Mark 11: The King and the River

Introduction

The time is around 1000 years BC
a group of small Middle Eastern tribes crown a new King.
He lays siege to a mountain fortress.
The inhabitants scoff: high rock walls above steep valleys
even the blind and lame could defend it against this ragtag bunch.
But he finds a secret entrance,
and the fortress falls (2 Samuel 5)
 
over the next decades, King David – for it was he – built it into his capital city, Jerusalem.
kings of Israel had 2 big roles:
Leading the army against enemy neighbours
leading the people to worship their God
David did both
With his Mighty Men, he pushed back Israel’s borders.
No one could stand against him.
 
David brought the Ark, the symbol of God’s presence, into Jerusalem
-the people danced and rejoiced.
David planned to build a temple to house it,
his son Solomon did, and God’s presence filled it like smoke.
Wealth and wisdom from the nations flowed into the city
 
The land was at peace and God made a promise
a descendant of David would always rule on the throne.
 
In the next centuries, many kings failed to worship God
the temple was neglected, its priests corrupted,
The kingdom splintered.
Israel’s armies defeated,
cities destroyed.
 
How they longed for those old glory days.
The golden age of King David.
The Old Testament prophets expressed their despair and longing.
 
Ezekiel had a vision: the cloud of God’s glory in the temple departed.
it moved east, hovered over the Mount of Olives and then it was gone.
Without God’s spirit, Israel was left a barren wilderness.
 
But other visions brought hope:
one day God would return.
Across the sand and rocks of the desert, prophets like Isaiah picture a mighty highway
every mountain made low, every valley raised up: a straight path for the return of the King.  (Isaiah 40, Malachi 3:1)
 
One day Israel’s warrior God would ride his chariot of storm clouds.
He’d land atop the Mount of Olives, splitting it in two (Zechariah 14:4)
he’d shatter Israel’s enemies.
And God’s glory would again fill the temple (Ezekiel 43:1-2)
on the highway, the scattered exiles of Israel would come home.
 
 
and Ezekiel had another vision: (Ezekiel 47)
from the inner sanctuary of the temple, came a little trickle of water.  Only ankle deep.
Flowing to the east of Jerusalem, it became knee-high, a little further came up to Ezekiel’s waist
Running through the rift, where God split the Mount of Olives. 
The stream swelled to a torrent too wide and deep for him to cross.
 
As the river flowed, it brought life
the wilderness burst into blossom.
From the river banks, once dry and dusty, now grew trees
the fruit never fail, but grow fresh every month.
 
the river flows into the Dead Sea.
The salty and stagnant waters become fresh
all sorts of fish swim and splash; fishermen spread their nets
“Everything will live where the river goes” (Ezekiel 40:9)
 
What a vision!
The river of God’s life rippling out to the world, blessing all peoples
 
 
but 1000 years after King David, the people of Israel were still waiting
no real king, no real blessing.
The temple was an empty shell –
Overlooked by the Roman Antonia fortress
Israel was still a slave.
The Emperor of Rome was the only real king
 

The Gospel of Mark

and we come to the gospel of Mark.
Chapter 1 begins by quoting those prophets:
a voice cries out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:2-3)
 
Start building that highway through the desert, cries John the Baptist, that road to Jerusalem
because the King is coming back to Israel, the Lord is returning to Zion
 
time for confession:
Until this year, I hadn’t thought that highly of Mark
it’s short, not much teaching, and nothing profound.
Give me Matthew, Luke, or John
it’s often been ignored
but the last few decades, scholars have realised Mark is a carefully constructed drama
a story of conflict, building to a climax.
We’ve seen that in this series, and I’ve become a Mark fan!
Mark has three big sections.
 
 
Part One is set around the Sea of Galilee.
It’s action packed, one event after another
everything happens “immediately” or “straightaway” – a big buzzword.
Jesus proclaims the gospel, conquers sickness, cures lepers, drives out demons, destroys death, shuts up a storm.
People are amazed, astounded, and afraid.
And they ask the big question: who is this man Jesus?
 
At the end of part one, Jesus leads the disciples to Caesarea Philippi in the far north of Israel
he asks them “who do you say that I am?”
He’s a teacher, a healer, many call him a prophet
but Peter replies, “you are the Christ”, the Greek word for the Hebrew Messiah.
Jesus is God’s anointed one, the promised king
 
 
this is the turning point of Mark.
now we know who Jesus is, and Mark Part Two begins
The big question here is, what sort of Messiah will Jesus be?
And what does it mean to follow him?
 
The pace slows down, and they set off on the way South towards Jerusalem
The journey is framed by Jesus giving physical sight to 2 blind men
But the disciples are spiritually blind and they cannot see.
 
As soon as Peter declares, “you are the Christ”
Jesus says he’s going to suffer and die.
Peter takes him aside – that’s not the Messiah idea!
none of this defeatist talk.
Power, majesty, driving out the Romans
clearing out those corrupt priests in the temple.
Military victory and religious reform – that’s the stuff we want!
And, add James and John, we wanna be your right and left hand men
sit by your royal throne, share your glory,
 
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus tells them again and again:
 
No, you’ve got it all wrong.
To be great, you gotta be like children.
To be first, you have to be last
deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.
 
To find out who Jesus really is, we must follow him to Jerusalem
 
on the way, the final stop is Jericho.
A blind beggar cries out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
“Son of David” is a title for the Messiah,
the king like David they’ve all been waiting for
Jericho is in the Jordan Valley
A long, hard day’s climb 1000 m up to Jerusalem.
Up and up to a ridge east of the city called the Mount of Olives,
 
and we come to Christ’s final week, and part three of Mark, chapters 11 to 16.
The question “what sort of Messiah is Jesus?” grows more intense.
Mark’s finale begins.
 

The King Versus the Empire                   Mark 11:1-11

It’s been hard to cut this sermon back to size.
Today’s passage is like a huge kaleidoscope of Old Testament prophecies.
Mark part three has 57 Old Testament quotations and 160 allusions – apparently: I haven’t counted!
all these images morphing into each other, swirling around,
spiralling in on this peasant from Galilee riding a donkey to Jerusalem.
 
 
He’s with a crowd of pilgrims come for the Passover.
It seems Jesus had carefully orchestrated his entry
One writer called it political street theatre, like a real-life parable.
 
Kings had a right to command an animal for royal use.
And this donkey had never been ridden
untouched, pure.  Like the animals used in temple sacrifice.
On Palm Sunday, sometimes our kids wave palm branches.
But these aren’t just nice decorations:
they were a symbol of nationalism.
Some revolutions against Rome minted coins with palm branches
 
They spread out their cloaks like a red carpet.
Isaiah’s prophecy again: preparing that highway to Jerusalem for the King.
 
The crowds cry “Hosanna”.
the son of David has arrived
Like when David brought the ark to Jerusalem
like when Ezekiel saw God’s glory return to the temple
the Lord had come back to Zion, and they rejoice.
His 12 disciples are like the 12 tribes of Israel returning from exile.
 
 
What’s this Passover festival all about?
It remembers the time when God defeated the Egyptian empire, and saved his people from slavery.
Freedom from foreign rule!
At that time the Egyptians, now the Romans?
You can see this celebration could be subversive.
The population of Jerusalem was about 40,000, but pilgrims at Passover swelled it to 100,000 or more
The city was tinder dry
A charismatic leader might spark a revolution.
Like those signs indicating forest fire danger today.
The risk was extreme.
 
The Romans knew this.
On the same day as Jesus entered, the Jewish historian Josephus writes, was another procession…
 
To the West of Jerusalem, on the other side of town, the ground shakes:
Row after row
disciplined troops in tight formation
Trumpets blowing.  Drums beating.  Banners waving.
Sun glinting on shields and helmets and swords and spears.  Officers on warhorses
a panoply of power.
the might of the empire, led by Pontius Pilate, come to keep the Roman peace.
 
 
On the East, a poor carpenter.
humble and riding on a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9-10)
no armour, no weapons
just a peace that wells up from within
With a motley bunch of hangers-on.
Disorderly, spontaneous, dancing for joy.
 
Jesus said the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them as tyrants
The Roman Eagle has claws that shred all resistance. 
But in the kingdom of God, whoever wishes to be great must be the servant of all.  (Mark 10: 42-44)
 
Violent force or serving love.
The Empire versus the King
 
Which procession are we in?
What sort of peace, which sort of power, do we want?
What sort of Messiah do we want Jesus to be?
A shoot-em-up Rambo Messiah?
Or a non-violent, suffering, servant king?
 
 
As they summited the Mount of Olives they first saw Jerusalem, the holy city,
Straight across the Kidron Valley is the Mount of the temple, 
an awe-inspiring building.
Huge blocks of masonry,
roof covered with gold, glistening in the sun.
 
As Jesus rides down, the walls tower above, as they once did for his ancestor David,
to challenge them might seem just as foolish.
 

The River Versus the Temple                 Mark 11:11-28

This must be one of the trickiest passages in the Gospels.
First, Jesus feels a bit peckish, but that darn tree has no figs.
Like a spoilt little brat, he has a fit
and it’s not even the season for figs – what did he expect?
Then he goes in the temple, and throws another tantrum!
It’s all rather embarrassing – Especially for Christian pacifists.
“Meek and mild” – yeah right!
What we do with these violent outbursts?
 
Well, regarding the poor fig tree, there are various horticultural explanations.
But the books disagree, and they don’t seem to work.
 
Probably, it’s another acted-out parable
Remember right back in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve first sinned.
Part of the curse was that the ground itself became less fruitful.
And keep in mind that vision of Ezekiel:
when God returns to his temple, that river of life surges out.
on its banks are trees that bear fruit – when?
Every month, in all seasons.
In the kingdom of God, there is no more un-fruitfulness.
The time of disappointment and broken dreams is past.
So, Jesus is so to speak, cursing the curse.
 
But there’s more.
think figs, food.
When he’s in the kitchen, what is Mark’s favourite dish?
Yes, the sandwich!
Mark often takes one incident, and sandwiches it between the start and end of a different story
They may seem unconnected, but the two interpret each other.
Here, Mark has wrapped cursing the fig tree around cleansing the temple.
In fact, in case we missed the connection, this is a multilayer club sandwich.
Look at this: verse 11: Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple.
12: on the next day.  Figtree
15: they came to Jerusalem and he entered the temple.
20: next morning-figtree.
27: again, they came to Jerusalem, walking in the temple.
 
That’s a double whopper burger!
So to figure out the fig fit, we better turn to the temple tantrum
 
 
 
At Passover, many pilgrims had travelled for days.
All the languages at the day of Pentecost gives an idea of the foreigners.
they needed to change their currency to pay the temple tax, and buy an animal to sacrifice
The Old Testament law said this was ok
so what was Jesus’ problem?
 
Maybe, the exchange rates were unfair or they overcharged on the doves
but that’s not the real issue.
 
the trading is in a huge outer area – 35 acres – called the court of the Gentiles.
God meant the temple to be a house of prayer for all the nations (Isaiah 56)
clinking coins, haggling hawkers, cooing and mooing and baaing and grunting animals
what a racket – how could you pray?
Jesus chased away the distractions, so the Gentiles could worship God
that’s often the explanation
many Bibles title this passage, “cleansing the temple”
 
but would the priests want to kill Jesus, just for purifying the temple?
And look at the fig tree
Jesus didn’t cleanse it, prune it, fertilise it, to be fruitful in future
he killed it
 
 
So to understand what’s going on, let’s take a closer look at the temple structure:
In the centre, is the holy of holies.
A cube, a square box that holds the presence of God
Outside, through a heavy double curtain, the holy place,
only consecrated priests may enter
then the court of Israel for Jewish men.
then, the court of the women, and the court of the Gentiles
roughly a series of concentric squares.
God’s holiness, God’s life is more and more diluted, weak and watered down, the further out you go
 
Beyond, are the walls of Jerusalem, the holy city.
Finally, the borders of Israel, and complete spiritual darkness outside.
 
God blessed Israel, to be a blessing to the nations.
God’s presence was to be like Ezekiel’s river,
a spring of grace, bubbling up in the temple.
cascading down the sides of Mount Zion,
flooding out from Jerusalem,
ever wider and deeper, bringing life to the world.
But this is the opposite
high walls around each level – like a cage, a prison.
the river is dammed up, so it cannot flow.
 
The whole purity system shut people out of God’s presence.
Most clearly in the court of the Gentiles.
Notices hung on the wall, in Latin and Greek: no entry into the temple for non-Jews, on pain of death.
And the Romans enforced it.
The temple had become a system of exclusion.
 
 
When Jesus arrived, he purchased no sacrifice.
He didn’t need to
He had no impurity to be cleansed.
Jesus himself is the temple where sins are forgiven, God meets the world and we come to him in prayer
 
Jesus didn’t come to re-form and restore the Jerusalem temple
he didn’t want to clean it up, but to close it down.
 
Jesus didn’t throw a petulant fit.
He acted out a prophetic parable.
The fig tree symbolises the temple.
a show of leaves, impressive gold covered stones,
both are false advertising: underneath they are sterile and fruitless.
Both are condemned.
 
the core conflict of Mark part three, is Jesus versus the religious hierarchy.
The living river versus the old temple.
Which one are we more like?
 

The Storm Breaks

In the first two parts of Mark, Jesus avoided conflict.
He tried to stay incognito.
now Jesus has invaded the sacred centre of the Jewish world and thrown down the gauntlet.
A declaration of war
The gathering storm is about to break.
 
 
Jesus said, you have made the temple a den of robbers.
600 years earlier, the Prophet Jeremiah stood in the temple and spoke the same words (Jeremiah 7, 26)
you think you can go out, steal kill and destroy,
then come back and hide safely in the temple like robbers in their den.
but you are wrong.
Unless you repent, cried Jeremiah, God will destroy this temple.
The priests were outraged.
How dare he speak against the house of God!
They arrested Jeremiah,
put him on trial,
hoped to put him to death.
 
In a few days time, the same would happen to Jesus.
Arrested by the temple police like a robber himself.
Put on trial, with a double accusation:
he threatened to destroy the Temple, and replace it with another. (Mark 14:58)
He challenged the Empire, by claiming to be King.
 
Jeremiah was lucky – officials defended him against the priests.
But this time, religion and Rome, the high priest Caiaphas and the Governor Pilate combine.
At the climax of Mark’s story,
Temple and empire unite.
 
The temple dams the river.
The empire kills the king.
 

Conclusion

We started with great King David
he captured Jerusalem – military victory.
He planned the temple – religious reform
 
We moved to the greater son of David, Jesus Christ.
what sort of Messiah would Jesus be?
Like David, he entered Jerusalem in triumph, but it was non-violent victory.
The King versus the empire.
Like David, he revived religion, but overturned, overflowed, the old system.
The river versus the temple.
 
 
We’ve painted with a palette of prophetic colours today.
Finally, one more turn of the kaleidoscope
Brings us to Revelation, the last book of the Bible.
 
A vision of the New Jerusalem. (Revelation 21-22)
Now the empire has fallen, the true king is on the throne.
No temple in the city, for its temple is God.
No more exclusion: the gates are never closed, all peoples come in.
And from the throne flows the river.
It waters the tree of life, producing fruit each month.
The curse is over, and all our images of blessing come together.
 
 
On Palm Sunday that year, 2000 years ago, there were two very different parades
to the west of Jerusalem, the violent empire.
On the east, the servant King
 
Which procession do we want to be in?
Which way do we measure success?
Big numbers and worldly power – or humble faithfulness?
a good question for our own lives and our church community.
 
 
In Jerusalem that week, two religious ideals clashed head-on.
The old temple with rigid square levels of exclusion.
The free-flowing river of God’s mercy and grace.
 
When Jesus enters our church, when he comes to our lives, which one does he find?
Do we bear fruit, or just put on an empty show?
What barren fig trees would he condemn?
Do we ignore God during the week, and think we’re safe in church?
What would he drive out of our lives?
How do we block the living waters?
He wants his river to flow.
 
 
When temple and empire combined that Passover,
When the body of the true temple was broken on the cross,
the curtain in the old temple was torn.
The dam was broken at last.
God’s blessing gushed out.
Unstoppable.
From the broken temple, God’s spirit floods out.
From the pierced side of Christ, the river flows.
 

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