As a sports fan, the beginning of April is an exciting time. As the month begins, March Madness leads into the spectacle of the Final Four, the first pitches of Opening Day signal the beginning of the baseball season, and professional basketball and hockey enter the home stretch into their exciting playoff seasons. There is always something going on. There is always something to look forward to.
It’s also an important time in the church calendar as the reflective and somber days of Lent prepare Christians for the intensity of Holy Week and, ultimately, the unrivaled celebration of Easter. Whether you’ve been fasting during the Lenten season or using daily devotionals to focus your mind, everyone is quickly moving toward its apex in these last days before Easter.
There’s something special about these seasonal rhythms and flows that we repeat year after year, whether they are related to sports or the Christian calendar. Both provide us with a way to mark time as we move through the years. They give us an opportunity to look back and think about how we’ve changed, how we’ve grown, and where we want to go in the future. More importantly, they give us an opportunity to gather with our communities and become closer to each other.
The Christian calendar is particularly adept at helping us remember the story of our faith year after year. Each year begins with the anticipation of Advent leading to the miraculous story of Christmas and then the wonder of Epiphany. From there we move into the somber reflection of Lent until the astonishing mystery that is Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. Finally, we’re reminded of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost before shifting into Ordinary Time. Think about that, the Christian calendar doesn’t just remind us of the highs and lows, it reminds us that it’s also important to just be ordinary.
As you read a Lenten devotional or take part in the rituals of Holy Week and Easter, think about what it means to tell ourselves this story over and over again and how the rhythms of the Christian faith help us grow closer and closer to God.
Today’s blog post was written by Benjamin Howard. Benjamin is a lead editor for Teaching and Learning Resources at The United Methodist Publishing House. He received his Master’s in Theological Studies from Lipscomb University and currently resides in Nashville.
Today’s Bible Lesson
by Beth Adams Bowser
This bible lesson originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Christian Living in the Mature Years.
LESSON: MARK 11:1-11
BACKGROUND SCRIPTURE: SAME
There were a number of small villages that circled Jerusalem. Those that were less than a mile away marked the limit of a “sabbath’s journey,” or how far people could travel on the sabbath and not break the Law. Olivet, also known as the Mount of Olives (verse 1), is a prominent mile-long ridge of limestone hills east of Jerusalem. This landmark was a sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). A popular belief in Jesus’ day was that the expected Messiah would appear on the Mount of Olives.
The villages of Bethphage, which meant “house of unripe figs,” and Bethany, which meant “house of dates,” also were near Jerusalem. Bethphage was a sabbath’s journey from Jerusalem, while Bethany was about two miles southeast of Jerusalem and was one of the villages where pilgrims to the Passover stayed when Jerusalem was full.
Important to this story is the symbolism of the colt in verse 2. In Bible times, the donkey was the beast of burden. It was the family’s workhorse and was low maintenance, which made it affordable for even the poorest of families. Yet the colt, which was the foal of an donkey, was considered to be a noble beast, not a despised one. Sometimes colts were used for sacred purposes, and when they were, only those that had never been used for anything else could be used in this way. In Bible times, even kings rode donkeys, but only white ones. When a king went to war he rode a horse, but the king rode on a white donkey when he rode out in peace. People could tell just by the animal on which a king sat whether he came to wage war or whether he came in peace. Israel also would have been very familiar with a saying of the prophet Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
Scholars have long debated the means by which Jesus obtained the colt as related in verses 2-6. Some say that Jesus had made previous arrangements with a friend or members of a pro-Jesus underground network in Jerusalem for use of the colt, and used the phrase “The Lord needs it” (verse 3) as a password. Other scholars suggest instead that Mark wanted to show that (1) Jesus was in control of the situation and already knew what would happen, and that (2) the response of the disciples to the question they were asked by the bystanders was persuasive enough to let the colt go without further questions or detention. Perhaps the more important idea here is not which scholars may have the better explanation but the symbolism of the colt and the entire situation.
Verses 7-8 say that when the colt was brought to Jesus, the disciples put their cloaks on its back and Jesus “sat on it.” This would have fulfilled the prophecy recorded in Zechariah 9:9, which only the Gospel of Matthew quotes (Matthew 21:5). By putting their garments on the colt (verse 7), the disciples honored Jesus’ status as Messiah, much as the crowd did when they spread their cloaks and leafy branches on the road he traveled into Jerusalem (verse 8). The use of branches recalled the festival of the Tabernacle, in which pilgrims marched around the Temple waving branches and singing hymns. Note that the reference to “palm branches” is found only in the Gospel of John in 12:13. The “leafy branches” to which Mark referred probably were cut from nearby fields and were the same kind used to stuff mattresses.
Not only did people spread their garments on the dusty road for Jesus, they also shouted “Hosanna!” (verse 9). In the Christian tradition, the word hosanna is used as a term of praise. Originally, however, this word was used as something like shorthand for the Hebrew phrase “save us now.” It was not a cry to honor Jesus. It was a cry to God, imploring him to save his people now that the Messiah was here. The request from the people of Israel to “save us” is found in several places in the Old Testament, including the hallel or praise psalms (for example, Psalm 116) that were sung at Passover. It was the substance of a request to a king in 2 Kings 16:7. It was used to ask God to give victory to a king in Psalm 20:9, and it was used in a request to save the Israelite nation in Psalm 118:25.
Also note in verse 9 that the slogan-like phrases “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” and the “kingdom of our ancestor David” expressed Israel’s nationalistic hope. The phrase “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” is a quote from Psalm 118:26, and originally was used to greet any pilgrim who came to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the great feast days. Translators indicate that a better meaning of this phrase would be “Blessed in the name of the Lord is the one who comes. . .” Here, however, the phrase was used to point to Jesus’ special role as Messiah. When Jews spoke about the Messiah, they often used the phrase “He who comes” as a substitution for the title “Messiah.” Scholars also suggest that the wording in the last part of verse 10, “Hosanna in the highest heaven,” probably was an abbreviated form of an ancient expression that meant “Give salvation, O Thou who dwells in the height.” Verse 11 is thought to be an editorial conclusion to what has just happened and provided a segueway to what occurs next.
The origin of Psalm 118 may also shed some light on the use of these phrases (verses 9-10) by the crowd that greeted Jesus. In 167 B.C. an extraordinary king in Syria, Antiochus IV, came to power. He saw it as his duty to introduce Hellenism and Greek ways of life, thought, and religion wherever and by whatever means he could, even if it meant using force. He tried to Hellenize Palestine after he conquered it. For example, during his reign over Palestine, crimes that were punishable by death included owning a copy of the Law or circumcising a child. Under his rule, the Temple was desecrated, Zeus rather than Jehovah was worshiped, pork flesh was used in burnt offerings on the Temple’s sacrificial altar, and brothels were set up around the Temple courts. His goal was to wipe out the Jewish faith. About this same time, a man named Judas Maccabaeus began an amazing career of conquests. In 163 B.C., he drove out Antiochus from Palestine and repurified and reconstructed the Temple, an event which the Feast of Dedication, or the Feast of Hanukkah, still commemorates. Scholars suggest that it is highly likely that Psalm 118, often called a conqueror’s psalm, was written to commemorate both the victorious battle that Judas Maccabaeus won over Antiochus and the repurification of the Temple.
In light of the Jewish understanding that the coming Messiah would be a conqueror of nations, the inclusion of these words from the psalm verbalized the Jewish belief that Jesus was the Messiah who would conqueror Israel’s enemies, exonerate the nation of Israel, and restore Israel to its glorious and rightful place as God’s chosen people. The disciples and the crowd may have given little thought to the risks and possible outcomes of their actions on the day they spread their garments and branches before Jesus and shouted “Hosanna!” Their excitement and hope were based on what they thought Jesus would do for them, not on the person he was. Even today, Christians sometimes still welcome Jesus into their lives because of what they expect him to do for them, rather than welcoming Jesus for who he is.
But the discrepancies between their messianic hopes and expectations and Jesus’ actions completely escaped them. Jesus, the Messiah, came in peace and for peace. He came to destroy their internal enemies, not their external ones. He came to offer eternal life, not a glorious earthly life. It was only in hindsight that they understood.
KEY VERSE Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Mark 11:9