A sermon preached at St Peter's Anglican Church, Southport on Palm Sunday, 1 April 2012.
Here we are at the beginning of holy week for another year.
Palm Sunday not only begins Holy Week but also invites us into a journey that will take us right through to Easter morning. Like any journey, we may have a sense of our destination, but we cannot be sure what experiences and insights we shall encounter along the way.
So we find ourselves at the beginning of the holiest week in the Christian year.
In Jerusalem, where the Eastern traditions of Christianity are dominant, Palm Sunday will be next weekend, and the crowds will gather to celebrate the beginning of Holy Week. The Palestinian Boy Scouts will lead the faithful on the traditional route from the Mount of Olives down through the Kidron Valley and into the ancient city of Jerusalem.
But what are we to make of this day as we ceebrate it here in our time and place, and how are we going to experience Holy Week this year?
Related to that is the question of what we are the make of the story of Jesus entering the city, and the related story of the incidents Temple plaza?
Interestingly, the New Testament invites us not to take it all too literally!
Although Jesus coming to Jerusalem—and the subsequent events in the temple plaza area—are among the most secure facts for the life of the historical Jesus, the New Testament seems not exactly sure where to place these events.
In the Synoptic Gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–Jesus makes just a single visit to Jerusalem as an adult. John's Gospel, on the other hand, as Jesus make multiple visits to the holy city as an adult.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree in placing the temple incident, that we sometimes call the ‘cleansing of the Temple,’ near the end of the story of Jesus. That is where we would expect it to be, given all we have heard in church and in Sunday school over the years.
However, John's Gospel has this remarkable incident happening near the start of Jesus’ ministry. For John, this is one of the first encounters of Jesus with the Jewish authorities, and in that Gospel it sets the scene for the conflicts and tensions that will follow
There are all kinds of reasons why this difference in chronology might have happened, but I am taking the fact that this uncertainty exists as a gentle nudge for us not to be too obsessed about the facts. Instead, we can relax and use our imaginations.
Imagination is an often overlooked elements of faithful Christian living.
What we cannot imagine, we can never achieve. If we cannot imagine the church for the people, we shall certainly never see it. If we can imagine our families being happy and healthy, they won’t be. If we cannot imagine a world that reflects God's values, we shall surely never experience it.
So let us exercise our imaginations as we begin Holy Week together. Let’s try to imagine what this events may have meant some of the people involved.
For the temple authorities ...
When word reached the Jewish authorities who were in control of the Temple about Jesus’ entrance to the city, the welcome he received from ecstatic grounds, and subsequently the incident in Temple plaza, they would not have been impressed.
They would have understood all too well that Jesus was engaging in a series of prophetic and symbolic actions which announced a change in the order of things, and which named and shamed their self-serving religious system for what had become.
In doing this, Jesus was not being anti-Jewish but entirely Jewish.
He was asserting the supremacy of God's values, he was standing in the tradition of the Jewish prophets, and he was anticipating the fulfillment of the messianic dreams. Jesus was asserting in word and action that what God is seeking is not fine buildings and glorious liturgies, but justice and mercy. Note: ‘justice and mercy.’
Not justice without mercy. Not mercy without justice. But both together.
And of course, when the Roman forces did destroy the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem some 40 years later perhaps some of those watching that terrible event may just have recalled what that troublesome prophet from Galilee had said and done.
For the Romans ...
From the perspective of the Roman occupation powers, Jesus’ entry into the city that first Palm Sunday, and the subsequent events in the temple precincts, were not matters of great concern.
In the eyes of the generals, Jesus did not pose a credible threat. This was simply a minor disruption of law and order. It could be left in the hands of the local authorities through whom the Romans preferred to manage their empire. Even at this busy and potentially unruly Passover season, this did not seem to be something requiring military intervention by the Roman powers. There was no need to send in the troops.
Yet because of the events which would follow in the next few days, a very minor and not very competent Roman administrator, Pontius Pilate, would become the best known Roman official of all time. Not because of the achievements of his administration, but because the followers of Jesus would never let his name be forgotten as the person who condemned Jesus to death.
Even more remarkable, in fewer than 300 years time, even the Emperor of Rome will be a follower of this insignificant Jew that did not pose a credible threat to the powers that be.
For the crowd ...
What might the Passover crowds gathered in Jerusalem that spring day have made of Jesus’ entry to the city, followed by the events that unfolded in the temple and its environs over the following few days?
Perhaps they saw in that a call for resistance to Rome? Perhaps it fanned their hopes for another period of political independence?
Perhaps it captured and crystallised and focused the popular criticisms of the aristocratic families who held the priesthood and control the Temple? Sentiments were not unique to Jesus, and his actions may well have fanned them afresh among the crowds.
Perhaps also, some of them saw in the actions and words of Jesus a celebration of traditional Jewish values and affirmation. Here was a movement of grassroots religion in conflict with institutional religion. The power lay with the institution, but the future lay with the people.
Perhaps some of them even saw a chance to seize power and cancel the debts that were crippling their lives? Certainly, when the rebellion against Rome broke out in 66 CE, one of the first actions of the rebels was to burn down the government archives where all the debt records were kept!
For the disciples ...
And what were those closest to Jesus to make of all these events? They had travelled with him around Galilee and from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Are we making the big time now?
Yesterday Galilee, today Jerusalem, tomorrow–Rome?
Were they asking, what is in it for us? How do we get a share of the action?
Are we to imagine them jostling for influence, status, and power?
For Jesus ...
This is the most difficult for me to imagine. With every other example, we have been dealing with more than a single individual. We know something about these groups, their relationships, and the circumstances under which they lived in the ancient world. However, when we try to zero in on an individual face in the ancient crowds this becomes much more difficult.
How do you imagine Jesus?
Did Jesus know in advance what was going to happen to him over the next few days? Did he have an envelope in his back pocket with the secret instructions from the father?
Or was Jesus having to respond to God's call on his life one step at a time, one day at a time, one faithful decision after another?
People may well imagine Jesus differently, however,I prefer to think of Jesus as being more like the second description than the first.
So I imagine Jesus arriving from the North, and stopping to view the city from the Mt Olives. I imagine him weeping over the city as the prophets had done before him. Weeping over a city that had so much potential for good, for peace, for life. And yet, a city which achieved so little of its possibilities.
I imagine Jesus looking down at the city and thinking to himself that this was the destination to which every prophet of God must come at some stage, and despite the risk.
I imagine Jesus choosing to mount the donkey—and deciding not to turn North and put the city behind him, but rather to ride that donkey down the slopes towards the city not knowing what was to happen, but perhaps sensing that what would follow might cost him his life.
And for us...
So where are we this week? Where are we today, this morning, right now?
And are we prepared to pay whatever price God asks of us?
One step at a time, one day after another?