After the service last week when we were sharing news with each other a comment was made, forgive me if I misquote, ‘your face is telling a story.’ That sparked off my thinking for this week’s service. Palm Sunday and indeed Holy Week contains so much imagery that there is no need to use too many words.
This week I want us to think on how the visual is backing up the verbal. How often when we are telling or retelling an event we try to get the listener to create a pictorial image in their mind’s eye. We use adjectives to describe the most basic thing in an attempt to somehow give it life. When writing a sermon, for example, I don’t want it to sound like a boring dry old stick. (I will leave you to decide how successful I am at that) I want it to have life and vibrancy. Probably none more so than since we have been on zoom for our services. I have been using videos for the hymn words and images during prayers or as part of the service in other ways. The words and the images have to combine for those who are listening in on their landlines and not able to see the screen I am sharing with others. I would rather use less words than more. I would rather encourage people to arrive at their own conclusions instead of giving every solitary word and detail that leaves no room for imagination or indeed for the spirit to move us and challenge us.
We have seen this unfold on several occasions throughout the gospel according to Mark. The disciples and the crowds who are on the fringes have heard verbal teachings by Jesus and they do, or do not understand what they hear. When the gospel moves forward to the visual things the people are left in no doubt for they quite literally have seen with their own eyes.
Reading: Mark 11:1-11
As Jesus enters this complex and volatile city the crowds are waving and greeting him. It is there for all to see, this exterior celebration, but the unseen cannot be denied either, we cannot ignore the underlying tensions. There may be a disconnect between verbal and visual as far as the crowds are concerned.
Remember there are religious tensions as the Pharisees and Priests have already judged Jesus as a threat to their positions of power. There are political tensions as the campaign to free their nation is in full swing and zealots like Barabbas are in prison. There are nationalistic tensions as Jesus is welcomed as a king in a land that is governed by an empire that towers over all it has conquered. It was a noisy world then just as it is now. I think then just as now sometimes the volume of the shouting may have been more forceful than the quality of the argument being pushed forward. Our world of today informs our attitudes and decision making process by sending voices and images directly into our homes via the Internet and social media. Big business spends a great deal to communicate many messages, and more recently the effect of social media can be seen to have a potentially powerful impact and not always a positive one as we have witnessed lately. Perhaps crowd-based influence such as we witness on that first Palm Sunday is giving way in a technological world to cloud-based influence. The world might have changed a lot and become more inter-connected by technology, but there is always great energy and power created when a crowd gathers. The scene from our reading is set to place the crowd in some sort of euphoric state but remember deep down their emotions would have been in turmoil. Some would have been hoping for home rule, to see the soldiers go home. Some would be believing that the one who comes is from the Lord acclaiming their saviour, their king. Hosanna to the Son of David. Others would want an end to the killings and see Barabbas freed. Others would quite simply be there cheering hosanna and not fully recognising what is going on or why. Yet others would be defiantly saying no to Caesar. The triumphal entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem has been celebrated with particular solemnity since the first centuries of Christianity. From ancient times, palm-branches were symbols of victory and triumph. The Romans used to reward champions of the games with palm-branches military triumphs were observed with palms. It seems that the Jews followed the same custom of carrying palm-branches on their festive occasions. Jesus’ presence sets Jerusalem in turmoil, just as it was at His birth, and would be at His crucifixion, several days later.
Jesus was not entering a foreign city. He was entering the city which symbolised everything about His faith and His scriptures, God’s promise to Israel. To confront one’s own faith and its traditions is painful. This is part of the drama of the event. The Scribes and the Pharisees became alarmed and decided to stop Him at any cost. One final piece of imagery for us to ponder. Imagine you are the Roman officer charged with checking out this report of a parade headed up by someone who is being claimed as king of the people before and over Caesar. You have attended many processions in the great city of Rome and you know how things are done properly. The leading general sits on a chariot of gold, wheel spikes flash in the sun, as great stallions strain at the reins. Flags and banners taken from the defeated armies are proudly displayed and then right at the end of all this pomp and ceremony comes the stragglers, the slaves, the prisoners in chains as a reminder of what happens to those who defy the might of Rome. As you approach this so called rebellious kingly procession, you cannot identify it as an unruly mob, you look around for the general who is leading and you see a man sitting on a donkey. This procession is full of adoring followers; the lame and the blind, the children and the peasants, these are the ones who fill the ranks of this parade. You now have to report back on the vision you have witnessed. How will you find the words that will adequately explain the visual? But don’t worry yourself too much or for too long. There are a lot more than you going to experience that same feeling over the next few days. This rather strange subverted model of power, exercised in gentleness and compassion challenges the systems of reason and understanding, not only in the first century Roman world but also their equivalents in our own world today. However weak it may first appear a radical Jesus, who is the rightful king, has now entered the city and approaches the heart of all that stands against the kingdom of God. The issues are about obedience and fulfilling the work of God.
Jesus continually reminds us of the true signs of servant-hood they have much less to do with glory, and more to do with acts of healing, wholeness, justice and compassion. It is this subversive, radical power that Christ unleashes on the world through the events of the coming week.
May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make His face to shine upon you, the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and bring you peace.