Sunday, April 05, 2020

Palm Sunday

This is the transcription of my sermon for Palm Sunday on April 5, 2020.

Palm Sunday

  • Isaiah 50:4-9a
  • Philippians 2:5-11
  • Matthew 27:11-27:54
Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week.  It celebrates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  This was the beginning of a series of events which, over the following few days, were to lead to Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

In our service last week, we read St John’s account of the raising of Lazarus in Bethany near Jerusalem.  St John tells us that 6 days before the Passover, Jesus came back to Bethany where he stayed with his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  This was to be his home until his death.

While he is there the three friends give a dinner party for him.  Martha, as usual, serves.  Mary, however, does something that is to prove highly controversial and is the trigger for the chain of events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion.

St John tells us:

‘Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ (John 12:3)

The cost of this perfume would have been very great.  And not everyone is happy with it being used in this way.  Judas, in particular, questions why it could not have been sold and the money given to the poor.  St John tells us that Judas said this not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief and wanted a share of what the perfume was worth for himself (John 12:6).

We need to remember, though, that Judas had been chosen by Jesus himself to be one of the 12, that is, one of his closest associates.  Judas clearly had been committed to Jesus at one time.  Whatever else is going on with Judas, we see in his reaction a growing disillusionment with Jesus.

When, however, Jesus defends Mary and says she has done a good thing that will always be remembered and spoken of, the die is cast and the events leading to the Cross are set in motion.  Judas goes to the Chief Priests and offers to betray him.

We simply do not know what was going through Judas’ mind or what lead him to decide to betray Jesus, but we get in this story of the Dinner Party at Bethany a sense of his disappointment in Jesus.  He is not the only one that Jesus is to disappoint in the next few days.

After Judas has made his fateful decision to betray Jesus, the next day Jesus rides into Jerusalem.  The crowds, who had heard that he was coming, greet him, waving palm branches and proclaiming him King. 

And the King, the Messiah, was what many had been waiting for.  The One who would liberate them from the Roman oppressor and establish God’s Kingdom on earth.  Throughout his ministry, there has been speculation that Jesus was the One who would do this.  He, however, has refused either to confirm or deny it.

Now, though, it seems clear.  The prophet Zechariah had spoken how when the Messiah came, he would enter Jerusalem riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).  By entering Jerusalem in this way at Passover when the Jews were celebrating their deliverance from oppression as slaves in Egypt, Jesus couldn’t be clearer as to the meaning of his action.  And the crowds totally get it.

But having raised their expectations to fever-pitch, what does Jesus do?  He absolutely refuses to follow through.  Instead, Jesus goes quietly and passively to his death, like a lamb to the slaughter.  He puts up no resistance.  He doesn’t die fighting for what he believes in.  He allows the Romans not only to humiliate him, but also to humiliate the people who had cheered him as their King.  Pilate mocks them and their so-called King by writing the ‘King of the Jews’ in three languages above his head on the Cross as Jesus is crucified in front of them.  Could ever a Messiah have been more of a disappointment? 

You get some of the sense of the disappointment felt, especially by those who have believed in him, in the words said by the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday:

‘But we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free.’ (Luke 24:21)

But no, he wasn’t, he let us down.  The Messiah wouldn’t have allowed himself to be crucified.

Jesus was a disappointment.

Jesus was not just a disappointment to the crowds and those who followed him believing him to be the Messiah, but also to his closest friends and associates too.  Peter, after Jesus is arrested, will deny him three times. 

We are often quite hard on Peter for this denial.  We shouldn’t be.  Peter, when he denies Jesus, has just come from the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus had badly let him down.

Peter had been one of the first to leave everything he had to follow Jesus.  And when others abandoned Jesus because his demands were too great, Peter stuck with him.  Then, when Jesus had asked his disciples who they thought he was, Peter had been the one to get it right; to see that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  Jesus had praised him in the highest of terms, telling Peter that it was God himself who had revealed this to him.

And then, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when they came to arrest Jesus, he, Peter, was willing to die there.  To protect Jesus, he drew his sword to fight, despite being heavily outnumbered.  What did Jesus do?  He told Peter to put his sword away.  Jesus just gave up.  He surrendered.  Jesus denied Peter the chance to save him.

Jesus was a disappointment.

Mary Magdalene was disappointed too.  But her disappointment was different.  Mary was there at the Cross when most of Jesus’ other followers had deserted him and fled.  She did not abandon him.  She was the first to the tomb after he had died.

But there at the tomb, she’s confused and devastated, not because she had wanted something out of him, not because she had expected something of him, but because she loved him.  Her terrible sense of loss can be heard even today in the words she speaks in the Garden thinking she is speaking to the gardener.  Weeping, she says:

‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ (John 20:15)

Even though Jesus is dead, she goes on loving him, but why has he gone?  Why has he been taken from her? 

Mary’s disappointment lies losing Jesus.

So how has Jesus disappointed you?  In what way is Jesus a disappointment to you?

For Jesus continues to disappoint people today.  He refuses to be what we want him to be or to give us what we want him to give.

Many are like the crowds.  They see in Jesus a political figure who they can look to as a role model for their cause.  He has been looked to by both those on the right and those on the left of the political spectrum.  On Palm Sunday, the crowds saw him as one who could bring them freedom.  And so, in our own day, he has been seen as a defender of free market capitalism and as a Marxist revolutionary fighting for freedom from just that. 

In the present day, the crowds, both in and out of the Church, wonder whether he can inspire those who are seeking freedom from social injustice. 

Perhaps Jesus is the role model we need today in our struggle for a more inclusive, equal, and diverse society.  After all, didn’t he welcome everyone regardless of who they were or what they had done?  Didn’t he reach out to the poor and oppressed?  Didn’t he challenge the rich and powerful?  Didn’t he speak out against injustice and exploitation?  If these are his values, then we will follow him for these are our values too. 

But then when we look more closely, he disappoints us too.  For he doesn’t just welcome the poor and oppressed, but also the rich and powerful like the tax-collectors who made their wealth out of exploiting the poor.  His burial and the grave he was buried in were provided by rich, powerful leaders who belonged to the very group of people who had crucified him.

Unlike many of his day, Jesus values and respects women, but then he goes and chooses 12 men to be the leaders and the foundation of his movement after he has gone.  He lets Martha wait on him and Mary wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair.

Jesus refuses to fight for any political or social cause.  He won’t submit to any who try to enlist him to their ideology or cause whether of the left, right or centre.  He shocks us by pronouncing judgement on all the cities of this world.

Jesus is a disappointment to us.

Most who are watching or listening to this broadcast, however, aren’t too worried about Jesus’ politics.  Many of us have given up trusting in politicians altogether.  We do not believe that any politician can help us.  No, we became Jesus’ followers for completely different reasons.  Like the first disciples, we became his followers because he seemed to promise so much not for society in general, but for us personally.

Like James and John, who sought to sit at his right hand and left, we thought there was going to be something in it for us.  We liked the idea that Jesus was on our side that he healed the sick, forgave sinners, promised abundant life, and told us that we would never go thirsty and that we would never die if we believed in him.

And then what happened?  He didn’t prevent our income from falling or save us from losing our job.  We didn’t get the exam results we were hoping for.  Our children didn’t get into the school or college we had wanted them to.  We did still get sick, have accidents, get hurt and injured, and lose loved ones.  Problems, difficulties, tragedy, sickness, and bereavement have come to us his followers just as they come to everyone else.  And more than this, we even get hassle and trouble simply because we are his followers.  Not only are we no better off by being his followers, we are even worse off.

Jesus promised us much but has delivered little.

Jesus is a disappointment to us.

A few, however, and it’s just a few, like Mary Magdalene are not disappointed.  They didn’t become his follower because they saw in a Jesus a political leader with an ideology they could believe in.  They didn’t become his follower for what they could get out of him for themselves.  Like Mary, they became his follower because they fell in love with him.

This was what Peter had to come to understand before he could be the leader Jesus wanted him to be.  And so, Jesus before returning to his Father asks him, ‘Peter, do you love me’.  And Jesus asks him not once, not twice, but three times.  Peter is hurt when Jesus asks him if he loves him, but, finally, he understands Jesus at last:

‘Yes, Lord you know that I love you.’ (John 21:15-17)

This won’t mean it will be easy as Jesus goes on to explain to him.

But, like Mary, Peter knows now it’s about a relationship, a commitment to Jesus; about following Jesus, his way.

It will feel at times that Jesus has left us.  That someone has taken him away and we do not where they have laid him.  He will feel absent.  And we too will feel disappointment, like Mary a different type of disappointment to those who don’t love him, but a disappointment, nevertheless.

This week Jesus will be crucified.  And this is God’s answer to our disappointment whoever we are. 

To the disappointed crowds who seek a political leader they can believe in, the Crucified Christ says it was never about power, success or political causes: did I not say, ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36)?

To the disappointed disciples who followed Jesus thinking he would make their life better in the present, the Crucified Christ says I never promised you it would be easy.  I warned you it would be hard; that you would be persecuted; that you would suffer: did I not say, ‘In the world you will have trouble’ (John 16:33)?

To Mary, however, whose disappointment is not in Jesus but in losing him and finding him absent, the Risen Lord speaks simply a word of love.  It needs no further explanation, ‘Mary’.  Did he not say, ‘My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.’ (John 10:27)?

Jesus speaks her name and Mary hears his voice.  Jesus is alive!  That’s all that matters.  Now she must go and tell his followers he is alive.  Then they too must go.  And so must we.  We must tell the truth that he is alive!

But it is Crucified Christ who is alive.  Not the powerful leader, not the political ideologue, not the spiritual magician who grants our every wish, but the One who was nailed to the Cross and who died for us and because of us.

And the Crucified One still does not promise us seats in the Kingdom; he doesn’t offer us power and position; he doesn’t guarantee safety and security.  Instead, he speaks of hardship, suffering, struggle, misunderstanding, and rejection. 

Who will follow him now?

Not many.  Just as Jesus said, if we but listened to him:

‘For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:14)

It is, however, a way today, Palm Sunday, that we can find if we are prepared to follow him, not just as he rides into Jerusalem with the crowds cheering, but follow him, like Mary, all the way to the Cross, and then with her beyond it to the empty tomb. 

And, at the empty tomb, we will find him not just as the Crucified One, but as the Risen Lord who tells us not to hold on to him, but to go out for him; to be those who believe in him and who proclaim his death until he comes.  He warns us that as people were disappointed in him so too they will be disappointed in us; for indeed, as he said, ‘the servant is not above his or her master’ (John 15:20).

But as we go, we go with his promise:

‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:20)

So, Lord:

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
then take, O God, thy power, and reign.


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