“How big is your church? How many worshippers do you have each Sunday? How big is your church building? Do you own your own building or do you have to rent? What is the seating capacity of your worship auditorium?” We encounter questions like these all the time. They remind us that for many Christians, church size and church buildings are indicators of whether a church has arrived. This Palm Sunday, we may want to reconsider.
This Sunday I will have the privilege of preaching the Palm Sunday sermon at a friend’s church. When his pastor first invited me some time ago, I readily said yes. I welcomed the opportunity to cement my friendship with this community. And I had preached on Palm Sunday before, from Luke 19: 28-44. That meant I had done the background research already and could build on that for this time. I found out last week that the passage I was to speak on was Mark 11:1-11. And Mark’s take on the incident is very different from Luke’s. And so I have been madly doing fresh reading and reflection. And finding the passage strangely contemporary, especially on the question of whether large crowds and impressive buildings are indicators of spiritual success.
The passage starts with large excited crowds welcoming Jesus enthusiastically (Mark 11:8-10). Yet in a short while, when Jesus was arrested and the going got tough, we are told that” … everyone deserted Him (Jesus) and fled” (Mark 14:50 TNIV). In a day and age when too many of us still see numbers as a primary indicator of spiritual success, Mark warns us “against mistaking enthusiasm for faith and popularity for discipleship (James R. Edwards, Mark, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002, 338).”
The passage ends with Jesus visiting the temple. He inspects it and leaves.
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve. (Mark 11:11 TNIV)
The reader may suspect that it was already too late for the temple in more ways than one, a suspicion confirmed by Jesus’s subsequent cleansing of the temple ( Mark 11:15-17). “Jesus enters the temple to inspect it, and the next day’s events reveal that he comes not to restore it but to pronounce God’s judgement on it” (David D. Garland,
Mark, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996, 429). It is save to assume that the temple had been inspected and found wanting. But what the reader may not know is how grand the temple was.
The temple had been built by King Herod. And Herod:
… was a man of grand ambitions, and his reconstruction of the Temple of the Jews reflected that aggrandizing character. He essentially doubled the foundation, or Temple Mount, that had existed from Solomon’s day … Josephus relates that the entire facade of the Temple was covered with gold plates. When the sun rose the reflection was nearly blinding. On a clear day the brilliance of the Temple was visible from a considerable distance outside Jerusalem. (M.O. Wise, “Temple,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992, 812)
Surely this was a building fit for the Messiah but this was the Messiah’s evaluation of
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ ” (Mark 11:15-17 TNIV)
Clearly, large impressive buildings may not impress the Messiah.
If large crowds are unreliable and impressive buildings by themselves may miss the plot, what then is Jesus looking for? The answer is to be found in His teaching earlier in the book of Mark (Mark 8: 27-38).
After Peter had correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus goes on to explain what His messiahship would entail and what it would take to follow Him.
Jesus would be a conquering Messiah. But His battle was not with the Gentile occupying forces. His battle was against sin and Satan and He would conquer through the cross. And anyone who wanted to follow this Messiah had to take up their own crosses.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35 TNIV)
What does it mean to take up one’s cross? James R. Edwards tells us:
The image of the cross signifies a total claim on the disciple’s allegiance and the total relinquishment of his resources to Jesus (10:17-31). (Mark, 256)
And Jesus’ definition of true greatness?
… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be vserved, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10: 43b-45 TNIV)
So if the Messiah were to ride into your town today, what would He be looking for? Large enthusiastic crowds? Impressive buildings? No, He would be looking for a community of people totally sold out to Him, people who sacrificially give of themselves to humbly serve a broken world in His Name. These are not people obsessed with what
Jesus can do for them. They know that their Lord will never leave them wanting. These are people who ask, “How can I serve in His Name?” “What does it mean for me to carry my cross in this day and age?”