The Passover festival was approaching. This was the high point of the Jewish year, the one time that every Jew who possibly could, would come into the city, and come to the Temple. As a result, Jerusalem was packed – every inn was full to overflowing, every street packed with stalls, animals, and people, people, people. The air was full of the sounds and smells of life.
But Jerusalem, in the days of Jesus, did not belong to the Jewish people. As Jews came to the Temple they could not miss the watchtower, the Roman military building built to overlook the Temple, to watch over the holy places of the Jewish faith. As the faithful passed through the court of gentiles and into the areas reserved for Jews only, they could see Roman soldiers looking down upon them. Resentment against the Roman occupiers ran high, and the Jewish revolutionary zealots found in this resentment an ideal opportunity to recruit for their cause.
For Passover was a religious festival, but it was more than that. At Passover the Jews celebrated the event which had defined them as a people; the series of disasters and miracles which had led to their freedom from Egypt. Passover was not just a celebration of the Jewish religion, but of the nation being set free from oppression; set free by an unlikely leader and the hand of God. And there were many who longed for the same to happen again – for freedom, this time from Rome.
And the Roman authorities were well aware of this – of the meaning of Passover, of the political implications, of the stories of the people being set free from oppression. And they had no hesitation in stepping in to crush even a hint of rebellion.
Now add to the political tension, another layer. Human nature being what it was, Passover was also a commercial opportunity. Animals had to be purchased for sacrifice, money had to be changed, rooms and meals had to be purchased – and there will always be those who are ready to provide these services at a healthy profit.
Put together the massive crowds, the political tension, and the money involved – and the city of Jerusalem at Passover was a tinderbox – a mass of frustration, and resentment, with sporadic violence and, never far from the surface, the possibility of riot.
It is into this city that Jesus rides to cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”. There can be no doubt that many of those shouting these words see in Jesus the political and military solution to their problems; a man who has built up a following, who has spoken of a kingdom, and who has now come to Jerusalem, the heart of political and religious power. A man who enters the city to crowds shouting, to palm fronds being waved, to shouts of acclamation identifying Jesus as the one who has come to save the people of Israel.
But what does he do? He enters Jerusalem, goes to the Temple, looks around, and then leaves the city again. Instead of staying in Jerusalem, he retreats to Bethany, to spend the night at peace.
If you read large chunks Mark’s gospel, quickly, as one might read a book or a magazine (and I recommend this, I really do), you will be struck by how Mark portrays events as moving rapidly – its all ‘immediately Jesus did this’ ‘straightaway they went there’. Jesus’ life, in Mark’s telling, is one of action, of dynamism; its the story of man who knows what he is doing and gets on with it.
But just a couple of times in the gospel there are moments like this – pauses in the action. These are moments when the whole story – no, the whole world – seems to hold its breath, waiting. And they occur at the key moments of decision in Jesus’ life – at the start of his ministry, at the transfiguration, and here, on the point of entry into Jerusalem. Moments when it is as if Jesus has to decide what direction his mission is going to take.
So as Jesus walked, or rode, back to Bethany that night, he surely reflected on what he had seen – on the state of Jerusalem. He had seen the Temple, seen the crowds, seen the soldiers. And so he spent one quiet night; one night with his friends, one night, perhaps, in prayer. Tomorrow he would start the sequence of events that will lead inexorably to his death.
He will preach against the religious leaders of the day in parables that they know to be directed at them. And he will throw the money-changers out of the temple, rejecting the commerce layered on top of faith in God. In these acts he will finally turn the priests irrevocably against him.
And in the same action, performed under the eyes of the Romans, he will cause a public disturbance at the heart of the festivities, the one thing above all the authorities want to prevent. They would have heard the words shouted to welcome Jesus, the talk of the coming kingdom, and would be more than ready to stamp out insurgency before it took root. In one act, Jesus would turn the two powers in Jerusalem, religious and military, against himself, knowing, surely, where it would end.
Perhaps this is why, when he saw the temple on Palm Sunday, he did not act right away, but took the time to go back to Bethany, a place of peace for him, the home of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Did he feel the rage of seeing the Temple defiled, but choose not to act in anger, but to take his time to reflect, to pray, and then to act in the full knowledge of what he was doing?
There is a sense of calm here – as if Jesus is the only one in the story who is fully in control of himself. The priests are driven by jealousy of a leader more popular with the masses than they are, the Romans driven by fear of a popular political leader, the crowds driven by wild swings of enthusiasm and disappointment, the disciples seem to just be along for the ride, desperately trying to make sense of what is happening.
In this swirling mass of confusion, Jesus appears as an oasis of peace, the calm at the eye of the storm. But, paradoxically, his peace is not one of passivity, not one of inaction. Quite the opposite – it is Jesus who acts – and everyone else reacts.
And I wonder if this is not where this story connects most closely with our situation today. For we live in a time of confusion, a time of turmoil and uncertainty, of economic and social change. We are surrounded by people who are driven by fear, jealousy, greed, uncertainty, pride. And we find those same motives inside ourselves, battling for control. In a time of turmoil, both within us and without, don’t we hear the phrase “the peace of God” with particular poignancy? Don’t we long to find that peace “which passes all understanding”, that confidence that seemed to characterize the life of Christ?
And so we should, we ought to long for that peace of God. But that word, ‘peace’, so easily misleads us. We hear it as the peace of passivity, the peace of accepting what is happening without question, the peace of not making a fuss, the peace of the status quo, of not rocking the boat. But none of those things mark the peace we see in Jesus. Jesus’ peace is the peace of a man who has understood what God would have him do, a man who has a vision of his calling, and who has made that vision the heart of his decision making, the core of his very being. Jesus’ peace arises not from passively learning to accept whatever happens as God’s will, but from seeking to know God’s will, seeking first the kingdom of God, and then working without fear towards that end.
This is the peace of working hard towards a goal that is worth working for, the peace struggling for something of true value, the peace of striving with all your heart, soul, strength and mind to make the kingdom of God just a little bit more real. It is the peace of praying for a vision of God’s will, and then living for it.
There is a temptation for people of faith in trouble times to retreat into an otherworldly spirituality; to focus their hopes and hearts and minds on the world to come, to look for peace in the simplicity of a hoped for future, rather than the complexities of the present. But if we are serious about being followers of Jesus, and would make him our model, then we cannot look for peace only in the life to come.
Instead, we need to do as he did. We need to look around, to see where we are, to see what the world around us looks like. We need to see the families which are broken, the kids growing up without the stability they need, the people living in fear. We need to see the refugee seeking our protection; those with long term injuries and disabilities needing special help; the indigenous communities struggling to keep their traditions alive; our Muslim brothers and sisters facing hate and abuse because of their faith.
We need to see the chaos, the conflict, the sacrilege. And then, perhaps, as Jesus did, we need to go back to our Bethany, to talk and pray with our friends and our community of faith, to seek to know what God would have us do about it.
And then we need to take our courage in our hands, and do it.
And that is where we will find Shalom, the peace of doing the will of God.