St Michael’s and St Barnabas 29th March (Palm Sunday)
Readings – Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:28-38
I want you to imagine for a moment that you have gone down to watch your favourite team. You are sitting in the stands at Plymouth Argyle, it’s five to three and the team is running out onto the pitch. How do you greet the players? That’s right, you cheer and sing, you wave your scarves, you stand up and applaud.
But the afternoon doesn’t turn out quite as well as you hoped. By half-time they are a goal down, and at the end they have slid to yet another embarrassing defeat. What do you do as the players trudge off the pitch? You might well boo or hiss, or politely suggest that the manager finds other employment.
Today we’re coming to that great festival in the Christian calendar known as Palm Sunday. After three years of public ministry, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem accompanied by throngs of cheering, singing crowds. They don’t just wave scarves at him, they lay their cloaks on the ground and they call Him a king. The sound of praise and jubilation fills the air and the whole city is abuzz with excitement. Clearly everyone expected something very special to happen very soon, and they thought Jesus was going to be their man.
But only five days later, many of those same crowds are booing and hissing as Jesus is brought out for public execution. They jeer as He staggers under the weight of a heavy, wooden cross, and they mock as a crown of thorns is placed upon His head. Even as He is crucified and left to a slow agonising death, those passing by throw insults at Him, pleased to have finally gotten rid of this tiresome troublemaker.
So what has gone wrong? Well, back then the people of Israel were looking for someone to deliver them from the occupying forces of the Roman army. They believed they were God’s people and from their reading of the Scriptures they understood that one day God would send someone called a Messiah to save and rescue them. There had been plenty of people already who claimed to be the Messiah but on that Palm Sunday many thought Jesus was the real deal. They worshipped Him as king because they were convinced He was about to turf out the Romans and make the people of Israel great again.
Yet Jesus did not meet their expectations. The first thing He did was to go to the temple, the most sacred place in the Jewish religion, and pronounce judgement upon it. He argued with the religious leaders and pointed out their hypocrisy and the shortcomings in their faith. And instead of preaching a glorious future for the city of Jerusalem, he prophesied its total destruction. His message wasn’t at all what they wanted to hear. So they got rid of Him. They arrested Him on trumped up charges, and they executed Him, in the most cruel and inhumane way possible.
I wonder if any of us here this morning also feel let down by God? Maybe we used to have a strong faith. Life was good and it was easy to believe in a God who loves us and cares for us. But then something happened, a personal tragedy perhaps, or an illness, or something which turned our world upside down. If that’s the case, then maybe you can relate to the crowds. You can identify with their sense of disappointment, their anger, even their lack of faith.
So how does this story about Jesus speak to us today? The short answer is, it doesn’t – at least not if Jesus is just another human being like the rest of us. All that the story of Palm Sunday tells us in that case is that Jesus was just another mistaken revolutionary who ended up on the losing side, and got what was coming to Him.
But as our reading makes clear, this person called Jesus was far more than just another human being.
First of all, throughout His ministry, Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to Him and when. He was clear that He would end up nailed to a cross and He even told His followers that if they wanted to follow Him, they too would have to take up their cross (Luke 10:23). Long before anyone else fully understood what He was saying, He realised that His life would end in shame and agony. Yet instead of running away from His fate, or trying to alter it in any way, He resolutely set out for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) in full awareness of what was going to happen.
So as our reading begins, Jesus is not portrayed as some helpless victim of circumstance. He tells His followers to go get a donkey and to tell the owner, The Lord needs it. Jesus seems to have control over all that is happening, and He can foresee His death as being part of some greater plan. That, at least, marks Jesus out as exceptional.
But there’s more. We read in verse 37 that as Jesus went down the Mount of Olives approaching Jerusalem, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen. And what miracles they had seen over the past three years! Jesus had healed the sick, cast out demons, stilled storms, made the leper clean, given the blind their sight, raised the dead to life. Yes, there had been many preachers and teachers who had come in God’s name recently, but none had ever done the things Jesus had done.
And if you suggested to any of the crowds that Jesus was just another man, they would, I believe, quite simply have laughed at you. Not even Jesus’ greatest enemies could deny that Jesus of Nazareth was unique. You didn’t just have to see the wonderful miracles to know that Jesus was special. You could listen to His preaching which told of a wonderful new way of getting to know God. You could hear Him tell sinful men and women that their sins were forgiven. Jesus had a unique power and presence which could only come from God Himself.
What was even more remarkable that all that Jesus said and did also seemed to fall in line with what the Jewish Scriptures had predicted hundreds of years previously. So when Jesus approached Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the crowds would have immediately thought of a prophecy given to a man called Zechariah in about 500BC, about a king coming to Jerusalem righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.
As they had seen Jesus going round healing the sick, preaching good news to the poor, giving sight to the blind, they would have thought of words given to the prophet Isaiah even further back. Indeed Jesus Himself had started His public ministry by declaring that He was the fulfilment of Isaiah’s words all those years ago. It’s little wonder, then, that as Jesus approached Jerusalem, the words the crowds were singing were direct quotes from what we would nowadays call the Old Testament. In the person of Jesus God’s words were being fulfilled right before their very eyes.
So if Jesus was such a special person, why did He willingly allow Himself to be nailed to a cross? He knew what was going to happen; He had a special power that came only from God; He fulfilled all the words of Scripture given many hundreds of years previously. So why did He consider it so necessary that He should die in this way?
Let’s go back briefly to our experience at Home Park. When the players are defeated and trudge off the pitch, it really is game over. It’s another three points lost. There’s no second chance, and all the supporters can dream about is what might have been.
In a similar, but more dramatic way, when someone is executed for their crimes, it is in every case the end of the story. There is no second chance, no way to reverse the verdict, even if that is you wanted to do.
Yet not so with Jesus. Three days after Jesus was nailed to a cross, He really did rise again from the dead. We’ll talk about this next week, so come back on Easter Day to find out more. But for now, what we can say is that Jesus chose to go to the cross to deal with all our hurt, all our pain, all our wrongdoing. And those crowds who cheered Him on the day He rode into Jerusalem were not wrong to call Him king. Only the type of kingdom Jesus came to set up was not a physical kingdom where certain people would be more privileged than others. He came to set up a spiritual kingdom, where thanks to His death on the cross for our sins, the way to God our Heavenly Father would be permanently open to all.
And that, you see, is the good news which should make us all rejoice on this Palm Sunday. We have a king who is alive and with us by His Spirit not just in one particular place or at one particular point in history. Jesus is as much present right here in Stoke and Devonport in the 21st century as He was with the crowds back then in Israel in the 1st. He still has the power to change lives as He ever did when He walked this earth, as many people this morning can testify. And whoever we are, whatever our background, if we come to Jesus in faith and trust, we can welcome Him as king over our lives.
This doesn’t always mean that faith and trust in Jesus will be easy. We will still go through times when we may wonder if God really loves and cares for us. But through it all, we can know that Jesus Himself went through death on our behalf and thanks to His sacrifice for us on the cross, there is nothing that can separate us from His love.
And just one last thing. In some ways there is nothing simpler than to declare Jesus as king within the safe confines of a church service. Those are not difficult, complicated words to say. But as our first reading from Philippians makes clear, our faith in Jesus Christ has to make a practical difference to the way we lead our lives. We need to allow Jesus to be our king when we go to work, to school, in our homes, with our family and friends. So whether you have been following Jesus as your king for many years, or whether you are just beginning to find out what faith means, ask Him tomorrow morning what it means to love and serve Him throughout the coming day. So that, through you, many more may come to see who Jesus truly is – the king who willingly went up to Jerusalem to die for you and for me, so that by His death we could be forgiven and set free to know the love of God our Father permanently and forever.