Faithlife Sermons

Two crowds -- Palm Sunday

Mark  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  28:34
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Two crowds met on Palm Sunday and the week following: the provincial followers of Jesus who shouted Hosanna, lined his way with their garments, and recognised him as king; and the sophisticated, religious leaders of Jerusalem, confident in their religious system and the righteousness they were sure it yielded, who recognised no authority above theirs. This encounter was destined to end in bloodshed, and Jesus did nothing to prevent that, rather he worked to provoke the self-righteous Jerusalem crowd. Which crowd do you run with? Whose authority do you recognise? Palm Sunday is a chance to figure that out.

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Who knows who this is? Anyone? This is someone who I was really impressed with in my youth. I guess you could say he was an idol or a hero of mine. Any ideas? No?
How about now? Any more clues? Come on? Isn’t is obvious? Look, it’s even got his name written there!
So does anyone know what Dennis Ritchie did, that made him such an idol for so many? Well, he created the C programming language, and co-wrote this text here. He also created the UNIX operating system, which is the precursor to Linux, which many modern devices run on, and is also the precursor to iOS and MacOS, actually. He did a bunch of other impressive stuff, too.
Anyway, back in the nineties, when I was working in Japan, I worked for UNIX System Labs Pacific, a subsidiary of AT&T that sold UNIX to the big Japanese and Korean computer companies of the time, like NEC, Toshiba, Samsung, LG, and so on. Ritchie worked for AT&T, but in a different subsidiary, a research centre in New Jersey called Bell Labs. But one year USLP invited Ritchie to a tradeshow in Tokyo. What a draw he was! I still remember all these geeky Japanese programmers lining up to get his autograph, and telling him, “Ritchie-san, you are a god!”
I didn’t think he was a god, but I was pretty thrilled to meet him and even have a chance to have a chat about IT stuff. I wrote about that in my newsletter that I sent to friends and family back in Australia (normal people didn’t have access to the internet back then). It was very exciting.
Now, who would you be thrilled to meet? Who might you get really excited about? Who would you stand in line to cheer or wave to or, perhaps even get a chance to spend time with?
Now do you think that person will really make a big difference to your life?
Almost 2000 years ago Jesus rode the colt of a donkey up to Jerusalem, with a crowd shouting his praises and welcoming him as the answer to their prayers. The funny thing was, for some of them Jesus would make a huge different to their lives, but to others he would make not much difference at all. Do you know what was different between those two sorts of people?
Yes, it’s how the people listened to Jesus. In my case, if I wanted to be a good C programmer, or UNIX programmer, I needed to follow Dennis Ritchie’s advice. In Jesus’s case, if he’s really our hero and we pay attention to everything he says, then he’ll make us good at life, not just programming, or sports, or whatever.
As you go out to Kid’s Church, think about how you can learn more about what Jesus tells us about how to live.


Now, for the rest of us, we’re first going to tackle how we understand this chapter, and then we’ll look at what it says to us.

The approach to Jerusalem

The first part of the story tells us about Jesus’s approach to Jerusalem. Jesus has somehow prepared a colt for this. The significance of him riding on a colt is probably not lost on a Messiah-mad crowd of pilgrims. Though Mark doesn’t refer to Zechariah, the crowds were undoubtedly aware of it.
The point is, Jesus has deliberately prepared for this messianic display, and the crowds join the party. But who is this crowd? After all, through the rest of Mark’s story, crowds play a big part. This crowd is the crowd of pilgrims. Perhaps many of them were from Galilee, but what we can be quite sure of is that none of them were from Jerusalem.
Matthew 21:10–11 ESV
10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
We know because, in Mt. 21:10-11, we see “the whole city” of Jerusalem contrasted with “the crowds” who said “This is the prophet Jesus.”
There are two crowds! A crowd that praises Jesus as king and messiah, and a crowd that refuses to recognise his authority.
The focus shifts now towards that second crowd.

Overturning the temple

In verse 11 we read that Jesus entered Jerusalem, went to the temple, took a look around, and then headed back to Bethany with the gang for the night .
Mark 11:11 ESV
11 And 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 meaning of the fig tree

Mark 11:13–14 ESV
13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
The next morning, on the way to the temple, he saw a fig tree, covered in leaves, and found it complete empty of fruit. Mark points out that it wasn’t the season for figs. So why was Jesus so upset? Well, fig trees bloom before their leaves grow, so a tree covered in leaves should have had some small, green fruit, but it had nothing at all. And so Jesus curses the tree, and the disciples witness this strange interaction. What did Jesus mean by this strange act
In Jeremiah and Hosea, the fig tree is used, along with the grape vine, as a symbol of Israel.
Jeremiah 8:13 ESV
13 When I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.”
Jesus’s curse set the scene for his actions in the temple. Just as the fig tree looked healthy and full of fruit, so too did the temple, with its great Court of the Gentiles bustling and full of people. But despite appearing so fruitful, the fig tree was barren. The abundant greenery of the tree had raised Jesus’s expectations. The temple seems flourishing, too. It buildings are lavish, it is such an important part of peoples’ lives, it consumes so many resources, and it is so busy. But you know what? That prosperity and busyness is just greenery—it’s not fruit. The temple, like the fig tree, is barren.

Cleansing the temple

Mark 11:15–17 ESV
15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
Which brings us to the cleansing of the temple. There is much discussion about how Jesus did this—the Court of the Gentiles is huge, and Mark’s language makes it sound like Jesus kicked off a protest, rather than strictly policing the entire area. But notice Jesus’s statement about the purpose of the temple: “a house of prayer for all nations.” In any case, this protest was enough to draw the attention of the people and their leaders. The people seemed to like this radical, but the leaders could see the threat to their position, and they started actively plotting.

The temple replacement (a praying church)

On the way back to Bethany that night, the disciples encountered the dead fig. They seem astonished that Jesus’s casual curse has taken effect. And Jesus takes the opportunity to point to what will replace the dead fig, or, in reality, the destroyed temple. (Jesus doesn’t explicitly predict the destruction of the temple until the beginning of chapter 13, but the destruction of the fig here prefigures that. No pun intended.)
Mark 11:22–23 ESV
22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.
The replacement for the temple, with it’s elaborate courts and rituals, will be the simple reality of a praying church. A new house of prayer for all nations. In fact, so powerful will be the faithful, Jesus says, that they can even instruct mountains to leap into the sea, and watch it happen.
But a praying church is not like the temple, where the ritual seems independent of both God’s purposes and the worshiper’s heart. Rather, the power of prayer in the church depends upon the purity of the prayer’s heart:
Mark 11:25 ESV
25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
The old covenant of rituals and symbols is giving way to the new covenant of transformed hearts, in tune with God’s will and thus his power.

The two crowds

When Jesus returns to the temple the next day, the religious leaders confront him with a question:
Mark 11:28 ESV
28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?”
But Jesus is still not ready to allow the crowds to define him or his mission, so he challenges the leaders to discern where John’s authority came from: heaven or man. For fear of the crowds, the leaders avoid answering Jesus’s question, and therefore receive no answer to their own question.
And so Jesus is setting up the two crowds: the crowd who recognize that he speaks and works with God’s authority, just like John, and the crowd that doesn’t want to bow to God’s authority in John and Jesus. For the moment, the Jerusalem crowd is unsure who they side with, but we know that eventually they side with those who reject Jesus’s authority:
Mark 15:11 ESV
11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead.

Our two crowds

So now the question is: where do we fit into this? What is our equivalent to the Galilean pilgrims and the religious leaders of Jerusalem? I think to discern that we need to look at the way that these crowds approached God.

The religious crowd

The religious leaders didn’t need Jesus to tell them how to relate to God. They already knew. And yet Jesus’s critique of their understanding of God was devestating, he said of them:
Matthew 23:4 ESV
4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.

When we are religious leaders

When we are like the religious leaders, we too think we have a way that leads to God, and we are going to fight to protect it. We are confident in our rituals. Questions merely harden our hearts. We don’t examine themselves or question our motives, and so we never feel that the need for a saviour. Why would we need a saviour, unless he fits into our religious system?
We cling to what defines us—our religion and our temple—even when it has become nothing more than empty ritual.
We, too, specialize in burdening people, not releasing them. I saw an example of this on Friday, when a member of a club publicly shamed one of us for wearing a hat inside the club. This instinct to burden others with rules is a human instinct, not merely a religious one.
When we can’t see sin without seeing condemnation, grace is a foreign land to us. We may use the word grace, but we don’t know how to show it, and we don’t know how to receive it. And that makes us terrified of apologising because we cannot imagine true forgiveness. We punish sinners because we are afraid of our own sin.

The Pilgrim crowd

On the other hand, the Galilean crowds came to Passover knowing that they needed God. They knew they were sinners, and they knew they needed saving. The pilgrims (those who went before and after Jesus) called out “Hosanna,” a Hebrew word that means save us. They continued on with the next verse of Psalm 118, verse 26 in our Bibles:
Psalm 118:25–26 ESV
25 Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! 26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord.
These Psalms were traditionally sung by the priests as they proceeded around the altar on the feast days of Tabernacles and Passover. This was Passover week, remember. A significant difference was that the priests were singing to God about a future hope, a hypothetical messiah, whereas here the crowd is celebrating a realised hope, a present messiah. Their saviour has arrived!
Another insight into this crowd’s attitude is found in the language they use. The word “hosanna” literally means “save us,” but it had become a term of praise by this time. Thus the crowd’s cry “Hosanna in the highest,” which would make no sense if “hosanna” only meant “save us.” How extraordinary that a plea for salvation had become a term of praise. It is as if the people knew that merely asking God was the same as receiving an answer, and so a request was at the same time a thanks.
Now, admittedly, this language had been developed by the religious rulers of Jerusalem, but the pilgrim crowd were the ones who applied it, which makes all the difference.

When we are pilgrims

How are we like the pilgrim crowd today? Isn’t it when we recognise our need for a saviour? When we discover Jesus’s work in our lives and respond with shouts of “Thank God, my sins have been washed clean, I’m saved!” When we recognise Jesus’s relevance to their lives. He’s a real saviour who makes real changes in our lives, not a hypothetical saviour who we may need if we ever make some little mistake in the future.
Pilgrims are prepared to let Jesus be the messiah—as Peter said, “Lord, where else could we find the words of life?”
John 6:68 ESV
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,
Pilgrims will accept Jesus’s leading, even if it’s not what they would choose for themselves, because they trust him to know best. Jesus put it this way:
Luke 14:33 ESV
33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
We give up our own ideas and plans in order to follow our Lord wherever he leads—he is God and we are not.
All this fills us with grace—we recognise our brokenness and we rejoice in God’s healing forgiveness and are delighted to share it with others.

Conclusion—which crowd do you run with?

We all, of course, are a little bit pilgrim and pharisee, disciple and priest. Perhaps the question we need to ask is really: what is my posture right now? Am I clinging to rituals and relics to manipulate God into accepting me as I am, or am I listening to my saviour and abandoning myself to his guidance? Am I trying to force people, including myself, into the mold of holiness, or am I living out the life of the grateful forgiven one, forgiving in turn?
There is a story that Saint Columba, or St Colmcille was inspired to do his great works of evangelism amongst the Picts in northern Scotland because of his complicity in a Irish war that killed three thousand. I don’t think guilt alone is a great motivator, so I think Colmcille’s recognition of his sinfulness and its consequences drove him to sacrifice much in order to do good and bear the fruit of that. His second chance was so influential that a common Scottish name means “follower of Colm:” Malcolm. Indeed, there are four kings of Scotland called “Malcolm,” second in popularity only to the Stewart dynasty’s name of choice: James.
May we all, in some way, be as fruitful as St Columba.
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