Palm Sunday 2020
Have you noticed how fickle football supporters are? One minute the manager is a small god worthy of worship – the next he is hopeless and useless, deserving of instant dismissal. Players themselves suffer the same fluctuations in popularity. Years ago, when Darren Jackson played for Hibernian the Hearts supporters used to bray like donkeys whenever he touched the ball. When he played for and scored goals for Hearts he was their flavour of the month. Maurice Johnston and Kenny Miller both played for Celtic and Rangers. They were loved and hated in equal measure. The current Rangers Captain James Tavernier suffered recent loss of form and was berated by his own fans for his mistakes. Suddenly his form returned and he was cheered to excess. Tony Blair was the most wonderful person in the world after his 1997 election victory. Even the Tories felt it was time for a change. Now – he is almost a pariah – associated largely with money making. Hansie Kronje was a South African hero cricket captain. A Christian man trusted and respected by everyone, he succumbed to the temptation for unearned income by at least forecasting cricket results and possibly engineering certain results. He was then despised. Even Harry and Meghan who were adored are now largely ignored. Fame and popularity are often followed by disillusionment, exclusion and anonymity.
So it was that Jesus of Nazareth journeyed to Jerusalem. The last stretch was 17 miles from Jericho. Throughout Jewish history the prophets used a particular tactic when no-one listened to their spoken messages. They resorted to dramatic action. Isaiah once went around naked to show that Jerusalem would be attacked and defeated. Agabus, a New Testament Christian prophet bound himself with ropes to show Paul that he would become a prisoner of the Romans.
Jesus’ journey was dramatic prophecy but it was more than that because it was his very life. His entry to Jerusalem was a public claim to be the Messiah, the inheritor of King David, the long-expected saviour of the people of God. He had planned ahead. Either in person or through friends he had reconnoitred the area and arranged for a donkey to be ready for him to ride on. Jesus was not the victim of circumstances. It is said that he led captive captivity. He knew what he was doing and that is why his planning was meticulous. Agents for the government were out looking for him. He was in enemy territory and he was behind the lines. He himself was God’s greatest undercover agent on his mission of peace and salvation. There was a price on his head.
But when the time was right he declared himself openly in an act of supreme courage and defiance against the authorities. He was, after all, an outlaw and here he was in the open, on the streets, offering himself up to his enemies. The donkey or ass was not a lowly animal nor a beast of war but a sign of peace. He came not as a political revolutionary, a military conqueror or a guerrilla warrior. His was a peace demonstration – non-violent – exemplary, kingly nevertheless. There was no need for him to be executed on such terms. Had the people understood what he was saying and had the leaders perceived the new spiritual order, Jesus might have lived. He was no threat to the nation’s leaders or their relationship with the Romans. Within them, however, resided a visceral spiritual hatred. They had long memories. He had made fun of them in his sermons. He had exposed their hypocrisies. He had made claims which to them were false. He did not want to belong to or with them. He did not accept them or respect them. Above all, he was not their equal – to them he was a failure. To be crushed. Jesus was a thorn in the flesh and no more – a troublesome interlude for the ruling parties, yet another failed liberator of his people. He himself could probably be let go – but an example was needed to discourage future attempts at destabilising the political balance. It was only expedient that he should die. It was not such a great matter in itself, said the High Priest.
Thus the contempt and arrogance of government. And we see it all over the world today. Even in our own country. Politicians do not tell us the whole truth. That is the name of the game. The overall good demands a lesser untruthfulness. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe had been a very bad leader, enriching himself and his family at the expense of the people. In a cynical move he targeted the white farmers hoping to activate residual hostility to whites and cling to power. It is a huge human weakness to want to be in the superior position. Even in family life some people dominate everything using even their own children as a stage for their egotisms. Over the centuries, the Christian Church has most unfortunately been used for the enriching and aggrandisement of individuals. The Pope used to be carried on a chair by six men, like the Roman emperors. Members of episcopal hierarchies take the titles of the aristocracy – ‘Your Grace’ – imagine having had to call that ‘wee bauchle’ Tom Winning ‘Your Grace’? Even in the Church of Scotland you are required to defer to those in positions of albeit temporary authority. Presbyteries prepare for their biggest anticlimax in 10 years – a visit from the Moderator of the General Assembly. The last anticlimax was the last visit of the last Moderator, 10 years previously. It is not easy to be humble and it seems that no-one recognises or respects those who do not push themselves forward in this life. Except God.
“The meek shall inherit the earth” seems a baffling piece of intelligence. How can they? Unless God plans to start creation again some day with all the nice people and none of the bad. Or perhaps the meek are recognised – like today’s NHS and care workers as the best of humanity. Respect and love being of more lasting value than money and power. Such was Jesus Himself and he did inherit the earth and more, much more. And he must be our example and our hope, lest we be discouraged in this hard and broken world. In Charles Dickens’ “Tale of two Cities” there is a moment when a wealthy person’s horse and coach runs over a child playing in the street. The wealthy man looks out, sees the dead child, throws a coin on to the pavement and orders the driver to continue. Robert Burns famously wrote “Ye se yon birkie ca’d a Lord, wha struts and stares and a’ that”. Who was he? No-one knows. But today Burns is world famous. The meek inheriting the earth – maybe it is not so far fetched after all. It was worth it that Jesus persevered in peace. Maybe he was tempted to take things into his own hands rather than trust in his Father’s greater plans. His disciples certainly were. Peter was up for a fight any day. Judas was sick with disappointment that Jesus’ public campaign was ending in this way. The sons of thunder, James and John had been men willing to use violence but they seem to have changed. Jesus’ example and strategy was his own and no-one else understood it at the time. He did not compromise. And he left the world its supreme vision of peace and love. He forgave a lot of enemies a lot of nasty things. And walked into their hands knowing what they were about to do to him.
The great challenge he throws at our feet is to have this radical attitude to everything that we do in our daily lives. I wonder if Jesus has penetrated into your heart that deeply? Are you that converted? Maybe you just need the opportunity to show it. Or maybe as long as you live there will be hardness and bitterness within. This Palm Sunday look at Jesus on his little donkey, not afraid to show people a better way to live. Out there where it matters, on the street, in the capital city but more importantly addressing the inward hearts and minds of all of us. Because that is where his real work is done. Secretly, silently, in you and in me. This Son of God who said that if anyone makes him welcome he will come and dwell within us and share our living in every way. Christianity is the most blessed thing. Let this Palm Sunday help you to discover it to be so.
Palm Sunday is the celebration and the party. It marks the start of Holy Week. In our Church we are not as conscious of special days as are the Roman Catholics, for example. One day is as much like any other to us. There is a good case for making this week a special week. For thinking much about the last days of Jesus. This is not a descent to morbidity but just an exercise in really trying to understand what happened to Jesus. The story is familiar enough but do you appreciate its deepest meaning? Are you truly conscious of what it means that in your life on earth, this special person has made Himself known to you and asked you to share in His work of redemption? That you are part of Holy Week and Holy Week is part of you? That you are at the centre of this great event?
Have you ever stood out for something good? Have you struggled for honesty in the work place? For justice? Have you turned away from the opportunity to do harm to someone? Have you taken upon yourself the burdens of others? Do you live with them every day? That is what it was like for Jesus and that is why we can have the friendship of Jesus in our daily lives. He has been there. Indeed, His burdens were infinitely greater than ours. Our burdens are often the result of our own choices but Jesus’ were those of others more than his own. The whole world’s. The stress and pressure of fighting against cosmic spiritual evil. Friendlessness at the end. Utter complete loneliness. Exhaustion. That is why it is called Jesus’ passion. It was a great internal spiritual struggle that took place and if Jesus had not gone through with it, the world would not have been redeemed and we would not be here today. We might have had some other beliefs which we had made up ourselves. There has been nothing in the world like the light in the face of Jesus Christ.
It is not psychologically unhealthy to think about Jesus’ last days. It is a liberating process. It helps you clean out your mind. It helps get priorities right. It helps set new directions. It is a means of unburdening and starting again. Yes – it is not popular to speak like this and it makes no sense in our media influenced society. But if people would spend more time with Jesus they would find their lives in better order. If we use Holy Week to make our great confession, make our peace with ourselves so that we can live in peace with others, then we have made a great step forward in living as our Maker wishes us to do.
Have yourself a holiday this week – a holy day. One or two perhaps – five or six. Could you not just sit and think, meditate and remember? It would do you the world of good. If you are self-isolating you will have plenty of time. Holy Week ends next Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection with great joy. It begins today with Palm Sunday. Human life is encapsulated in these few days. The highs and lows, popularity, rejection, death and life eternal. The greatest story ever told. The honest truth about why we live and where we go. It belongs to you. In Christ. Make the most of it.