April 5th, 1998 (Durham St. URC, Hartlepool)
Palm Sunday (RCL - year C )
Revd. Lythan Nevard
Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
May help to have hymn book open at 207. Sermon inspired by hymn. Not slavishly going through verse by verse, but picking up the ideas, which are reflected in the readings we have today and the thoughts that are always with us on Palm Sunday.
My song is love unknown....There is no greater love than this. No love that one of us has for another, no matter how broad, how deep, how long. No love can touch it. This love is the love that God gives to us. Its a love that we all share, yet it is a love that is uniquely personal. Sometimes we need to acknowledge that God loves us all. Sometimes it is alright to grab hold of what God gives to each of us on our own. MY song is love unknown, MY Saviour’s love to ME. It lets us know that each of us has our own special place in God’s heart. It tells us that ‘I died for YOUR sake. You matter’. It doesn’t matter who we are, popular or scorned. One of life’s winners of one of life’s losers. We matter. You matter to God.
And so today we ought to be singing a hymn of praise. My song is love unknown! We can join in the chants of the people at the Temple, waving palm branches and celebrating the bounty of God’s love. Hear the song they sing in Psalm 118. ‘God is always merciful! The Lord is my God! I will praise him and tell him how thankful I am, because he is always kind and merciful!’
Our praise should be louder and more joyous than that! I’m not going to ask you to pick up your little palms and start circling the church singing loudly - though we could if you really want to... Our joyous praise should be heard singing out loud and strong from our lives, from the way we love and serve others in the name of Christ. The one who loves and serves us. Because Jesus is God’s love made flesh. Jesus is God come to be born as one of us, to live as one of us.
As Paul puts it in the letter to the Philippians, Christ was truly God. He was already like God; he had a God-like way of being, e.g. he was not subject to death. He shared in God's very nature. But he did not try to remain equal with God, because he also wanted to be at one with us. It would have been so much easier to grasp and hold on to some of his nature of God to help fulfil his purpose on earth. But it would have defeated the object - for Jesus to become truly son of God and son of Man at the same time, he had to lose some of his divine power. And so Jesus "emptied himself", made himself powerless and ineffective - as a slave is powerless, without rights. He took on the likeness of a human being, with all which that entails. Being born as one of us, raised as one of us, with the capacity to love and to feel pain, to cry, to sin - even though he chose not to do wrong - and to die.
Jesus, Son of God, came to earth not as a Kingly messiah, not as a victor riding into Jerusalem on a white charger, but as a servant messiah, riding humbly on a donkey. He lived his life not in palaces, but out on the road, caring for people, touching the outcast, loving the friendless - not having his head anointed with oil, but washing people’s feet. As a man, he humbled himself, and throughout his life in the world, was fully human and totally obedient to God, even to dying. And the means of his death was the most debasing way of dying, crucifixion - reserved for slaves and the worst criminals.
The Messiah was long hoped for, waited for, prayed for. The one who would lead the people back to God and give victory over their enemies. But when this Messiah came and offered salvation, he was virtually ignored. There were times of acclaim, times when people welcomed him with open arms, times when people waved palm branches and cried ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. But there were also times when he was ignored, doubted, scorned. Times when people shouted ‘crucify him, crucify him’. Times when even his friends said ‘I don’t know that man!’
There were the people, all gathered in Jerusalem, ready to celebrate Passover at the Temple. The city was packed. People had come from all over Israel, and beyond. Most people couldn’t get to the city every year so when they came it was an adventure. many of them had come from the country areas, from Galilee, from tyre and sidon. When they heard that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem, many of these people were overjoyed. He had won over their hearts with his stories about God’s kingdom, with his compassion and love. When they saw him coming through the city gates into Jerusalem, they began to grab palm branches, to take of their coats and lay them on the floor, to give him a King’s welcome. ‘Hosanna, hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
And they began to say to themselves - ‘Isn’t he wonderful? I was there when five loaves and two fish turned into a feast and he told us we must love one another. ‘ ‘I was there when he said that the poor were blessed’ ‘I was there when he healed a man with a withered arm - on the Sabbath too. The leaders were very cross with him - but what is more important? Caring for people or keeping the rules? Helping others I’d say. Hosanna! Hosanna!’
There were others there who said different though, standing at the back of the crowd and muttering. ‘Who does he think he is? I’ve known him since he was a baby - it’s Joseph’s son. Got al sorts of fancy ideas in his head about the Scriptures coming true. I was one of those who chucked him out of our local synagogue - and I’d do it again. DO you know in these last few years he has given his poor mother nothing but grief. He is the eldest son and since his father died he should be supporting her. But no - when she went to see him once he waved his hands at the tax collectors and shady women he surrounded himself with and said - these are my family. What an insult!’
‘Who does he think he is? Coming into our city like he owns the place. He only comes once or twice a year. Spends most of his time in the sticks with the rabble. Says they are more important. Shows how much he knows. I’ve got no time for him.’
‘Who does he think he is, telling people that money is the root of all evil? If it weren’t for money where would we be? Money makes the world go round, it brings you little luxuries, it brings you happiness. All he ever talks about is love. What’s that ever done for me?’
Then there are the political leaders, skulking in corners, watching the procession. ‘Who does he think he is encouraging all these people to follow him. And making a mockery of our ideas of a Messiah? We want someone who will help us stir up the people so that we can overthrow these Roman dictators. The Messiah is supposed to come riding into Jerusalem on a stallion with a sword in his hand. But this Jesus is making the idea a laughing stock - and the people are going along with it. It just won’t do. And he isn’t telling them about the injustice that is done to them, how they need to stand up for themselves and their families and fight for their rights. But what does he say? Love your enemies! Love your enemies? If a person slaps you on one cheek offer them the other? If a soldier makes you take his pack one kilometre, carry it for two? What kind of nonsense is this. God wants us to overthrow our enemies, not crawl to them on our knees. Something must be done.
And the Teachers of the Law looked on and said ‘Who does he think he is? He showed such promise as a child. When he came to the Temple for the first time, he amazed us with his understanding of the Law. But he seems to have forgotten all that now he is a man. Time and again we have had to talk to him about breaking the Sabbath laws. And he just laughs in our face! And if he is such a holy man, why does he surround himself with such creatures - fisherman, tax collectors, zealots, women of the night, are among those who follow him round constantly. He seems to want to spend more time with them than he does with us. Yet we are the important ones. we are the ones who have studied the scriptures and know God’s will. We know that God is displeased with him. Something must be done.’
And the Jewish Leaders watched and said ‘Who does he think he is? Why do so many people follow him? They should be listening to us, worshipping at the temple. Doing what has always been done. He is trying to change things. Tells the outcasts that God loves them. That they can repent and turn back to him. At every turn he takes the opposite way to us. And the people are calling him the messiah, the Son of God. We’ve heard rumours that he has said it of himself. This is blasphemy! Something must be done’.
Jesus came, as Son of God, to preach the Word of god, to be the Word of God. But the voices against him began to drown out the Hosannas. Jesus was fighting a losing battle and he was put to death.... But no! That is not how it happened. He was put to death, yes. Through no fault of his own, yes. But this was no losing battle. God was in control. It was Jesus who decided that the time was right to go to Jerusalem, to make a bold statement on entering the city, to go to the Temple and turn over the money changers stalls. It was Jesus who chose the time. It was Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene who chose to take the cup of suffering. It was Jesus who chose death. He chose to take on death to free us from sin. Laid in a borrowed tomb, he took on our suffering, our death. To bring us forgiveness, freedom, new life.
As it says in the Psalm - the stone which the builders rejected has become the most important stone. So we can celebrate and rejoice over what God in Christ has done. As it says in the Letter Paul wrote, God then raised Jesus to life and gave Christ the highest place and honoured his name above all others, so that we can see that Jesus Christ is Lord!
No wonder then, that here might I stay and sing no story so divine; never was love dear King, never was grief like thine. This is my friend, in whose sweet praise, I all my days could gladly spend. But if that’s how we feel then its no good just staying here to sing! We need to sing praise to jesus everywhere we go. As I said at the beginning - our joyous praise should be heard singing out loud and strong from our lives, from the way we love and serve others in the name of Christ. Let us sing our hosannas in prasie and thanks to God wherever we are.