Friday, 27 March 2015

Palm Sunday

Mark 11: 1-11
All four gospels contain an account of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
There are crowds who shout ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who come in the name of the Lord. Hosanna to the son of David!’.
There is the waving of branches – possibly palms – and in most accounts the use of cloaks to line the path, or cushion the animal Jesus is riding.
And there is the donkey – or colt – or possibly even both – but definitely not a war horse -  which Jesus rides.

It is Palm Sunday – and we might think we’ve heard the story too many times before for it to add to much to our celebrations of Holy Week.

So let’s look at what Mark, in particular, tells us.

Jesus enters the city from the East, from the Mount of Olives: the direction of the rising sun, and the direction from which the Messiah was expected to come.
He rides a colt  - again an act of the promised Messiah – and this is a young animal that has never been ridden before, which is why the cloaks are used to make a sort of saddle. This is not a well-equipped horse and rider, this is an act of humility and prophecy.

But what does Mark spend 6 of his 11 verses – over half the story – telling us?
Mark tells us how Jesus gets two of his disciples to go and get the colt from a village – with the strange sounding arrangement that if anyone tries to stop them they are to say “the Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately”.
They go – the colt is just where Jesus said it would be – they are indeed questioned – they give the reply Jesus told them to give – and they return with the colt.
Jesus rides the colt into Jerusalem to the excited shouts of the crowd ‘Hosanna – Lord, save us – Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.’

What are we meant to conclude from all this?
This is not just a spontaneous eruption of support for Jesus: this is a planned act by Jesus. He deliberately looks like the Messiah for whom everyone is waiting.
He rides a colt, he enters from the Mount of Olives, he arrives and goes straight to the temple.

He has planned to have the colt available – I don’t think we can have any other explanation for the whole business of what sounds a lot like a code phrase being used by his disciples.

And yet.. Jesus is not the Messiah in the way that the waiting and longing Jewish people expect.
He has already warned his disciples three times in Mark’s gospel that he will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes and will be condemned to death.

Jesus will reveal himself as God’s anointed who has declared and brought in the kingdom of God. But he will pass through suffering to rule through victory over death: he will not use, or allow others to use, force and the sword to win an earthly kingdom.

In Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, God is doing something that resonates with the past and the promises of the future.  He is raising the expectations of the crowd that at last God is going to act to rid them of the oppression of the Roman rulers and the corruption of the religious leaders. God is going to act, the crowd can feel that and see that and are expecting that.
But God is going to act in a new way. The kingdom of God will come as God’s anointed gives himself up to death by torture, out of love for us all.
God is doing a new thing.

So what is our part, this Palm Sunday? What does God require of us?
We are called upon, this Holy Week, to be part of the celebrations – we should not be silent, but should shout and sing and clap and rejoice – for in Jesus we see that God is indeed acting – has acted – will act.
The kingdom of God is here with a place for all humanity – even all creation – under God’s new rule.

We are also called to listen obediently to what Jesus tells us to do. Listen for the plan Jesus has – listen to what he wants from us – don’t assume that we know in advance just how it is that God will act in our world.

The two disciples Jesus sent had no idea what was really going on in that triumphal march – but they played their part by being faithful to what Jesus told them to do.
They went where he sent them, they did what he asked them, they said what he told them to say.
They played their part in God’s plan, directed by Jesus, rather than carrying out their own ideas.

And finally I think we are called upon to enter Holy Week with a sense of awe and wonder. What is God doing? Where and how is the kingdom coming? How can we be part of the rule of God, part of the coming of justice and mercy for all people?

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

May we be given grace to see what the Lord is doing, listen to the one who is acting in God’s name,
and be part of the new life God wants to pour upon the whole earth.
In the name of Jesus.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Lent 5

We would like to see Jesus Jeremiah 31: 31-34; John 12: 20-33

‘We would like to see Jesus.’
I would like to see Jesus – wouldn’t you? Out of curiosity, if nothing else -  wouldn’t it be fascinating to know exactly what Jesus looked like. Did he look particularly kind (I hope so) or wise (I expect so). Was there anything in the way he looked which gave a hint to his identity as the son of God?
Yet all four gospels remain frustratingly silent on the subject of what Jesus looked like – because they’re far too busy wanting to give us the good news about who Jesus was, and what he did and said.

So John’s story of the Greeks who say ‘We would like to see Jesus’ is so much more than just a story of idle curiosity: it cuts to the heart of who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
These Greeks are in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, they have come to worship God.
And presumably they have heard something of Jesus of Nazareth. So they come to Philip and ask ‘Sir, we would like to see Jesus’.
Idle curiosity? I doubt it, why would they care what Jesus looks like, but they want to meet him, see him in action, and understand who this teacher & healer that everyone is talking about really is and what he is doing.

And when they ask ‘We would like to see Jesus’,  were you struck by the very strange answer that Jesus gives when this request is passed on to him? ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified… I shall draw everyone to myself when I am lifted up from the earth.’

The Greeks have been drawn to Jesus by what they have seen and heard of his teaching and healing ministry – they want to meet the great healer, the great rabbi, Jesus. And Jesus says, in effect ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet’.

We might think we have seen Jesus’ love in action in the way he treats people and speaks to the outcast and heals the sick – but the most dramatic display of the extremity of God’s love has yet to be seen.

It is fascinating that it is right now, at this stage of Jesus’ life, that John tells us a voice from heaven speaks to confirm Jesus’ work as glorifying the Father. In the other 3 gospels there is a confirming voice at Jesus’ baptism, at the start of Jesus’ ministry of healing and teaching – but for John this voice comes now as if to signify that this is where Jesus’ real work begins, with his act of willing sacrifice on the cross.
For John, Jesus is not the healer/rabbi, he is the Messiah who has come to save the world by laying down his own life in love. Johns says of Jesus’ statement ‘I shall draw everyone to myself when I am lifted from the earth’, ‘he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die’.

Jesus shows us God in human form and then goes to the extreme of death to display the love God offers.
The Greeks say ‘We would like to see Jesus’  - and Jesus points forward to his place on the cross. When they see the Messiah who suffers and dies out of love for the world, then they will really see what God’s love is about and what that love is prepared to do on the cross, in the tomb and in the eternal life beyond death.

We don’t know what sort of Jesus the Greeks were expecting, but Jesus himself tells them to expect to see him lifted up on the cross to suffer; lifted up by God when he is risen from death, and lifted up so that he might be glorified in the whole world. When anyone asks ‘We would like to see Jesus’  - they should show them a suffering, risen and glorified Jesus.

But, honestly, when was the last time anyone asked you to show them Jesus? How can we get people interested in Jesus at all?
I think this is a vital question facing Christian churches throughout our country. We know that the number of people attending Christian churches each week is falling and the statistics tell us that whilst in the 2001 census 72% of the UK population said they were Christian, ten years later that had dropped to 59%. We say the church is the body of Christ – if people want to see Jesus they should look at the church, but many people aren’t interested in Church, and no-one is asking to see Jesus.

So what are we to do? The question from the Greeks didn’t come out of the blue, it came because they were already looking for what God was doing in the world – they were in Jerusalem to worship – and they had heard rumours of signs of God’s kingdom in the life of Jesus.
The people we meet may or may not be interested in church – but I’d be surprised if none of them was interested in hope, or healing, or justice, or love, or joy or forgiveness or peace… or all the other things we know are part of God’s kingdom.
So our job as a church is to make sure that we are proclaiming – in words and in deeds, God’s kingdom, God’s love. Like Jesus, we need to be showing God’s healing and forgiveness and hope. Then just possibly, people will want to see more, to see the source of our hope and love and joy – to see Jesus: the suffering, risen and glorified Jesus.

Perhaps in all you do here as a church you need to be asking “how is this proclaiming God’s kingdom?” and “how is this showing the world a suffering, risen and glorified Jesus, whose love can bring hope to all?”.

May your celebrations of Easter which are to come help you to see Jesus and to know his love and resurrection power. And seeing and knowing, may you be filled with the desire to share and reveal that love to others – through God’s power at work in you.