Sunday 28th March 2021 – Palm Sunday
Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Mark 11:1-11
On Thursday I had the immense privilege of being invited to speak about the Christian belief in the Messiah.
One of the things that was discussed was the fact that the Jewish people do not accept Jesus as the Messiah because they still expect that the one anointed by God to save his people will be a human, rather than a divine, saviour and that the salvation he brings would be the physical conquest of oppressors and the physical restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Against that measure Jesus simply did not measure up – in purely human terms he was a disappointing Messiah, and I think that comes across strongly in today’s Gospel reading about the entry into Jerusalem.
For two or three years prior to the entry into Jerusalem Jesus had been healing and preaching and telling people about his relationship with God the Father but now there was a sense that his ministry was reaching its goal and he was riding into the City of David to achieve something great – to do what he had come to do.
But what was his goal? Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem? The crowd thought that they knew – they spread cloaks and palm branches before the colt on which he rode and they shouted:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
They thought that this worker of miracles, who so obviously had God on his side, had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to overthrow the Roman occupiers and to re-establish the Jewish monarchy and so restore the Kingdom of Israel to its rightful place as the home of God’s chosen people. When Pilate uses the term “The King of the Jews” in the passion gospel, which we heard last week, he is not giving it the spiritual quality that we now associate with that term – he thought, and the people thought, that Jesus had come to be the earthly King of the Jews and so the crowd greeted him as a returning king and as a saviour from foreign oppression –
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
But what did Jesus himself think he was coming to do in Jerusalem? We know from earlier readings that he had a quite different understanding of what awaited him. In Mark 8 Jesus taught about what awaited him in Jerusalem and the end of his Journey:
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me Satan!” He said, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
If Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples did not understand what awaited Jesus in Jerusalem and had in mind the things of man rather than the things of God then it is hardly surprising that the crowds who lined the road into Jerusalem did not understand either.
The tone of the people at the City gate is one of triumph and great expectation – the crowd expected great things of this successor of King David. The entry into Jerusalem is like their favourite singer coming onto stage – the crowd are going to get what they want from this person.
And yet how quickly things change and how quickly the mood of the crowd changes.
Even before we get to the events of the arrest and death of Jesus I would suggest that, on a human level, even today’s reading ends of something of an anti-climax.
“Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”
Jesus had passed through Bethany already that morning, as is mentioned at the start of the reading. Bethany lay a couple of miles outside the walls of Jerusalem and was the village where his friends the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. In order to go back to Bethany it is more than likely that Jesus and the disciples exited Jerusalem through the same gate that they had just entered it.
So Jesus had ridden into the city to great acclaim and to great human hope. He was greeted as a returning King. But what happened next? Did he give a stirring speech to rally the crowd? Did he promise to kick out the Romans, depose the Herodians and restore proper Jewish rule to Israel, as the Zealots wanted?
No, he went for a visit to the Temple and, because it was getting late, Jesus and the Disciples left the city the way they had come. They may have walked and ridden over the discarded palm branches left there by the crowd earlier. Some of the people who had waved those branches with such hope and enthusiasm perhaps only a few hours earlier may have watched them exit the City the way they had come in.
What must those people have thought? Was this the promised Messiah?
Within only a few days Jesus was arrested and then taken before Pilate. I have no doubt that this arrest was in part motivated by Jesus clearing the money-changers out of the Temple and thereby threatening the money and power of the Sanhedrin and the Chief Priests. But I also suspect that the crowds who had expected Jesus to start an insurrection and throw the oppressors out of Jerusalem were disappointed in Jesus. Yes, he had overturned the money changers tables but other than that he had spent his time in Jerusalem preaching in parables, answering tricky questions meant to catch him out, praying and having supper with his friends.
This was not the sort of revolution the people wanted – they wanted a true man of action – someone prepared to kill for the cause, a true man like Barabbas.
And so when Jesus is arrested how quickly the shouts of the crowd turn from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”
Which, of course, we know that they did and, on a human level, we know that Jesus died on the cross.
I find it interesting that other faiths are keen to deny that the death was real. Because if the death on the cross wasn’t real then the sacrifice for our sins wasn’t real and if the death on the cross wasn’t real then the resurrection wasn’t real and without the resurrection, as St Paul tells us, then our faith is in vain.
On a purely human level Jesus did not fulfil the expectations of the Jewish people for their messiah and, also on a purely human level, Jesus was either dead on the cross and his ministry was at an end or he somehow survived a Roman execution and snuck away quietly.
Which is why our expectation and belief in Jesus as the Messiah are not founded simply in the humanity of Jesus but also in his divinity.
Because it is only as God the Son that the death on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world makes sense, it is only as God the Son does the resurrection make sense, it is only as God the Son can Jesus ascend to take his place back at the right hand of the Father and it is only as God the Son can Jesus send the Holy Spirit to us.
We do have much in common with our Sisters and Brothers in both Judaism and Islam and I look forward to continuing to learn much more about both.
But, as I did say on Thursday, it is our belief in our nature and work of Jesus as Messiah which is our prime departure point. Jesus was not the fully human Messiah that the Jews were expecting and nor was he a prophet of God in a line of prophets ending with Mohammed. For Christians Jesus was a fully human being who died fully on the cross but he was also fully God the Son who transformed that death into new life through the resurrection and beyond.
We are now entering into Holy Week and, like today’s readings, it is a week of contrasts and emotions. It has drama, it has tragedy and, without wishing to spoil the ending too much, this time next week we will be celebrating the greatest victory of all. It is the most important story and the most important drama in human history and, amazingly, each of us is expected to play a part in that story and we have absolute freedom to choose our role, as we have also been reflecting in the Lent course.
Are we the crowd who, because of our disappointment with our own desires continue to cry “crucify him” or are we like the soldier at the foot of the cross who recognises both the humanity and the divinity of the one who hangs in front of us and proclaim in awe and wonder: “This man is really the Son of God.”?