A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Mark 11:1-26 on Sunday 13 January 2019
I love a good puzzle. Jigsaw puzzles. Rubik’s cubes. Or those great unanswered questions of life, like How does a shepherd count his flock without falling asleep?
In Mark chapter 11 there are three puzzles. Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey? Why did Jesus clear out the temple? And why did Jesus curse the fig tree? We are used to hearing Jesus telling parables, those stories with hidden meanings. But we aren’t used to Jesus doing parables. And that’s what these three strange actions are. Donkey riding. Table flipping. Tree lopping. They are parables acted out, puzzles and symbols, pointing to other meanings.
But these three puzzles also point to another much more important puzzle. Who is Jesus? A do-gooder? A story teller? No, harmless people like that are left alone. Some of them even win prizes or get medals. But they don’t get nailed to a Roman cross. Instead, these acted parables in Mark chapter 11 help us to see that Jesus was up to something far more dangerous and challenging. That he was a man who could turn not just tables but your whole life upside down.
Mark chapter 11 begins,
“As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples.”
The mount of Olives lies on a mountain ridge 3 km east of Jerusalem, looking down on the city and its great temple. Jesus sent two of his disciples into the village nearby with these instructions:
“Go to the village ahead and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you doing this?” tell him, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.””
Now, Jesus was no stranger to the district. Bethany was where Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived. That’s Lazarus who was raised from the dead. That’s Martha who complained to Jesus that Mary was letting her do all the work. That’s Mary who will anoint Jesus with expensive perfume in Mark chapter 14. Every night in the next few days, when Jesus left Jerusalem and spent the night at Bethany, I imagine that he slept at Mary and Martha and Lazarus’ home. So I’m not surprised that Jesus would ask for a donkey, and promise to bring it back, and the onlookers just let it go. The Lord needed it and that was good enough for them.
But why did he need a donkey? And why choose a young one that no one had ever ridden?
Well, the first question is easy. Jesus did it deliberately to fulfil the promise of Zechariah chapter 9:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to tell the crowd, “I am your king. I come to claim my throne and bring you peace.” Because a king rides a horse into battle. But in peace time he can ride a donkey. He comes not to start a war but to end the war. To take away their chariots and to break their bows and arrows. Because they won’t be needed any more.
So why a colt that no one had ever ridden? Well, I don’t know a lot about donkeys, but I’ve been told that trying to ride an animal that’s never been ridden in the middle of a crowd that was singing songs and waving branches was just asking for trouble. A normal unbroken animal would just buck and buck and buck until it got rid of its rider and then run. But it didn’t. Because Jesus the king who came to bring peace, the Lord who could calm the storm, was able to keep the colt under his control. The young donkey acting calmly was the best proof that Jesus was able to do what he promised. He came to bring peace. And he could deliver it.
This then is the meaning of the first puzzle. Jesus rode on the donkey to show that he was the king coming to claim his throne and bring the blessing of God’s kingdom. To borrow the donkey Jesus said, “I need it.” By riding the donkey into Jerusalem, Jesus was saying, “I am the Lord and I need your city.”
The first thing that King Jesus did was to check out the temple. This, of course, is the king’s first priority. The right worship of God. King David planned the building of the temple. His son Solomon actually did it. Kings Hezekiah and Josiah reformed and repaired the temple. And Herod, despite being a foreigner, tried to prove he was the legitimate king of the Jews by building a newer bigger one. And the prophet Malachi promised that when the Messiah came, he would set things straight. He wrote in chapter 3 of his book,
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.”
What does a refiner’s fire do? It burns the impurities in the ore away to leave the precious metal. What does a launderer’s soap do? It washes away the filth. This is what the Messiah will do when he comes to his temple. He will set things straight.
The next day, Jesus came back to the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of the merchants selling doves. And he wouldn’t let anyone use the temple courts as a short cut. Why did he do it? In a very unsubtle way, Jesus was saying, “I am the king and this is mine. I have come to claim my throne and to bring you peace, and all of this is in the way. All of this must go.”
Now, some people think that Jesus was offended that this courtyard had become a market place, that it couldn’t be the place of prayer that it was meant to be for the non-Jews who weren’t allowed to go into the temple building. They say that Jesus was cleaning out the temple so it could be used properly. But Jesus didn’t say, “My courtyard will be a place of prayer for all nations,” but he quoted from Isaiah chapter 56,
“Foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
The Lord’s promise through Isaiah was that one day the temple building would be a house of prayer for all nations who would come, not to pray in the courtyard, but to offer sacrifice in the sanctuary. And Jesus didn’t say, “This is meant to be a place of prayer, but you have turned it into a market place.” He said, “You have made it a den of robbers.” Quoting Jeremiah chapter 7. Instead of being ready to fulfil their mission to the world, the Jews of Jesus’ day had turned their temple into a lucky charm and a hiding place for terrorists and freedom fighters, for people fighting against the nations, instead of living for them. “God loves us,” they said,” and we can prove it, because we have his temple.” Jesus wasn’t clearing the courtyard to fix the temple. The temple couldn’t function without the money changers and doves, whether it was fixed or not. Instead, by clearing out the tables, Jesus was saying, “Very soon these tables won’t be needed any more. Because I am your king and this is my temple. And to make it a house of prayer for all nations, I will tear it down and in three days build a new one.”
The temple lay at the centre of their lives. It lay at the heart of their hopes and aspirations. But Jesus claimed it for himself. And by claiming what lay at the centre of their lives, Jesus was claiming their whole life.
This is starting to become a pattern. I need your donkey. I need this city. I need this temple.
To confirm what I mean we need to solve the third puzzle. Why did Jesus curse the fig tree? It was morning. Jesus was on the way to flip over the tables. And he was hungry. He saw a fig tree and it was full of leaves. I don’t know much about figs, but I’ve been told that figs full of leaves are meant to be full of figs. Figs full of leaves promise much. They promise food. They promise breakfast. But this tree failed to live up to its promise. Jesus said, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
And then he went to the temple, which was an impressive building and dominated the city of Jerusalem. The temple promised much. But it did not live up to its promise. As the Lord said through the prophet Micah:
What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave. The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains. Everyone lies in wait to shed blood; they hunt each other with nets. Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire – they all conspire together. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright worse than a thorn hedge. The day God visits you has come, the day your watchmen sound the alarm. Now is the time of your confusion.
What I mean is: that God had sent his king. The day of salvation had come. The wicked would be punished and God’s faithful people would be restored. But the wicked weren’t the Romans. The wicked weren’t the tax collectors and prostitutes. The wicked were the people in charge of the temple who were using it to resist God and his king. So the fig tree is a parable for the temple. The temple promised much but it didn’t deliver, and like the fig tree it was under the curse of God.
The next day the disciples were surprised to find that the fig tree had withered from the roots up. The message of this parable was that soon the temple would wither as well. You might think it a shame that the fig tree had to die. But forty years later the armies of Rome surrounded Jerusalem and they threatened to destroy the temple and thousands of people fled the city because of Jesus’ warning. The temple wasn’t saved. The temple didn’t protect the robbers that hid inside it. It was completely destroyed along with everyone who tried to defend it. But the thousands who listened to Jesus saved their lives. The fig tree paid the ultimate sacrifice, but it did not die in vain.
Donkey riding. Table flipping. Tree cursing. They are acted puzzles, but when they are solved, they help solve the bigger puzzle: who is Jesus? Jesus is the king, the Lord who says to the donkey, you are mine. The Lord who says to the city, you are mine. The prophet who says to the fig tree, you are mine. The Messiah who says to the temple, you are mine. And that’s why they killed him. Not for telling stories. Not for doing good. Not for setting tax collectors and prostitutes back onto the path of righteousness. But for treating the temple like he owned it. Like he could tear it down and rebuild it in three days. A man like that was too dangerous to be allowed to live.
This is the king who says to us, I have come to bring you peace. I will tear down this temple of stone and build a new temple in three days which will be a house of prayer for you. He is the crucified and risen Lord who says to each one of us, you are mine. Jesus claims whatever lies at the centre of your life. He says, I need your home. I need your family. I need your job. And by claiming what lies at the centre of our life, he claims our whole life. He says, I need all of you. I need each one of you. Take up your cross and follow me. And together we will reach the nations with the light of my gospel.
[By the way, a shepherd counts his flock by counting the legs and then dividing by four.]