When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:1-11)
The first book I ever read on the Christian ministry was by Henri Nouwen, entitled, “Creative Ministry”, where Nouwen outlined what he believed were the five fundamentals of Christian ministry, and they were: preaching, teaching, counselling, organising and celebrating. And now, some 30 years after first reading Nouwen’s book, when someone asks me what I consider to be the fundamentals of Christian ministry, I tell them preaching, teaching, counselling, organising andcelebrating, though I must confess that ‘celebrating’ was the activity in the list that didn’t make sense to me at first.
Of course, Nouwen was a Catholic priest and by ‘celebrating’ he could have meant simply‘celebrating’ the mass … but he didn’t. Well, he did mean celebrating the mass, but he meant celebrating the mass as part of a broader lifestyle and ministry that included moments of festive celebration at every turn, which sorta makes sense when you think about it, if Jesus is really our leader, for the Lord Jesus Himself did celebrate a lot.
Jesus had a reputation, you might remember, as a glutton and a drunkard! He was renowned for not only talking to marginalised persons in the community but for eating and drinking and celebrating life with them. And from the hilltops and synagogues He told stories about a great big party that His Father in Heaven was going to throw. And when he came to Jerusalem he organised a parade!
And let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this parade simply spontaneously happened – that all pf Jesus’ supporters just happened to be in the right place that day and just happened to have the palms there to fan themselves because it was hot, and that the donkey just magically appeared. No! Jesus had it all planned out! It’s quite clear, at the very least, that He’d organised the beast to ride on, but He probably had the whole thing organised ted too, including having people planted, ready the stir up the crowed, like the Baptist pastor I marched with a couple of weeks ago at the Mardi Gras, who would run over to the crowd every time they started to quiet down and scream out, “I can’t hear you!”, which invariably got an enormous response.
Now I know that some people took exception to my marching in the Mardi Gras, and I know, yes, that even if we who marched had good intentions, did we really think that those who cheered us on did so for good reason or even knew why we were there? Well … do you really think Jesus parade was all that different in that regard? Do you really think that everybody there was sober, had a solid understanding of what they were doing, and a good theological grasp of what Jesus was trying to accomplish?
In truth, the whole parade was a bit bizarre, as I see it, though the organiser, Jesus, seems to have been happy with it. It’s bizarre though, I think, primarily because, as you know, it takes place in the week leading up to Easter, which means that this is the Sunday before Good Friday, which means that this mighty and triumphal parade where Jesus is celebrated is in fact the prelude to the carnage and betrayal of Good Friday, where Jesus is killed!
Was Jesus blithely unaware of all this? I don’t think so. He knew. He might not have known everything that was going to happen down to the exact detail, but He knew where things were heading and He clearly did know that this visit to Jerusalem was going to be His last visit to Jerusalem. And yet He chose to make His final entry, not like a condemned man walking the green mile on His way to the scene of His execution, but in celebration, and in celebration with the very people who would later by baying for his blood!
I had a party a few weeks ago. I turned 46. And I had the pleasure of being surrounded on that day by most of the people who mean the most to me and I had a very good time. Had I known though somehow that all of those people who were with me, within the next week or so, were going to turn on me and try to destroy me, I think it would have put a bit of a dampener on the event.
This is the first thought that strikes me when I read of this ‘triumphal entry’ – how could Jesus celebrate with these people when he must have known that many (if not all) were about to turn on Him and none would stand by Him? This is the first thought that strikes me – how could Jesus celebrate under those circumstances? . But then a second thought hits me – namely, well … isn’t it always that way, to some extent or another? Aren’t the people we party with always the ones who could later turn on us and destroy us?
Now, I don’t mean to sound overly morbid, but I think you reach a certain age when you realise that nothing in this world can be assumed to be permanent. Even the best of friendships and the best of marriages are fragile. Even the best of families, even the sacred bonds between brother and sister, father and daughter, mother and son, are open to damage, deterioration, even death.
I say again, I don’t want to sound overly morbid, but life is what it is, and this world is far from perfect. We labour under the effects of the fall, and nothing in this world is immune from its effects. As the prophet Isaiah said, “All our righteousness’s are filthy rags” (64:6). All of us are tainted by sin, and all of our relationships are twisted by that too. Relationships that survive for the long term survive by grace, but grace can’t just be presumed upon to always be there in great quantities, and for Jesus in that particular week it just didn’t seem to be there at all! And yet, if we can’t celebrate under those circumstances … then when?
Now, as I say, I’m not trying to be morbid, and I’m aware that you probably started today’s service in good faith, believing that today would be a fun day of celebration and a good day for the kids, with the palms and a parade and all things happy and clappy, and I don’t want to detract from any of that. But we don’t do ourselves any favours if we only look at a part of the picture.
The celebration of Palm Sunday is the prelude to the pain and betrayal of Good Friday, and that is as it is. But, by looking realistically at the big picture we see too of course that the carnage and betrayal of Good Friday is itself likewise a prelude to the joy of Easter – to new birth and new beginnings, to forgiveness and reconciliation, to new hope and to the miracle of resurrection So, in terms of the big picture … c’mon, there is always reason to celebrate!
Now I don’t want to drag this sermon out. I had one point to make about today’s text and I’ve made it. I do though want to leave you with a picture, and the picture is one of us all joining in this great parade with Jesus. Now I know we’re not all dressed appropriately for the occasion, and not everybody has a palm frond to throw at Jesus’ feet and we’re not actually in Jerusalem as such, but even so … in a very real sense we have gathered together today for our own festive celebration of the kingship of Jesus and we are singing and we are joining in the pantomime and we are glad to be a part of the throng that proclaims Jesus as king.
And so here we are, lining the path as it were, as Jesus moves around amongst us. We sing to Him, we clap and we cheer. We affirm Him as our Lord and undisputed sovereign. Yet we do so knowing that over the coming week we too may turn on Him. Perhaps not all of us, and perhaps not all of us to the same extent, but over the coming week we will turn on Him, and we will turn on each other (which amounts to roughly the same thing). We will turn our backs on Him, betray him, and we’ll hammer those nails into Him once again, and we know that, and He knows it too, and so … let’s celebrate!
What? Celebrate the tragedy of all that? No! Celebrate that despite the tragedy of all that, anddespite the tragic impermanence of life as we know it, that Jesus is Lord and that forgiveness and new life and joy and hope will ultimately have the final word! Let us celebrate, not the pain, but the coming of the Kingdom of God and the Kingship of Jesus. Let us celebrate that things will not always be as they are, but that the days will come when there will be true and lasting peace and real and lasting joy, when the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Let us celebrate and cry out to the Heavens that Jesus is King and that because Jesus is King, one day all our tears will be wiped away as the times of pain and betrayal will come to an end. Let us celebrate the fact that this world is not ultimately dependant upon our feeble moral strength in order to secure a future for itself but that Jesus will ultimately bring us the peace and the love and the healing and the joy that we long for, but that we cannot manufacture ourselves. Jesus is Lord. In Him is forgiveness, resurrection and renewal. To Jesus belongs the future. In Him we will find peace, reconciliation and wholeness. His is the Kingdom, His the Power and His the Glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.