True beauty

Text: Mark 11:1-11
Jesus sent two of his disciples on ahead with these instructions: “Go to the village there ahead of you. As soon as you get there, you will find a colt tied up that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here (verses 1,2).

A well-known beauty product company asked the people in a large city to send pictures along with brief letters about the most beautiful women they knew. Within a few weeks thousands of letters were delivered to the company.

One letter in particular caught the attention of the company president. The letter was written by a young boy who was obviously from a broken home, living in a run-down neighbourhood. With spelling corrections, an excerpt from his letter read: “A beautiful woman lives down the street from me. I visit her every day. She makes me feel like the most important kid in the world. We play checkers and she listens to my problems. She understands me, and when I leave she yells out the door that she’s proud of me.”

The boy ended his letter saying, “This picture shows you that she is the most beautiful woman. I hope I have a wife as pretty as her.”

Intrigued by the letter, the company president took out of the envelope a picture of the woman the boy had described – a smiling, toothless woman, well-advanced in years, sitting in a wheelchair. Sparse gray hair was pulled back in a bun, and wrinkles that formed deep furrows on her face.

This wasn’t the kind of woman the president of the beauty product company was looking for. The boy could see in this aging woman a beauty that others couldn’t see. The boy could look passed what could be seen on the outside and see what this person was really like on the inside. It took the disciples a long time to see beyond the man Jesus and see his real beauty and what his life was all about.

I wonder if Jesus ever got frustrated with his disciples as a bunch of dunderheads because they just didn’t catch on to what was the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ life. They saw him healing the sick, curing lepers, raising the dead. They heard him talk about the Kingdom of God, God’s love, discipleship and that he would suffer, die and three days rise again. But they just didn’t get it. They saw and heard only what they wanted to see and hear, and couldn’t see who he really was.

They saw his miracles and heard him talk about God’s kingdom and were expecting him to enter Jerusalem and establish his rule and take the city back for God. In fact, just before the events of Palm Sunday James and John came to Jesus and asked him for the top jobs when Jesus established his rule. They wanted positions of honour, to be royal advisers to King Jesus, to exercise power and authority in this new kingdom. Jesus calls the disciples together and says, “If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people” (Mark 10:43-45).

It’s interesting to note that the first half of what the Gospel writer, Mark, has to say about Palm Sunday focuses on getting ready for Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus sends off two disciples to find transportation for this significant event. Jesus tells them where to find a donkey, what they should do and what they should say if anyone objects to them borrowing the animal for a while.

I don’t know which of the disciples were given this task but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was James and John – the ones who had just asked Jesus for the most important positions when he becomes king. Looking for a donkey would be a kind of practical demonstration of what he had just said about greatness and servanthood. “If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest”.

Can you imagine them wandering the suburbs of Jerusalem looking for a stupid donkey they could rent – how mundane, non-spectacular, even trivial? Just when Jesus is about to go head to head with the principalities and powers, striding into the capital city, the moment when they are about to share in Jesus’ glory, they are sent to wheel and deal with some donkey trader in some horrible stable and then trudge the streets with a donkey in tow.

And you know how donkeys can be. How embarrassing and humiliating if the donkey refuses to co-operate and they are forced to push and pull to everyone’s amusement.

When the Gospel of John tells this story, John tells it differently. Jesus comes into town on foot. There is no mention of the advance work of the disciples. Rather we hear that when the crowds started hailing Jesus as king, waving palm branches, and shouting political slogans about a new ruler for Israel, Jesus grabbed a donkey that happened to be there as a kind of visual message that he is not the kind of king they are expecting. A king doesn’t bounce into town on the back of a donkey.

But in Mark’s Gospel, finding a donkey and arranging transportation is something delegated to the disciples. For the gospel writer this is an important part of the Palm Sunday story. Without their obedience and their servant-like attitude; without their going off and roaming the streets to make this last minute arrangement, there would have been no triumphal entry into Jerusalem as we have come to know it.

I wonder if Mark is trying to tell us something here. As I said earlier, Mark often paints a very unflattering picture of the disciples – a bunch of dunderheads always misunderstanding and confused about Jesus and who he really was. In the end, when the going gets tough, and it’s time to show what they are made of, they run away and hide. They are nowhere to be seen at the crucifixion. Even at the resurrection they are portrayed as full of fear and apprehension.

Mark’s readers would have known all this so why does Mark give so much detail about the lead up to the Palm Sunday procession.

  • Is Mark reminding us that Jesus had called a group of ordinary folk to follow him, to work with him and for him? Humanly speaking they might not have been the sharpest pencils in the box, they had a lot to learn, could it be that Mark is telling us that in spite of their ordinariness and slowness to grasp what was happening, he could see beyond all that and recognise the potential in them as future servants of God’s Kingdom?
  • Is Mark reminding us that even though they didn’t comprehend who Jesus really was or understand what was about to happen, they were still prepared to respond with obedience to Jesus’ command to find a donkey; that a person can be obedient even if they don’t understand every detail?
  • Is the gospel writer trying to tell us that somehow discipleship and servanthood are interwoven; that discipleship isn’t about popularity and power but about doing the seemingly trivial and mundane?
  • Is Jesus telling us through this event something about himself – that he could have grabbed honour and glory but instead chose the road of becoming a servant for all people and allowing himself to be tortured and killed and then rise again for the sake of others?
  • Is Mark trying to tell us that in spite of the failings of the disciples Jesus was still prepared to trust them, empower them and place great responsibility on them for the coming of God’s reign in the hearts and lives of all people?
  • Is the gospel writer telling us that sometimes discipleship involves preaching, teaching, witnessing, healing and casting out demons from troubled people but discipleship also involves the mundane and ordinary – taking a pie to someone who is having a rough trot, being the one who says, “I’m praying for you”, offering words of assurance and deeds of help to those who need it – even those people we don’t particularly like or aren’t close to?

We can say a firm ‘yes’ to each of these questions. The lead up to the Palm Sunday procession tells us a lot about what being a disciple is all about. Jesus is highlighting that discipleship and service go hand in hand.

Jesus is a true servant and is obedient to the Father. For Jesus, the way is low – there is humiliation. He gave up his glory – he came from the highest place and went to the lowest place. He came from heaven and in the course of his work endured what no person ought to endure all for the sake of what others have done wrong. “He came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people” (Mark 10:45).

Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. The events of Palm Sunday make a nice story about Jesus being hailed as a king and palm branches being waved as the people shouted ‘Hosanna’. But Palm Sunday loses all of its meaning if it is disconnected from what happens on Good Friday and Easter morning.

If the gospel writers had stopped their record of Jesus’ life with Palm Sunday then we would have a completely different idea of who Jesus is and what he achieved. Palm Sunday is not only about giving glory and honour to Jesus as king; it is about a servant travelling down the road of humiliation and undeserved suffering, the road of torture, pain and dying.

Jesus on the cross is not a pretty sight – the wounds, the bleeding, the crown of thorns, the nails, the extreme agony. We turn our eyes away from the suffering and the shame because it is a terrible sight. We turn our eyes away because it is our sin that put him there.

And yet in spite of the horror, what greater gift could he give to all humanity?
What better example could he give to the disciples who would follow?
Serving others will often involve humility and service to even those whom we think deserve it the least – exactly what Jesus has done for us.

The little boy in my opening story could see the true beauty of the old woman. He didn’t see her missing teeth or her wrinkles; he only saw her love for him and everything that she so gladly did for him. As we travel with Jesus to the cross again this week and then rejoice together in his resurrection from dead, may we again see the true beauty of Jesus – his love, his obedience and commitment, his willingness to die even for sinners, his victory over sin, death and Satan.

So join the Palm Sunday procession – come and walk with Jesus this Holy Week, through the tears and suffering, to the light of resurrection morning!

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

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