Jerusalem Journey

Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, Minnesota)

Scripture: Mark 11:1-11 and 14:3-9

Yesterday Javen and I went to the Twin Cities Auto Show. We saw the latest in top-of-the-line automotive gadgetry: electric engines, pre-collision braking systems, fancy interiors, wireless technology, everything except driverless cars. Marvelous examples of human ingenuity are coming soon to a highway near you. But you know one piece of technology that’s still limited in reach? Headlights. I wondered about this, so I asked some vendors how well their headlights worked. To my disappointment, it didn’t sound like there were any car headlights that could do what I was hoping. Even though we now have halogen and LED bulbs that are so bright they blind drivers coming from the other direction, none of them make it possible to see the whole way home in an instant.

I’ve been thinking about this because I recently saw what the author E.L. Doctorow wrote about his craft. “Writing,” he says, “is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It seems to me that the same can be said of life itself. We don’t always know where the road will take us. It’s like Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast in California—weaving and turning around sharp corners, slipping through unexpected tunnels, and then opening suddenly into a breathtaking vista of the wide-open sky. We can’t take in the whole journey, even in the daytime or with the best of headlights. If we could see everything instantly, we might know what parts of the trip hold the greatest consequence. What chance meeting will change life forever, and which will be just a blip in passing? Where should we be careful, lest a careless detour lead to many lost hours before a U-turn? But we can’t know these things because we can’t see the whole trip at once. Only looking back can we recognize what’s of the most importance.

I suspect that Jesus had a stronger sense than most of the arc his own journey would make. Yet his incarnate, divine life plays out like ours: step by step. We remember those steps throughout this Holy Week: Sunday’s joyful procession, followed by threatening encounters in Jerusalem, Thursday’s last supper, betrayal, arrest and desertion, Friday’s trials, crucifixion, death and burial, before Easter’s rejoicing. Looking back now with knowledge of the full journey, we can see the everyday moments and overlooked people that hold eternal significance. Consider just two today: the colt and the woman who anoints Jesus.

Jesus begins his Jerusalem journey by sending disciples to go ahead with one request. “Bring me an unridden colt that you’ll find tied inside that village just ahead.” We might spend time wondering how Jesus knew where the animal was, what the reactions might be in those who saw the cold untied, or if Jesus had arranged these details in advance. But the poet Mary Oliver calls our attention to the animal itself, a donkey in other gospels. She writes:

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient….[1]

The poet captures well the ordinariness of this one life. He is no leaping horse or flashy dove—the colt is a beast of burden who spends much of his existence simply waiting. Yet it is to such everydayness that God incarnate comes, and enlists him in eternal service. When will our ordinary and obedient lives, seemingly spent in endless waiting for whatever is just around the bend, suddenly manifest the eternal light shining through? Can we recognize when transcendence calls for us now—in morning sunlight, a child’s “Hello”, a smile from a stranger, the smell of baking bread, or any shimmery moment that carries gratitude down the streets of the heart? Though we don’t know the full importance of each moment when it passes, we can be of better, more joyful service to God if we wait with the colt’s patience and willing expectancy.

Then, when occasions arise for lavish blessings, we will be ready like the woman who anoints Jesus. The setting for this second encounter is the home of one called “Simon the Leper”. Jesus shows again his consistent identification with the undesirables of society. The narrative around this passage describes priests and scribes plotting to kill Jesus, then Judas himself getting ready to betray his leader, the Savior of the world. Amid all these men behaving badly, an unnamed woman approaches Jesus at the table and anoints him. But this is no delicate daily dab of perfume, which was the customary use for nard. No, this was breaking the bottle open like an egg over Jesus’ head and dousing him with all of its contents at once. That ointment was worth thousands of dollars, almost a year’s wages. What must Jesus have felt, to be suddenly covered in aromatic oils like this?

One time in seminary at the end of a chapel service, I poured an entire bowl of rose-scented oil on Javen’s head. I got carried away in a moment of irrational exuberance, but Javen was not pleased! The oil started running down his forehead, off his nose, and down the back of his neck. He had to go to his next class a few minutes later, smelling to high heaven.

Perhaps the woman—like me—should have been more prudent. But in her case, Jesus recognizes that the woman’s gift “springs from a personal love for Jesus which, on occasion, breaks all patterns, defies common sense, and simply gives.”[2] Furthermore, Jesus recognizes a deeper meaning in her actions. Nard was used both for daily perfuming of the head and hair, and for anointing bodies to be buried. The woman’s actions demonstrate the value of Jesus’ life, made all the more precious because Jesus had a sense that he was near death.

This moment of a woman blessing Jesus is kept forever in the gospel story. But if she had not been ready and determined to follow her impulse, the opportunity would have passed her by. “It is one of the tragedies of life,” preacher William Barclay says, “that often we are moved to do something fine and do not do it. It may be that we are too shy and feel awkward about it. It may be that second thoughts suggest a more prudent course. It occurs in the simplest things—the impulse to send a letter of thanks, the impulse to tell someone of our love and gratitude, the impulse to give some special gift or speak some special word. The tragedy is that the impulse is so often strangled at birth.” Barclay concludes, “This world would be so much lovelier if there were more people like this woman, who acted on her impulse of love because she knew in her heart of hearts that if she did not do it then she would never do it at all.”[3] Life is filled with these moments for immediate blessing. This woman’s example can help us seize such opportunities rather than letting them pass us by.

We have no headlights to show us the entire journey of our lives. Like Jesus, we live from moment to moment, episode to episode. Yet, as the writer says, “you can make the whole trip that way”. The colt who carries Jesus at the beginning models for us humble and patient waiting for the next opportunity to be of service to God in the world. The woman with the precious nard is our example for what to do in such times: seizing the moment as an opportunity to pour out the full generosity of our lives. In the week ahead, may we know satisfaction in the ordinary and extraordinary moments of life. May we recognize divine glory among us even now, and do something magnificent for God in response.

Let us pray: God of heaven and earth, the final days of Jesus’ earthy life are before us in this Holy Week. Here we see the boundless love with which you carry the sins of the world. Amid the trials and tribulations, give us strength to walk faithfully with Jesus, and pour out our love with similar extravagance. Amen.

[1] “The Poet Thinks about the Donkey”, Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 44.

[2] Lamar Williamson, Jr. Mark, in the Interpretation Bible commentary series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 249.

[3] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, revised ed. in The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 327.

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