Palm Sunday 2013
Readings: Luke 19:28-41
Let us Pray: Heavenly Father, as we come to hear your word this morning open our hearts and minds to hear your eternal message for us your children. Amen.
If you are a football fan then Palm Sunday really is a game of two halves – Jesus seems to play a blinder in the first half – it looks as though the new boy from Nazereth is going to take Jerusalem by storm and the crowd are cheering for their new hero:
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”!
But then it all goes a bit wrong in the second half, the crowd start baying for his blood and that is exactly what they get.
If you are not a football fan and prefer your metaphors a little more cultured then we might say that the whole of the gospel story is an astounding piece of drama and today, and for the rest of this week, we are seeing the final few acts play out. Like any great unfolding drama we were first introduced to the characters, in Jesus’ case we had the beautiful nativity scene, the dramatic fleeing from peril into Egypt, an early childhood scene in the temple and then the start of his ministry at his baptism in the Jordan. We have got to know the characters involved, we have followed Jesus in the wilderness, in his ministry, we have met his friends, family and disciples, we have come to know him through his teaching, through his miracles, through the sheer grace of his presence and, like Peter, I hope, to see him as Lord. And now, having gotten to know him, to care about him, to love him and to want to follow him we come to the closing acts where everything and everyone is drawn together in the same place – there is a car chase, well, a sort of donkey amble if you want to be picky, a court room drama and, of course, the good guys win, the innocent are let free and as the closing credits roll we are left feeling that everything is right with the world. Well, not quite – and I am getting a little ahead of myself.
Act 1 of today’s two act instalment starts just outside Jerusalem, at Bethpage. Bethpage was about half a mile from the Eastern Wall of Jerusalem. Until this moment Jesus has walked everywhere with his disciples, perhaps as a first among equals, but now something new is happening – Jesus is no longer the wandering Rabbi, the ascetic or worker of miracles. Jesus is now accepting a much more public mantle, a much more challenging role. Jesus asks two of his disciples to go and fetch a donkey for him to ride on. This is in fulfilment of the prophecy from Zechariah 9 from the OT which prophecies the coming of the new King of Zion in these words:
“See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
When I was discussing this sermon at the kitchen table, as is sometimes my wont, Annabelle asked me an important question: “What do you call a Donkey with three legs? A Wonkey.”
Anyway, you may think that people would be riding in and out of Jerusalem on pack animals all the time and would go unnoticed, but, like the disciples sent ahead to get the donkey, it is clear that word has gone ahead of Jesus and the crowds are expecting him. And they are not only expecting Jesus but that they are out in force to welcome him by lining the road with palm branches and waving them to greet him as the Son of David, a descendent of the great king of Israel who will free them from the Romans and their puppet monarchy.
And the people of Jerusalem shouted, to quote Matthew’s account: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
We tend to use “Hosanna” as a cry of acclamation or worship but, in Hebrew, it is actually a cry for help – it literally means “Save Us!” The people of Jerusalem have been watching and waiting for a saviour to set them free from the yoke of oppression and now this prophet from Nazareth, this descendent of David, this fulfiller of prophecy, healer and miracle worker is entering the city with his band of disciples in the way foretold by Zechariah and the people are welcoming him as a victor, as a king, as a saviour and they are crying out “Save us Son of David!”
So, the end of Act 1 is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and it would be jolly useful if that could be our sole theme for the day and if we could move onto Act 2 next week. But, as we know, this drama is drawing towards its conclusion and events are moving ever faster and almost before we have time to draw breath and certainly before we have time to enjoy our Gin and Tonic, especially with this being Lent, the curtain is raised on Act 2 which is the Passion of Christ.
At the start of this Act 2 Jesus is standing before Pilate, having been sent there by the Sanhedrin. Interestingly when Jesus was before the Sanhedrin they did not accuse him of being the King of the Jews in any secular sense but, rather, they asked him whether he was the Christ, the Son of the Living God and when he said that he was they charged him with blasphemy. But when Jesus is taken before the secular authorities they are much more interested in any threat he may be to their earthly authority and Jesus does not deny that he is King of the Jews. Speaking as a Magistrate I would be tempted to say that the Crown Prosecution Service need to sort out exactly what this man is charged with because to say that this is a bit of an irregular trial would be an understatement.
It seems that Pilate himself is not comfortable with the Sanhedrin’s motives for bringing Jesus to trial and says first that he finds no basis for a charge against him. When this does not appease the accusers he sent Jesus to Herod but although Herod delighted in mocking Jesus he did not condemn him to death and sent him back to Pilate. Finally, Pilate tries to get out of this legal fix by releasing Jesus as part of a Passover amnesty. However, a bit like Big Brother, Pilate lets the baying crowd decide who should be released and, perhaps against Pilate’s expectation, they choose to let the murderer Barabbas go free in place of the healer Jesus. We are told that the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas to go free and to have Jesus executed, and no doubt they played a role in stirring up the crowd but it is also possible that this crowd were somewhat disappointed in Jesus. Only days before they thought that the new King had ridden into town to drive out the Romans and re-establish the legitimate Jewish monarchy and yet, with barely a murmur and with barely even one sword drawn in anger, this great new hope for the future has been betrayed, arrested and is on trial.
The crowd probably felt betrayed and let down – this was not the sort of Son of David they were hoping for – this man looked weak and vulnerable and did not have much to say in his own defence. Barabbas may have been a murderer but at least he had a bit of oomph about him – he was the sort of insurrectionist they could relate to and respect – not like this Jesus – he may do a good sermon on the mount, he may even heal a few beggars but a new King David he ain’t – “Crucify Him!”
How fickle the court of public opinion. How often do we see this played out today in the way in which celebrities, politicians, business leaders, church leaders are built up and celebrated, only to be knocked down and vilified when the wind changes?
But, of course, although that is where the curtain comes down today this is not quite the end of the story. This is not really a game of two halves nor is it the final two acts of a drama. There is extra time still to come in which the defeated Jesus comes back to score the winning goal, there is an epilogue which is much more than an epilogue but the start of a whole new drama, the drama of a remade creation and a renewed covenant with God and a renewed people of God which is his church.
But we mustn’t get too far ahead of ourselves
Although we know that we are already an Easter People, a forgiven and born again people this week let us spend some time dwelling on the Passion of Christ – the joy of the feast is all the greater because of the fast – the joy of the resurrection is only meaningful because of the death. And it was a real death – Jesus did not pretend to die on the cross but died in real agony and even desolation of spirit because of the sin of the world that preferred a murderer to God’s own son. And he died for you and for me and sometimes we need to be still in order to take seriously what God has done for us in Jesus.
So, whilst we know the joy that lays ahead, let us take Holy Week seriously – read the Passion narratives in the gospels for yourselves, join us for some of the special services taking place during the week, especially on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and pray that God will bring us back rejoicing next week as we share in the power and the joy of the resurrection.