Palm Sunday

20 March 2016

Palm Sunday Year C

Luke 19: 28-40 & 23:1-49


May I speak in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

A few weeks ago there was a programme on television about the life and tragic early death of the singer songwriter Amy Winehouse. She had an amazing voice and looked set to have a huge career in music. But, unfortunately she also had a big problem with drink and drugs and she died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27.

The reason I am talking about Amy Winehouse on Palm Sunday is that I was really struck by some footage of one of her final concerts. When Amy came onto the stage the crowd went wild for her. This was their musical hero. This crowd loved Amy’s voice, they loved her music, they loved her look, they loved being in her presence. They knew that Amy had come to give them what they wanted for a couple of hours and she was their hero of the moment.

The crowd screamed and clapped and cheered her onto stage.

But it turned out that all was not well. Amy was drunk or on drugs or both. She didn’t start singing and giving the crowd what they wanted. Instead she started talking to the band and fooling around and then sat down.

Within a few minutes the crowd began to understand that they were not going to get the experience they had been hoping for. They felt cheated. Their hero had let them down. The cheering turned into jeering. The shouts of adulation turned into shouts of condemnation and complaint and the screaming went from joy into anger.

This encapsulated for me the rise and fall of a celebrity, the fickleness of crowds and there are no prizes for guessing why this put me in mind of the events of Palm Sunday.

We had two readings this morning – the Palm Gospel before we processed into Church and the passion of Jesus from Luke 23.

They could hardly be more different in tone – in the palm gospel we recalled Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He had been healing and preaching and telling people about his relationship with God the Father for two or three years previously but now there was a sense that his ministry was reaching its goal and he was riding into the City of David to achieve something great – to do what he had come to do.

But what was his goal? Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem? The crowd thought that they knew – they spread cloaks and palm branches before the colt on which he rode and they shouted:

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

They thought that this worker of miracles, who so obviously had God on his side, had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to overthrow the Roman occupiers and to re-establish the Jewish monarchy and so restore the Kingdom of Israel to its rightful place as the home of God’s chosen people. When Pilate uses the term “The King of the Jews” in the passion gospel he is not giving it the spiritual quality that we now associate with that term – he thought, and the people thought, that Jesus had come to be the earthly King of the Jews and so the crowd greeted him as a returning king and as a saviour from foreign oppression – “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!

But what did Jesus himself think he was coming to do in Jerusalem? We know from earlier readings that he had a quite different understanding of what awaited him. In Mark 8 Jesus taught about what awaited him in Jerusalem and the end of his Journey:

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me Satan!” He said, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

So if Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples did not really understand what awaited Jesus in Jerusalem and had in mind the things of man (i.e. earthly power) rather than the things of God (i.e. a transformation of earthly power) then it is hardly surprising that the crowds who lined the road into Jerusalem did not understand either.

So the tone of the Palm Gospel is one of triumph and great expectation – the crowd expect great things of this successor of King David. The entry into Jerusalem is like their favourite singer coming onto stage – the crowd are going to get what they want from this person.

And yet how quickly things change and how quickly the mood of the crowd changes.

Within only a few days Jesus is arrested and then taken before Pilate. I have no doubt that this arrest was in part motivated by Jesus clearing the money-changers out of the Temple and thereby threatening the money and power of the Sanhedrin and the Chief Priests. But I also suspect that the crowds who had expected Jesus to start an insurrection and throw the oppressors out of Jerusalem were disappointed in Jesus. Yes, he had overturned the money changers tables but other than that he had spent his time in Jerusalem preaching in parables, answering tricky questions meant to catch him out, praying and having supper with his friends.

This was not the sort of revolution the people wanted – they wanted a true man of action – someone prepared to kill for the cause, a true man like Barabbas.

And so the shouts of the crowd turn from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”

Crowds can be dangerous things. Individuals always seem to think that if they are part of a crowd that the rules of morality and responsibility somehow no longer apply to them. We certainly see that in the bible not only when the crowd cry for Jesus to be crucified but, for example, when Stephen was stoned to death in Acts 7 it was by a crowd that had been stirred up by the chief priests and, again, when the women who had been caught in adultery was brought before Jesus in John 8 it was a crowd of people who were ready to stone her. But when Jesus was asked how he would judge the women he did not address the crowd as a crowd but, rather, he asked them all as individuals to look into their own hearts and to see ask themselves whether they were really without sin. And when they did so they went away, not as a crowd, but one by one as each came to realise their own sinfulness.

And one day each one of us will also stand before Jesus and be asked to give an account of our brief time here on earth. When that happens there will certainly be no hiding in the crowd and it will never be an excuse to say that we suspended our own morality because it was what everyone else seemed to be doing. When we stand before Jesus we will, be uniquely alone and accountable for our actions. Now that should never be a cause for despair because we know that our God is a loving and gracious God who wants to raise us to everlasting life and to claim our place in the new heaven and the new earth, but it should instil in us a sense of personal responsibility for our own actions and decisions. Do we run with the crowd and accept the fickleness of public opinion or do we try and hold ourselves to a higher standard?

We are now entering into Holy Week and, like today’s readings, it is a week of contrasts and emotions. It has drama, it has tragedy and, without wishing to spoil the ending too much, this time next week we will be celebrating the greatest victory of all. It is the most important story and the most important drama in human history and, amazingly, each of us is expected to play a part in that story and we have absolute freedom to choose our role.

Are we the crowd who, through our conduct and ignorance continue to cry “crucify him” because it is what the world seems to expect or are we like the soldier at the foot of the cross who truly recognises what has happened and who is this person who hangs in front of us – do we as individuals say: “This man is really the Son of God.”