25 March 2018

"Hosanna! Save us!" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
March 25, 2018 - Palm Sunday
Scripture:  Mark 11:1-11 (with a brief reference to Philippians 2:5-11)

Today is Palm Sunday – four days until Jesus will be betrayed, five days until he will be crucified, and one week until the celebration of the resurrection.  Throughout the season of Lent – these past 6 weeks – we’ve been journeying with Jesus towards the cross, and now we are almost there – we’ve reached the very shadow of the cross.

I want to invite you to imagine what it might have been like to have been there, to have been part of that procession that entered Jerusalem.  You can close your eyes if you want to, if you find that you can visualize things more clearly with your eyes closed.

At this time of year in Jerusalem, we are in the middle of the short spring season.  The heavy rains of winter have passed, though there might still be some showers, but we haven’t yet come to the hot, dry, dusty days of summer.  The wildflowers have started to bloom, and there are poppies blowing wildly in the wind wherever you turn; and the almond trees are blooming, filling the air with their sweetness.

We are just days away from the Passover, the major festival in the Jewish calendar.  People have traveled from all over the known world to celebrate the Passover – offering sacrifices in the temple, and sharing in the ceremonial Seder meal as they tell the story of how God had helped them to escape from slavery in Egypt.

The streets are crowded – there are normally 40,000 people living in the city, but this week there are 200,000 extra people here.  The officials are starting to get nervous with all of these people here.  They have heard rumblings of revolt – rumours that there are people who want to overthrow the Roman rulers here in Israel.  Tensions are starting to rise, so that any large gathering of people is seen as suspicious.

There is also a rumour going around that something is happening just outside of the gates of the city.  There is this preacher and healer and miracle worker named Jesus, from Galilee up there in the north, who has come to Jerusalem in time for the Passover.  People are saying that he can cast out demons, that he walks on water, and that he has even brought people back from the dead.  They’ve started calling him the Messiah, the anointed one, anointed like our kings in the past were anointed.  The rumours say that he is the one who is going to overthrow the Romans, and that he will be our king instead of them.

We make our way slowly to the gates on the eastern side of the city.  We have to move slowly because the streets are so full – everywhere you turn there are people – people on foot, people with animals, people selling things, people buying things.  It is crowded, noisy, chaotic.  A cacophony of languages fills the air from the pilgrims from every corner of the world.

When we leave the gates, we go down and across the Kidron Valley, and then up the Mount of Olives on the other side.  When we get there, we can see this Jesus, surrounded by his little band of followers, but the crowd has grown so that there are hundreds of people gathered around, maybe even a thousand people.

It’s almost like this Jesus is organizing a show for us – a bit of street theatre.  He’s sent a couple of his followers to find a donkey for him, but not just any donkey.  This is a young donkey, one that has never been ridden before, and now his followers have thrown their cloaks on its back and Jesus is climbing on.

Now there’s something to laugh at.  That donkey refuses to move!  Well, can you imagine what that poor donkey must be thinking – he’s never been ridden before, and all of a sudden here is this grown man sitting on his back, with the noise and crowd of hundreds of people standing around.  No wonder the donkey isn’t going anywhere!  I could almost hear him thinking, “Not going to, and you can’t make me!”

But now, eventually, they get the donkey moving – I didn’t see how they did that, but I suspect that there was food involved – and they are starting to move down the Mount of Olives and across the valley – past the tombs that are there, and through the Garden of Gethsemane.

As we go, the crowd is getting noisy.  They are shouting, and throwing their cloaks on the road in front of Jesus on his donkey, and waving branches that they had cut from trees nearby in the air.  It almost makes me want to laugh to see the irony of it – they are spreading their cloaks on the road as if they were welcoming a mighty leader or a king, but here was Jesus riding a donkey rather than a warhorse.  But the whole mood seems just a bit too sombre for laughter

And then a group of people starts to sing, and they are singing one of the psalms of our people – Psalm 118.  It starts with just a small group, but then more and more people join in until it is more like a shout than a song:
            Hosanna!  Save us!
            LORD, please save us!
            LORD, please let us succeed!
            The one who enters in the LORD’s name is blessed;
            we bless all of you from the LORD’s house.
            The LORD is God!
            He has shined a light on us!
            So lead the festival offering with ropes
            all the way to the horns of the alter.
            You are my God – I will give thanks to you!
            You are my God – I will lift you up high!
            Give thanks to the LORD because he is good,
            because his faithful love lasts forever.
            Hosanna!  Save us!

Slowly, slowly, we make our way through the valley and up the hill towards the gate in to Jerusalem.  People are still spreading their cloaks on the ground in front of him and waving their branches and shouting “Hosanna!  Save us!”

I wonder what they want to be saved from?

I wonder how long it will be before the authorities show up and shut this down?

I wonder what Jesus is trying to say or accomplish with this parade?

It is a celebration for sure, but it doesn’t feel quite right.  People are excited that something new is coming.  People are confident that this Jesus can save them.  People are willing to risk being part of a crowd in a time and a place where that is a dangerous thing to do, just in order to be part of this procession.  And yet there is a tension in the air, like something big is coming that we don’t quite understand yet.

Who is this Jesus whom we are following in to Jerusalem?  Is he a criminal who has been stirring up unrest around the country; and who, only today, has stolen a donkey?

Who is this Jesus?  Is he a king, deserving of the cloaks spread before him and the title of Messiah, but choosing to ride a donkey instead of a warhorse?

Who is this Jesus?  Is he a prophet, making people uncomfortable with the way things are, and pointing them back to God?

Who is this Jesus?  Is he a war-leader who is going to deliver us from Roman oppression, from all of the things that would come between us and God?  Is this why we are shouting “Save us!”?

Who is this Jesus?  Is he an innocent bystander, or a simple teacher who is caught up in something bigger than himself, caught in waves of turmoil in his time and his place?

Who is this Jesus?  Is he God-made-flesh, with full knowledge of what is going to happen?  As the author of Philippians writes, Christ Jesus was in the form of God, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.  A God. Who choses. To die.

Who is this Jesus?  Who are you following in to Jerusalem today?  As we follow Jesus through the gates into Jerusalem, and as we follow Jesus through the events that are going to happen this week, I invite you to consider who this is that you are following.  Why are you so captivated by his story?  What is it that keeps you following him, right up to the point of the cross and beyond?  When Jesus asks you, “Who do you say that I am?” how do you answer him?

But for today, for now, we are part of this noisy procession in to the city.  We go slowly because of the crowds and because of the donkey, so that by the time we enter in to Jerusalem, evening has fallen.

The sun has set, and the crowds slowly disappear, going back to their homes, going back to their families, going back to continue to prepare for the Passover celebration later this week.  The crowds disappear until it is only us and Jesus left standing there – even his little group of followers have left him, because he has sent them back across the valley to Bethany to return the donkey to its owners, to find a place for them to stay, and to arrange for their evening meal.

And if we follow Jesus, we can go with him to the temple.  It is late, and the daily business and rituals at the temple have finished up.  It is quiet there, standing in the late evening darkness.  Jesus looks around, seeing the places where the animals for sacrifice are sold; seeing the places where sacrifices are offered; seeing the different courtyards where different groups of people can stand; seeing the entrance to the Holy of Holies covered by a curtain – the entrance to the place where God lives.

We stand back from him as he looks around – it seems as though Jesus wants to be alone in this moment.  It is so quiet in here, compared with the noise of the parade earlier.  I wonder what Jesus is thinking about in this moment.  Is he remembering his ministry in Galilee?  Is he thinking ahead to what is going to happen this week?  Is he talking to the one whom he calls Father?  I wonder what Jesus is feeling in this moment.

But now it is late, the day has ended and the night is here, and Jesus quietly slips out of the temple, and walks back across the valley to join his friends again.

Let us pray:
            Holy God,
            As we enter in to this holiest of weeks,
                        draw us close to you.
            Help us to know that as we travel the difficult path,
                        you travel with us.
            Be with us in our shouts of “Hosanna!”
            Be with us when the crowds cry, “Crucify him!”
            Be with us when the world goes dark.
            Be with us when the light returns.
            We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
                        in whose name we are gathered.

(We call today "Palm Sunday", but did you notice that Mark doesn't mention any palms?  The scripture reading focused more on the donkey than it did on the branches - maybe we should re-name today "Donkey Sunday"?!)

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