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Sermon: Jesus Will Disappoint You (Palm Sunday)

Matthew 21:1-11

Disappointment

Disappointment by Dee Ashley on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The great Christian writer Philip Yancey wrote a book a few years ago called ‘Disappointment With God’. He recognised that people ask at times, is God unfair? Is God silent? Is God hidden?

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.

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Taking The Good Friday Journey

Last year, Nick Baines wrote a helpful and provocative post about embracing the desolation of Good Friday (and, indeed, Holy Saturday) without importing the triumph of Easter Day. In it, he argues that we should restrain ourselves from singing the joyful songs that come from knowing the outcome of Easter, and embrace the darkness.

I can see his point, and it has much to commend it, especially in evangelical Christian circles where we can default into triumphalism at all sorts of inappropriate times. Think of the ways in which some funerals become only a celebration of the deceased’s life, and leave little room for grief. That isn’t limited to evangelicals, or indeed Christians. It is part of a wider cultural movement that does not want to feel the sting of death.

I can see Nick’s point too, when I consider the members of churches who avoid Good Friday worship, but who will be at church early on Easter Day. We have people in our churches who can’t cope with the Cross. Not that anyone should cope with it in the sense of managing it – you could say it is meant to be unmanageable – but there are many who wish to live in denial of it, even referring to it as a tragedy or a defeat, completely failing to appreciate the magnitude of its victory.

Yet I wonder too whether this last group of people might be the very ones who especially need the linking of Good Friday and Easter Day. Not that I mean to let anyone off the hook in contemplating the sufferings of Christ, but because it is central to our faith to believe in the victory of Christ, and you can only appreciate that when you link the death and resurrection of Jesus. And given the way I have heard some church people say that Good Friday is ‘the most tragic day of the year’, I do wonder whether they believe the Gospel.

Like it or not, we cannot approach Good Friday without a measure of interpretation. It is there in the inspired writings of the Gospels, although we are perhaps so used to the text that we don’t always see it. And one thing is for sure: for the Gospel writers, the death of Jesus was not a defeat.

And also, whether we like it or not, it is (near) impossible to read the text as if we don’t know what is going to happen next. When I hear people ask me to read something ‘as if for the first time’, I know they are going to ask me something I probably can’t achieve. The trouble is, we do know the ending.

So how do you prefer to approach Good Friday? With a knowledge of the ending? Or trying to enter into the story as if you don’t know what will happen? What are the pros and cons for you?

MPs’ Expenses

I’ve shied away from this topic so far. So many of the obvious things have already been said. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon. It’s easy to be carried along with a public tide of anger and bloodlust.

But today, I’ve caved in. The relentless daily reporting of the affair by the Telegraph has today hit on something that makes me hopping mad. It’s not another claim for cleaning a moat or a duck home, or another of life’s little essentials. No. The Chancellor of the Exchequer can’t do his own tax return. In fact, he is one of nine Cabinet members who have claimed accountancy fees back from the (now infamous) Fees Office.

Why does this touch a raw nerve with me? Because once again, they are doing something I can’t. My wife and I both have to endure the nasty process that is self-assessment of income tax. In my case, although the majority of my income is my stipend, paid through PAYE, I get the occasional (very occasional, here!) additional fees, and I can set a number of things against that as legitimate and honest business expenses. My wife is not in paid employment, but we have held onto her house, ready for retirement. In the meantime, we rent it out through a letting agent. That income has to be declared for tax purposes, and again certain things such as repairs, can be set against that income as a business expense. While she was still paying a mortgage on the property, that mortgage was not an allowable expense, even though a major reason for letting was to cover that cost.

Oh – and guess what – neither of us is allowed to claim our accountant’s fees as a business expense. Do you see why I’m angry? MPs have agreed to a system on the timeless principles of ‘One rule for you, one rule for me’; ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.

It’s not as if this is the only example. This Parliament passed legislation that made it more difficult for religious organisations to employ exclusively people of their faith. Jobs within a religious company now have to pass a ‘Genuine Occupational Requirement’ test if the organisation is to insist on employing someone who shares their faith. Guess which category of organisation was exempted from this legislation? Political parties.

So the first reason to be mad at the politicians is the old favourite of double standards. Politicians have faced a standard charge of hypocrisy for years; the expenses scandal is hard evidence. The politicians we will trust will be those who display transparency.

We also need representatives who will to some extent identify with their constituents. I do not mean that they should not receive a good income for doing a demanding and responsible job, nor that they should not be properly reimbursed for all genuine expenses, but the problem shows that several have lost touch with reality. We saw this last August when Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg announced that he and his wife were switching their shopping from Ocado to Sainsbury’s. Poor dears: they have to survive on his parliamentary salary and her pay as a lawyer. It must be tough keeping that £1.3 million house in Putney going. If this is how detached from ordinary life a party leader has become, then we’re all in trouble, and the expenses row only underlines that.

For as a Christian, I find myself using the words ‘representation’ and ‘identification’ closely. Not in a political sense,  but in talking about the life of Jesus. The incarnation and Cross both show his identification with humankind. Without them, he could not represent us and in any sense be a substitute in his atoning death. From a faith point of view, then, identification and representation have to be brought together. They have been forced wide apart in some Parliamentary circles, and the expenses stories only bring into focus an existing dangerous situation. MPs cannot truly represent us if they do not identify with us. For some, that ought to mean actually living (well, their main residences) in their constituencies. I notice in this scandal that a few don’t even do that.

But in the midst of this, something encourages me. It has been a common refrain among some of those exposed by the reporting to claim that everything they did was ‘within the rules’. I find it heartening that the public generally has not swallowed this as a reasonable defence. If the rules allowed such extravagant claims, then the rules are wrong. As I read what is going on here, the promising sign is that our society will not accept a defence on the grounds that MPs fulfilled the letter of the law. People are looking for an attitude that keeps the spirit of the law. Often I think our society is pretty sick: that strikes me as a healthy sign. If we follow this through, we shall seek not only reform of MPs but of the Fees Office, given that some have reported how it encouraged MPs to see the Additional Costs Allowance as an allowance to bolster their paltry £64,000 salary, rather than a limit of allowable expenses.

If we are to react healthily, though, we must ensure that not all MPs are tarred with same brush. Church leaders know all about that problem. To many in the outside world, I am either fleecing the flock (have they seen my tattered ten-year-old car?) or interfering with children. We have to keep level heads and not assume that ‘they are all at it’. My own MP, Simon Burns, has made large claims but nowhere has it been suggested that he has lacked integrity. (Contrast that with neighbouring MP Sir Alan Haselhurst, a deputy Speaker and possible replacement for Michael Martin as Speaker. His garden upkeep has cost £11,000.)

And integrity is a watchword for both public and Parliament at this time. Every case must be judged according to the evidence, not according to a desire for revenge or to meet a political agenda. It’s not about either party meeting a minimum standard, but longing to be the best people we can possibly be, as Rowan Williams said in a commentary in The Times.

Yet if that is to be the case, one big unanswered question for me is to wonder about the motives of the Daily Telegraph in reporting this day by day. They are known as a Conservative newspaper, yet having started by picking out Labour politicians, they have exposed Tories as well. Is that evidence of neutrality in the pursuit of truth? It would be good if it were. Is it just a professional desire to sell papers? Or is it something else? I don’t know.

However, I do notice that one MP who has been aggrieved by their coverage, the Conservative Nadine Dorries, has raised particular suspicions against the Barclay brothers who own the Telegraph. No sooner has she made allegations about them and the UK Independence Party than her blog disappears, with fingers pointed at the Telegraph. Tim Montgomerie reproduced the offending paragraph at Conservative Home on Friday. A Plaid Cymru blogger has suggested that timing is everything in this row. These expenses would have been reported publicly in July. Why report now? There are elections (including European ones) in June. If the Barclay brothers are as fiercely Eurosceptic as some have claimed, and if it’s also true they don’t consider the mainline parties Eurosceptic enough, you can see why Dorries would make her point about securing support for UKIP or the evil BNP. Certainly there has been widespread opinion expressed that disgust at the expenses scandal will lead to protest votes in favour of the smaller parties.

(In this respect, mainstream politicians should take comfort both from Rowan Williams’ Times article linked to above, where he calls us to move on, and his joint statement with John Sentamu, where he urges people not to vote for the BNP. And – in case you hadn’t gathered by now – I refuse to link to the BNP.)

Whether Dorries is right, I do not know. It is all based on circumstantial evidence, and I don’t really buy the shtick that used to appear on her blog along the lines of “I’m just a Scouser” or “I’m just a former nurse”. If that were all she were, she wouldn’t have made it to Parliament. Will she end up on Celebrity Big Brother? But for so long as the Telegraph and the Barclay brothers stay mum, suspicions will remain. The Telegraph is right to call for transparency from MPs, but that means it should itself be transparent.

Which means there is a right and proper place in this debate to consider not only the integrity of MPs and – as I have argued – the public, but also of the press. A fortnight ago, Bishop Nick Baines called for journalists to reveal their expenses, receipts and diary records. He said:

They might not be ‘public servants’, paid from the public purse, but they wield enormous power and don’t usually disclose their influences.

Don’t hold your breath.

And he has a point. It’s the integrity question again. If you accuse somebody of a misdemeanour, you’d better be sure you’re not guilty of it yourself. It has been only too easy, as I’ve shown above, to establish a case that some MPs have behaved hypocritically. Unpopular as it may seem, then, a Christian message at this time is not only to denounce injustice, but for all parties (not just political ones) to examine themselves. Logs and specks in the eye, that sort of thing. ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’ should be central in all our thinking at all times, but especially now.

UPDATE, Tuesday 26th May: I now gather that Nadine Dorries’ blog is back, minus the controversial post. Thanks to David Keen. She remains deeply critical of the Telegraph, and not just from her own personal experience. However, the more this particular individual incident goes on, the more you wonder whether the Barclay brothers are aping Mark Brewer and Nadine Dorries gets the Dave Walker rôle.

UPDATE #2, Wednesday 27th May: The BBC reports this morning that HM Revenue and Customs are to investigate those ministers who claimed personal accounting costs against tax, to see whether the law has been broken.

A Revenue and Customs spokesman told the BBC: “It’s a general principle of tax law that accountancy fees incurred in connection with the completion of a personal tax return are not deductible.

“This is because the costs of complying with the law are not an allowable expense against tax. This rule applies across the board.”

Exactly what I was saying above.

Furthermore, David Grossman of the BBC television programme Newsnight undertook some investigations. One quote from the piece regarding his work:

Mr Grossman said representatives of Foreign Secretary David Miliband had given a “confused” reply to the claims.

It suggested that because he had paid accountancy fees out of his taxed income, before receiving the money back from the Commons authorities, “there was no liablility”.

“We put that point of view to a tax economist who, quite frankly, just laughed,” Mr Grossman added.

It stinks.