Palm Sunday 9 April 2017

A Sermon by Eleanor Childs – Reader

 Matthew 21:1-11

Would you take up your palm crosses and look at them, please. A potent reminder of our Gospel story. Jesus was entering Jerusalem at the start of Passover Week. He was a noted prophet and he was hailed by the crowds who cut down palm branches to strew in front of him and cheer him on his way.  Why palm branches?  That was how the Jews had acknowledged King Jehu in the Old Testament.  It was how they greeted the victorious Simon Maccabeus after he liberated Jerusalem, and rededicated the Temple almost two hundred years earlier. On those sort of triumphal occasions people carried palm branches and sang their psalms. They didn’t have red carpets in those days, which is our way of acknowledging royalty, or people of special status.

You know there’s a lot of misinformation and ignorance about Jesus.  People have thought he was a good, well-intentioned man who happened to fall foul of the authorities. And from a purely human standpoint his arrest and trial and crucifixion could give the impression he was at the mercy of evil opponents.  But actually Jesus was in complete command of his destiny and moving according to God’s timetable.  His actions in this incident are planned and deliberate.  He is using a method of awakening people’s minds which the prophets had used on a number of occasions in the Old Testament.  Again and again in Israel’s history when a prophet felt that words were not getting through because of indifference or incomprehension, he would use symbolic action.  For example, when Jeremiah wanted to convince his people that Babylon was going to conquer and enslave their land, he put a yoke round his neck and walked around with it .  By this he was indicating that nothing but slavery and servitude lay ahead.  They paid no attention and that is what indeed happened. They were enslaved by Babylon. The prophet Hosea was commanded by God to marry a prostitute and when she repeatedly betrayed him he sought her out to forgive and welcome her back, demonstrating by his actions God’s unfailing, forgiving love.

Jesus is using this prophetic method here.  Good Jews were familiar with their history and scriptures. Zechariah 9 verse 9 written in the 500’s BC prophesies,

‘Say to the Daughter of Jerusalem!  See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

Jesus is fulfilling these Scriptures.  By his action he is announcing that he is God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One, a King.  But a certain sort of king. Conquering kings rode magnificent warhorses. In the East when a king came riding on an ass it was a sign that he came in peace. Jesus is claiming to be a king of peace, coming not with the might of arms but in the strength of love.

And he has planned this entry. He has chosen this moment and this place and this animal. Arrangements have been made to bring this animal.   An unbroken animal was traditionally used in sacred ceremonies. The time is Passover and Jerusalem is thronging with pilgrims. This is the greatest of the Jewish national festivals. It celebrates the event in Jewish history recorded in Exodus, when as oppressed slaves in Egypt, in obedience to God’s command, the Jewish households smeared the blood of a sacrificial lamb over the top and sides of the doors of their houses so that when the angel of death would pass over, he would see the blood and  no one would be harmed.  Only the Egyptian households would suffer the death of their firstborn son, this last of the 10 plagues.  As a result of this terrible plague, Pharoah finally agreed to liberate the Israelite slaves. Jews had kept this festival of their liberation down through the ages.

The law required that every adult male Jew who lived within 20 miles of Jerusalem must come to the Passover.  And Jews from every corner of the world made their way to Jerusalem for Passover.  And this is the moment Jesus has chosen to ride into Jerusalem. He knows he is entering a hostile city; he knows  that he is a marked man.  The authorities are on the look- out for him. They’ve decided to eliminate him, and they’ve managed to convince themselves it’s for good religious reasons.  Entering Jerusalem this way – centre stage, that is – will be seen as a huge provocation, and will lead to his arrest, for Jesus is in charge of the timetable.   He always moved according to his Father’s timetable.  We notice repeatedly in the Gospels that he says ‘My time has not come’ when people try to get him to act according to their timetable.  He knows he is the new Passover lamb whose death will lead to the liberation of those who follow him down through the ages.  He is setting in motion the sequence of events which will lead to his crucifixion.  His claim to be God’s Messiah will not be lost on the Jewish authorities.  They will be galvanised into action.

And what about the crowd?  Do they really understand the import of this event?  Or are they carried away by mass emotion? Jesus will have been well known after raising of Lazarus from death.  To them, Jesus is a miracle worker, a prophet. They greet him: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ is the greeting addressed to pilgrims as they come to the feast.  ‘Son of David’ is a popular Jewish title for the coming Messiah.  The word ‘ Hosanna’ originally meant ‘Save now!’  and was the cry for help which a people in distress addressed to their king or their god.  It may possibly by this time have lost some of its original meaning and become a cry of welcome and of acclamation, like ‘Hail’. The Jews are awaiting a Messiah who will deliver his people.  In their understanding  this means a conquering champion  who will kick the hated Roman oppressor out of their country and make them great again. A suffering servant is not what they are looking for.

Such was the commotion the crowd caused that it says ‘the whole city was stirred to ask “Who is this?”‘  But they don’t question very deeply or investigate thoroughly. Among the hustle and bustle of the festival, Jesus’ arrival can soon be forgotten. Jesus recognises how shallow all the adulation is.  Luke, in his account of this event, tells us that Jesus wept as he made his way through the crowds and entered Jerusalem.  He foresaw the terrible fate that their blindness and rejection of him and determination to do things their own way would bring upon them in years to come with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  Jesus was not  surprised at the change of tune a few days later when the crowd yelled, ‘Crucify him!’

And where are we in this narrative?  Who do we identify with? Would we have been any less excitable or changeable or shallow or blind than the crowds in Jerusalem?  Any less disillusioned when we found he wasn’t the kind of God we were hoping for? One who would wave a magic wand, sort out our troubles  and promote our interests?  Would we have been any less envious and murderous than the Pharisees when their power and prestige were threatened? Would we have been any less cowardly than his disciples turned out to be if we’d experienced the risks and cost of following him?  I doubt it.  But that is why Jesus died. To make atonement for our sinfulness. Even though he recognised the fickleness and self-interest of humanity, he never stopped loving and hoping. He never gave up on us. Instead, he gave himself up for us.   Both he and his father knew that reconciliation and transformation were only possible through his atoning death. We could not make atonement for ourselves.

At the heart of our gospel is the Cross.  We must never forget that. It’s why we celebrate Holy Communion, it’s why our palm leaves are shaped into a cross.  After the Resurrection when Peter and  the other disciples stood up to preach the good news in Jerusalem, 3000 people turned to God and received forgiveness and new life through the mysterious power of that Cross in one day. Many of them would have been in the crowds in Jerusalem on Good Friday.  But repentance and forgiveness were fully available to them now.

I believe that Jesus still comes among us today and challenges us to take him and his kingdom of love and justice seriously.  Sometimes we can be stirred, as the crowds were, by things we have seen or heard that speak of God and his kingdom.  Will we quickly forget or drown out his voice by our busyness or distractions? Or will we be swayed by the influence of those around us , just as the crowd were?  He leaves us free to respond, for God never imposes on us. But our choice of response – whether it is to ignore him and go our own way or to follow him, has huge consequences for us both in this world and the next.