They say beware of the Vicar who has just returned from the Holy Land. If you are not careful he will corner you and show you his holiday snaps. I’m not planning on doing that. But could I really speak at the beginning of Holy Week without drawing on the remarkable things I’ve seen in Jerusalem, the city where it all happened?
Of course not, it’s an incredible place and a great help to faith. I’d recommend a pilgrimage to anyone. One thing that really struck me is how small the old city of Jerusalem is. The historic sites are really close together. And a lot of the places that we read about in the gospels are still there, some preserved as archaeological remains, while others have ornate churches built on top. The only part of the Temple that remains is the Wailing Wall, and I have to say that I was rather anxious about visiting it
It’s a special place for the Jews, and I’m always a little nervous about going to someone else’s holy place. How should we behave? What to wear? We don’t want to offend. Will they mind us being there, especially on the Sabbath? We had a briefing which included things like: don’t take photos after sunset because when the Sabbath starts no-one is allowed to operate any kind of machine. The religious police will be enforcing the ban.
I also thought it would be a rather grim experience: it is after all called the Wailing Wall…I was expecting a serious and mournful atmosphere. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was a chaotic, joyful celebration. The place was packed with families meeting up, teenagers giggling at each other. Even the very austere looking Orthodox Jews were joining in the singing, praying, even dancing. That sunny evening it was profoundly beautiful and spiritual. I did wonder what it could be like if these wonderful people could believe that Jesus is their Messiah’.
Christians can learn a lot from the Jewish roots of our faith about the value of celebration. That joy and Christian faith can, should go hand in hand. There is a bit of a tendency in our culture to think that proper religion is a serious and sombre business. British grown up religion shouldn’t be too demonstrative, but we might endure a little enforced jollity from time to time in an effort to appeal to the young.
But actually taking our faith seriously involves celebration. Not dumbing down but the whole family of God rejoicing in him. We worship a great God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer in whom we can and must delight! In the Old Testament God commanded his people to observe community festivals, Sabbaths, holy days. Celebration is our duty and our joy.
One of the privileges of Sabbatical has been worshipping in different churches of varying tradition and style. A few I admit were pretty deadly, several have been inspirational. What struck me, independent of churchmanship was that the common theme of the good ones has been the contagious power of joy. Whether it’s a handful of Ethiopian Christians meeting in a tiny incense filled chapel, or a large Evangelical church with a worship band, it’s wonderful to join people taking delight in God.
Joy is hospitable. It welcomes people, makes them feel at home and conveys God’s love. Joy in worship draws people into praise, lifts up their hearts with a vision of God and sends them out bearing hope into the world. Perhaps unexpectedly, joy also holds and embraces those among us who live with suffering. It is easier to weep somewhere warm, loving and accepting than somewhere cold and distant.
I say that because joy in the Lord is sometimes misunderstood. Joy is deep. It’s not a frothy manipulated surface emotion but a grace that comes from being rooted in God. Joy is not a fragile bubble within which we hide from the hardships of the world. No, joy knows those hardships and knows the God who is working in and overcoming them. Joy is not denial, it gives the strength to endure.
Joy is strengthened by being expressed, and shared. Particularly in worship. So I’d encourage you: let your delight in God out. When we worship together, sing up – don’t be worried if you’re out of tune, I will be too and if we all sing up no-one will notice! Join in. Give of your best. But not anxiously. Corporate worship shouldn’t be a performance – after all, for whom are we doing it? Let go a little bit – I don’t find that easy, so we can learn together!
There’s so much joy in today’s reading. The crowd welcome Jesus. They don’t hold back: waving palms, throwing cloaks on the road, singing songs. In Matthew’s account, the Pharisees object: ‘Do you hear what these children are saying?’ Jesus replies: ‘Have you never read ‘Out of the mouths of infants God has prepared praise?’ In Luke: ‘If these keep quiet the stones would cry out!’ They must praise because God’s king has come.
The long awaited Messiah is here, and the crowd know it. They recognise what Jesus is doing. They know Zechariah 9:9 where it says ‘Shout aloud O daughter Jerusalem. Your king comes to you. Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.’ Jesus deliberately chooses to enact this prophecy. He knows what he is doing, he is making a point.
We might think that Mark makes rather a meal of describing the arrangements in verses 1-7. Jesus says go there, do this, say that. And they do go there, do what he told them, and said the words. It’s making the point that Jesus does this purposefully. What he did was intentional symbolism and everybody got the message: Jesus is God’s chosen King.
Of course, they saw people riding on donkeys every day. ‘Man rides donkey’ was hardly headline news. But when someone considered to be a possible Messiah approaches Jerusalem at the feast which celebrates God’s deliverance of his people and all his disciples call out, in verses 9 and 10: ‘Hosanna. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David’ – when all this is done while riding on a donkey, the message is clear.
Perhaps I’ve laboured this point but I’ve done so because it matters today. The Christian faith is undermined by people who want to say that we have misinterpreted Jesus. They say that St Paul or the church gave Jesus a significance that he never claimed for himself. It’s an attempt to rewrite our history and downplay who Jesus is. So we need to be clear that Jesus actually did claim to be the Messiah. He did so deliberately, everybody at the time got the point, and the crowd went wild.
Jesus thinks he is the Messiah, the crowd think Jesus is the Messiah and God thinks Jesus is the Messiah and proved it by raising him from the dead.
Now we cannot finish Palm Sunday without also recognising that the people’s vision for the Messiah was very different from God’s plan, the one Jesus was following. The point is often made, and I for one have preached about the changeability of the crowd. But having thought at bit more, I don’t think we should criticise the crowd too much.
I don’t think we can accuse the crowd of wanting an easy way. Of desiring the glory without the pain. Of seeking triumph without hard work. We can’t say the crowd are looking for an easy religion without understanding the need for sacrifice. That may be projecting our own culture’s weaknesses into the story, but it’s not really fair to them.
For they probably thought that they’d done the hard work and pain already. They’ve been living for decades under Roman occupation, the culmination of centuries of oppression. Many of the crowd would have followed the Jewish law intently, making real sacrifices to do so, and hoping that the Kingdom of God will come with their observance. So these aren’t people looking for an easy path. They’ve already done the graft. At last, they think, God is responding and his Kingdom has come.
It had, but in a different way. That’s where the contrast shows up. Between human expectation and God’s wisdom. They didn’t grasp that the problem was far deeper than they thought. They hadn’t seen that sin needed a much costlier sacrifice than their obedience. They looked for a Messiah but couldn’t imagine that he redeemed them from their pain by sharing in their suffering. They couldn’t believe in a rejected Messiah, and so rejected him. God’s way was too much of a mystery.
But suffer he must, if we are to be redeemed. And he freely chose to give himself up for us. In this week we follow in the footsteps of Christ to the cross and beyond. Sharing together in these services helps us to appreciate what Christ has done, draws us closer to him in his sufferings. If we just travel directly from one celebration to another, from Palm Sunday to Easter, we will not truly grasp the joy of the resurrection. My colleagues have prepared a thoughtful and spiritual path through this Holy Week. I’d urge you to join in as much as you can so that together we may encounter afresh this eternal story, our humble king crucified and risen.