministered to Elijah; messengers from Jesus returned to John. I think their straightforward words would have fed him spiritually, giving him a renewed faith that God’s kingdom was present through Jesus.

As I study John the Baptist, I’m also reminded how much Jesus loved his cousin, even if his reply was almost businesslike in its tone. When Jesus heard of John the Baptist’s beheading, he took to a boat to find a deserted place—he was grieving. And when the people found him, one of Jesus’ great acts of compassion occurred, the feeding of the 5,000.

When we find ourselves exhausted and doubtful, perhaps even feeling like pawns, it is good to remember we worship a God who treasures every piece in his creation. This life may not always go as we hope, but we need not doubt the joy God’s plan ultimately brings us.