Palm Sunday

A Sermon by Lay Reader, Eleanor Childs    13 April 2014

Our gospel passage for Palm Sunday is entitled ‘The Triumphal Entry’. Let’s imagine the scene. The steep ascent from Jericho to Jerusalem has been almost completed. 15 miles and three and a half thousand feet. Jesus and the crowd of pilgrims are making their way up to the annual Passover celebration in Jerusalem.  They’ve reached the Mount of Olives, which lies to the East of the city.  Jesus makes advance arrangements for his entry  to the city.  He sends his disciples on ahead of him into the village of Bethphage to bring him a colt, which has never been ridden on before.  They are to tell whoever might question them that ‘the Lord needs him’ and they  will have no problems. We don’t know whether this was some prior arrangement Jesus had made or was some prophetic insight he had, but it turned out exactly as he said.

The disciples spread their cloaks on the animal and Jesus sits on it.  Some of the crowd laid their garment  on the ground in front of it and others cut branches from the trees and strewed them in front of him as an act of homage.  The cheers go up: ‘Hosanna in the highest’.  ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. ‘ The word ‘Hosanna’ in the Hebrew originally meant ‘Save now’, but it had become a shout of praise; and the expressions ‘ Son of David’ and ‘He who comes’ were popular titles by which the Messiah was denoted.  It was rather like shouting, ‘God save the king!’  The crowd of pilgrims which had accompanied Jesus from Jericho had observed his miracles.  He had healed 2 blind men en route and raised Lazarus from the dead.  They are carried along by their enthusiasm but when they enter the city and people enquire  about who is at the centre of the hub-bub, they answer, ‘This is Jesus the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’  Jesus was recognised by many as a prophet and gets a tremendous welcome from the crowds here. But a few days later he will be crucified and no-one, apart from his mother and disciple John will stand by him.

The events in this account can be read at 2 levels. From a human perspective,  a good man, imagining himself to be the Messiah misjudged the level of his support and the forces opposing him. He fell foul of the authorities, whose power base felt threatened by him. The authorities rigged his execution.  It was a tragedy.

But from a divine perspective everything was on track.  The Pharisees may have felt they had finally got Jesus in their power, but actually God was in charge of every detail, right down to the timing.  Jesus was to die as the Passover lamb. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing.  He knew he was riding to his death, and that the cheering crowd would evaporate once the authorities acted against him. He’d tried to prepare his disciples on the way up to Jerusalem.  The first 3 gospels all record that he took them aside and told them what would happen: ‘ We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.  He will be handed over to the Gentiles.  They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him.  On the third day he will rise again.‘ Luke adds ‘The disciples did not understand any of this.  Its meaning was hidden from them and they did not know what he was talking about.’  They couldn’t take it in.  It didn’t make sense.  He was the Messiah, surely.  Everyone expected the Messiah to be a conquering hero.  If Jesus can command the forces of nature,  conjure meals for 5,000, heal the blind raise the dead,  surely he can dispose of those  who oppose him.

When words are not listened to, people often resort to symbolic action.  Marches and sit-ins express protest against some proposed course of action.  Burning a country’s flag expresses hostility to its government and ways.   And when words were of no effect and people refused or were incapable of taking in the spoken message God commanded the prophets to use symbolic action to get his message across.  Jeremiah had been told to make a yoke and wear it round his neck to warn his people that they should submit to the rule of a neighbouring empire for a time. Jesus used the same symbolic method here. He chose a donkey to symbolise what kind of Messiah he was.  A conquering hero would have ridden on a splendid charger.  A donkey was an animal symbolic of humility and peace.   You wouldn’t go to war on a donkey.   A donkey was for peace time, for a life of service. The choice of a donkey or an ass was also the fulfilment of a prophecy by Zechariah six hundred years before.  Zechariah foretold ‘See your king comes gentle and riding on a donkey.’ Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem acclaimed as the Messiah and with every eye fixed on him while there was a price on his head was a deliberate claim to be a king, though a different sort of King,  and it was also a provocation to his enemies.

Jesus knows the cheering crowd is fickle and just wants a champion.  They’ve seen or at least heard of the miracles he’s performed and wow this is some guy, he’s on the side of the poor and ill and oppressed, he’s just raised Lazarus from the dead – he’ll be able to kick the Romans out.  We’ve all got our notions of the kind of God we’d like, who’d be on our side and do the things we want. But Jesus’ agenda was not their agenda.  God said, ‘ My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,…and my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine,’ says God in Isaiah 55

So there are 2 ways to read this series of events.  From a human perspective and from a divine perspective.  At the time the disciples read it from a human perspective. Even when Jesus had tried to prepare them beforehand they couldn’t get their minds round God’s perspective.   It was completely alien to their notions of triumph.  Healing the sick, feeding the 5,000, stilling a storm, riding into Jerusalem acclaimed by the adoring crowds, even if it was only on a donkey,  they could understand that.  That was triumph as they understood it, but nailed naked to a cross, suffering the humiliating death reserved for the lowest criminals, where was the triumph in that?  Because, make no mistake that was the triumph.  Jesus defeated the powers of darkness on the cross.  He absorbed all the violence and perversion and evil of the world from the dawn of time to the end of the age into his own body and made atonement for our sin. He was the perfect sacrifice, which was prefigured in the sacrifices of Old Testament times.   By his sacrifice he reconciled a holy God to sinful humanity. His triumph was stupendous but costly . As he died the curtain in the temple which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the building was torn in two.  Previous to this only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies , the place of the very presence of God,  once a year on the great day of Atonement.  Now the way into the presence of the Holy God was laid open to all men.   And death could not defeat or hold Jesus.  The resurrection proved the defeat of sin and death.  Forgiveness and healing are now available to all people.

But only people with  open eyes and hearts can see it and receive it. Despite all his miracles mostly publicly performed, the Pharisees refused to believe in him.  Why? Pride and self-righteousness blind people.  Jesus had unmasked their hypocrisy. They were convinced they were devout, righteous leaders who upheld the law of God, but he showed them how they squeezed the poor, how they worshipped money, how they loved the limelight. They may have thought they were fine upright citizens but when it came to matters of social justice, humility, service, loving your neighbour, they fell far short.  The notion of our sinfulness is still deeply offensive to many people, and despite the love and peace that Christ offers to all of us who follow him, many still reject him.

Why did the disciples not understand and believe him?  They’d followed him and acknowledged him as Messiah, they’d believed in his miracles, yet they were deeply shocked by his death. It was only when they witnessed his resurrection that the light dawned on them.  He was not the Messiah they’d hoped for, the conquering hero who would offer them top jobs in his new kingdom.  We all want a God who will do what we want, not a God who asks us to do what he wants.  No, he was not the Messiah they’d expected. Nor were they the people they’d imagined themselves to be.  Before his death they had been squabbling about who was the greatest among them.  Two of them had come to Jesus and asked to sit on his right hand – the positions of honour – when he established his kingdom.  They were proud, competitive, quarrelsome, jealous.  And they’d all deserted him and scattered when danger threatened.  So what was the difference between them and the Pharisees? Whatever their failures they loved Jesus, and, they were open to the truth about themselves and about the nature of Christ’s kingdom, where humility and love and justice and peace reigned.

What can we learn from this account today?  I think it challenges us:  have we had our eyes opened to the truth about ourselves and the truth about the God we worship? We too need forgiveness for our proud self-centred lives, just as the Pharisees and the disciples did. We tend to think of the Pharisees as baddies and the disciples as goodies, but in God’s sight we all need forgiveness.  And it is still available for Jesus’ atoning death is effective for all time. God still reaches out to us in love and forgiveness, offering himself to us. That’s the first thing we can learn from this passage.

The second thing is our need to read events from God’s perspective.  Calvary looked like catastrophe at the time, but it was a triumph that lit up the world for the next 2000 years. When life looks grim and terrible things happen, can we believe that God is still at work, and trust that he is in charge? He can bring good out of evil.  Jesus said, ‘My father is always at work.’  We need eyes to see past the pain and evil in our world to what God is doing and to wait and work with him in faith and patience, knowing the end will be triumph.