Entrance to Holy Week
March 28, 2019
Watch a video of this sermon here.
The line “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread” first appeared in Alexander Pope’s poem An Essay on Criticism, in 1711. The phrase usually refers to inexperienced people diving into things that people with more experience would probably avoid. A few other lines from this poem are also well known – such as “to err is human, to forgive divine;” and “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” But Pope’s “fools rush in” has become an idiom in its own right.
Throughout Mark’s story of this final week, fools are rushing in everywhere:
- The foolish crowds are ready to rush in and crown Jesus as King, in open defiance of Caesar. They are still hoping for a military coup that will overthrow the Roman occupation.
- The foolish chief priests and scribes are determined to maintain the system of temple worship that – let’s face it – is their livelihood. Upsetting the status quo would put them out of a job. They ignore the fact that God is doing a new thing in Jesus, and that God’s kingdom had already broken into their broken system. They foolishly rush in to question Jesus’ authority and they plot to kill him.
- A woman dumps a jarful of costly perfume on Jesus’ head, and Judas is quick to criticize her for wasting this resource. Then, Judas foolishly rushes in to make a deal with the temple leaders, agreeing to turn Jesus over to them – for a price, setting in motion a sequence of events that quickly spiral out of his control.
It’s a busy week, Holy Week. It seems like fools are rushing in from every direction, trying to thwart God’s plan to save the world from itself. It started with the procession we celebrated at the beginning of worship, shouting Hosanna! Lord, save us! On that Palm Sunday, Mark writes that Jesus “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.” (Mark 11:11)
And that brings us to MONDAY of Holy Week:
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
But you have made it a den of robbers.’
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. (Mark 11:12-19)
Mark likes to sandwich stories to illustrate a particular point. Here we have the cleansing of the Temple framed by two seemingly unrelated anecdotes about a fig tree. We’ll hear the second fig tree story in a moment. Right now, we need to pay attention to the point Mark is using the fig tree to illustrate.
N.T. Wright puts it this way: “Jesus has come to Jerusalem, has come to the Temple, the holiest point in the Jewish world, looking for the fruit of repentance, of the wisdom, justice, holiness and peace that should be the marks of God’s people. He has found none.” Mark and the other gospel writers see Jesus’ behavior in the Temple as an acted-out parable of God’s judgment. No one will eat fruit from this tree again.
We pick up the story on …
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’ (Mark 11:20-25)
We like to remember that “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours” part – it’s at the heart of “prosperity theology” promoted by preachers like Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen. They will tell you that God wants you to be wealthy and successful, and if you will stay positive and send your money to their ministries, God will bless you with financial abundance. Just believe that you have already received it, and it will be yours.
This isn’t a new thing, by the way. Similar greed preachers had infiltrated the early church, and Paul called them out as false teachers. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it doesn’t give a complete picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It ignores the next part of Christ’s teaching.
Jesus doesn’t stop at “believe and receive.” He goes on to say something we aren’t always so eager to remember: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in Heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” Receiving what we ask for and forgiving others are inseparable. And do you hear the echo of the Lord’s prayer here?
Maybe it was this call to forgive trespasses that made the temple rulers uncomfortable, as much as the way Jesus challenged how the temple courts had been turned into a marketplace. So they, in turn, challenge his credentials. ‘Who gives you authority to come busting in here, throwing stuff around like you own the place?’ they wanted to know. What gives you the right to talk about forgiveness? Who do you think you are?”
But Jesus is ready for them. Tell me one thing, and I will give you an answer – under whose authority did John baptize people? Did his authority come from people or from God? The scribes and Pharisees are stuck. If they say “people” the people won’t be very happy with them. They are more worried about what the crowds think than about what God thinks. And if they say, “God” they know Jesus will come right back at them with, “Well, why didn’t you believe him, then?” So they shrug their shoulders and shuffle their feet and mutter, “Dunno.” “Fine,” says Jesus. “Then I’m not going to tell you where my authority comes from.” (Mark 11:27-33)
If we’ve been paying attention at all, we know where Jesus gets his authority. “He teaches with authority!” the people in Capernaum had said, when he got rid of an evil spirit back at the beginning of his ministry. (Mark 1:29). And after the Resurrection, Jesus will say, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:19)
The questions about authority were really questions about power. Power was something the temple leaders were used to having. The kind of power Jesus was showing was an obvious threat to them.
While the temple leaders fume about this, Jesus goes on to teach. Chapters 12 and 13 give us a few parables, teachings on the end times, and ways to recognize the kingdom of God. This brings us to …
WEDNESDAY … and we pick up the story in Chapter 14.
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him. (Mark 14:1-11)
How often do we identify with Judas? Maybe we don’t think we are looking for opportunities to betray Jesus, any more than Peter was looking for them when he denied Christ three times. But think about it. How often do we get mad at God when he doesn’t work the way we want him to work? How often do we criticize the way others act, or dress, or speak, just as Judas criticized the woman with the perfume?
And how often are we quick to accuse, pointing out the splinter in someone else’s eye while we have a log in our own? Remember that Satan’s name translates as “Accuser.” How often do we find ourselves doing Satan’s work of accusing, dividing, and limiting others? How often do we act like fools, rushing in to condemn or “correct” someone else, when all Christ asks of us is to love? This brings us to …
The disciples will prepare the Passover meal in the Upper Room. They will argue about which ones of them will have seats of honor next to Jesus. He will take off his outer garment and get down on his knees to wash their feet, and in doing this, he will act just as scandalously as that woman who dumped perfume on his head the day before. He will break bread and pour a cup for all of them to share. Crushed grain and crushed grapes to remember Christ’s body broken for us, and his blood poured out for us.
By Friday, the disciples will have run away, leaving the Son of God to die on a cross. Their hopes for a military overthrow of Rome will evaporate. They will go into hiding. They will weep. They will be afraid. They will find little comfort as they huddle together.
You are invited into Holy Week. Get ready to be uncomfortable. We are peeling back the corner of the rug that has covered up our complacency, our excuses, and our grudges. We are setting aside the foolish idea that we can skip directly from waving palms to cracking open Easter eggs.
You see, you can’t really experience Easter until you’ve walked with Jesus through Holy Week. Resurrection doesn’t make any sense unless you’ve experienced death. Whatever kind of fool you’ve been in the past, it’s time to stop. It’s time to stop shrugging off Christ’s call on your life as something you will think about later. It’s time to stop pretending that what happens between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday isn’t really important.
Even if the people shouting, “Hosanna!” didn’t know what was coming, Jesus did. And he rode into town anyway. Your Savior is about to make the ultimate sacrifice for you. This is nothing to take lightly. Jesus is dead serious. Welcome to Holy Week.
 N. T. Wright, Lent for Everyone: Mark, Year B (p. 118).