Location, Location, Location. The Channel 4 programme about people trying to buy their dream home. It was one of a glut of home buying and home improvement TV shows that hit our screens a few years ago.
And ‘location, location, location’ might be a good theme for understanding the challenge of the Palm Sunday story that we’ve heard so often. Matthew starts with a detailed location report:
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives (verse 1)
Why? The prophecy of Zechariah (14:4) looks to the day when the Lord will stand on the Mount of Olives. It has notions of God fulfilling all his purposes for all time, and it is messianic.
But Bethphage? It’s a place whose name is literally translated, ‘house of unripe figs’. When you remember that a few verses later Jesus curses an unripe fig tree as a prophetic sign, you might say that the challenge of Palm Sunday is that the Messiah has appeared: are we bearing fruit?
So what does a fruitful life look like? To see what the Palm Sunday story tells us about that, we’re going to look at Jesus, his disciples and the crowd.
Firstly, Jesus. It’s not often that my wife Debbie and I get out to the see a film together, but last month we finally managed to see The King’s Speech before it left the cinemas. You will know the story, I’m sure – however relaxed the relationship between the screenplay and actual history was. Prince Bertie – later King George VI – has terrible trouble with public speaking, due to a stammer. In an early scene where he addresses a massive crowd on behalf of his father, King George V, he goes to pieces and you sense the difficulty his audience has, as well as his own agony. His authority is undermined.
There is no record of Jesus stammering, but he does undermine conventional approaches to authority. He comes into Jerusalem ‘humble, and mounted on a donkey’ (verse 5). His authority is expressed in humility. And that’s something some people find hard to understand or accept.
In the 2004 film King Arthur the Knights of the Round Table are portrayed as pagans, and Arthur as a Christian – albeit the only decent Christian, since all the other Christian figures in the film are shown to be corrupt. One day, pagan Lancelot overhears Arthur praying for the safety of his men before they go on one final, dangerous mission. Lancelot says, “I don’t like anything that puts a man on his knees.” Arthur replies, “No man fears to kneel before the God he trusts. Without faith, without belief in something, what are we?”
If we want to be fruitful in the kingdom of God, then Jesus shows us that humility is a prime quality. We may or may not be given special authority (beyond the general authority every child of the King has), but we are all called to demonstrate humility.
Yet isn’t that one problem the world often has with the church? Humility is not the first quality they associate with us. Arrogant, judgmental and with an air of moral superiority are more likely the characteristics of Christians, in their estimation. I’m not suggesting we should water down our profound moral convictions – far from it – but the way we present ourselves can suggest we know little of the grace that brought us to Christ in the first place. It is remembering that grace, that undeserved merciful love of God, that leads us to live in humility.
Sometimes we even inflict that arrogance on others in the church. Again, the problem is the same: someone who does not demonstrate humility is a person who has not let the gospel of God’s grace to sinners permeate deeply into their soul. Jesus didn’t need grace – he wasn’t a sinner. Yet he showed humility as he entered Jerusalem. If he, the sinless Son of God, behaved like that, then how much more should we?
Would it not be a good idea, then, for us to reflect all the more on the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, and let that stimulate the growth of humility in us? What could be more appropriate as we journey with Jesus towards Good Friday?
Secondly, the disciples. Elsewhere the disciples come in for a bad press in the Gospels. They don’t understand Jesus, they don’t do what he wants, they let him down. And coming up in Holy Week is perhaps the biggest failure story of a disciple: Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus.
But what do we have here? We have a positive story about two of Jesus’ disciples. He sends them to the village ahead with cryptic instructions to untie a donkey and her colt, and bring them to him. We don’t know whether Jesus had prearranged a signal with the owner of the animals, or whether this is some prophetic word. Either way, though, it puts the two disciples in a strange position. They could have looked (and felt) like fools, acting on Jesus’ instruction. But the good news is, they obeyed. And that is the second sign of spiritual fruitfulness here: obedience to Christ.
However, obedience stands in contrast to certain cultural values today, especially the popular understanding of freedom. A shallow understanding of freedom is quite common, thinking that freedom is only about me being free to do what I want. I am my own master. I take no orders from anybody else – well, apart from my manager at work, and I only do that in order to draw a salary.
This, however, is a terrible misunderstanding of freedom. True freedom is not about self-indulgence, it is about being free in order to do what is right. Mostly we do not have that kind of freedom, because we are enslaved to sin. But if freedom is the possibility to do the right thing, then freedom and obedience are connected. They are not opposites.
A journalist called Tobias Jones wrote a book in 2007 called Utopian Dreams. He wanted to find out why we affluent westerners were so unhappy. He went to explore various experiments in communal living that were proposed as solutions. Eventually, he embraced Christianity, saying it ‘works because it is true’. He realised that if freedom were only about pleasing myself, then community would not be possible: we would all be doing our own thing, regardless of each other. He concluded that freedom and obedience were not opposites, but two qualities that belonged together.
Now I suggest to you that the two disciples who obeyed Jesus’ strange command to bring the donkey and her colt knew that: the health of their community of disciples depended on obedience. Obedience to Jesus gave them freedom for all that was good.
And does it not make sense for this to be the second sign of fruitfulness? If we know we are sinners saved by grace and that engenders humility, then something that also leads to is obedience to Christ in gratitude for all he has done for us. With that obedience comes true freedom – not just freedom from sin, but freedom for goodness.
Thirdly and finally, the crowd. You may have noticed that I have not included one major potential hymn for Palm Sunday today – ‘My song is love unknown’. Not that it doesn’t have a lot of worthy content, but there is one aspect of the words that I find seriously misleading. It’s the way the hymn portrays the rôle of the crowd in Holy Week. It presents an idea that the same crowd that acclaimed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the one that also cried out for his execution. You’ll remember the words go from ‘Sometimes they strew his way’ to ‘Then “Crucify!” is all their breath’.
It’s a seriously misleading and highly unlikely scenario. Why should the same crowd be around several days later, when thousands of pilgrims descended upon Jerusalem for the Passover? And isn’t it more natural to read that the mob who bray for Jesus’ death are associated with the chief priests and teachers of the law who handed Jesus over to Pilate? Indeed, the word ‘crowds’ used there may simply mean ‘those alongside’.
If that is so, then all we are left with here is not a crowd that will later turn against Jesus, but simply a crowd that is trying to come to terms with him, and which isn’t quite there yet. Jerusalem is in turmoil at Jesus’ entry (verse 10), just as it was when news of his birth reached King Herod, and to the question, “Who is this?” the crowds reply, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (verse 11).
Of course, that doesn’t really do Jesus justice, does it? He is a prophet, but he is more than a prophet. Not until he is crucified later in the week will he be recognised for who he truly is.
How, then, do we react to people who have an incomplete picture of Jesus? It would be very easy to go into ‘telling-off mode’. We’re quite good at that, as I said when considering the humility of Jesus. Thinking back more years than I care to admit, I recall that when Jesus Christ Superstar became a popular West End musical, some Christians reacted by saying, ‘Jesus Christ is not merely a superstar. He is the Son of God. Accept no substitute!’
Now I agree with the content of what they said, but not the tone. And we have a gospel opportunity to be alongside people who have only caught a half-glimpse of Jesus. We can be the quiet voice of gentle encouragement, not the strident voice of condemnation.
What I think we’re witnessing here are the early signs of God’s work in these people, preparing them for the message of his Son. I can recall being asked to visit non-churchgoers at times, not expecting much out of the visit, and probably stereotyping them before I went and at the beginning of the meeting. But then I find they start asking deep spiritual questions, and I realise that while they don’t yet have a handle on all that Jesus is, nevertheless something is going on in their lives. Actually, I don’t so much think it’s something happening in their lives, more like someone. The Holy Spirit is preparing them for the Good News of Jesus.
In other words, it’s what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’: God is at work in people’s lives before we ever show up on the scene, and our task is to join in with what he is doing. And that’s exactly how Jesus saw his own ministry on earth. He said he only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19).
A third sign of spiritual fruitfulness, then, is to ask the Holy Spirit to show us where he is already at work, so that we can have the privilege of being God’s junior partners in the work of his mission. Let there be no doubt that the Father wants people to find his forgiving love in Jesus Christ and discover true purpose as they become disciples of him. Whatever we think about the state of the church in the Western world at present, it doesn’t change the fact that God is hard at work in the world, wooing people with his love. But he needs us to be the midwives who usher his new life into the world. Humble and obedient disciples will want to pray, “Lord, show me where you are at work so that I may be your assistant in making more disciples of your Son.”
Now that doesn’t sound like a ‘house of unripe figs’ to me. It sounds like true fruitfulness.
Just the other day I came across a spoof news report from two years ago which claimed that the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith wanted people to use their loyalty cards more, and for stores which didn’t have them to introduce them. This was to combat terrorism, in the light of the Glasgow bombers having bought their supplies from B & Q, which didn’t at the time have a loyalty card. According to the article, she wanted loyalty cards to replace the unpopular idea of identity cards, and for the data collected by loyalty cards to be used in intelligence gathering operations. In the article, these words are put into Jacqui Smith’s mouth:
Identity. It’s a big theme today. Identity cards and identity theft are but two major areas of concern and controversy about the identity of individuals in our society.
And identity is a central theme of our Gospel reading. It’s about the identity of Jesus, and the consequent identity of his disciples. I see this revelation of identity coming in three phases.
Firstly, we have a confession.
If you like reading stories, I wonder what kinds you prefer. Thrillers, romance, epics? If you enjoy whodunits or mysteries, you will be somewhat disappointed by Mark’s Gospel. In the very first verse, he tells us it is the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is both the Christ (or Messiah) and the Son of God. At the Cross, the Roman centurion confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, and here, Peter says ‘You are the Messiah’ (verse 29), when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, as opposed to the opinions of people they know.
This, then, is one of the high water marks of Mark’s Gospel. Here, after all the build-up, with Jesus’ popularity among ordinary people and the opposition starting to rise from those who feel threatened by him, is a decisive confession by Peter. ‘You are the Messiah.’ Lesser options, like the ones proposed by others, will not do. Jesus is more than ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets’ (verse 28).
And it’s similar today. Lesser confessions will not do. Around the time I first became seriously interested in faith for myself, musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar had been popular. Both contain elements that are worthy of appreciation by Christians, and it’s interesting to see how people without a clear Christian faith perceive Jesus, but both fall short. Godspell is ambivalent about the Resurrection. Jesus is dead at the end, and you simply have the ambiguous song ‘Long live God.’ And Jesus Christ is more than a superstar. Indeed, his whole approach to life would critique attitudes to stardom and popularity.
Do we run the danger of making a lesser confession in the Church sometimes? Possibly. Might liberal Christians be so enamoured by the social justice implications of Jesus’ teachings that they forget the importance of salvation from our own sins? Might catholic Christians be so entranced by the power of the sacraments in remembering Jesus that they overlook the personal responsibility we have in embracing faith? Might evangelical Christians be so caught up with the personal blessings of salvation that they pass over the social implications of his message and ministry?
These are all over-simplifications, I know, but I hope I make this simple point. Encounter with Jesus leads to a full-blooded confession of him as Messiah. It involves the blessings of forgiveness, new life and salvation for us. It starts with God’s initiative towards us, and we need to respond. And it isn’t merely for our own benefit, but for sake of God’s love for the world. All these things are implied in confessing Jesus as Messiah.
So let’s make sure our confession of Jesus is not a truncated one, not restricted by the vision of the world or by our church tradition. Let’s accept that confessing Jesus as Messiah leads us to a big, inspiring vision of who he is, what he does, who he blesses and what he calls us to do.
Secondly, there is confusion. Early in my ministry, I asked a congregation how they might have imagined their new minister before I arrived. Perhaps I was married with children, with brown eyes and right-handed. At the time, I was single (without children!). My eyes are blue (please don’t say ‘red’ after the service!) and I’ve always been part of that elite minority of people who are left-handed.
Similarly, when I moved from that appointment, I obtained a profile from one circuit I was interested in, only to find buried in it a description of their ideal minister as being married with children. At the time, I was still single (and still without children!). I found it sobering to talk the other morning with our Chair of District about our move from this circuit when she said I would be a more attractive option to some circuits because I was married with kids.
People can imagine all they like what someone is like, only for reality to deal a shock to them. that’s certainly what happened to Peter when Jesus explained that as Messiah he would have to suffer and die (verse 31). You’ll remember that Peter was shocked and began to rebuke Jesus (verse 32), only to earn the response
‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Verse 33)
Peter’s fantasies about the Messiah have to be exploded. No warmongering conqueror of the Roman occupying forces, but the suffering conqueror of occupying sin. We think of other Gospel stories, like James and John getting mad when a village doesn’t respond to the message of Jesus. They ask him whether calling down fire from heaven would be a good response, and Jesus declines their suggestion. No wonder they were nicknamed the Sons of Thunder.
All this is obvious to us with hindsight. We know that Jesus came as a suffering Messiah, not a military general or a freedom fighter. We know the way of the Messiah is the journey to the Cross. So you might think it would be easy for us to live without the confusion of Peter and the first disciples.
I am not so sure. We may know in our heads that the path of Jesus would take him to Calvary, but there are times when we want to call on a warlike Messiah, just like his first followers. Think about how we pray sometimes about evil. We may want God to sort it with a quick fix. We may ask God to zap evildoers, whether they are tyrants inflicting injustice on their people or folk we know who have treated us unfairly or even cruelly.
I wonder whether those are the kinds of prayers to which God answers, ‘No.’ I wonder whether heaven even says, ‘Get behind me, Satan’ to us when we pray like that. I wonder whether the way we need guiding out of our confusion about Jesus is to focus our thoughts and devotions much more solidly on the Cross. Having seen some churches ripped apart by bitterness and lack of forgiveness, I do suspect we have our fair share of Peters and Sons of Thunder in today’s church. But here, especially, and as always, the Cross is what unscrambles our confusion about Jesus.
Thirdly and finally, this passage presents us with a challenge. Many of us may find the world of the prosperity gospel preachers baffling and bizarre. If you’ve caught sight of any on satellite TV, you’ll know what I mean.
But it’s easy to understand their appeal. ‘God wants you rich’ is an attractive message in a materialistic society. ‘Jesus suffered so that you don’t have to’ plays well in a culture that spends all its time trying to avoid suffering. And while we might see through the ‘God wants you rich’ approach, I think a lot of us don’t so much think about suffering as attempt to avoid it.
But think about it we must, because the challenge of Jesus here is that just as he was to go to the Cross, so too his followers would have to face suffering because they are his disciples. ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,’ he says (verse 34).
It’s not that Jesus thinks we should go looking for suffering, but he calls us all to such an abandonment to his ways that it will bring us in the firing line of evil, just as happened to him. If that happens, then self-preservation is not an option. If I want to save my life, I will lose it, but if I surrender it for Jesus and the Gospel I will save it (verse 35).
Now that thought is one we need to apply not only to ourselves as individuals, but also to churches. How often I hear churches in these days of aging and declining congregations talk about how they are going to survive and keep open. ‘How are we going to keep our church going?’ people ask. I suggest that it is a question based on self-preservation rather than a concern for the Gospel. It’s about how we are going to save our lives, rather than a passion for other people to know the love of God in Christ. Maybe churches that talk like that are the very ones that will lose their lives.
Few people like the idea of embracing suffering head on – I certainly don’t! However, we need to remember that Jesus offers us hope with these challenging words: if we are willing to lose our lives for his sake, we will save our lives. That might be in this life, it might be in the life of the world to come. But Jesus keeps his promises. I recently read this story:
Bernard Gilpin (1517-1583) was a preacher who was taken into custody for preaching the gospel during the time when Queen Mary Tudor was persecuting Protestants. He was being taken to London to certain death, but to the amusement of the guards accompanying him he kept saying, ‘Everything is for the best.’ On the way he fell off his horse and was hurt, so they could not travel for a few days. He told the amused guards, ‘I have no doubt that even this painful accident will prove to be a blessing.’ Finally he was able to resume his journey. As they were nearing London, later than expected, they heard the church bells ringing. They asked someone why this was so. They were told, ‘Queen Mary is dead, and there will be no more burning of Protestants.’ Gilpin looked at the guards and said, ‘Ah, you see, it is all for the best.’
So let us embrace the challenge, knowing Jesus will give us life everlasting, whatever we lay down now.
 Ajith Fernando, The Call to Joy and Pain, p36, citing Tom Carter (editor), Spurgeon at his Best, pp323ff.