This is a sermon for Palm Sunday. I attempted to use the whole service to bring the congregation into the events of Holy Week, beginning with the Palm Sunday readings, transitioning from triumph to the self-examination of Holy Week via the sermon and the symbolically proceeding into the rest of the week via the Lord's Supper.
The sermon is based on Isaiah 50:4-9 and Matthew 21:1-11
I turned on the television the other day to amuse myself whilst doing some ironing and I found myself watching a travel channel. The location that this particular programme was set in was Capetown, South Africa. And a resident of the city named Clive was talking about the day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
Clive was standing in a square in the city and he pointed to a balcony where Mandela had spoken to the people. He had been in the square on the day of Mandela’s release from prison and he said that there had been about 100,000 people there that day and that the excitement had been tangible.
With an animated voice, Clive described how the air had bristled with electricity and with hope. He said, ‘Finally, after many years of Apartheid, this was the day that the people of South Africa were going to get their rightful government.’
Mandela opened his mouth to speak and Clive remembers him saying to the nation: ‘We must go forward in reconciliation and forgiveness. If we are to have any hope of a future, we must learn to forgive each other in order to rebuild the new South Africa.’ The people cheered and began to chant over and over two words: ‘Grandpa Mandala’.
And then my ears perked up as Clive continued to describe the mood of the crowd. You could see by his bright face and his animated eyes that it had been a great day, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Clive said that the crowd was like thunder, like an earthquake, it was almost as if the heavens and the earth moved, so great was the hope and the expectation on that historic day in Capetown.
My ears perked up because his is how Matthew described Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
This morning’s reading translated it rather weakly: ‘the whole city was stirred’, but the Greek word translated as ‘stirred’ is one that is used for the ground tremors that happen during an earthquake. The picture that Matthew is trying to paint of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the same sort of picture that Clive was painting about the day that Nelson Mandala was released from prison. An historic, once-in-a-lifetime experience of a great man bringing the promise of peace and of a bright future to a weary and worn-out nation. An almost supernatural sense of hope for life as it is meant to be. A new beginning. A day where everyone present could feel the electricity in the air.
The ironic thing is, of course, many people would see Mandela as having succeeded where Jesus failed.
Mandela – and, of course many other South Africans committed to peace and reconciliation – succeeded in an environment where defeat almost seemed inevitable. Seventeen years after Mandela’s release from prison – whilst the situation in South Africa is far from perfection – certainly history has shown that the worst-case scenario has been avoided.
On the other hand, in our story today, Jesus only has five days to live after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Most people would have thought twice before challenging both the Temple authorities and the authority of Imperial Rome. Common sense tells us that making a name for yourself as someone who stands up to a ruthless regime is a fairly stupid thing to do.
But according to Matthew, the first thing that Jesus does after entering Jerusalem is to go into the Temple and knock over the tables of the money-changers. He then curses a fig tree – the symbol of the Jewish people. He attracts sufficient attention to himself that the Chief Priests and the elders ask him who he thinks he is – by what authority does he do these things?
Jesus does not give them a direct answer but proceeds to tell a number of parables that suggest that the prevailing values system does not encourage people to be genuine followers of God. This section of Matthew’s story ends with Jesus denouncing the Scribes and the Pharisees and predicting the downfall of Jerusalem.
Not exactly a way to win friends and influence people. If we go by the picture that Matthew paints, it’s hardly surprising that Jesus was executed.
The Kingdom Come is Coming
But what has all this ‘politics’ got to do with Christianity? Isn’t the Good News of the Gospel that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins? And aren’t the events of Holy Week the tools that the Father used to get Jesus on to the cross so that we could be saved?
Absolutely, the cross and the crucifixion are vitally important in the story of salvation. But the opposition of Jesus’ own people and of the Roman Empire were not just divine stage-sets whose sole purpose was to get Jesus on the cross so that you and I could go to heaven.
The truth is that much of what we think of as reality and as ‘the way things are’ today stand in opposition to the way that God wants the world to be. The same sin and violence that put Jesus on the cross exists today. And this is the reason that Christians believe that it is our sin – my sin and your sin – that put Jesus on the cross. And this is the reality that we are asked to think about during Holy Week.
Of course, we also know about Easter: we know that after the crucifixion, comes the resurrection. The resurrection keeps us from despair and from believing that God will allow sin and violence to have the final word in creation.
But, during Holy Week, we are invited to linger in the events of Jesus’ suffering. We are invited to contemplate the violence in the world and the violence in our own souls. We are invited to identify and confess our sins.
We remember that, although the Kingdom of God has broken into the world, it is not yet fully realised and so there is still pain and brokenness on this earth. And we remember that God came to be with us in the pain and suffering of our world. He walks with us and he suffers with us, although he could have chosen not to.
And Jesus doesn’t just walk with those suffering physical pain: he walks with those who cannot get justice for themselves. He walks with those who, through no fault of their own, must live lives of shame and humiliation.
And, as Christians, we journey with Jesus and Jesus with us. He walks with us in our sorrows and he asks us to walk with others in theirs. He forgives us when, in our weakness, we fall short and he calls us into a life of love and self-giving.
A week from today, we will once again hear the thunderous, earth-shaking cries of hope: this time, of a hope that has triumphed over sin and death. For now, we set aside a week of our lives to contemplate the love of a God who suffers both with us and for us.
And as we do so, I invite you to join me in my prayer that the God who journeys with all people will make his light known in the darkest of places. Amen