Sunday, 17 April 2011

Palm Sunday Allegiance

Address given at Templederry and Nenagh on Palm Sunday, Lent 6, Year A, 17th April 2011

Do you like old familiar stories? I do – and Jesus’s triumphal entry to Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11) is certainly an old familiar story!
I’ve heard it just about every Palm Sunday since I was a child, from one or other of the Gospels – it is one of the few stories told by all four Gospel writers.

The scene is set just before Passover, a time of great anticipation and excitement, perhaps a little like the run up to our Christmas. Jerusalem is teeming with people preparing to celebrate the festival - not just people from Jerusalem and the villages around, but Jews of the diaspora from all over the known world. Passover was then, and still is, perhaps the most important festival for Jews, one which even today they like to celebrate in Jerusalem. It commemorates the time when God delivered the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, when God’s angel ‘passed over’ the Israelite houses, but struck down the first born in Egyptian houses, to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, in a terrifying demonstration of God’s power.

At just this time, Jesus chooses to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Matthew tells us that he sends his disciples to collect it along with a colt from a village near Bethphage - perhaps nearby Bethany, less than 2 miles East of Jerusalem, where his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. Jesus gives them a password to use: if anyone objects they are to say, ‘The Lord needs them’.

As he rides the donkey, Jesus is surrounded by a cheering crowd of supporters. They lay their cloaks on the road in front of him, and spread branches from trees for him to ride over. And they shout ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ Hosanna in Hebrew means ‘save us now’. We use these same words today as an acclamation in the Communion service, just after the Sanctus. Matthew tells us, ‘The whole city was in turmoil’.

The spectators did not know what was going on, but his cheering supporters tell them, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee’. It was clearly a massive demonstration of allegiance by Jesus’s followers.

But why does Jesus choose to arrive in Jerusalem in this dramatic way?
Matthew has already told us that Jesus foresaw what fate awaited him in Jerusalem - the authorities, the chief priests and the scribes, wanted him dead. You might have expected him to slip into Jerusalem quietly, not rivet every eye upon himself. But no, Jesus deliberately plans his dramatic entry – he makes arrangements in advance for the donkey to be ready for him, and no doubt he expects his followers to cheer him.

Jesus surely intends his dramatic entry to convey a message to those who see and hear about it, a message without words. But what message exactly? One clue is the verse of prophesy from Zechariah 9:9, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’.

In Ireland today we’re inclined to see a donkey as a second class horse. But donkeys were often ridden by kings in the ancient Middle East. Horses were reserved for warfare - a king riding a horse was a leader going to war. But if a king came in peace he would ride a donkey.

The crowds following Jesus – including his closest disciples - believed him to be the Messiah promised in scripture, the anointed one of God. And they expected the Messiah would be a powerful military leader, who would throw out the hated Roman occupiers, and re-establish Jerusalem as the capital of a glorious independent Jewish kingdom, like that of David and Solomon.

But Jesus knows this is not the role God wants him to play. His loving Father God has chosen him as the Messiah to show people the way to God’s kingdom - a spiritual kingdom - not to establish an earthly kingdom. As he will shortly say to Pilate, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’.

So Jesus, in a deliberate echo of Zechariah’s prophesy, claims the allegiance of the people as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Yet he does so not as an earthly king displaying warlike power, but as a king of peace humbly riding on a donkey. Jesus’s message to the crowds in Jerusalem is this, I think. ‘Follow me, I am the Messiah, but not the Messiah you imagine’.

The old familiar story echoes down the millennia – but what does it mean for you and I today?
Well, for one thing, it reminds us that Jesus the Messiah claims our total allegiance, just as he claimed the allegiance of the crowds in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. He is our king in the sense that we give him our whole-hearted personal allegiance. That is precisely what a king is - someone to whom we give our personal allegiance.

When we acknowledge that our first loyalty is to Jesus, we are liberated. No longer are we bound absolutely by other claims on our loyalty, by queen or president, by country, race or class, by family, party or county. We no longer fear these powerful forces. We are made free, free to follow the conscience God has given us, free to do what is right. We become fully human, made in the image of God. St Paul captures it beautifully when he says (Romans 8:38-9), ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

And for a second thing, it warns us that we might be mistaken - mistaken in what we believe God wants of us through Jesus.

The crowds following Jesus 2000 years ago were mistaken to want to make the Messiah into an earthly king to lead their national liberation struggle. They were blinded by their own interpretation of scripture and by their own desires. The same could be true of us, or of any of our different churches.

Is it possible we could be wrong, and those with different beliefs are right? We would do well never to dismiss that possibility. We should instead admit our human fallibility, engage prayerfully with those who believe differently to us, and always, always be alive to the promptings of the Spirit which Jesus sends to guide us.

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