When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Friends, it is Palm Sunday! It is a time of celebration!
Maybe you don’t feel like celebrating today, but it doesn’t matter because it’s Palm Sunday and it’s time to celebrate anyway!
And I appreciate, in all honesty, that perhaps you are not in a celebratory mood (for reasons that you don’t need to divulge) and perhaps you came to church to get a little peace and a break from the chaos of the world, and yet you come in here and we’re whooping it up – kids are crying, people are shouting and (let’s be honest) if we could have organised a donkey to ride down between the pews today with someone on its back, we would have done it!
In all truth I love the way the church calendar imposes itself on us with a disturbing randomness at times. Here we were, just getting in to the swing of the whole Lenten season, which is all about ‘giving things up’. And it’s this same church calendar that has been getting us down and dour that now says to us ‘it’s time for a parade!’
And you could be forgiven for wondering why in the middle of Lent – why, in this movement that begins with the temptations in the wilderness and culminates in only five days’ time in the bloodthirsty scene at the cross, why at this point would we suddenly want to stop and celebrate!?
But of course the seemingly random nature of the ecclesiastical year is based entirely on the randomness of Jesus Himself, for it is Jesus who moves from the wilderness to the cross, and it is Jesus who decides, only a few days before His betrayal and torturous death that He wants to hold a parade!
Why a parade? Why now?
It’s tempting to assume that perhaps the whole thing happened spontaneously – that Jesus had no idea what was about to happen when he was suddenly greeted as the Messianic King, riding in through the gates of Jerusalem.
Perhaps it was all just meant to be? The people of Jerusalem felt that it was time for a change, and Jesus just happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time, riding the right kind of donkey!
No, there was nothing spontaneous about this event! Indeed, if you were listening carefully to the 11 verses I read this morning from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 11, the first seven of those verses detailed the various steps that Jesus and his disciples went through in order to prepare for the event.
The disciples had to go into a specific village where an arrangement had been made to pick up a very special type of colt. There was a password associated with the pick-up of the animal that the owners were already aware of, and all this detail is given. The Gospel writer is making a point by giving us all these specifics and it is this: that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem did not occur spontaneously. It didn’t just happen!
In truth, I don’t think much just happened to Jesus, and by that I don’t mean anything especially theological. I mean simply that that philosophy of life where you see life as something that just happens while you remain a spectator of sorts was not the philosophy of Jesus!
You know what I mean, I’m sure – you who are members of the ‘helping professions’ in particular.
It’s a sort of accepted wisdom amongst helping professionals that we don’t force the pace of anybody’s development. I’m sure you know the joke about ‘how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb?’ (one: but the bulb has got to want to change).
I know that’s a caricature, but I know too that we often come up with the most noble reasons for not interfering, not intervening – letting the guys work it out for themselves, and not impinging on their right to make their own decisions, which is crazy really, as once we’ve let them rip for long enough we have no qualms about taking away all their rights and throwing them in jail!
It’s crazy because it assumes that people want to change! Who wants to change? I don’t want to change? Nobody wants to change!
Do you think I wanted to stop smoking when I gave up almost 20 years ago? Not at all1 I’d been happily puffing away for 15 years before that and had no intention of changing. It was just that my doctor threatened me!
Most of you won’t remember Dr Paul Blanche, who was a member of this parish. He threatened me! He told me that the X-rays I’d had done on my lungs indicated that I was in a bad way! He said I’d be clutching at fence posts soon just to get down the street! He scared me.
It was years before I found out he’d been lying to me! I learnt subsequently that you can’t possibly read lung damage on an X-ray until the patient is near death! I confronted Dr Blanche with this years after he had given me his fatal prognosis and years after I had given up tobacco. He said, “Well, it worked, didn’t it!” And to think we allow people like that in the church! 😉
Intervention! That’s the alternative, and it’s a good one, and it is Biblical! We believe in a God who intervenes in human affairs!
I was reminded of the beauty of intervention again this week when a rather horrible fight broke out this week on our front lawn apparently, between two boys. Apparently it was all quite brutal and bloody and terrible, but thank God for my mother-in-law who intervened! (thank you, Di)
She told them to go home and behave themselves, I think? And they did!
In truth, I don’t know why it was left to Di when there were any number of more obvious candidates present at that time who could have broken up the fight? Perhaps they were in the background, saying, “let it be, let them work it out…”?
Now … I don’t really mean to suggest that anyone didn’t respond adequately in that situation, and I don’t really mean to suggest that there isn’t a time to just stand back and let things take their course, but I do believe that there is a really significant spiritual issue at stake here, and perhaps it’s best illustrated by that story my dad told me (that I know I’ve mentioned before) about The Beatles many, many years ago, that has always stuck in my head.
Some of you will remember back in 1967 when the Beatles took up transcendental meditation under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and when, in 1968, they travelled to the holy city of Rishikesh in India to study further at Maharishi’s ashram.
Dad said that if you visited the Maharishi’s ashram at the time, you would find alongside that glorious building a small Christian mission focused on helping local girls get out of prostitution.
And in some ways the image of those two buildings, as I imagine them, has always symbolised for me two very different sorts of spirituality. On the one hand is the ‘Let it Be’ philosophy, so embraced by the Beatles at the time, where you discipline yourself to ‘rise above’ the worries of the world and so find peace, and Christ’s approach on the other hand, where instead of rising above human misery, you enter right into it and get your hands dirty.
And I mean no disrespect to my many Buddhist friends, and I in now way want to detract from the significance of the good works done by our local Buddhist community, but I don’t think you can find two more contrasting symbols than those that you find at the heart of Buddhism and Christianity. On the one hand is the image of the Buddha, sitting quietly at peace, eyes often closed as he elevates himself to a spiritual plane above the normal struggles of daily life, and the image of Jesus on the cross – dirty, bleeding, suffering and dying!
There is no peace in this world for those who follow Christ – not really! I know we speak of the ‘peace of God which passes all understanding’, but that’s something altogether different from any sort of facile contentment concerning things the way they are.
How can we be at peace in this world? How can we rest? How can we just turn a blind eye to human suffering while violence and racism rage around us – while Joseph Kony is still enlisting child soldiers in the Congo, while religious minorities are being butchered in Syria, while the people of Gaza live their whole lives in an open-air prison – how can we ever be at peace?
Indeed, if you’re looking to religion as a means of finding greater contentment and peace, the religion of Jesus is not the right place to look! Jesus was not one who just let life sail by. He was not one who accepted things the way they were. He embraced life with both hands, and He actively pursued His destiny, and here in Mark chapter 11 we see Him very deliberately staging a parade that He must have known was going to get him into trouble!
Jesus knew how His actions would be interpreted. He knew the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
It was no coincidence that Jesus was fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy. On the contrary, Jesus had planned it all very deliberately, to make clear that He was fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy. He rides into Jerusalem as the King of the Jews, and the disciples know what to do and the crowds know what to do. They proclaim Him as their king! And so they celebrate!
And so we celebrate – with Jesus, in a sense, though it still seems a little perverse, don’t you think, for it’s still only a few days short of the cross!?
How can we celebrate with the cross so clearly on the horizon? Moreover, how did Jesus celebrate – shouting and singing and partying and parading – when He too must have known what lay ahead of him?
How could He celebrate, knowing the pain that awaited him? Moreover, how could He celebrate with his friends, when He knew full well that these same friends were fickle and would likely turn on Him at any point and betray Him?
How do you party when everything is so volatile? I think the answer to that is very simple and, yet again, very profound, and it is … “If not now, when?”
Don’t wait for things to be perfect! Don’t wait for your relationships to reach a point of stability and security. Don’t wait till you are truly at peace in the world, as that’s not going to happen, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t reason to celebrate, as there is always reason to celebrate!
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Palm Sunday, 1st April, 2012. To read the written version of this sermon click here.