And when we face those experiences, the last thing we need is to hear Christian clichés and pious platitudes. In a web article called ‘God Has Let Me Down. There. I Said It’, a woman called Joy talks about having one daughter with heart defects, brain injury and cerebral palsy who died young, other children who are bullied, and one child who says to her, “I have tried praying, but I get no answer. People say they hear God, but I don’t.” In the face of all this, Joy has little patience for those who tell her, “People will let you down, but your Father God will never let you down,” or “God’s ways are not our ways,” and so on.
So my theme for Palm Sunday this year is, Jesus Will Disappoint You.
Now you may think that’s outrageous. We’ve just read the story of the so-called ‘Triumphal Entry’. He has been welcomed with palm branches, crowds have laid their cloaks on the ground like first-century Walter Raleighs, they have sung his praises and acclaimed him king … what could possibly go wrong?
I may not agree with Samuel Crossman, the author of the hymn ‘My Song Is Love Unknown’, who posits that the very crowd who praised Jesus on his entry to Jerusalem is the same mob that called for his crucifixion in place of Barabbas – I think that’s a different group of people – but the Palm Sunday supporters of Jesus will be disappointed by him. He comes in peace, not war. He takes on the religious establishment, but not the occupying Roman forces. He ends up on a cross.
I think we can safely say that isn’t what they were expecting when they sang Jesus’ praises.
When I went to Spring Harvest in its earliest years, there was always a seminar on the final full day before going home that tackled the issue of what to do when you got home. The organisers in those early days knew that while it was uplifting to worship for a week in a big tent with four thousand other Christians, led by a team of crack musicians and inspiring preachers and teachers, it would be very different back home. There would be rickety Mrs Smith on the harmonium, a boring preacher in the pulpit, and a few dozen scattered around a stone edifice from which the brown and green paint is peeling.
Or we have wider disappointments. Perhaps we have great hopes for the church. They might be simply for our own congregation, when we think we are entering a new phase where great strides will be made for the kingdom of God, or we may anticipate a new Spring for the church generally, such as in the 1990s, when on the back of certain dramatic events attributed to the Holy Spirit, many church leaders confidently predicted a spiritual revival in .
Our disappointments, then, may be personal or communal, but there is no doubt we shall have them, and there is no doubt that many of them will not be fixed by Jesus in the way we want.
Well, that’s all pretty bleak, isn’t it? You’ve come to church looking to taste something of the Good News of Jesus Christ, only to be told by some Eeyore in the pulpit that there is none.
Not exactly. But we Christians are too quick to jump to the happy ending, like people who give up reading a novel and skip to the last page. We don’t stay with the tension of the story as we wait for problems to be resolved. We came for good news, and if we can skip all the intervening messy stuff and just go to the good bits. We need the reminder the little girl received when she asked her mother, “Mummy, do all fairy tales end with the words, ‘And they all lived happily ever after’?”
“No,” replied Mum, “some say, ‘When I became a Christian all my troubles were over.’”
We live out our faith in Jesus in a broken, sin-cracked world. And yes, we do know the ‘happy ever after’ ending, and yes, that is the basis for our hope. But we do people a disservice when we minimise their present troubles by rushing to the end of the story.
Imagine Gethsemane, but envision it differently from the way you know the story. See Jesus praying in agony, needing the support of his friends. But instead of them falling asleep and letting him down, can you conceive of Jesus coming to them, asking them to watch and pray even though ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’, and Simon Peter leaping to his feet, saying, “I don’t know what you’re worried about, Master. I know you predicted that you would be betrayed, suffer and die, but you also prophesied that you would be raised from the dead! Everything’s going to be fine!”
Do you suppose that was the kind of support Jesus was looking for in the Garden? Somehow I don’t think so. Yet it’s the kind of encouragement we sometimes offer to people in the church. And when we do this, we let people down. We trivialise their present suffering. We dissolve their current questions. It doesn’t exactly affirm them, does it? Of course the future brings light into darkness, but the road to the empty tomb is riddled with stones and potholes. As the Anglican bishop Nick Baines wrote five years ago at this season,
On Easter Day it is traditional for the service to begin with the vicar proclaiming: ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen!’ The congregation responds: ‘He is risen indeed. Alleluia!’ I think this might be a bit wrong. If we are faithful to the Gospels, the congregation should really respond to the proclamation of resurrection: ‘What?! Don’t be so ridiculous!’ Why? Because the disciples of Jesus did not respond to his resurrection with unbridled joy, but rather with bewilderment and suspicion and doubt.
Even on Palm Sunday, Matthew whispers to us, disappointment can be detected in the atmosphere. As the crowd spread cloaks for him, reminiscent of what people did when Elisha anointed the warrior Jehu king over Israel, and as they acclaim him ‘Son of David’, a messianic title, they fail to notice his mode of transport. He is coming in peace to establish the kingdom of God. Therefore to engage in conflict the powers and authorities as he soon will is more or less to guarantee a grisly fate. Institutions don’t easily release their grip on power, and will often do all sorts of things – scrupulous and unscrupulous – to keep their talons clinging on. That is what they will do with Jesus, and he knows it when he selects a donkey and a colt.
This, though, tells us that although Jesus will disappoint the hopes of his most ardent supporters, he will let them down in order to do something deeper and more wonderful than they could ever have imagined. It cannot be revealed by jumping past the unpleasant parts. It can only come as Jesus journeys all the way into the darkness. And we need to take that same trip with those who today are suffering or disappointed.
But at the same time, the hope is there for those who will not look for a short-cut but who will embrace the disappointment of Jesus in order to find his purposes. It is indeed true that ‘his ways are not our ways’, but we do not learn that by repeating it as a platitude, we learn that by going into the depths with him.
And we need to be ready for the fact that the way he will deliver us in the end will be something we could not possibly have imagined, let alone requested. Just as none of Jesus’ followers expected the Cross as central to salvation, so they also did not expect the Resurrection. If they were good Jews (and provided they were not Sadducees, which none of his disciples seems to have been) then they believed that God would raise the dead at the end of time, following the prophecy of Daniel 12. But not one of them was looking for an empty tomb, despite Jesus’ own predictions of it. Those times when Jesus foretold of his suffering and resurrection simply didn’t register in their minds at the time, because it didn’t fit with their sincere but limited understandings of God’s ways.
The disappointment of Jesus, then, opens us to new ways of God’s working in the world. I don’t mean that in order to give licence to the kind of people who jump onto the latest cultural bandwagon and say it’s what God is doing in the world, but I do mean that our vision of God is limited, and our understanding of his ways – however faithfully we study the Scriptures – will always be finite. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own assumptions and our spiritual short-sightedness that we miss what God is doing.
Remember, for example, George Whitefield challenging John Wesley to preach in the open air to the miners at Kingswood in 1739. Wesley was convinced it was a sin to preach anywhere except in a church building! But God used Whitefield to lead Wesley into what would be central to his life’s work.
Or consider those who object to musical instruments other than the organ in church worship. Guitars and drums are apparently unholy. But such people forget that at one stage in church history that was exactly how people thought of organs in church! It used to be a requirement in Methodist churches that hymn-singing be unaccompanied, and until recent times even the singing at the annual Methodist Conference was without musical instrumentation, facilitated rather by a precentor.
Or think about those who have witnessed the decline and death of a church, or even suffered such hostility in an existing church, that they have gone outside the existing patterns, grieved for their loss, and then started something new with a small group of friend in their living room, or maybe in a pub. Oh, wait – that last example would be Knaphill Methodist Church in 1866, wouldn’t it?
Yes, the God who disappoints is also the God who re-creates, the God of new creation. I think of one of Paul’s prayers in Ephesians where he praises ‘him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Ephesians 3:20). Or I think back to last week’s Lectionary and my sermon at Addlestone on John 11, the raising of Lazarus, where Jesus causes immense disappointment by refraining from visiting Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived until after he had died. But then, having allowed Mary and Martha to begin a journey into grief, he does something extraordinarily beyond their expectations in raising their brother back to life.
I don’t know whether you see Palm Sunday as frothy or as joyful. But either way, I urge you not to let the emotional ecstasy of the crowd mislead you. Start this year’s Holy Week journey as a trajectory downwards into darkness and disappointment. Our God does answer prayer, but he doesn’t have a white beard and he doesn’t wear a red costume. At some point either his answers will disappoint you, or his lack of an answer will disappoint you. it’s even how he treated his Son.
But then, when all hopes have been dashed to pieces on the rocks, witness what God does instead. It may well not be what you originally desired. But it will be new, transforming, and far better than you dared imagine.
This is the faith we embrace as we enter Holy Week. Let us open our arms to greet it.
On 24th May 1988, two hundred and fifty years after John Wesley’s conversion, I was exploring my call by being a Methodist independent student at an Anglican theological college in Bristol. Some months prior to that big anniversary, I had nabbed the Vice-Principal, who was also the lecturer in Church History, and asked if we could mark the anniversary at college. He readily agreed. We had a display in a corridor, and I led an evening in chapel.
One memory I have of the celebrations is the debates that raged in Methodism over the conversion. Was Wesley’s experience of his ‘heart strangely warmed’ a conversion, or just the assurance of faith? Well, you can make your own mind up on that one. I’m not going to touch on that this morning.
But another debate was whether we should only celebrate 24th May 1738, or whether we should also remember 1st April 1739. Why? Because that was the day John Wesley was finally persuaded by George Whitefield to preach the gospel in the open air to the miners at Kingswood. Up until then, Wesley said he would have regarded preaching outside a church building as a sin, but from that date he noted that he ‘submitted to be more vile’ by taking the Gospel outside the doors of the church.
And I think it must be in that light that Luke 10 is the Lectionary Gospel reading for Aldersgate Sunday. Today, I propose that we learn from Wesley and from Jesus how we might ‘submit to be more vile’. After all, if we have warmed hearts but just stay within the safe walls of the church building, what good is the experience, apart from it being a private religious bless-up?
Firstly, we have here a mixture of prayer and action. Jesus kicks off with prayer: ‘ask the Lord of the harvest’, but the people who are to pray are also the people who are sent out with the message. How wrong we are to divorce prayer from action, support from mission.
Wesley’s own life was marked by an extensive commitment to prayer, but also to mission. If there is one area where we do not reflect our founder in contemporary Methodism, it may be this. When the subject of mission comes up in the local church, often all that means is us raising money for other people to engage in mission. I’m not about to decry the fact that when we raise money, various organisations can achieve certain things on a large scale that are beyond us, but I do question the assumption that all we do locally is act as support services.
But for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, and who follow Jesus, we cannot stop there. Whatever the benefits of contributing to large scale projects, we have no justification under the Lordship of Jesus for stopping there. We are called to pray and to support – but Jesus also calls us to be part of the answers to our prayers. Those of us who walk in the ways of Jesus are junior partners in his kingdom. Jesus calls us not only to enjoy the benefits of his kingdom, but to let it overflow to others. It isn’t just the leaders, the Twelve – Jesus does that one chapter earlier. He calls ‘seventy others’ – people from his wider circle both to pray and to engage. I think that implies all of us.
Now I am aware that in saying this, I can easily load a burden of guilt on people. If preachers tell congregations they need to share their faith, so let me put it like this. This is not about obligation. It is not a series of ‘oughts’. It is about overflow.
Put it this way. Our son enjoys drinking milk. He particularly likes it gently warmed in the microwave. Forty seconds – or fifty seconds during winter. The other day, he went to collect a full mug of milk from the microwave. But as he came out of the utility room and into the kitchen, he tripped up on a step between the rooms. So what happened? Spilt milk.
Similarly, our faith will spill out into the world when we are full, and someone or something trips us up. If we want to have a missionary effect upon the world, then it starts by becoming filled up with God – which will probably happen in prayer – and then overflowing when we get tripped up. So – prayer and action contribute to an overflow of God’s love to the world.
A second strand of Wesleyan mission in the spirit of Jesus would be simplicity. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road,” says Jesus (verse 4).
Whenever I read that verse, I always think of a friend of mine who works for an Anglican evangelistic organisation. When they hold missions in an area, they have a rule of simplicity for those on the mission team. It involves taking no accoutrements with them like mobile phones, and only an allowance of £2 per day. They rely on the hospitality of the local church. Usually this works out quite well – despite the restrictions and all the physical effort of the mission, many participants return home, having put on weight!
However, what would it be if there is a general pattern that Jesus sets here of simplicity in our lifestyles? Not that every Christian does without everything pleasant in life, but that we resist the pattern of our culture to acquire more and more ‘things’, to think that buying the latest fashionable object will somehow make our lives complete. As well as making income available for others in need – ‘Live simply that others might simply live’ is the old slogan – there is also the fact that living in a way that says we do not have to lust after all the latest consumer items is itself a testimony to the fulfilment that can only come through Jesus Christ.
Is it surprising, then, that in some quarters of the church, not least among some young adults, there is a movement that has been called ‘new monasticism’? People are seeking to live by a rule of life that involves self-denial, not cloistered away behind abbey walls but in the midst of communities. Others put a big stress on hospitality – not simply in terms of inviting your friends for a meal, but in sharing food and care with strangers.
Now I say all this as someone who tomorrow morning is having the so-called ‘superfast’ fibre broadband installed at the manse! I am far from opposed to us enjoying good things in life. As Paul puts it:
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4).
But we have a society that is drunk on consumer goods. And Christian testimony needs to stand in contrast to the false values embraced by many. It isn’t enough to preach the Gospel with our words, it must be lived with our actions and our attitudes, too.
A third element of this ‘submitting to be more vile’, this Wesleyan mission in the spirit of Jesus, would be what Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’, or what regular people call God going ahead of us to work before we get there. We see this in the part of the passage where Jesus tells his followers to go into a home saying, “Peace to this house!”, and waiting to see whether ‘anyone who shares in peace’ is there (verses 5-6).
Fruitful mission, in other words, is not where we take the initiative, where we force the pace, but where God has already gone ahead of us and is at work in people’s lives through the Holy Spirit to prepare them for the good news of his love.
It’s exactly how Jesus himself shared in the mission of the Father. In John 5:19 he said, “I only do what I see my Father doing.” Even Jesus didn’t take the first step: the Father did.
It’s a principle that – once you know it, you will notice it here, there and everywhere. Sometimes it comes in a dramatic form: I have heard stories of people taking the Gospel to a community somewhere in the world that has never heard of Jesus Christ. However, when the Christians begin to tell the stories of Jesus, people say something like this: “Oh, so that’s the person who has been popping up in my dreams!”
Or it is as simple as having an ordinary conversation with a friend whom you think has no interest in spiritual matters, only for them suddenly to ask a major spiritual question. You think, “Now where did that come from?” Well, maybe it came from God going ahead of you, working to woo that person with love before you ever arrived on the scene.
When I talk about this, I usually tell people this is good news! You see, it takes the pressure off us! We don’t have to force or manipulate situations – and of course we shouldn’t! But we can pray and see how God leads. A common catchphrase is to say that mission is ‘seeing what God is doing and joining in’. Just as Jesus told the seventy to offer peace and see whether anyone else [already] shared in it, so we go blessing people in his name, looking for where he has already started prompting people and we then share in his mission as junior partners.
And that mention of ‘blessing’ leads to the fourth and final aspect I want to share this morning about mission: blessing people is our priority. It’s not only the offer of peace, it’s not merely the preaching of God’s kingdom, the mission includes ‘curing the sick’ (verse 9) and I take that to include not only physical healing but also a mandate to meet all sorts of needs in Christ’s name.
I believe that provides a corrective to the way we often view the relationship between Christians and the world. Too often what we are known for is the way we declaim against the wickedness of the world. I’m not denying a proper place for prophetically speaking against sin in all its forms. But there is something about the way we do that, which has earned us a reputation as self-righteous people who consider themselves above everybody else. Ask many MPs what their image of Christians is, and they will tell you that these are the constituents who write the nastiest letters. Ask a Christian MP about their witness in Parliament, and they may well tell you this is one of the greatest hurdles to their being received sympathetically.
What if we were known as the people who are a blessing to anyone in distress? How would that portray the love of God? What if we were the people always available to the hurting in the neighbourhood? What if each of us took seriously the different networks we move in, and sought to be blessings there? The workplace; the street where we live; the people we mix with socially when we relax. All these are places where we can be a blessing.
Yes, there will be times when we run into conflict with the world, and when what we do or say is not appreciated. There will be seasons where we experience rejection. Then – and only then – do we wipe the dust off our feet in protest and move on elsewhere (verse 11). But I have to tell you, that if I wracked my brain for examples of this, the main one I would come up with wouldn’t be about a parting of the ways with non-Christians, but with church people!
In conclusion, there is so much more I could say about this passage. It is one that has meant a lot to me over the years – so much so that I had to limit what points I wanted to make today. But if it does one thing for us this Aldersgate Sunday, I pray it gets us out of our churches and into the world with the love of God, rather than forever vainly waiting for people to come to us.
John Wesley ‘submitted to be more vile’. What about us?