I grew up in northern Missouri – a small rural town where hunters met at the convenience store to swap stories during deer season and the students were all abuzz when we landed a Sonic drive-in restaurant across from the school. While it was a bit of a trek, I could walk inside our school building from my first-grade classroom to the locker of my senior year of high school. That kind of small town. Creeks were a plenty and ready playground for curious kids. There was a creek running behind our church that my brother and I would often explore as the pastor’s kids waiting for our parents to lock up the church after everyone left on a Sunday morning. We would often dirty up our church clothes which probably drove my mother nuts though I don’t ever remember her getting on to us all that much. Farmers on the many gravel county roads also knew you often had to cross the creeks to get to town. A good rain could flood the creeks and mess with safe passageway to town. It isn’t a surprise, then, to note that a common cliché was frequently used: I’ll be there if… “the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.” The implication was that God had to be on board with the plan and that no other unforeseen issues could get in the way. Palm Sunday finds us with a willing Lord and a need; a never-ridden-before-colt in this case. What are you willing to do for what the Lord needs? That’s the Palm Sunday question.
We consider Mark’s account of the parade today. And I always feel like I have to say, “I’m not referring to myself in the third person here.” Mark, the Gospel writer, is the one I’m speaking of – he’s covering the parade route commentary for us. This parade is not the kind we typically experience. There would be no large inflatable characters of Kermit the Frog or Snoopy. There would not be any obvious lip-syncing acts or Shriners riding in those tiny go-carts. This parade had a different feel. First – just consider the approaching view. Jesus and the crew have come from Jericho which is the lowest city on earth, over 800 feet below sea level. Jerusalem, which is only a dozen or so miles away, is nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. “The road goes through hot, dry desert all the way to the top of the Mount of Olives, at which point, quite suddenly, you have at the same time the first real vegetation and the first, glorious sight of Jerusalem itself.” As N.T. Wright puts it, “Even if you were climbing that road every week on business, there would still be a sense of exhilaration, of delight and relief, when you got to the top.” Is there such a place for you? Maybe a morning walk or a favorite drive where you just crest that one hill and the world seems to spill open on the other side right before your eyes? I catch little glimpses even around town. For whatever reason, I can be driving home following a late meeting at the church when the city lights are blazing and the traffic is light. Driving east on 71st street, there’s a little peak just before you reach Sheridan where it feels like you can see Arkansas. The city lights twinkle and for a moment, like that bunny hill that tickles your tummy, I have that breathless moment of wonder of the city that I call home. Jesus, knowing the stakes of this particular trip into Jerusalem for the Passover festival, surely had that breathless moment as he crested the hill overlooking the city.
The enthusiasm would have been readily felt. Jewish pilgrims from Galilee, coming up from the south, would have been excited about the festival. They were coming to celebrate the great Jewish stories of the past which were mostly stories of freedom and hope. They would reconnect with relatives and old friends. There was singing, and feasting and rituals and dancing. The electric slide and Boot Scootin’ Boogie was on the DJ’s list for the party later that night. The anticipation was almost as great as the gathering itself. And the Passover was special. It was kingdom time – the time when Passover dreams would long-last come true – God’s sovereign and saving presence taking over, his people winning – control, victory, freedom! The anticipation grew and grew year after year.
It is always fitting that March Madness falls around Palm Sunday most years – because that energy is similar to the vibe of the religious festivals – a city overwhelmed with pilgrims, anxious for the possibilities of victory and the hope that this might be the year for their team. One of my good buddies from Indianapolis sent me a video this week. It was of “the shot” that marked the 1998 NCAA tournament and is shown every year since as a prelude of what magic can happen in the tournament. Do you remember the scene? Bryce Drew, 13th seed Valparaiso versus 4th seeded Ole Miss. Only seconds left on the clock and the large underdogs have the ball with just seconds remaining.
“The shot.” My friend sent it saying, “20 years ago. I feel old.” He remembered everything about that moment because just four years prior, he was playing as Bryce Drew’s teammate at Valparaiso High School. Every year at this time, that feeling returns. This was the excitement of the Passover Festival.
As they had crested the hill, perhaps making one more QT stop outside of the city, Jesus pulls aside a couple of the disciples, saying, “Run up ahead and look for colt at the corner of fifth and Main – it has never been ridden. If anyone gives you trouble about taking it, just say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” What a weird thing to request. Some scholars assume Jesus has pre-arranged the colt with some friends in the city telling them to await a couple of guys looking for the colt who will use the password, “The Lord needs it.” Others leave it to the possibility that Jesus knew the pieces would just fall into place and people would go along with the need. I’m not sure how I would have felt about being one of those two disciples. “Can’t Peter go?” I mean, how would you like to be told, “Hey, head down to Brookside and there you’ll find a hunter green Dodge Stratus. Hot wire the car and bring it back. If anyone gives you trouble about breaking into the car just tell them, “God told me to do it.” Who’s down to go right now? Whatever the case, they find the colt just as they were told. Some folks ask them what they are doing but they retrieve the never-before-ridden colt just as Jesus requested. Their willingness speaks of their trusting relationship with Jesus. I wonder if we have that same willingness? What does it take to get to that spirit of willingness? For some its coming through crisis – it puts a new perspective on life. “God, get me out of this one and I’ll do anything you ask.” For some, its gratitude – somebody bends over backwards to be a support to you, you find yourself willing to go the extra mile for them. It’s that person who, no matter how badly you want to, you just can’t say no to them. And… for some, it’s loving devotion.
I officiated a wedding last weekend for some friends connected to our church. The wedding was held out on a hillside in Inola, Oklahoma. I’ve never been to Inola proper before – and pretty sure I still haven’t been. This was a 1,700-acre catfish farm outside of Inola if there is such a thing. From the barn, crafted to house weddings and special events, you could see for miles and miles. Truly a beautiful sight. On rehearsal night, I’d typed in the address into my GPS and followed it precisely to a dead end out in the country. The road literally ended with nothing at the end of it – just an open field. I turned around on that gravel road as some farm dogs bit at my tires and seemed to hope that ‘city boy’ was on the menu for dinner. I back tracked a bit until I saw a guy who was working on a vehicle there outside of the machinery shed. I thought, this guy is either going to know exactly how to help me or he’s going to shoot me for trespassing. He was the nicest guy, telling me exactly how to find the Flying M Ranch and joking that if Google Maps led people to his place he may as well start charging to host weddings there in the machine shed. Might keep that in mind if you’re looking for a wedding venue. Anyway – found it and just had a ball of a time with this family at the wedding. Early in the ceremony, I asked the bride and groom to state their intentions for the ceremony – it’s the “I know why I’m here, I’m of sound mind, and I willingly give my life to this person today.” I read through a litany of things and ask at the end for them to respond, “That is my intent.” In some ways, that’s what we ask of each other in this sanctuary week after week. Through the prayers and the scripture readings and in receiving the bread and cup offered by Jesus at the Table – “Is it your intent to take this life to heart? To be a willing disciple? To use your life as a tool to bring about the kingdom of God on earth? Is that your intent?” and in our saying of the prayers, singing of the songs, partaking of the elements, giving of our offerings we answer, “This is my intent.” Are you willing?
The disciples retrieve the colt. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, the parade is on. The scene is Jerusalem, a particularly important note. Jerusalem itself is the focus of Mark 11. While the city is mentioned ten times in the gospel, four of those are in chapter eleven alone. I can imagine the nervous energy of Jesus and the crew. It’s a big moment and they all know it. Jesus doesn’t slip into the city unnoticed. He makes a conscious decision to make an entrance. Riding in on the colt connects to the prophesy of Zechariah 9:9 which states, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud! 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.” Further, this act was one of protest – Jesus was coming on his terms – not under the guise of a power-hungry warrior that many had hoped for. This was still confusing for many of the people along the parade route – and truly for the disciples themselves. His entrance would have harkened collective memory of how Simon Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem a hundred and fifty years prior – a treasured story of their history – after Maccabaeus had blasted Israel’s enemies in battle. There was palm waving and cloak spreading for that entrance and here it is for Jesus as well – a conqueror’s welcome. They shouted, “Hosanna!” which means “Save us! Help us!” Though some were just spectacle-hunters – you know how some people just like to be in on the action of the moment – those who were invested at all, wanted Jesus to be King. They just wanted him to be the King they imagined – not the one Jesus always intended to be. This is not an indictment on the crowd that day any more than it is a question for our own reflection. What kind of Jesus do we want?
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright fairly asks that of us this way: “Are we ready to put our property at his disposal, to obey his orders even when they puzzle us? Are we ready to go out of our way to honor him, finding in our own lives the equivalents of cloaks to spread on the road before him, and branches to wave to make his coming into a real festival? Or have we so domesticated and trivialized our Christian commitment, our devotion to Jesus himself, that we look on him simply as someone to help us through the various things we want to do anyway, someone to provide us with comforting, religious experiences?” Are we really willing to engage the hard work of discipleship or are we looking for a way to bypass what the Lord needs of us? The great KU basketball coach and friend, Ted Owens, was once told something that stuck with me as he shared it with our Next Man Up men’s group a month ago. When it comes to the faith, he was once told, “You’re trying to easy.” We’re used to people saying, “Don’t try so hard” or “You’re trying too hard,” but often, it may be fair to ask ourselves when it comes to our discipleship effort, “Am I trying to easy?” It’s such a telling question that gets at the heart of my willingness. We want a quick fix, a quick out, an easy pass. Our sin can increase this desire. One pastor nailed it saying, “Sometimes sin takes you deeper than you want to go and keeps you longer than you want to stay.” The Palm parade, as exhibit A, asks if we’re willing disciples on Jesus’ terms or only on our own terms? I think this is, in part, why it’s tempting to bypass Thursday and Friday night of this week and just get back here on Easter Sunday. We skip the betrayal and crucifixion – that’s not any fun. Nobody goes out and buys a Maundy Thursday betrayal outfit. We buy pastel Easter dresses, suspenders, and bow ties. I’m not saying, I’m just saying. Don’t you hate it when people say that?
We are Easter people – and Easter is the absolute best – it’s what all the greats of the faith before us say is the reason we exist. Not because of sin or death or judgment – but that Sunday moment, new life, resurrection! The good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be here Sunday cheering as loud as any. But let’s not forget that it comes at a cost – not to us in the since of having to earn the gift… ‘earning the gift’ is an oxymoron, right? But for ‘up there’ to come ‘down here’ as we so willingly pray – “on earth as it is on heaven,” is going to require some willing effort on the part of those who claim to be in Christ. If the Lord needs it – are you willing? If the Lord needs you to be a small group leader with our students at youth group, you up for it? If the Lord needs you to call on the home-centered members of our church, would you? If the Lord needs you to help organize support for our teachers and students in the wake of a walkout, are you willing? If the Lord needs you to study further, be a missionary, or be a good neighbor to the person everyone else has written off… what are you willing to do?
We lost one of our own faith heroes this past week. Dan Strong has just always been that steady, consistent, faithful pillar of our church family. Yesterday, in describing all Dan has meant to me and to our community, I used the word faithful. Today, I use the word willing. Dan was willing. He was humble – never touting that he was much of a big deal. But he showed up, with the best of his gifts, to do what the Lord needed him to do. Not a one of us is called to be Dan Strong. We are called to be uniquely who we are – and then willing to do what the Lord needs us to do in this time and place. What does the Lord need from you? Probably not a colt – as he did for that first Palm Parade. Willing. That’s what the Lord needs.
David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote this: “About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. … They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.” Such people, says Brooks, have generosity of spirit and depth of character. They are people who say “yes” when Jesus asks them to contribute their time and effort and talent. They don’t think about themselves as much as they think about what they can do for others, and because of this they are outstanding disciples for Jesus. What do you say? The Lord needs a few more pillars of faith. Not those who set out to become the next pillar of faith but those who just become such because they are faithful and willing today and tomorrow and before you know it, their shoulders have become a platform upon which the next generation of faith can stand. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, may that be you… may that be me. The Lord needs us now more than ever.
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 From N.T. Wright’s commentary, “Mark for Everyone.” Intervarsity Press. 2009. The second reference to N.T. Wright later in the message is also from this source.
 Brooks, David. “The moral bucket list.” The New York Times. April 15, 2015, nytimes.com.