Over these last few weeks there has been a strong sense of a looming climactic event up ahead. First the troops were massed on the Iraqi border. Then they crossed over the border and the journey to Baghdad began. There have been twists and turns. But there has also been a sense of inevitability. TV graphics have traced the progress of the coalition forces towards the capital. And then finally they entered the city, and over these last few days we've seen how events have unfolded, intertwining triumph and tragedy. And now a new era has begun for Iraq.
As you read the Gospel accounts of the weeks leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus, you get that same powerful sense of a looming climactic event - only this event is infinitely more significant even than the fall of Baghdad.
We're in our short pre-Easter series on the Testing and Triumph of Christ. You'll see on the back of the service sheet that my title this morning is 'The Crowds'. There's space there for you to jot down my headings - I'll give you those in a moment. The passage we're looking at is that account of the Palm Sunday entry of Jesus in to Jerusalem in Mark 11. Do please find that in the Bibles in the pews - it's on p 1016: Mark 11.1-11.
If you're in the middle of a crowd all going in a certain direction, or all reacting in a certain way, it's intensely difficult to respond differently. You have to have a clear head, strong convictions, a deep commitment to your alternative course of action, and a willingness to face whatever may be the consequences of taking a line independent from that of the crowd.
If you're in a full St James's Park on a Saturday afternoon when Newcastle score, it's very difficult not to leap to your feet with everyone else, screaming your head off in rather undignified fashion. It's hard to resist the crowd. It's a lot more serious when the issue is the crowd's reaction to God in the person of his Son.
What each of us needs to learn is how to follow Jesus, whatever's happening around us, and whatever direction the crowd is going. This passage can help us. It deepens our understanding of the full significance of those Easter events. It also gives us insight into the way the crowd works.
So I want us to focus first on the city, then on this colt that Jesus rides, and finally on the crowd. And there's a key lesson in relation to each of those. In relation to the city, the lesson is this: Jesus brings in a new age. That's my first heading. Then my second heading in relation to the donkey colt is this: Jesus shows he is the King. And thirdly: The reaction of the crowd is right but unreliable.
So we'll think first about the city.
First, JESUS BRINGS IN A NEW AGE
Why do I say that? It's because of what lies behind that first phrase, there in verse 1:
As they approached Jerusalem…
It sounds almost like an insignificant aside, but it's loaded with meaning - rather like saying, in a very different context, 'as the Americans approached Baghdad'.
Jerusalem is at the centre of the old order. And the old order is about to be swept away by Jesus. The truth is that Jerusalem is under judgement. Why? Because Israel has proved itself to be unfruitful. It has utterly failed to be what God called it to be. It's in the process of rejecting God himself in the person of his Son.
That's made crystal clear in three incidents that follow hard on the heels of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.
First, there's the cursing of the fruitless fig tree by Jesus. That's in verses 12-14.
A fruit tree that doesn't bear fruit is discarded. We have a blackcurrant bush. It's hardly produced anything for years. We've been patient. We've pruned, and then pruned again. We've fed it. We've done everything. And we've decided: if it doesn't produce a decent crop this season, it's going onto the bonfire.
The fig tree is a common Old Testament symbol for Israel. The curse that Jesus puts on it that causes it to wither is a sign of impending judgement on the nation.
Next there's the violent clearing of the Temple by Jesus in verses 15-17.
Then at the start of chapter 12 there's Jesus' telling of the Parable of the Tenants. A vineyard is another common Old Testament image for Israel. The tenants of the vineyard are Israel's leaders. They kill the son of the owner - that is, God's Son Jesus. And Jesus finishes with these chilling words:
"What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others."
All of this is spelled out in Luke's account of the triumphal entry. Luke 19.41-44 adds this to what Mark tells us:
As [Jesus] approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you had only known on this day what would bring you peace - but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God's coming to you."
Why this terrible judgement? '… because you did not recognise the time of God's coming to you.' When God came to them in Jesus, they killed him.
Thirty years after Jesus there was a Jewish revolt against the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. It was ruthlessly crushed. Jerusalem was laid waste, and the Temple was reduced to rubble.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus it is no longer Jerusalem and the Temple which is the focus of God's presence with his people. It is Jesus himself. He brings in a new era.
I have the purchase of a certain building on my mind at the moment. When a new owner takes possession, it's a new start. The old owners depart. There's a period of transition. Then the new owners take over.
The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem marks a transition to a new era in how God relates to his people. God's people will no longer be those who relate to him through the Temple and its sacrifices. They will be those who know him through faith in his crucified and risen Son Jesus.
So this little phrase at the start of Mark 11 - 'As they approached Jerusalem' - marks the end of a long and momentous journey. Some time before, Luke records, 'Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.' Jesus - not Pilate, not the Chief Priest - was the true ruler of Jerusalem. Despite all outward appearances, their fate, and the fate of the city, was in his hands. Jesus was coming to die in Jerusalem. Jesus would rise from the dead in Jerusalem. Jesus loved Jerusalem. But Jesus was bringing judgement on Jerusalem.
Where does that leave us? Here are two things for us to take to heart. First, realise that it's not religion, but your relationship with Jesus that counts now.
You don't have to be very old to face up to the implications of that, and to understand it. I grew up with a great deal of religion. Traditional church every Sunday. Chapel every day at school. But in my early teens - Pathfinder age - I realised it wasn't religion I needed. It was Jesus. And I began to deal with him direct. And my life was turned upside down. Realise that it's not religion, but your relationship with Jesus that counts.
Secondly, recognise that in Jesus it is God himself who is confronting you. If we come under judgement, why will it be? It will be… 'because you did not recognise the time of God's coming to you', as Jesus said of Jerusalem's response to him. Jesus is the one with whom we have to deal. Our eternal destiny hangs on how we react to him. Not on religion. Because Jesus brought in a new age when he came to Jerusalem to complete his mission.
So that's the first thing to learn, in relation to Jerusalem: Jesus brings in a new age. The second lesson relates to the colt - this young donkey that Jesus rides. It is this:
Secondly, JESUS SHOWS HE IS THE KING
When Jesus needs something he gets it. So he makes arrangements for his disciples to go and collect this young donkey (we know it's a donkey from the other gospel accounts). Verse 4:
They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, 'What are you doing, untying that colt?' They answered as Jesus had told them to [that is, they said 'The Lord needs it'], and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it.
What's Jesus up to? He's fulfilling a prophecy about the arrival of the Messiah that God gave through Zechariah centuries earlier. It's in Zechariah 9.9. We heard it read earlier. It says this:
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of donkey.
We know for sure that this is the right prophecy for this occasion because Matthew tells us. He says in Matthew 21.4:
This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet…
… and then he quotes this passage from Zechariah. So what does Jesus mean by this? He means that this picture of the entry of God's anointed King into Jerusalem applies to him. And by extension from that, he means that all the messianic prophecies of Zechariah refer to him. Zechariah speaks of the day when the Good Shepherd will be struck dead. And the significance of that is there in Zechariah 13.1, where he says:
On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.
The death of God's chosen King will open the floodgates of God's mercy and forgiveness. His blood will become like a fountain that washes God's people clean of all their sin and frees them from the threat of judgement.
But it will take an extraordinary and unique King who will give his life to serve his people in this way. A King who is right with God his Father in every way. A Saviour King. A King gentle and humble enough to come not to be served but to serve.
A few years ago Newcastle United won the First Division Championship. Because it was the closest the Magpies have come to winning anything significant for many years, the team paraded and hundreds of thousands turned out to see it - including me and a very young Ben. The team bus went right by us - Keegan himself in pride of place. I was waving to Kevin when I suddenly realised that he was talking to me from the top of the bus. He said, 'Mind your lad.' He was worried that Ben was about to get run over. I was impressed that, rather than soaking up the adulation, he was concerned for one small boy at the front of the crowd. I was also pleased because it would have been a bit difficult to explain to Vivienne if Ben had been run over by the Newcastle United team bus.
The salvation of the world will need a King who will ride into his capital without pomp and ceremony, and without a great army at his back. In other words, it will take King Jesus. By riding in on that donkey, Jesus is saying, 'I am the King the world needs. I have come to die so that a cleansing fountain will be opened for those who are truly my people.' He is just and merciful, gentle and powerful.
Last summer we were in London for the Queen's Jubilee. We waited for a long time on the Strand for her to come by. The route was lined with armed soldiers. We knew she was coming because of the massive procession of cavalry and vehicles and artillery that blazed her trail. Then there she was in a shimmering golden coach. Deeply impressive.
But Jesus needed none of that. A young donkey was enough for the crowd to get the point. They knew what he was saying. The authorities knew what he was claiming. All those prophecies about the Messiah: he was the one.
So learn that second lesson from these verses: Jesus shows he is the King. Praise him for his majesty. And rejoice in his humility - which leads him to the cross to die for our sins.
Then the third lesson comes clear as we consider the crowd.
Thirdly, THE REACTION OF THE CROWD IS RIGHT BUT UNRELIABLE
It's clear that what Jesus did that day was not an obscure gesture hidden away, as it were, from the TV cameras. This crowd was obviously familiar with the Zechariah prophecy of the Messiah entering Jerusalem on a donkey. And they already had high expectations of what Jesus would do. There had been a lot of talk about him being the Messiah. This was now the moment they'd been waiting for. Their delight is obvious. As Jesus enters the city, this is what happens (this is from verse 8):
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, 'Hosanna!' 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!' 'Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!' 'Hosanna in the highest!'
'Hosanna' is a cry of praise that means 'Save us!'. 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!' is a welcome to the Messiah - Jesus applies it to himself in the following days. Both of those phrases come from Psalm 118 which was traditionally sung during the period of the Passover festival which the people are preparing for here. It was a kind of 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' of that time. 'Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David' refers to the promise that God gave King David that an eternal kingdom would be established ruled by a King in David's line.
So it's quite clear that they reckon Jesus is the saviour King they've been hoping for. Jesus is a very visible and public figure by this stage. He's a big celebrity. The crowds have been swirling around him since early on in his ministry.
But what this crowd didn't realise was that the Messiah would be rejected and suffer and die before he returned in glory. They wanted their salvation now. They wanted the Romans out now. They were not prepared for things to get worse first.
They were right to welcome Jesus as the coming Messiah. But their expectations were wrong. Jesus had spelled it all out, but they weren't listening. They had another agenda. All the signs of that were there earlier on in Jesus' ministry. So John 6.15 says:
Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
The crowd wanted to manipulate Jesus. Ironically, they wanted to rule the one they were proclaiming their king. Jesus was having none of it. He won't let us use him for our own purposes. He calls us to follow him whatever the cost.
Crowds are dangerous things. Their mood swings about, sometimes wildly. They can turn on you if you get the wrong side of them. The religious leaders knew that - so 11.32 says 'they feared the people'. Jesus, of course, was always fully aware of that. He even said to his closest followers - never mind the fickle crowd - 'you will all fall away' (that's 14.27).
And crowds can be manipulated. Look what happens in the course of a few days. Here they're praising him to the skies. In the next chapter (12.37) 'the large crowd listened to him with delight.' But in another day or two their tune is very different. The religious leaders picked their moment. 15.11:
… the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead [of Jesus]. 'What shall I do with the one you call the king of the Jews?' Pilate asked them. 'Crucify him!' they shouted… Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Fear is a great motivator for all of us, not least a crowd. We've seen that in Baghdad. Only on Friday of the week before last, the news was full of reports of cheering crowds rushing to Saddam Hussein, and smiles, and babies being kissed as he did his walkabout. Then five days later the bulletins were all of jubilant crowds tearing down his statue and unleashing their anger.
What we have to be sure of is that we fear God more than we fear the crowd. I was watching a thriller the other day and a government agent was interrogating a terrorist. He asked the interpreter, 'Is he willing to die?' 'Yes,' was the answer. And the interrogation ended there, because no-one has power over you if you're willing to die for what you believe. Are you willing to die for Jesus? That's the bottom line.
Don't fear force - whether it's the power of the crowd, or of those who seek to manipulate it. The days are coming - indeed, in all sorts of ways they are already here - when faithful followers of Jesus will have to stand firm against the crowd. Don't fear force. Fear God. And don't follow the crowd. Follow Jesus. He is just and merciful. He is gentle and powerful. Victory in the end is his. He is the King. Fear no-one else. Follow him.