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If Not Now
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
March 25, 2018
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark
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,
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.
My mother has never been less than half an hour early to a movie in her entire life. I don’t know whether something was sold out at a critical moment in her childhood that has caused her this anxiety, but it has been consistent for our entire relationship; from my childhood on, we have been to more than our fair share of movies together, and I have come to understand that part of the experience of seeing a movie with my mother is the part where you walk into an empty theatre and just kinda double-check for a second because it really doesn’t look like anybody’s going to show a movie there anytime soon and then you spend more of your afternoon that you would have liked either staring at an empty screen, or, in more recent years, watching the incessant B-roll of commercials and bad music videos that take up the time before the theatre actually starts showing the previews that take another twenty minutes before the movie starts. And I admit that I have occasionally wondered how many hours of my life in total I have spent wondering what sort of joyful things I might have accomplished had those hours been returned to me in working order, or, you know, just waiting in the dark for the show to start.
So I’m sympathetic with the crowd in this Palm Sunday story, this Jerusalem crowd that has been waiting for the show to start for longer than I can imagine. My guess is most of us know the Palm Sunday story well enough, we’ve done the palm-waving, we’ve done the Hosannas. We know the beats; Jesus riding on the donkey, the crowd shouting Hosannas. We’ve been in this skit before, we know our parts; we’re six weeks into Lent and we’re ready for the show to begin. And of course the crowd in the story is more than ready for this show. They’re not waiting on Holy Week; there’s not yet any such thing as Holy Week; on the contrary, they’re waiting for this Messiah to arrive in Jerusalem and set the people free. This moment, literally, Jesus on the donkey, riding towards the temple, it looks like the fulfillment of Scripture; it is the culmination of generations of Jewish expectation, it is the long-awaited Messiah now riding into to town to do battle against the forces of Rome and the forces of empire; this is the climactic showdown at the end of the movie; Luke Skywalker walking into the throne room; Harry Potter walking back into the Hogwarts courtyard; this is the climax of everything, Jesus vs. Rome, in the temple, for all the marbles.
And then Mark says that “he … 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.”
Let’s just pause to absorb the strangeness of this for a second. So Harry Potter walks into the courtyard at Hogwarts. Voldemort is there. Wands at the ready. This is the end of the movie. Everybody knows this is the end of the movie. If you pulled out your watch you’d see there’s about fifteen minutes left in the movie so we’ve got just enough time for Harry and Voldemort to go it at once and for all and then we’re done. And then Harry gets into the courtyard, looks around at everything for a second, and then says, “You know what. It’s late. I gotta run. Let’s do this tomorrow.” And walks away. Audiences would revolt. We would find this cinematically unacceptable but it’s exactly what Jesus does at the end of this passage. Goes into the temple with the crowds cheering. Look around for a second. Looks at his watch. Hey guys, it’s getting late. Let’s come back tomorrow. That’s the thing with this Palm Sunday moment. It doesn’t end with Hosannas. It doesn’t end with triumph. It doesn’t even end with the shadow of death. It just ends with a whimper.
The people have been waiting so long, and then Jesus makes them wait even longer. It deserves an explanation, but the text is so spare that it’s hard to find one. Throughout the Gospels Jesus is a figure with a pretty strong sense of timing; my hour has not yet come, he says, more than once, until it has. But there’s no such proclamation here, nor any sense that waiting another 12 hours for this temple showdown is going to move the needle much one way or the other. On the other hand, there is some tradition that says that by time Jesus gets to the temple he’s by himself, and that perhaps he wants to come back when there would be an audience to see his prophetic deeds. Except that this is the Jerusalem temple during Passover, which is a festival that would draw something like 300,000 people to the city all of whom need to make temple sacrifices. That’s roughly half the population of the city on a normal day — imagine if South by Southwest literally brought about a million people to downtown Austin, and you begin to wrap your head around it. There’s not a chance day or night that Jesus shows up the temple during Passover and finds the place empty.
But maybe the crowd itself is the problem. Maybe the scope of it is the problem. If Jesus has shown up in Jerusalem to try and clean up the temple he’s picked a heck of a time to do it, because it’s a mess, literally a mess, that’s what you get when 300,000 people bring their livestock into the city; and, of course, spiritually, it’s a mess, with all the money-changers and all the idolaters and all the bad theology that he’s going to show up and overturn the next day. It’s a mess of almost insurmountable scope, and here comes Jesus, the day’s almost gone, here comes Jesus the Messiah riding in a donkey like one guy with a single bottle of Fabreeze showing up on the last night of South By to clean up Sixth Street and you’re gonna need to come back with something stronger. It’s a big mess, maybe even bigger than Jesus realized. Maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe this mess is going to take longer than he planned. Mark says that Jesus comes into the temple, looks around everything, and then, it was getting late, so he leaves. Maybe once he saw the size of the mess, he realized. This was a full day’s work. Let’s start fresh tomorrow.
It sounds good enough. Lord knows I feel this mess. You know normally on Palm Sunday we find ourselves somewhere in that crowd shouting Hosannas but this week I feel very much the kinship with that other crowd sitting in its filth around the temple, just lost in the mess. After the week just past, those tender days when this city was gripped by terror. In this frayed and fractious moment in our nation’s story. And with the shadow of Lent running so long and Easter still so unfathomable I feel this mess and I join the groaning of creation waiting for Jesus to come and clean this mess up. But what I also know is that when Jesus shows up it’s not easy work. Four verses later Jesus comes back, it’s the next morning, and this time it’s for real. Four verses later, Jesus comes back, and now he’s flipping tables. Four verses later Jesus comes back and now he’s putting us through the ringer. This Palm Sunday moment is the last chance in Mark’s Gospel for this temple crowd to keep going on just like they’ve been going on, the next morning, the real work begins. And I wonder. I wonder as I sit in the dark waiting for the show. I wonder whether the waiting around for Jesus wasn’t a lot more fun than the part where he actually starts working.
One December when I was about eight or nine, all I really wanted for Christmas, more than anything, more than life itself or so I thought, all I really wanted for Christmas was an Atari ST. Now, in retrospect, I wanted the wrong thing. I should have wanted an original Nintendo, or, as a fallback, maybe a Sega. But the heart wants what it wants, and what I wanted was an Atari ST, according to my bad research the latest and greatest video game system on the planet, wanted like nothing else I’d ever wanted. I’d played one at a friend’s house and you know how that goes. And then, wonder of wonders, with some days left until Christmas morning, this box appeared under the tree. It was a box of significant size. It was addressed to me. It was the fulfillment of all God’s promises, or at least it probably was, somewhere in my imagination. Somewhat like Schrödinger’s Cat, which is both alive and dead until somebody opens the flap to look, the mystery underneath that wrapping paper was almost too much for my expectantly beating heart to stand.
And so I peeked.
I’m not proud of this. But here we are. I couldn’t stand the wait any longer, so one night when I had some clearance. I came down to the tree, and I peeked. Gingerly as I could, I peeled back one corner of the paper, I looked underneath the flap, and there it was, clearly indicated, the outline of something electronic painted on the side of a box. Some wires? Part of a joystick? It was enough. I knew enough. I put that paper back just where it was and scurried back to my room in exuberant relief. I was getting exactly what I’d been waiting for. And then Christmas morning came. And I ripped off that paper I had so surgically engineered the week before. And what I found, instead, was an Apple computer. Now, in 2018 it will sound insane that anybody would ever have wanted an Atari and been disappointed instead to get an Apple but the 80s were a strange decade. But moreover, as my parents explained. You could play games on it. But you could also get work done. That’s a different kind of present altogether. That’s a present that expects something. And so this thing I had waited for so long. It was not there just to entertain me. It needed something from me. It was not quite what I expected. Mostly because now it was waiting for me.
The truth is I don’t entirely know why Jesus leaves and comes back the next day. I’ve been wrestling with this verse for two weeks; I haven’t found a commentator who wants to take it as seriously as I want to take it; maybe it is nothing more than a blip. But I think I know why the question has so possessed me. Because there is something so deeply alluring about this moment. The moment when Jesus has arrived, when we’ve peeked around the wrapping paper and seen exactly what we wanted, the fulfillment of all our prophecies, the fulfillment of all our expectations, the moment when the uncertainty has come to an end, the moment right before Jesus asks us to do anything in return. The moment right before it gets hard. The moment right before the tables turn. The moment right before Jesus sits us down and tells us to love one another. The moment right before we get our hands dirty. The moment right before we go looking for silver or we go looking for absolution. The moment right before we hang Jesus on the cross and watch him die. The moment right before the show starts is also the moment right before it asks anything of you. It is, in every way, the easy part.
But it is not where we live. Palm Sunday is a deeply ironic day; there is something so innocent about this crowd waiting eagerly for something they don’t fully understand. But we know better. We know where this goes. We know that the real story of this Holy Week isn’t us waiting for Jesus. We know the real story of this Holy Week is Jesus waiting for us. Jesus waiting for us to join this march for the restoration of God’s justice. Jesus waiting for us to join him at the table of all God’s people. Jesus waiting for us to gather around the cross and witness to the love at the center of all God’s creation. Jesus waiting for us to follow him from the tomb into the wondrous work yet to be done. There is so much mess. But Jesus is already moving, alongside all of those who cry out for peace. Jesus is already coming, alongside all of those who labor for mercy. Jesus is already at work, alongside all of those who stand in the breach. Jesus has been here early, working in the dark, and Jesus will stay here late, long after the lights go out, and next Sunday morning, before I open my eyes, before you open your eyes, before these women go to the garden and see the stone rolled away, next Sunday morning before any of us can move a muscle, Jesus will already be at work, loving us in the dark, longing for us in the dark, watching over us in the dark, waiting for the show to start.
Thanks be to God.