Saturday, 19 March 2016

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday
What happens on Palm Sunday – and what relevance does it have for us?

Let’s go back a step to the Psalm. Psalms are the first hymn book of the Jewish people.
The psalm from which we’ve heard today – Psalm 118 – was a hymn which was particularly used at the Passover. Scholars say that this psalm was used for a dramatic ceremony at Passover:

A procession would form outside the temple and praises the Lord with the chorus “his love endures forever”.
In the bit our reading missed out, the crowd would have heard a dramatic telling of how God has always come to the help of his people.
Then there would have been a dialogue between the leader of the procession outside the temple and the priests within “open the gates”  - “this is the gate of the Lord” & so on. There would have been shouts of ‘hosanna’ – Lord, save us - and waving of palm branches in celebration.
Then finally everyone entered the temple and the priests would again invite all the people to praise the Lord.

This was a Psalm Jesus would have known, a celebration and a liturgy with which he would have joined in many times  – maybe even every one of his 30 or so years . Jesus and all his followers would have known that at Passover this is how the people of God celebrated the promise that the love of God, which endures forever, is present with his people in his temple in Jerusalem, and was coming to save his people.

So what happens on Palm Sunday – which the gospels tell us happens just as Jerusalem is gearing up for the celebration of Passover?
Jesus enters the city.
On a donkey – as the prophet Zechariah says the humble king will enter the city;
From the mount of Olives – the place where the Messiah – the chosen saviour – was expected to descend from;
With the people shouting ‘hosanna!’ as they do in the psalm to celebrate the presence of God;
And (if you read the other three gospels instead of Luke) waving palm branches as they head for the temple.

The message is not subtle “God is here, God’s Messiah is coming, God is going to save us”.
This is it!
Jesus’ followers have seen him in action – preaching, teaching, healing, forgiving, performing miracles, long enough – they know this is God’s One and only.

No wonder the Pharisees ask Jesus to restrain his disciples – if the Romans get a whiff of this celebration, there is going to be bloodshed – this isn’t the nice, tidy, usual celebration of Passover – this is a riot against Roman rule – these people actually believe that God is coming to save them and something is going to happen.
This is not how an occupied people (as the Jews were) behave – God might one day come, but in the meantime they had better all keep their heads down or they know what the Romans will do – the Romans will start crucifying the trouble-makers. That’s what they have always done when the Jews have tried to rise up.

I wonder what the followers of Jesus – not just his closest disciples but maybe quite a large crowd – thought would happen next? We don’t know what they expected – maybe they were happy just to wait, expectantly, for God to act.

We of course have the benefit of hindsight.
God was indeed about to save his people – all his people – the whole world, in fact, but not by kingly rule of that land, or even by prophetic action leading to rebellion against the Romans, but the greatest victory of all time was about to occur as Jesus willingly laid down his life on Good Friday to prove that the love of God, which he enfleshed, was greater than any power on earth – even the power of death.

And so today we wave and wear our palm leaves – but we fashion them into a cross to show that we celebrate but remember that we do not reach the celebration of Easter without passing through the passion of Good Friday.

And why are we hearing all this?
Well, at one level it’s Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week, so what do you expect?
But at another level, let’s think about where you are as a church – starting on a risky, faith-filled, not entirely predictable journey.
For years you have come here to this place and have celebrated what God has done, keeping you and saving you. You have known, more or less, what to expect – faithful worship, service, outreach, and nurture – and (let’s face it) a bit of a headache with this massive range of buildings.

But suddenly it is different. God has stirred you up – things are changing, you can’t do what you have always done but you have to listen to what God’s new plan is.

And I know it is scary, and I know that sometimes it feels too much like Good Friday  - all pain and suffering and difficulty. But God is here – and God is before you wherever you are meant to be in the future, and God’s love endures forever and when you cry “lord save us – hosanna” – he will. There will be celebration and there will be cross and the two are held together in this palm cross. And there will be new life and hope and resurrection. This is it! God is coming to save us… at last.
Live through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, my friends, and Easter’s new dawn will surely come.
May God grant you faith and courage and may you see his salvation,
and know the joy of resurrection.
In the name of the risen Jesus
Amen.