5th April 2020 Russell Braund

Palm Sunday

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Reading: Hab 3:1-2; 17-19

It is always a challenge to know what to say on the key points of the church’s calendar. I don’t want to be repetitive, but it is difficult not to be! Fortunately a whole year has passed since we last thought about Palm Sunday. This year we reflect on Jesus riding into Jerusalem under very different circumstances, hence the reading from Habakkuk, which I hope will become clear as we think about these events together. Easter celebrations will be completely different this year, but let’s remember Easter Sunday is only a date in the calendar; for us every Sunday is Easter Sunday because we meet to worship the risen Lord Jesus Christ. So when we can meet again, we are going to have a grand celebration!

However, we are where we are, in a period of unnerving uncertainty. What is happening to the world? When will this crisis end? Certainly not in three weeks or three months even. What will the world be like? These are not irrelevant questions for Palm Sunday and the whole of Holy week. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem there was certainty and uncertainty amongst those who witnessed it.

The disciples were certain that here was God’s messiah riding to claim his kingdom. They didn’t know quite how that would work out, but there seems to have been a fair amount of bravado and confidence as they paraded into the heart of Jerusalem. They were buoyed by the crowd as everyone shouted and cheered. They were buoyed by the messianic imagery of the occasion and the messianic chants. There was certainty in the minds of the disciples: they were on the winning side and no-one had better mess with them. How soon that certainty would evaporate!

There was certainty for Jesus but he saw things very differently surely. As he turned his face towards Jerusalem, knowing what lay ahead, the certainty Jesus had was focussed differently. He went in the confidence of the mission the Father had called him to do; he went knowing that he was one with the Father; but his certainty and commitment to his purpose didn’t preclude doubt and agonising in the garden. In the uncertainty of our time when doubts creep in, that doesn’t mean we are losing faith but we are human; it doesn’t mean Jesus will think less of us – we have a great high priest who sympathises with our weakness. With Jesus there was also the certainty of judgment that would cause great uncertainty amongst the disciples and later for the people of Jerusalem as they were besieged and the city and temple destroyed.

Alongside the confidence of the disciples was the uncertainty felt by the authorities. Where was this all going to lead? What would be the outcome? Was this going to trigger unrest and then a heavy handed response from the Romans? What about our traditions, our stability, our position? The answer to these questions lay in their response and the actions of Holy Week; a response that was going to bring fear and uncertainty into the lives of these confident disciples. It was also a crunch time as to whom authorities, disciples and people were going to declare as King – Caesar or Jesus? Of course the imagery of the occasion was hugely significant. Jesus knew what he was doing as he rode from the Mount of Olives on the foal of a donkey. Everyone would understand what was going on, hence the messianic chants – and the rebuke from the Pharisees. Jesus, riding into Jerusalem, adopted the role portrayed in Zechariah of the king riding humbly on a donkey.

There is a contrast with the expectations of the disciples who saw him as a conquering hero and the Pharisees as an imposter usurping the messianic role. There is a contrast with the entry of Roman authority that would come with trumpets blazing and a show of force. But the significance of the prophecy and Jesus’ action is this: the king comes righteous and bringing salvation, but also comes bringing peace. However, the peace has to be won and the King also comes in judgement. The judgement Jesus pronounced before he descended from the Mount of Olives was the judgement of covenantal unfaithfulness and echoed Isaiah and Jeremiah. The curses and blessings of the covenant are spelled out in Deuteronomy 28-32. In Isaiah 29 the description Jesus uses concerning the destruction of Jerusalem is laid out and in Jeremiah 21, where the prophet brings the word of God to Zedekiah, there is graphic description of the destruction that will come at the hand of a foreign nation.

This changes the tenor of the story. Yes the Messiah is coming, but it is not good news for those who reject him. In a short while the disciples would fall away and their confidence vanished; the crowd whipped up to call for the death of Jesus and he would be crucified. Jesus knew this as he rode down from the Mount of Olives acclaimed by the disciples and those who joined in the occasion; and so for Jesus this must have been a time of extreme emotions. A time full of significance and full of tragedy.

As Habakuk stood on the watchman’s tower waiting upon God (READ 2:1) he was experiencing a crisis, because just as Jesus was to pronounce judgement over Jerusalem years later, Habakkuk knew that judgement was coming on the people in his time and he couldn’t understand it. He had called on God to act and bring about justice among the people of God, but a pagan army? The destruction and devastation that would come would be horrendous, but he waits on God. And he waits in fear and trembling (READ 3:10). His cry to God was ‘Why don’t you do something about the injustice of those in power and the impotence of the law among the people of God – but this?!’ He believed in the judgment and the sovereignty of God but that did not make it any easier to accept. However the same question was there – who will you declare as King with the right to act? Habakkuk’s response comes in chapter 3 as he recounts the mighty works of God and stands in fear and trembling before God’s judgement.

Palm Sunday it seems is about two things: God coming in judgement and who we will declare as King. Whichever is our choice – God or humankind – the consequences are not easy. However, there is one choice that promises life. We meet on Palm Sunday this year in the midst of a worldwide crisis in which some will curse God and others will seek him and stand firm in him. We meet in the midst of a worldwide crisis in which we call out to God – like Habakkuk – ‘God why don’t you intervene?’ And the dreadful thought crosses my mind, ‘What if he is intervening in this world?’ The thought horrified Habakkuk and it horrifies me, but who is Lord over all and has the right to come in judgement? There is also a cry to God in Habakkuk’s prayer that we echo: 3:1-2 ‘Lord remember mercy’.

I have said before that in sending Jesus, God was judging the world: judgement came. The world had turned away from its creator – the fundamental sin of humankind. The result can be seen through the pages of history and in our world today. God coming in judgement also came in mercy as the king who rode into Jerusalem rode to be the sin bearer.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!

Hark! all the tribes hosanna cry;

O Savior meek, pursue thy road

with palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp ride on to die;

O Christ, thy triumphs now begin

o’er captive death and conquered sin.

Jesus as he agonised in the garden of Gethsemane knew that sin and death had to be conquered, but did it have to be this way? The mercy of God was given to the world as Jesus bore the pain of sin on the cross. To talk about the judgement of God is not popular and not something I do lightly, but as Christian believers we know the judgement of God is linked with mercy and that means we don’t have to fear. As people cry out to God to act and things don’t go the way they expect, some will give up on following; some will abandon God.

The writer to the Hebrews sent their letter to a despondent church because they faced persecution. They had become Christians and were paying for it. The writer’s response was Hebrews READ 10:32-39. We are people who have faith in God through the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved. We are experiencing extremely uncertain times, and let’s be honest, none of us knows who will be affected. Where will we place our trust and hope? Where do we believe ultimate authority belongs in this world? There will be many who dismiss and mock faith in Jesus Christ, echoing the words of the Pharisees as he hung on the cross, ‘Come down and then we will believe in you.’ Or one of the thieves, ‘Come on save yourself and save us!’ If we choose the materialist philosophy of the world where does that leave us apart from hoping for the best and resignation.

We are people of faith not resignation; hope not despair. We are people who believe we are held in the mercy and love of God through Jesus Christ, and therefore we can face the future with confidence. We may well have our dark times; I am sure we will question the wisdom of God especially if we are personally affected. The disciples went through the despair of Good Friday, but saw the hope of Easter Sunday. How can we have hope? How can we worship in our current circumstances? Habakkuk answers in READ 3:17-19. Our hope is not in our circumstances or even in what happens around us. Our hope is in God the creator of heaven and earth. As followers of Jesus we have made our choice and hail him as King – even if it is in weakness and trembling at times.

We have just finished reading through Philippians in morning prayer. Paul encourages the people of that church to rejoice in Jesus Christ, in spite of the difficulties they were facing. Paul was able to be confident in God in spite of his physical circumstances. How can we worship and give thanks this week? By naming Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, remaining faithful to him and looking through to Easter morning.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!

Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh;

the Father on his sapphire throne

expects his own anointed Son.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp ride on to die;

bow thy meek head to mortal pain,

then take, O God, thy power, and reign.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem, knowing what was ahead. We may be walking a vale of fear and tears at the moment, but Easter Sunday is coming.