SERMON PALM SUNDAY 2016
This Palm Sunday event seems rather extraordinary really in all kinds of ways. Maybe in those days of travelling along on foot, or by donkey or horse, it was not so strange as it is for us. We do still have processions and crowds. Think of Anzac Day, or a Royal visit. Think of the Pope and the crowds that surround him in the pope mobile when he makes overseas visits. Though we also know that in Rome he catches buses or goes around in his little Fiat, having dispensed with the posh car that went with his office. More a colt or donkey person than a big horse. There can be a great excitement generated by crowds of happily cheering people, waving flags, palms or whatever. It draws people in. Though I suspect that most people whizzing past on Pacific Highway as our little crowd walked along with our palm branches would have had no idea what we were doing or why and would have thought it rather odd. People are often prepared to wait for hours and hours to catch a glimpse of someone famous passing by, and if you are young and, most often female, you may be so stirred up that you end up screaming and near fainting when your looked-for idol comes close. It can be, apparently, the best moment in a teenager’s life, so far. I think the closest I came to it was queuing for hours to get into the Albert Hall in London for the Last Night of the Proms, and then belting out Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia. Another lifetime.
We know there was a lot of emotion on that day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt. It is always made poignant because we are well aware of the fickle nature of the excited emotions which would, within a few days, turn vindictive, even clamouring for a death sentence. We see on our own television screens how such hatred can be easily generated. It is frightening.
Yet, the way Luke tells us the story frames it in a wider perspective, for he shows us a cosmic Christ. “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest”. If the disciples keep silent “these stones would shout aloud”. The very earth beneath our feet and all that is on it Luke sees as part of this energy of proclaiming Jesus as the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Somehow, the dynamic of Jesus’ ministry had brought him to this point of riding into Jerusalem, the holy city, to a welcome offered as to a king.
It is just that they got it all so wrong. There was such terrible misunderstanding of what Jesus was all about. So the yearning of creation and the peace of Jerusalem comes crashing down.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the colt, carrying in his heart the enormous burden of misunderstanding. Sometimes this is called the triumphal entry, but, in my imagination, I see a figure whose heart is breaking because he knew how far wrong all this was, yet it was focussed on him. The hopefulness, the meaning he had given to people’s lives, the teachings that had touched their hearts, the healing of brokenness, had been transposed and reconfigured to suit their own ends and mistaken ideals. As he approached the city and saw it, he wept over it. “If you, even you, had known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.” But they did not know, or they could not grasp it. Luke wrote after the destruction of the Temple, the overthrow of the Jewish religious system and the dispersal of the people amid violence and death. He could describe it. Maybe those stones would also have cried out in warning, in grief and pain. Now, the only stones that are left are called the Wailing Wall. And many people who come and stand before it, pray before it, know a deep brokenness. It is in them and around them.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt and it is almost as if he is riding along a narrow path of truth indeed and one that needed very clear vision and discernment to see. I am sure it is no coincidence that , just before this, Luke tells us of almost the last miracle that Jesus performed – he would perform only one more healing, of the ear of the high priest’s servant after his arrest. Luke tells us of the blind beggar, waiting at the side of the road, watching the crowds go by. He called out to Jesus. “Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus asked the man what he wanted him to do. The beggar replied “Lord, I want to see” and Jesus healed him. There is, Luke indicates, more than one kind of seeing.
What the people saw was someone who could be their king, who could lead them to victory over an oppressive occupying enemy, or at least who could bring them freedom from oppression, give them stability, allow them to feel good about themselves again. They wanted a hero. They wanted to know that God was on their side and would empower them. They saw before them a man who had demonstrated that he had power and who had changed people’s lives. Some of the things he had done were spectacular. They had heard about it. They maybe had seen. But what it had meant they had not understood.
How much do we understand, and what does this humble king, riding in on a colt, mean for us today? What do we see?
We live in an era of advertising slogans, catchy words or phrases that, it is hoped, convey something about what people might be thinking about, what people might “need” or aspire to. These are often things that offer quick fixes to some of life’s problems: our health and wellbeing, often related to weight, or smoking or alcohol and drug consumption; our debt levels, our superannuation, our need for a holiday – all kinds of things that, once achieved, will bring us happiness and security, as in the pictures we see of comfortable homes and big families seated around a table enjoying some celebration. And, as an aside, have you noticed how Easter is now being portrayed like that, like a second Christmas, compete with presents and cards, let alone lots of chocolate from the Easter bunny? We are surrounded by false hope. We are surrounded by much that is meaningless, or has only fleeting meaning.
Jesus comes riding in bearing, embodying, the Word of Life. We want, we need a Saviour, and, so often, we fail to see how this is who Jesus is, because, too often, we have cloaked him in language that we ourselves do not really understand. How does this man, riding by, cheered on as a king on his way to a cross, how does he become our Saviour? And not just our Saviour as we sit in a church, accustomed as we are to language such as “Saviour”? Because, if we look at him, he was always there for the outsiders whom he loved into wholeness. If we think he is just the Saviour for the insiders, we have put on blinkers that were probably handed on to us by church institutions that, as always happens, have wanted to protect their power and control.
Jesus comes riding in on his way to a cross, and, at the time, people could not see his meaning, nor God’s purpose. They were blinded by their hopes for a powerful leader who would promote their cause. So this man who carried God’s love incarnate, the real hope for the world, was made to carry false hopes that only separated the people off from him and the heartfelt message of God’s Kingdom that he had been living for people all along. “I am come that you might have life, in all its fullness.” What an enormous gulf of misunderstanding!
Yet can we imagine that we would have been much different had we been there in that crowd? Had we understood what Jesus was about to do it would still be seen as folly. It would be seen as shameful. And isn’t that partly the point of this strange day? That here, the one who, as God’s love incarnate, participated in every part of our human lives, and could bring us hope because he had reached down into the very depths of human experience. Here, today, we see how he rode on through all the pain of being misunderstood, his very being not recognised in its integrity and reality, and he continued on, in spite of it all, because in no other way could we come to see that he reaches still into the depth of our human lost-ness and misunderstanding. And he stays with us.
This is how he can be our Saviour, because he is indeed God-with-us, Emmanuel, from the cradle to the cross. However else we may struggle to understand what is going on today and in what we will be reminded of through this week right up to Good Friday and the days of Easter, let us remember that this Jesus asks of us not our cheering acclamation, nor our strength, or our ideas of perfection or our intellectual assent, but our faulty understanding along with our recognition that his way is the way of life even in the face of death. We glimpse, even in our perplexity, that what he is doing for us is related to what we see around us and in our own lives of sinfulness, wrongdoing, suffering a pain, isolation, loneliness and misunderstanding. We know that somehow, this figure, riding on through mistaken cheers towards crucifixion, brings us hope that we, in our own lives and in our crazy world, can discover forgiveness and healing of brokenness - just because he is with us with a depth of love and mercy that is beyond our comprehension. We can but pray also that we may have eyes to see how he would still come riding on into the lives of those who may seem far away indeed from anything to do with this day or this week. Though it matters not, because Jesus does not divert from his journey or his purpose. He rode on into the very crux of ill-will and darkness. That is indeed steadfast love in the face of misunderstanding.
We can choose to keep our eyes and hearts open to see him and journey with him. God help us!