Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon for Palm Sunday 24th March 2024

Many years ago when my children were young, we used to go for family riding lessons and hikes together. The stable in Leeds in the UK was owned by a ferocious lady who ran it extremely well but on a strictly ‘non nonsense’ basis.

One Saturday, I realised that we due to go on a long hike and strong rain was forecast all morning. Tentatively I rung the stables and asked her if the morning hike was going ahead given the appalling forecast.  “Oh course it’s going ahead”, she barked down the phone, “What are you – a fair-weather rider or what?!”.  I assured her I was not, put the phone down and thought, “Oh my goodness – that’s not true. For that is exactly what I am – a fair-weather rider!”. 

This fair-weather image has stayed in my mind as we have approached Palm Sunday. For as we celebrate today Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, we are challenged to think hard and honestly about where we with Jesus both on this day and in what lies ahead in the days of his Passion.

For this is a journey taking place on two levels. It is a triumphant journey in which Jesus is proclaimed by the crowd as the Messiah, the Son of David who cheer him on his way. Yet it is also a journey into his Passion and almost certain death.

It’s a journey in which Jesus’ kingship and also his self-emptying humility are held together and this is reflected in content of our Bible texts today from Isaiah, Philippians and St Mark’s Gospel.

We see the elements of kingship in many ways starting with the steps Jesus takes in arranging his entry to Jerusalem. It’s is significant that he chooses to ride into the city, since, as far as we know from the gospels, he made every single other journey of his ministry on foot. The fact that he arranges the colt in this manner also bears the mark of a king since only kings could requisition animals for their use (though Jesus also obeys the strict Jewish rules on borrowing in arranging to return the animal).  And kings would often enter cities on an ass – whereas they would use horses to engage in battle.

The crowd also mark his kingship in dramatic ways. Some took off their outer garments and threw them on the road that Jesus was about to take.  If we think of how few possessions the great majority of people in that community would have had at that time, we can begin to grasp the significance of what this meant.  Many would have had one or at the very most two outer garments.  To throw down your precious outer garment on a dusty, filthy road to be stepped on by a donkey was not something you would undertake lightly but only for someone really, really special – a king.

And the crowd’s tearing of branches from the trees and foliage from the fields also revealed that they were welcoming a king. We are told that two hundred years ago when the great Jewish resistance leader, Judas Maccabaeus defeated the Syrian king, entered Jerusalem and cleansed the temple, the people waved ivy and palm leaves and acclaimed him as king.

In a similar way, this crowd greeting Jesus, with cries of ‘Hosanna’ which means in Hebrew ‘save now – a prayer which God will save his people’ and is also a shout of praise.  In scenes which are highly charged with emotion, they welcome him into the Kingdom of their ancestor David – welcoming the new king into his kingdom. 

But the journey is also charged with elements of Jesus’ forthcoming Passion not least because of the time at which it is taking place. For the Festival of the Passover is drawing very near – the time at which, to mark the Lord’s Passover of Egypt to save His people at the time of the Exodus, the Passover lambs were killed. And we know that Jesus is the paschal lamb – the one who will offer himself for us.

Jesus enters the city in triumph, enters the temple and looks at it but then, for a little while, everything is suspended.  He withdraws for a while with the twelve disciples to the village of Bethany and the crowd melts away.

Over the next few days, Jesus will exercise his Messianic ministry in highly significant ways.  Starting with the overturning of the tables of the moneychangers and cleansing the temple, he will engage in discussions and disputes with the religious leaders who are seeking to trap him and bring about his arrest. He will curse the fig tree – symbol of the failure of Israel to accept its role and its Messiah; will tell the parable of the vineyard owner where the slaves murder the owner’s son, will teach on the greatest commandments and will foretell the destruction of the temple. All this will take place in the days leading to his final Passover meal with his disciples and his arrest.

And during this time, what will the crowd who cheered Jesus so enthusiastically into Jerusalem be doing? Some have decided, “Well it was fun taking part in that and I’m glad I went but I think he can get on with it now”.  Others were more deeply touched by Jesus and moved to follow him.  However, as they see the increasing pressures coming upon Jesus from the religious leaders are beginning to feel – “I really admire Jesus but this is getting too risky for me” and have departed. Part of the crowd had been really excited by Jesus because they thought that he was going to lead a political resistance movement against the occupying Roman authorities.   As they realise Jesus is not going to take the path of military force, they are turning against him in anger, seeing how destroy him.  And a few of that original crowd, including the disciples, just for the moment are remaining with Jesus, though growing increasingly anxious.  

As we reflect on what happened to that crowd, it’s important that we too think today where we stand.  For we aren’t passive bystanders.  Think about what we’ve done already today. We’ve taken our palm crosses which have been blessed in Jesus’ name, we’ve processed triumphantly around our church singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David” and as we’ve entered into church we’ve prayed in our Collect that as Jesus took our flesh and suffered death on the cross for us, we may follow his example of patience and humility. Both our Old Testament reading from Isaiah on the theme of the suffering servant and St Paul’ letter to the Philippians point us clearly to God who will suffer out of love for us and calls us, as disciples of Jesus, to follow with him, in that path.

So what choice are we going to make now?   Will we say at the end, “Well I enjoyed that – I love Palm Sunday – all the red vestments, the palms and processions. That’s it for another year, then” and go on with our lives, keeping Jesus well to the margins.

Or will we say, “I really long to follow Jesus and I’ve make some big gestures to show it. OK, perhaps I haven’t thrown my best coat in front of a donkey but I’ve made a donation or perhaps I’ve even decided to get confirmed.   But all this is making me uncomfortable – disturbing my normal pattern of life.  Following Jesus where he is going, is forcing me to look at the whole way I live my life and it is just too much.  I need to leave now”.

Perhaps, instead, we may sympathise with those in the crowd who, angry that Jesus hasn’t carried out a political revolution on their terms, turn on him in anger and seek to discredit and destroy him.  The mockery we can turn on those whom we know, deep down, are speaking the truth, but because it challenges us too much, we refuse to accept it.

We may feel we can’t be there with Jesus because we are scared. “If he knew what I was really like, he wouldn’t want me anywhere near him, would he?”   Curiosity at what Jesus is offering drew us to lurk at the edge of the crowd.  But fear of our inner darkness and guilt makes us now slink guiltily away?

Or maybe, just maybe, we will stay.  We’ll have the courage to stay with Jesus just as the beloved disciple and a small handful of women including his mother, remained at the foot of his cross.

For what matters in the end is that we come to Jesus just as we are, we commit ourselves to stick with Jesus, following him where He leads, and that are willing to journey with him.  It’s a journey which will take us uncomfortably into ourselves but will also lead us outwards to serve Him as his hands and feet in the world. He calls us to come as we are, recognising our weaknesses, fears and all that we have got wrong, yet trusting that He alone is the one who will heal us.

And Jesus calls us to offer Him ourselves, not relying on flamboyant outward gestures of devotion we might make, but rather offering Him the costly ointment of offering ourselves to Him and letting Him speak to our hearts and souls.  To ask Him to help to face the truth deep within us and let Him cleanse us of those things which deceive and damage us.  To be willing this Holy Week to stick with Jesus as he enters into his Passion, knowing that He alone can enable us, to find in Him, the way that leads for life. Then indeed we will not be fair-weather Christians but ones who journey with Jesus through the depths of His Passion to the glory of His resurrection.