This morning, we are setting ourselves on a very particular course, following Jesus as he sets his eyes on Jerusalem. As we hear the very familiar story of Jesus’ triumphal entry, I want to point out a few things that will give some color to this story for us:
First, this is absolutely a political act. This is, in many ways, a parody of a Roman military parade, when a victorious king rides into town after battle.
Second, remember that the word “hosanna” is actually a Hebrew and Aramaic word, which means “save us.” What are they asking to be saved from?
Finally, remember that these same crowds, gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover, are the ones who will be calling for his death in a few days. Jesus knows this—he predicts his own betrayal and death in the next few chapters. What’s Jesus thinking as he encounters these joyful, praise-full people?
Scripture: Mark 11:1-11
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,
‘Hosanna! 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.
The very next thing Jesus does, the very next day, is ride back into Jerusalem and flip tables in the Temple. You see, the local merchants had seen a business opportunity—no one wanted to haul a lamb or two doves or a few goats over dirt roads for several days or weeks to offer them as sacrifices in the Temple. So these merchants set up shop in the outer courtyards, selling the animals and grain and whatever else you might need for sacrifices at a premium—and also exchanging currency for a profit.
It sounds like a really smart business plan, right?
Jesus didn’t think so. You see, each courtyard in the Temple was reserved for a particular segment of society—the outermost courtyards were reserved for Gentiles who wanted to pay respects, to pray to this God, or learn more about Judaism. So by filling up the outer courtyards with merchant booths and animals and businesses that were designed to gain a healthy profit, they were not only fleecing their own people, but also preventing the Gentiles from encountering God.
So he cleanses the courtyards. He flips the tables, sets the animals loose, and chases them out—yelling about how this is meant to be a home for God, a place for prayer, but they’ve turned it into a mall.
Right about now, you’re probably thinking “Pastor Sarah, you promised us a sermon on forgiveness. What are you doing.”
I’m telling you all of this not because there is a magical moment at the end of this story in which the Sadducess, who oversaw the Temple, the Pharisees, who oversaw the courts, and Jesus and the Twelve get together and hug it out. That doesn’t happen.
I tell you all of this because the Triumphal Entry, the Cleansing of the Temple, all of the events that take place between now and next Sunday, are designed to provoke tension: to show us the absolute incompatibility between God’s infinite love and the grace that flows from it, and the greed, the hubris, the power-grabbing of humanity.
When the people shout ‘hosanna!’, they don’t have a crucified savior in mind. Jesus knows that this triumphant shouting is a parody of the victorious warrior-king they want—but they don’t.
When Jesus goes to look around the Temple, he doesn’t see a house of prayer for all nations. He sees a marketplace, where God’s people shout and jockey for more profit, more space, more and more and more for me—no matter how that affects anyone else.
And the thing about these stories that makes them so powerful, so insistent, even after two thousand years, is that we can see ourselves in them. We are the people who don’t get it. We are the people who are desperate to find a way around what Jesus asks of us. We are the finicky and easily-swayed people who wave palm branches on Sunday and shout ‘crucify him!’ on Friday.
But. But! The only way we get through these stories, especially when we find ourselves in them, is knowing that we are also the forgiven people. We can endure the week ahead because unlike the Twelve, we know what’s coming. We know that Jesus is mighty to save, that God has already defeated sin and death for us, and nothing can stand in the way of the love that overpowered the grave itself.
The only thing left for us to do is to live as though that’s true.
And consistently, throughout every one of the four gospels and the rest of the New Testament, Jesus is absolutely clear that the best way to live as someone who is forgiven is to forgive.
Like every other spiritual practice we’ve encountered in this season, forgiving sounds great, until you actually have to do it.
Even as I was writing that last paragraph, I thought “ooh, that’s good.”
And then I considered who I might need to offer forgiveness to, and thought “ooh, I don’t want to.”
I hate it when my own sermons come back to bite me.
So let’s consider what forgiveness looks like as a practice—I like to call it “repentance in reverse.”
- To forgive boldly requires us to tell the truth. In the same way that repentance requires acknowledging we’ve done something wrong, forgiving someone else requires us to acknowledge that we’ve been wronged.
There is a difference between forgiveness and denial. To forgive is to say: “that was wrong, and it was not okay, but I’m going to choose to respond in a different way.” This may or may not involve the other person or people. They may not be sorry at all.
But saying “oh, it’s okay” or pretending nothing happened is not forgiveness. That’s just denial. And let me tell you, denial is a whole lot easier than forgiveness. We are, as a society, incredibly uncomfortable with the sort of honesty that true forgiveness requires.
In the same vein, forgiveness must be freely given. It cannot be demanded, coerced, or manipulated.
Just as we cannot sweet-talk God into grace, our forgiveness cannot be wrenched out of us. A demand for forgiveness is not a cry for mercy—it’s just a cover-up.
- Forgiveness requires that we give up our right to vengeance, to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.
Forgiveness also requires us to give up the right to pettiness, snark, passive-aggressive behavior, ranting, gossiping, and all the other indirect routes we’ve developed to get around the ‘eye for an eye.’
In the same way that repenting boldly asks us to make a new choice, to go a new way, so does forgiving boldly.
The Old Testament law, where we get the ‘eye for an eye’ phrase from, was an attempt to systematize and reign in that desire for vengeance. It was designed with an intention toward justice, rather than revenge.
As my friend and mentor, the Rev. Jeffrey Petersen, says about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
“Jesus pushes us beyond our “normal” ways of responding to injury. “You have heard it said, but I say…”
Jesus is teaching with an authority that steps beyond the tradition he was a part of. While The Law provided recourse for living in a sin-filled world, Jesus sought to up-end the sin-filled world as we know it by creating a community that would break the endless cycle of death and vengeance. His vision was for the church to do so, not with violent strength that would force others into submission, but with the unparalleled strength to love enemies, forgive wrongs, and serve those who don’t deserve it.”
- Forgiveness requires that we do our own work. Except in very small things, it is rarely instantaneous and almost never our first choice. It is, first and foremost, about confronting our own feelings, our own needs, and our own desires.
Forgiveness has the potential to heal us and the people who wrong us, to mend relationships and create lasting bonds. On the other hand, it may not change anyone else—it may not automatically repair our relationships. But forgiving boldly will always open possibilities to us that weren’t there before.
Have any of you seen or listened to the Broadway musical “Hamilton?” I am, admittedly, a little obsessed.
There’s a line toward the end of the musical that gets me every single time I listen to it. To make a very long story very short, Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, have suffered public humiliation after Alexander admits an affair in a very public way, and they’ve just lost their oldest son, Philip, after he was injured in a duel that Alexander encouraged. Eliza is grieving, hurt, betrayed and angry, and she shuts him out entirely. Alexander sees his whole world come crashing down around him.
The song is called ‘It’s Quiet Uptown,’ and it sets their unimaginable grief, their horror, and their struggle to move forward amidst a hauntingly beautiful melody. As Eliza slowly re-engages, she opens herself up again to Alexander, and in a moment of unimaginable strength and vulnerability, we hear the chorus ask: “forgiveness—can you imagine?”
Eliza, fully aware of what her husband has done, freely and fully decides on forgiveness, and together they create something new. When he dies in a duel, she devotes her life to carrying on his work—remembering those who fostered revolution, fighting for the abolition of slavery, and even founding New York City’s first private orphanage.
The endless cycle of vengeance and death leaves no room for cultivating life, and life abundant. As we turn our eyes toward Christ’s dying and rising, let us also ask the questions:
What if Jesus, who lived and died and rose again so that I might be forgiven, actually calls me to forgive my enemies? What courage, what strength, what vulnerability would I need to do that?
What might change, in us and in our relationships, if we could forgive boldly?
With that sort of love, we might just turn the world upside down.
Forgiveness—can you imagine?