Today is a day when we stand on the brink. We know what is going to happen as the week goes on, but de we have the courage to play our full part in events as the story unfolds? Jesus, too, knew what was going to happen – and, on the way to Jerusalem, he had tried to warn those closest to him, but they hadn’t wanted to hear what was being said.
To those of us who have been regular church goers for years the story is as familiar as a comfort blanket – today, for example, the day we call Palm Sunday – it is normally a day full of acclamation and praise. It is a day when we escape from behind the walls of the church and carry our faith, along with our palms, into the streets of the towns and cities where we live. Some of us even have the courage to shout Hosanna as we go along the road, trying to avoid the cars and the embarrassed sideways glances of the Sunday shoppers.
In Jerusalem, the crowd was a great deal more excited and enthusiastic. It was the ordinary people who greeted Jesus – they didn’t look away in embarrassment as he rode into town on an unbroken colt. This symbol of majesty was not lost on them and they threw their cloaks down in front of the donkey’s feet as a sign of homage to Jesus, and to make the going softer for the donkey. Or they threw branches from the trees, Mark’s gospel says they had cut them from the fields, so, clearly, they had come prepared for this great event. Oh, the crowd was certainly on Jesus side on Palm Sunday – and they seemed to know who he was
‘Hosanna! Hurray! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, blessed is the coming of our ancestor David’
Only five days later everything seemed to have gone horribly wrong.
I have a book called ‘The Crowd in History’ it looks at the way in which huge gatherings have affected and changed the outcome of events. The Easter story is surely the prime example of how to get the outcome you want by manipulating the crowd – but who was it who did the manipulating?
The main gospel reading for the day is one of the most devastating stories ever told. It is a story of weak leadership, an overwhelming desire for popularity and power, evil jealousy and self righteousness, mob manipulation, bullying and torture, mockery and derision, unpleasant voyeurism, violent death – and, when it was all too late, total enlightenment. It is also a story of great humility and passive suffering- and total obedience to God. It is the greatest love story ever told.
At the beginning of this sermon I said I feel as if I stand on the brink on Palm Sunday, wondering if I have the courage to enter the story of a week so full of pain – But this is not my story – it is Jesus story – and He knew what the end would be, He had already told the disciples the exact course of events
‘ See we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, then they will hand Him over to the Gentiles; they will mock Him, and spit on Him, and flog Him and kill Him.’
And still Jesus went on – I find the enormity of it too much to bear and I almost want to run away as the disciples eventually ran away – for it takes huge courage to accept a gift so amazing as the gift of a life, freely given, to prove God’s love for us. But if I am to be truly Christian, I can’t escape, I can’t even go to the back of the crowd and pretend not to be seen – for this is all our stories coming together.
It is the story of the disciples who wouldn’t believe in advance what Jesus told them – He would find a way out if he was who he truly said he was. It is the story of the enemies of Jesus, the religious leaders who thought they were protecting the purity of their faith. It is the story of the Roman Authorities who wanted no trouble – and of Pilate, who washed his hands of all responsibility for Jesus death and ended up going down in history as the man who condemned Jesus to die. It is the story of the crowd who couldn’t decide so allowed themselves to be manipulated and went with the majority – oh the power of belonging to the mob! It is the story of Judas and Peter, both of whom betrayed Jesus in their own way – and sought to justify their actions. And it is our story, because in some, or all, of these reactions we may find ourselves reflected. It is also the story of Simon, who carried Jesus Cross when he was too weak to bear it any longer, it is the story of the women, the Marys, who followed at a distance and stood at the foot of the cross until Jesus died, it is the story of the bandit on the cross who called to Jesus for salvation, and it is the story of the centurion who, at the very end says ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.’ We are sometimes in these stories too.
As we stand on the brink, summoning the courage to plunge in, do we know which bits of our story need changing? Do we take the easy way out like Pilate? Do we fail to stand up to a hostile crowd, mocking our faith? Do we fight to preserve our own preferred customs and traditions like the Pharisees? Do we pretend not to know Jesus at all, like Peter? Or do we pick up the burden, follow to the foot of the cross, watch to the end and, like the centurion, proclaim to all the truth of Christ?
In truth, we may be in every part of the story at one time or another. But the real narrative is not ours – it belongs to God – all the other stories just collide at the foot of the cross. It is God, through Jesus, who chooses the ending. It is a story begun at creation and not finished until the final day, when all our stories come before God.
The theologian Jane Williams sums it up like this
‘This is the true story – the only true story – of God’s faithful love for what he has made. All our stories are about how we journey into that one great story of creation and redemption’