Sunday, 17 April 2011

Palm Sunday

First Reading Isaiah 50.4-9a

The servant of the LORD said:

4The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens –
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
6I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.

Gospel Matthew 21.1-11

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.
Christ humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him
and given him the name that is above every name.
All Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says
Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

As Jesus and his disciples approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Palm Sunday.
How many Palm Sunday sermons have we all heard? How many times have we sat in the pews, at the start of Holy Week, hearing a story we have heard so often, yet wondering if, this year, God will say something new to us?

For me, I try not to look back at what I said last year, or the year before. It doesn’t help, and it doesn’t encourage me to start afresh and see the Triumphal Entry from a new angle. So I thought I would do two things: one – forget about what we now know, and think about what seemed to be happening at the time; and two, look at the events from the point of view of the minor characters, like the man who owned the donkey, the disciples told to go and fetch it, or the onlookers.

Why do we the events of Palm Sunday seem cosy, non-threatening, almost like a street carnival with a donkey for a float, a cheerful man waving to the crowds, and everybody cheering? Is it our sheer familiarity with the narrative, the presence of the donkey, the chant-like shouts of Hosanna, or the absence of any mention of opposition? What were the Romans doing? What about the Temple police and the authorities?

This was no carnival. This was a demonstration by rebels who wanted to overthrow the unholy alliance between Rome and the self-serving Jewish authorities. This was an invasion.

We’ve heard of many invasions in our lifetimes, however old or young we might be. In fact, since WW2 there has been an average of one major invasion a year. Jerusalem, the heartland of the Roman province of Judaea, the boiling cauldron of dissent, the tinderbox of uprising, was being invaded by a troublesome faction of religious fanatics.

Or perhaps you might prefer to call it an uprising. Like Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, or China. Think of how repressive regimes deal with threats to their power. Then consider that many of the world’s most cruel modern day powers don’t even approach the worst excesses of Rome, where thousands of crucifixions took place in a single day.

Jesus and his followers were already condemned. They were marked men. It was only that, in the full light of day, a worse insurrection would have resulted from his arrest as they entered Jerusalem peacefully that held the authorities back from intervening.

Suddenly the story of the donkey and the Hosannas doesn’t sound so friendly, does it?

Minor characters
Just think of the risks taken by anyone in any way associated with the one who claimed to be Messiah, the anointed one, who would overthrow the occupying forces and return Israel to its former glory.

The man who owned the donkey, and secretly provided it for Jesus’ use in fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah. Someone might have recognised whose animal it was. If the disciples had been stopped, they were to declare that it was Jesus who wanted it.

Think of the words of the prophet. “See, your king comes to you...” Everyone in Jerusalem would have understood the symbolism of the colt. No one would have been in any doubt about what Jesus and his followers were claiming to be.

The inner circle of disciples were fired up to expect war. A war the prophets had predicted would be won. It was only a day or so beforehand that the wife of Zebedee had come to Jesus asking for her sons to sit at his right and left hand in his new kingdom.

The people who shouted hosanna and lined the processional route into Jerusalem risked arrest if things turned nasty. There must have been guards and soldiers on duty. What happened in Parliament Square was nothing compared with the might of Rome turned against a factious mob.

The dark side of the gospel
The trouble is, and always has been the way Easter falls, many of us who faithfully attend church on Sundays but miss out on Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pass directly from the hosannas of Palm Sunday to the light and clamour of Easter Day. From rejoicing to rejoicing. From light to light – without any of the darkness in between.

This tends to distort our perspective on the dark side of the gospel. The Passion of the Christ came close to pornography in my view when it spent so long graphically depicting the scourging and torture of Jesus prior to his execution, but still I can see what Mel Gibson wanted to achieve, and the balance he sought to redress.

My challenge this year
So my challenge this year is that we should all try and come to one of the Holy Week services, in addition to today’s service or Easter Day itself.

There’s a short communion service at 8pm on Maundy Thursday. On Good Friday there’s the all-age service with a dramatized gospel play told from the perspective of Claudia, the wife of Pontius Pilate. Then in the afternoon there’s the wonderful choral offering by the Camerata Choir made up of 16 – 18 year olds that had such an impact on us all last year.

Jesus the prophet
The main point of this all is to move us on from where we are to where we might be. Like the crowds who shouted on Palm Sunday. When asked who this was, they said “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. “ By Thursday, they were calling for his execution.

Today we are celebrating Jesus the coming one, the Messiah. How will we move on come Thursday or Friday? And what will we say, in answer to the same question, by next Sunday? Amen

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