*Originally given at Midtown Christian Community, Sept. 4, 2010
Mark 11 shows us some of the ways, patterns, and dynamics of the Kingdom of God. It also reveals to us some of the ways that we end up missing what the King and the Kingdom are all about.
Last week I quoted from U2’s The Wanderer: “I stopped outside the church house where the citizens like to sit; they say they want the Kingdom, but they don’t want God in it.”
Everyone in Mark wants God’s Kingdom. The question is how the Kingdom comes, and how people participate here and now in God’s Kingdom reality.
The Kingdom of God is elusive in Mark. Quite often throughout this Gospel the people who should be getting on board with Jesus just don’t get him. They can’t comprehend what he’s saying and what he’s all about. The problem is not that Jesus is saying all sorts of mysterious things—though sometimes we read what he does and we’re like, “what on earth is he doing cursing a fig tree!?” But it’s not that he’s doing and saying mysterious things that causes people to miss what he’s all about.
What causes people to miss it is that they are so blinded by their own desires, by their own preconceptions of what the kingdom of God must be like that they miss it when Jesus talks about God’s agenda and what that means for Jesus.
We see this in Mark 8:31-32:
Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
“I’m sorry, Jesus, what was that little bit about being killed!? Let’s rewind and start that again. I think you’re reading from the wrong script! That is not how this goes! There’s no dying or betraying or being killed! We go to Jerusalem, take over, slaughter the Romans, and set up the Kingdom and enjoy God’s blessing upon his people. That’s how this thing turns out, got it?”
But Jesus turns to Peter and says loudly so that everyone can hear, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Why does Jesus rebuke Peter? Is it because Peter is steppin’ up on Jesus and Jesus wants to put him in his place? Not at all. He rebukes him harshly because Peter “does not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Remember, Peter is not saying, “hey, forget about the Kingdom, let’s do something really interesting with your divine power!” No, Peter wants the Kingdom. That’s not the problem. The problem is that he wants it to be brought about in the wrong way.
Peter is plotting to bring in the Kingdom exactly how humanity would do it—through power; triumphalism; a show of force; domination of enemies; revenge; payback to those who have dominated and exploited us for so long.
So Jesus has already told them about the Kingdom and has already corrected their desires and their vision of what the Kingdom must be and how it must come. But we’re going to see here how people tend to miss what the Kingdom is about—how the Kingdom of God is elusive—unless our hearts are attuned rightly and our eyes and ears are open for the right things.
Now, as we think through this narrative, I want you to try some good Bible reading practice. We are not so much interested in what Mark has to say here simply because it’s just so fascinating. We want this chapter of Mark to move into our fellowship and do some work, to do some damage, and then do some redemptive repair work. In order for that to happen, we need to do our part. I want all of us to put ourselves in the place of the disciples and the crowd in the first 11 verses or so, and then I want us to consider ourselves as the chief priests and the teachers of the Law in the second portion of the chapter. This may allow us to see how Jesus wants to work in our community to help identify misplaced desires, wrong expectations and notions of what the Kingdom of God among us looks like.
Our aim in studying Mark is not to see how stupid the disciples and the other characters are, but to see how we are people who need to be changed and transformed.
We’re at something of a crossroads in the story of Midtown, and this may be a good time to lift up the hood on how we’re thinking about being Midtown in order to let God truly go to work to identify foolish ways of thinking and of desiring so that we can all truly enjoy God’s presence among us.
I want to identify three ways in this passage that the Kingdom of God is missed, or misunderstood, and perhaps as we see these, you will notice that they have analogies in our own lives and in our own fellowship. Let’s discuss those and if you see other things here in this wonderful yet bizarre passage, we can discuss those, too.
First, we have what we might call “Jesus’ Pathetic Entry” in the first 11 verses. Now, that may sound offensive to you, but I think that’s how Mark crafted this passage. Pay attention to the details: Jesus rides in on a colt; a young horse. Notice what he is not riding in on—a stallion.
Centuries before, Judas Maccabeus entered Jerusalem riding a glorious stallion and leading a huge army. A few decades later, Simon Maccabeus entered Jerusalem and was hailed with the following: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord to provide salvation to Jerusalem!”
This scene is pretty familiar in Jewish memory. In fact what’s happening in Mark 11 is not at all what we might imagine. Jesus isn’t making a triumphant entry at all. He’s purposely making a ridiculous entry, one that is completely consistent with what he’s been all about from the beginning of his ministry.
He had told his disciples that he’s going to Jerusalem for a confrontation, betrayal, and death. And he’s going to bring in the Kingdom through doing what’s right, suffering the murderous wrath of the perverted and exploitative religious establishment, and being raised from the dead by God.
So Jesus isn’t triumphant here at all. He asks for a colt—kinda pathetic. But his disciples and others are still holding on to their hopes for triumph. So they drum up local support, try to whip up the crowds into messianic fever and make acclamations that would be suited for the epic heroes from ages past.
They shout: “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!” These are not genuine responses that Jesus is looking for at all—they are expressions demanding that Jesus conform to their agenda.
Note two small details in the text. First, where are the people in relation to Jesus? Ahead of him and following him. Mark notes very purposefully that nobody is “with” him. A small detail in Mark that does not have merely to do with where everyone is standing. Mark means to indicate that no one is on board with Jesus’ agenda.
And what is Jesus’ response? What’s he doing? I always imagined him doing the royal wave. Nope. If anything, he’s probably shaking his head. “You still don’t get it.” Mark notes no response. He just continues on his way.
Remember, Jesus has been saying over and over what’s ahead of him in Jerusalem, right? “I’m going to Jerusalem to be rejected and put to death. My Kingdom comes through self-giving and servant-hood, unto death, and not through grabbing for power or self-assertion. You will know that I am King when I’m a withering corpse on the cross, and when God raises me from the dead. And the way that you enact the Kingdom and participate in my joy is through self-sacrifice, service to the poor, and through broken prayer to your father in heaven.”
The Kingdom is elusive—not because Jesus is unclear, but because our desires are so powerful that they cloud our vision. We are constantly making Jesus into our own image, making him the servant of our agendas. We are just like the disciples, trying to turn Jesus’ “pathetic entry” into something that’s glorious, impressive, something that will make us look good.
We find a second way that the Kingdom is elusive in the second half of this chapter. Jesus then goes into Jerusalem and does two of the most bizarre things in the Gospels—he curses the fig tree and then goes into the Temple to clear it out. We call it a “cleansing,” but that’s a misrepresentation of what Jesus is doing.
Well, what on earth is Jesus doing!? Did he just have a bad day and decide to go all Tonya Harding on a fig tree and Herod’s Temple?
Jesus’ actions are symbolic of the Temple’s coming destruction. The religious system that God himself had set up was meant for good. As Jesus said, it was meant to be a house of prayer. But not only that, the Temple was supposed to be a missional temple—a “house of prayer for all the nations.”
Israel was called to be the people who received God’s blessing with great joy and thanksgiving, and then turned to radiate that blessing all around them. That meant sharing good things with the poor, the orphan, and the widow. And that meant forming risky and open-ended relationships with other nations. It meant being a nation of self-sacrifice and self-giving, having faith that sharing what they had meant receiving more from God. After all, God owns everything. If we give away what we have and share it with others, there’s an infinite store that God works from and there’ll be plenty more to enjoy. They were supposed to make it easy for outsiders to come to the Temple to encounter God, and a delight to come to Jerusalem to celebrate God’s universal reign of blessing and plenty.
That never happened. Israel joyfully celebrated receiving God’s love and then went about fortifying their borders so that they never met outsiders. Then they cut off the poor, the orphan, and the widow. After all, if something is wrong in their life, that’s probably a sign that God is disappointed in them. They shouldn’t be in the Temple anyway!
And the Temple administrative apparatus began to be exploitative, taxing the poor and charging huge prices for sacrificial animals. The God-business was lucrative. Forget being a self-sacrificial people!! That’s a bear market—what’s the point!?
So Jesus performs a parable of judgment and then speaks a parable of judgment. In the Old Testament, the God of Israel would show up to his vineyard and examine the fruit. If there was no fruit in the vineyard, then the people would be judged. That is, if they were not being the joyfully self-expending people that God wanted to make them, they would be cast out of the land into exile. So Jesus performs what God would do. He enters Jerusalem, looks around and leaves. His impending word of judgment is foreshadowed by his examination of the fig tree—it has no fruit. So it is cursed. This action looks ahead to what Jesus is about to do in Jerusalem. He’s about to curse it and hand it over to judgment because it has no fruit.
Something very similar had happened in the Old Testament, in Jeremiah’s day. Jeremiah’s judgment on it was, “I’m going to destroy this temple and send you into exile; you have made it into a den of thieves.”
So when Jesus says to them, “you have turned my house into a den of thieves,” why are the religious leaders furious at him?
Not only because of Jesus’ verdict on them, but because it means the Temple is going to be destroyed.
So here, we see that the religious leaders have the same problem. The Kingdom has proved elusive to them because of their greed. They have tried to stop up God’s blessing, to hoard it for themselves. God’s verdict? Destruction.
The third instance of how the Kingdom is elusive is when it comes to prayer. And I think we can turn the spotlight off the disciples and the leaders and turn it on ourselves—or, maybe on me, if you’re not nearly as self-oriented and self-focused as I am.
This passage finishes with Jesus’ note about prayer. I have to admit, I’ve always read this in terms of prayer in general. Jesus is talking about praying with great faith and asking for wildly outrageous things—“I so badly want a sports car, God, and I have the great faith to know that you’ll give it to me!”
More cruelly, we can think of things that seriously hurt us or cause us pain—“Please God, take it away, fix this problem!”
…. and nothing happens ….
But Jesus isn’t talking about prayer in general here, and he isn’t talking about faith in general, either. The disciples remind Jesus of the fig tree and he tells them, “Have faith in God!”
In the near context, there’s a group of people who are not having faith in God—the Temple authorities. They are being unfaithful, treasonous to God!
Then Jesus says that they will be able to say to this mountain, be tossed into the sea! And it will happen! Jesus is not talking about magical abilities to do sorcery, is he?
In the context, the mountain is the temple; it is the obstacle to God flooding his people and the world with his blessing.
So, Jesus is saying, “No longer is that building the site where God encounters humanity. It’s corrupt and about to be destroyed. You rag-tag, knuckle-headed bunch of disciples are the group that God wants to turn into his new agency for blessing the world, and if there are obstacles among you to that happening, pray that God would remove them, and he will do it!”
That’s precisely the opposite of how I’d normally read this passage. I want to read it so that God will fulfill all my desires. But Jesus means that if my desires and selfish plans are in the way of God making this community what it can be, pray that God will transform me and purify my desires God will do it!
And what’s the practical application of this that Jesus makes?
The most immediate way that Midtown can enact being the agency of God’s life on earth is by loving each other, forgiving each other.
As I’ve mentioned, Midtown is at a crossroads. We’re not sure what the future holds. But one way we can guarantee that we will wither like a fig tree and will not become a community of flourishing is by pointing fingers and blaming one another.
If we do that, we’re done. If we do that and Jesus were to show up, he’d throw over the BBQ grill and toss our tables around as a sign that God is on his way to judge.
But if we’re a broken people, praying for God to give us renewed hearts, renewed minds, Gospel eyes and ears, then God truly can work among us to give us life, to make us flourish, and to use us in ever-so-small ways to be a blessing to Springfield for the glory of King Jesus.