A Guest Post by Rebecca Idestrom
This is the ninth in a series of posts engaging with the sermons in Leaps of Faith: Sermons from the Edge. This post is a reflection upon a Palm Sunday sermon entitled “Much Ado about Nothing?” (pp. 103-110). The Scriptural texts for the sermon were Mark 11:1-11 and Psalm 118.
I am one of the people who had the privilege of hearing Dr. Robert Dean preach this very profound sermon in person on Palm Sunday in 2013. I am grateful for the opportunity to “hear” it again by reading and reflecting upon it during this season of Lent. Its message is a timely reminder during this season of the cross.
I want to begin by saying that Rob is a wonderful preacher and I have had the privilege of hearing him preach many times over the years. As this message clearly demonstrates, not only does Rob carefully exegete and expound the meaning of the Scripture passage, Rob also has a wonderful way of weaving illustrations into the sermon. From citing Old and New Testament texts and recounting the intertestamental story of the Maccabees and the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, to quoting Saint Augustine, Shakespeare, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and lines from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Rob is able to engage the listener in fresh and relevant ways. At the same time, the message is deeply anchored in the gospel story itself. Rob reads the biblical text carefully and attentively, demonstrating how strange and “deeply ironic” Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry really is, and by doing so he challenges our assumptions and expectations.
Rob carefully looks at details in the text that may seem incidental to us but for the original audience had great Messianic significance, from the geographical context of the Mount of Olives to the reason why Jesus chose to ride on a donkey, as the kings of Israel used to do in ancient Israel. But here Rob stops to ask the question, “What kind of king needs to borrow a donkey?” “The answer, of course, is the only kind of king who can be of any help to us, a king who comes weak and vulnerable…” The hopes and aspirations of the crowds that this king would overthrow the Romans were dashed when instead a few days later Jesus died on the cross. His kingdom would not come as the people expected. As Rob reminds us, Palm Sunday forces us to admit that we often fail to understand what true power and glory is. “Our king who rode into Jerusalem upon a donkey reveals to us that the ultimate criterion of success is the cross.” That is a hard message to hear and to appropriate! As followers of Jesus Christ we too need to realize that our road is not that of triumphalism and power but rather that of taking up our cross daily and faithfully, following our Lord’s example.
I also appreciate how Rob demonstrates how anti-climactic the ending in Mark’s account truly is, that after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem Jesus just looks around the temple and then simply leaves the temple grounds. It is not what we expect! This reminds me of the fact that there are many things in our journey in life with God, in terms of how God chooses to work, that go against our expectations, hopes and dreams. There is a lot of mystery in life, which calls us to a walk of radical faith and trust in the One who leads us each day. It is learning to live with the tension of understanding only in part or not at all, and wondering what God is really up to and being okay with that (1 Cor 13:9–12)! Having personally faced some very serious health challenges in the last few years makes this even more personal for me. It is not in our strength and power but in our weaknesses, when we are most vulnerable and aware of our desperate need of God, that his power and glory is made evident. When Paul the apostle asked Jesus to remove his “thorn in the flesh” Christ responded to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). That word of assurance was not the answer Paul wanted but it was what he needed to hear. And that word was enough! That is why Paul could proclaim, “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
As Rob so aptly and profoundly reminds us “the ultimate criterion of success is the cross.” The life of being a Christ-follower “is characterized by radical vulnerability” and being part of a profound “community of the cross.” We are invited to know and experience Christ’s power in our weakness as we carry our cross and follow him who accompanies us on this journey. His grace and presence are sufficient to help us persevere in hope. Moreover this also means that we are part of a community of the cross, surrounded by a company of faithful witnesses of those who have gone before us and those who presently journey with us (Heb 12:1–3). We do not walk alone.
So although Palm Sunday may seem like “Much ado about nothing,” in fact, as Rob has so beautifully illustrated, by challenging our worldly expectations and notions about power, success and triumph, it is “much ado about everything.” It is exceedingly significant! It has everything to do with what is most central to our faith as Christians, the cross of Christ. By focusing on the cross, our expectations are turned upside down and that is a good thing!
Rebecca G. S. Idestrom is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.