s158g01 Somerton Park Palm Sunday 8/3/01

"Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." Luke 19:39,40

I confess the Palm Sunday procession which begins our celebration each year on this day is not my favourite ritual. I don't have any theological difficulty with it. I can cope with symbols, vestments, bells and smells ... :-)

But somehow the little cameo that we re-enact each Palm Sunday doesn't capture the emotion, the simplicity and the profundity of what happened on the day. It has become a pleasant stroll, or at least it would if we were able to really "beat the bounds" of the parish. I suppose we might conclude that the Lord encourages us to get the occasional exercise - which is probably true, but hardly something which really changes the course of the world. We wouldn't start singing "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" (Luke 19:38) if this were the message - or at least I wouldn't :-) One could hardly expect the very stones to shout out, being trodden on for no obvious purpose ...

For let us be quite clear something very powerful was happening. Even the Pharisees were able to see it ... and they were afraid. Something very powerful was happening in the course of human history, as this strange man rode on the donkey's back into the Holy City - something which was the final straw that broke the camel's back, and ensured the eternal enmity of the lay religious authorities, enough to have Jesus killed.

In the normal course of human history, Jesus would more likely come with his followers waving swards and sticks, or these days with kalashnikovs (spelling ?) Instead his followers waved palm branches and put their cloaks on the road in welcome. What could so easily have developed into a popular uprising against the Roman occupying force, instead was a joyful pilgrimage.

And instead of Jesus directing his anger at the politicians and high - fliers in society, his anger was directed against the religious authorities and the lay people who got in the way of the ordinary man and woman "in the street" who wished to worship God in the Temple.

For Jesus had a clear destination. It was not to storm Herod or Pilate's palace or to check in at the local hotel like good tourists. It was the Temple to which he was going and he was going to enter there, along with the motley crew who followed him.

So I suspect that in fact this "triumphal entry into Jerusalem" would be more accurately described as a storming of the fortress of the Temple by the poor and the outcast, led by a man so poor that he even had to borrow a donkey for the occasion - and who was to become more an outcast than any of those who followed.

The joy for the poor and the outcast was not as we might feel as we are tempted to follow on from the "Christmass Pageant" after all the floats had passed in front of us, as we try to make the moment and the fantasy last a little bit longer before we return to real life.

No, Jesus was the leader of a popular uprising of the poor and the outcast who for the first time were going to be able to enter the Temple. And they were going to be able to enter without having to pay, without having to buy a sacrificial animal, without having to change their money from the secular coinage to the sacred - without having to suffer the indignity of being looked down on by the religious authorities. They were following Jesus and Jesus was leading them into the most surprising place of all - the Temple.

So, again, Jesus was not about setting up a new religion, he was about making plain that the God of Israel was and is an inclusive welcoming God. He was making it plain, in no uncertain terms that God's Temple was a "house of prayer for all peoples", and in the process he had to dismantle the "authority" of the self appointed laity who sought to discriminate and exclude.

For let us be clear it was this action of "cleansing the Temple", which immediately followed the triumphal entry which was the catalyst for the lay religious authorities decision to do away with Jesus, the story of which forms the passion gospel for today. So it must have been intimately connected with Jesus' full purpose and mission in life. So this action challenged the whole structure and authenticity of religious life as they had constructed it.

So far from this action of Jesus suggesting that the sacrificial system of the ancient covenant was in any way deficient, his real argument was with those who sought to keep real people away from God and the mercies of the sacrificial system. They had made the religion of Israel the plaything of the rich and powerful, at the expense of the poor and the alien.

I suppose it might be helpful to suggest a modern parallel. So the actions that we remember today might well be paralleled today if Jesus lead a procession of HIV / AIDS sufferers and street workers in a popular uprising to rid the church of the barriers that are well and truly present stopping them being a part of our worshipping community.

Unless we get this in this sort of context, our faith too becomes our plaything, something we - who have the time, the money and the inclination - are able to indulge in. In failing to see the context we are effectively denying what it's all about, and others - those who have less time and money and indeed inclination - are excluded.

The crowds were not shouting "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" (Luke 19:38) because Jesus was going to the Temple, they praised God because they were going too!

Yet the crowds that joyfully accompanied him seemed to disperse. Only Matthew records that: "the blind and the lame (those who previously were unable to enter the Temple) came to him in the Temple and he healed them ..." (Matt 21.14)

It seems likely that the blind and the lame, the poor and the outcast, found themselves at a loss in the precincts of the Temple, overawed by it's magnificence. Perhaps they too were afraid of the audacity of Jesus, and afraid of their own audacity. Perhaps they wondered that they too could claim their rightful heritage.

And I wonder too if the hatred of the lay authorities was not that Jesus came to the Temple, but that Jesus let others in too. Perhaps there is an element that the lay authorities actually disapproved of the Temple sacrificial system, and were put out that Jesus was bypassing them and giving the poor access to something other than their own teaching.

I suspect we should be honest enough to say that we might find ourselves rather at a loss if we found a crowd of AIDS / HIV sufferers and street workers in our midst. We too might well wonder is this what it's all about. Our Church might not be as comfortable as we would like, but I suspect our personal comfort is not always the highest thing on God's agenda.

 

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