You might be looking at the sermon title right now and thinking, “We’re in for a long sermon.” (So I sent out for sandwiches.) Answering the question “What Did Jesus Do?” could take in the whole Bible plus libraries full of books on theology and commentary. Don’t worry. I’ll only be talking about one week of Jesus’ life.
Arguably it’s the most important week. It’s the week that is the pinnacle of all four gospel stories, and all four tell about this week in more detail than any of the rest of the story.
Today we read about Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, which is the beginning of the end of Jesus earthly ministry, and then we jumped ahead to read a bit of what happened Thursday night (Maundy Thursday) and Friday morning (Good Friday), the days that Jesus was arrested and crucified. There’s a lot we left out that I hope you will read for yourself. The passages we read today help us consider the question “What did Jesus do?” in a particular way. They get us thinking about how Jesus turned the world upside down.
If you’re a literalist, you might be thinking right now that you can’t actually turn the world upside down. In a sense, it’s always upside down, or always not. The earth is a ball that’s always turning, sort of hanging in space, so for each one of us, the point on which we’re standing is right side up. Therefore every point on the earth is right side up. There is no upside down.
What does happen that in a sense turns the world upside down is that the magnetic poles reverse, something that happens about every 200-300,000 years. The reason a compass works is that it’s a magnetized piece of metal. In magnetism, opposites attract, so the needle is attracted to the north pole. Before we had GPS, a compass was vital for navigation. My car has a built-in compass that always tells us what direction we’re headed. It’s pretty useful. But if the earth’s magnetic poles suddenly reversed, we’d be pretty confused. Even GPS uses those poles, so there would be a whole bunch of us suddenly getting very lost.
God didn’t want us to get lost, so God came to earth in human form to bring us back to himself. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus turns our thinking and our understanding of God upside down.
Turning the world upside down was actually the accusation the people in the ancient city of Thessalonica made against Paul and Silas when they were teaching about Jesus in the synagogue. In Acts 17:6, they say, “These men were turning the world upside down . . .”
Jesus turns the world upside down.
In our first reading today, Jesus turned our understanding of victory upside down. He came riding into town on a donkey, as the crowd waved branches, threw their cloaks down to pave his way, and shouted, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is like a what a military leader would receive when they came home from a battle. There would be a victory parade. We still do these today, though more often the parade is for a sports team. Jesus had just won a victory over death: he’d just raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44). Earlier he’d also resurrected the daughter of a local synagogue leader named Jairus (Mark 5: 21–24, 35–43) and a young man in the town of Nain (Luke 7:11-17). Only the prophets Elijah and Elisha had done this before. These resurrections foreshadow the victory over sin and death that Jesus would win in the days ahead (1 Cor. 15:57). This is a different kind of victory, a victory won not by human might or by human power, but by the Holy Spirit (Zech 4:6).
That’s what Jesus did. He turned the world upside down.
In Mark 14, our second reading today, we jump ahead several days to Thursday after the dinner with the disciples. Jesus has been arrested and brought to the house of the high priest for questioning. They’re looking for evidence to justify putting Jesus to death. False witnesses testify, but then the high priest gets frustrated and starts questioning Jesus directly. He says:
“Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus was silent and made no reply. So the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:60-61)
Outside this place, in the courtyard, Peter is denying that he even knows Jesus. But inside, Jesus breaks his silence with these words:
“I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:62)
“I Am.” The high priest is horrified at this answer and tears his clothes to acknowledge that this is the ultimate blasphemy. Jesus has just said that he is more than the Messiah that they were expecting. “I Am” is the name of God that God revealed to Moses when Moses asked, “Who should I say has sent me?” Jesus is God in the flesh. (John 1:4)
Then, Jesus also gives them a glimpse of the future. He says, “You will see the Son of Man seated at God’s right hand and coming in the clouds.” He’s alluding to his resurrection, and his ascension, and his second coming. They certainly had more than they bargained for, but they cannot see it. They cannot see that Jesus is God. Jesus turned their world upside down because he challenged their understanding of who God is and how God works. They’re working hard to be righteous and earn reconciliation with God, and meanwhile God has taken the initiative and come to do the reconciling himself.
This is what Jesus did.
Our third reading for today, from Mark 15, happens the following morning when Jesus is brought to Pilate, the governor. Throughout the gospel stories, we see that Jesus has drawn crowds. We saw one of those instances in our first reading from Mark 11. The Jewish leaders were jealous of Jesus’ popularity and influence, and Pilate recognized this. Pilate would just as soon release Jesus, so when the crowds come to ask him to set a prisoner free for the Passover, Pilate offers Jesus, expecting that to be the popular move. But instead, they ask for Barabbas. Mark tells us that the chief priests were stirring up the crowd to ask for Barabbas instead of Jesus (15:11), suggesting that the crowds were easily manipulated to turn against Jesus. They went from cheering to jeering. The world turned upside down.
It’s turned upside down in another way, too. The beginning of Mark’s Gospel says that this story of Jesus is “good news,” and John the Baptizer proclaims that “the one who is more powerful than I is coming” (1: 7). Whenever the crowds gathered, Jesus spoke with authority and performed astonishing healings and miracles. But now Jesus seems powerless to save himself.
Jesus isn’t powerless. His purpose isn’t to save himself, but to save us.
Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10: 45). Jesus demonstrates that true success is not won in the court of public opinion, but in our willingness to humbly serve and trust God. This is turning the world upside down.
You might have already figured out that today’s sermon is somewhat inspired by the song from the Broadway musical “Hamilton” called “Yorktown” in which the chorus repeatedly sings, “…the world turned upside down.” The musical tells the story of the founding of our nation, with Alexander Hamilton at the center. In the song called “Yorktown,” Hamilton and Lafayette are preparing to lead their troops into the last major battle of the revolution, the fight for independence from Britain, the reigning world power. It ought to have been easy for Britain to win, since their military might was unrivaled. But the underdog colonists and their allies the Germans and the French achieve an upset. They win a military victory against an oppressive government.….and the world turned upside down… Somewhat parallel to Jesus who wins a victory over the oppression of sin and death.
Hamilton and the American armies win their freedom from Britain through their own effort, though many of them would likely say that God gave them the inspiration and courage. We, however, do not win our freedom from the bondage of sin and death by our own effort. God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). This is what Jesus did. This is what God did.
One of my favorite parts of the Palm Sunday story is when Jesus tells the disciples to borrow a donkey. Jesus says if someone stops them, to say, “The Lord needs it and will return it.” This always reminds me of the scene in one of the Star Wars movies where the Jedis use the force to get the imperial guards to leave them alone by waving their palms and saying, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” It works, and the guards go away. Similarly, the disciples say, “The Lord needs it and will return it,” and that worked. They’re able to take the donkey.
It works because they did what Jesus told them to do.
It works because Jesus is God.
As we ponder the events of Holy Week, we need to remember this:
Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, “I Am.”
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
8 he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
That’s what Jesus did.
 This contrast is noted by Lamar Williamson, Jr. in Mark/Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, (Westminster John Knox Press, 1973), p.267.
 Thomas Long in Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Locations 4372-4373). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.