Sunday, April 05, 2009

Palm Sunday sermon for church on the hill

This will surely be the oldest sermon I have ever preached! As pressure mounted over the last week, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I would surely have a reworkable Palm Sunday sermon from my curacy that could be pressed into service for Evensong on the hill. I had forgotten, of course, that a full dramatised Passion meant no sermon at the Eucharist at St M's, while a service of musoc & readings replaced Evensong every year. So it turned out that I had no recent Palm Sunday offerings at all - and was thrown back on words I offered in a similar Cotswold village 1o years ago. With only a gentle tweak they fit quite well with what I would want to church on the hill to hear, so I shall take a deep breath & preach it when the time comes.

“Hosanna!” “Hooray” “Here comes the king”
The crowds who lined the road to Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday certainly though they had something to celebrate. After many abortive uprisings, here at last was the Messiah, who would free them from Roman domination. No matter if his triumphal entry was on the most unlikely beast, a scruffy, workaday donkey of most uncertain temper. This was the start of something big. Life would never be the same again. For the holiday crowds, there was certainly something stirring in the air. If they had known what would happen on Friday, I wonder what they would have cried
“Fly, Lord.” perhaps?” Go home, before it is too late”.

But here are we, some 2000 years on, using the same word, ”Hosanna” if not quite with their excited fervour. What do we think we are doing? After all, the Roman Empire has long since passed away, and we are citizens of the privileged west. Why are we still remembering a journey made centuries ago, which, in political terms, did nothing to alter the course of history? You will tell me, quite rightly, that Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week, the crown of the Christian year. Those who cried “Hosanna” “save us now” were in fact being unwittingly prophetic: the process of man’s salvation was being worked out before their very eyes. Certainly that is not something I want to argue with, but I would like us to think a little more about what was happening when that man rode into Jerusalem in a week that was to lead him from public acclaim to public betrayal.

For we who come week by week to worship here and listen to the “old old story” it is perhaps difficult to grasp how surprising was the course of Jesus’s ministry. From the moment when the Magi find the infant king amid the dirty straw of a Bethlehem cave, Jesus constantly confounds all expectations. Those lavish gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh must have seemed miss-matched to the child found living in poverty as a refugee. But that apparent contradiction, at the very beginning of his earthly life, was to be the recurrent theme for the whole of Jesus’s ministry and reached its most perfect expression in the events of Holy Week.

Some years ago, the well-known Jesuit priest Gerard Hughes published a book which he called “God of Surprises”. It’s a splendid book, deserving of the rave reviews it received, but one of the many remarkable things about it is that no-one else had apparently used that title before, for our God loves to surprise . For us, his people, there is an historic tension between our need for, and recognition of God as unchanging and inviolable, and our knowledge that he is too a revolutionary God, who puts down the mighty from their seats & exalts the humble & meek.
God is “the same yesterday, to-day , forever” but he nonetheless constantly challenges his church to change direction, pulls the rug from beneath our comfortable certainties and demands that we start afresh, gasping at his ingenuity. Certainly, He is a God of surpises.

Jesus, of course, repeatedly surprised the Jewish authorities. After centuries of prophecies, and devoted adherence to law and tradition, they were confident that they knew exactly how the Messiah would look, and how he would behave. Though the pedigree of the prophet Jesus of Nazareth, of the house of David, qualified him for the Messianic role, his behaviour excluded him. Despite firm grounding in the precious religious traditions of Judaism, he repeatedly stepped outside its boundaries to challenge its teachings. As God’s Son, his love for the whole of creation superseded his adherence to any manmade system, however beloved, and he demanded a radical rethink in which compassion for the individual took precedence. When this compassion led him to welcome social outcasts, dine with prostitutes and touch lepers, the guardians of tradition were shocked. When he dared to speak of tearing down the Temple itself and asserted that the Sabbath was for man’s benefit, and not an end in itself, he outraged them. Though the Jews longed for a revolution, they wanted it on their terms, a revolution which would leave all their cherished traditions intact. The surprise that was Jesus was just too great for them.

It’s very easy, as Christians, to claim some moral superiority here. We recognise Jesus as Saviour and Lord, and are happy to pray for the coming of his kingdom, but I do wonder if really we are so very different in our response to him. As he constantly challenged the beliefs and expectations of 1st century Palestine,. so he surely challenges the comfortable certainties which threaten to stultify the church of to-day. That King who entered the city on a down trodden beast of burden must have something to say to us about a world in which churches are rich and people starving, in which people can profess to love the God they have not seen, but neglect Him in the stranger sleeping on the street. Though people have clung to the idea of Christ’s kingdom as “not of this world”, the Incarnation tells a different story, of his total involvement with the world, his passionate care for its victims. If we claim to follow him, we too must share that active compassion, and there will be a cost. When his Kingdom comes, I don’t think we can expect to be home in time for Sunday lunch!

Sometimes it seems that, like the Jews,we are so intent on forcing Jesus into some mould of our own that we refuse to notice when he breaks free of it. We refuse to be surprised by him, preferring him tamed and fettered by our own expectations, our very own God in a box. When we do this, we miss the point completely. The world of Good Friday and Easter Day is a world turned upside down. Here is the greatest surprise of all, that death , ignominy and defeat are transformed into resurrection, triumph and victory. Can we wholeheartedly welcome this, with all its implications for our lives, or is it easier to leave Jesus slumbering in the tomb, and slumber there beside him. If we let him break out, there is no knowing where he may take us.

So as we begin to tread the familiar path through Holy Week we must learn to expect the unexpected. We can rely on the love that beckons us onwards, but we cannot dictate the direction. The transforming righteous revolution for which creation waits with longing may be just around the corner, for, if we pray “Thy kingdom come” we must be prepared to let God answer our prayer. We need to look at the world with clear eyes and an open mind, so that we can truly celebrate the triumphal entry of the man on the donkey, who by his cross and Resurrection turns the whole world upside down.

No comments: