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Sermon: Jesus Will Disappoint You (Palm Sunday)

Matthew 21:1-11


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.

Sermon For Palm Sunday: Where’s Wally?

I expect you’re familiar with the ‘Where’s Wally?’ pictures and illustrated books. You see a large, detailed picture containing hundreds of people and your task is to find Willy. Unless you are tuned in to what Wally looks like, or you have eagle eyes, it will take you quite a while to find him. Our dentist has a large ‘Where’s Wally?’ picture on the wall in her surgery to occupy the children.
Similarly, our children’s school recently had a Book Week and on the Friday invited children to dress up as their favourite book characters. So did the staff. The Head came dressed as Wally, and challenged the children to find him later in the day. It was a bit unfair: he hadn’t told them he would be changing back into his suit and going to a meeting elsewhere!
What does that have to do with Palm Sunday? It’s a story with a lot of hiddenness about it. We are so used to thinking that Jesus comes in on a donkey to demonstrate that he is the Messiah, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah. In particular, we point out that to come in riding an ass means that he was coming in peace, not in war. We think he is acclaimed as Messiah by the crowds as they sing, ‘Hosanna’.
But, but, but! We may know that Jesus fulfils Zechariah’s prophecy, but Mark doesn’t quote it. You need eyes to see. We may know that he was claiming to be king, but the Romans didn’t seem worried about this little demonstration. We may acclaim Jesus as Messiah, but when the crowds sang ‘Hosanna’ they didn’t quite go that far in what they said.
It’s all hidden. It only becomes apparent later. You need to know the rest of the story. You need to read the Scriptures in the light of Jesus. You need the help of the Holy Spirit. At the time, had you lived in Jerusalem and witnessed what we call ‘The Triumphal Entry’, you wouldn’t have guessed.
What, then, do we know that wasn’t apparent at the time?

, we see the Triumphal Entry as a sacred duty. On Palm Sunday, I always recall an Anglican church that was a neighbour to one previous Methodist church I served. Every Palm Sunday, they would always have a donkey in church. The reason I never forget this, is because the donkey had a name. Dave. Dave the Donkey appeared every year. For some reason, certain people made it their business to ensure I always knew about him.
And the donkey – laughing stock character as it is to some – is where we get the sense of sacredness and holiness on Palm Sunday. How so? Well, have you ever wondered why Mark goes to such detail to talk about the animal? Clearly it’s significant. Note Jesus’ specification: it is to be ‘a colt that has never been ridden’ (verse 2). This seems to reflect the Old Testament requirements that animals used for holy purposes had in every way to be unblemished. Jesus is making clear to his disciples his intention that the manner in which he will enter Jerusalem shows that this journey is a sacred duty.
The nature of Jesus’ entry as a holy task, a sacred duty, will not surprise you. But who in heaven and earth focusses on a donkey for such work?
Jesus, that’s who. A humble ass is the way he makes clear to those with eyes to see the nature of what he is doing. It’s part of that whole approach to life in our faith which deeply values the physical and the material. Archbishop William Temple said that Christianity is ‘the most avowedly materialist’ of all religions. That is a claim that sounds shocking to our ears when we have been taught that materialism is wrong. And if materialism means worshipping material things, then it is wrong.
But if materialism simply means valuing the material aspects of life, then we see that our faith is shot through with materialism. We believe in a Creator God. We believe in Jesus who took on human flesh, and whose lasting symbols are water, bread and wine. We believe in the resurrection of the dead – and that means bodily resurrection, there is no other kind. Our ethical beliefs touch on the most material and physical aspects of life – money, sex and so on.
Sometimes, though, we veer off this course. When someone dies we are prone to saying that their body was just a shell for the real person, but this is wrong. When we grieve a death, we are waiting for the day when that person will be raised to new life with a resurrection body animated by the Holy Spirit.
All of which is to say that when we look at Jesus’ use of the donkey for his purposes, let us dedicate the physical and material dimensions of our lives to his glory. Let us seek to use our physical bodies and material possessions in a holy way. When we take up the offering later in the service, let us remember that we are not simply raising enough subscriptions to keep an institution going, we are offering the physical to God in holy worship and service. We shall live out the meaning of the offertory prayer every day.
Secondly, let’s look at the use of the Scriptures in this story. There are a few things to put together here. One is what I mentioned at the beginning, namely that there are hints in this story that Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Zechariah about a messianic king coming to Jerusalem in peace. Another in the use of the donkey seems to reference at text in Genesis (49:11) which is part of Jacob’s blessing of his sons, but which was later taken as a messianic prophecy. Finally, we have the crowds singing ‘Hosanna’, and in doing so quoting one of the Psalms, and in particular one that was used by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem either for the Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles. It isn’t strictly a messianic psalm, but again Mark may want us to see the reference to ‘the coming kingdom of our ancestor David’ (verse 10) as a messianic hint.
What’s going on here, then? A common thread seems to be this: none of these texts – Zechariah, Genesis or the Psalms – gets limited to their original meaning. Often the way we are trained to approach the Scriptures today is to say that the primary question is to ask what meaning the original author intended. Or alternatively, we sit around in a Bible study fellowship group, asking, ‘What does this verse or passage mean for me?’
But Bible verses are not used in either of these ways in the Bible itself! Helpful as it is to have a foundation in the original meaning, the fact remains that the New Testament authors approached the scriptures they already had differently. And relevant as it may seem to ask, ‘What does this mean for me?’ that can degenerate into reading the Bible in a me-centred way.
No: the New Testament writers had a different question about the scriptures they inherited. I think it was this: what do the Scriptures mean in the light of Jesus? That’s why they sometimes come up with some surprising applications of Old Testament passages. At heart, it’s the old slogan that ‘history is his story’. Life has meaning in the light of Jesus Christ, and so we interpret everything in the light of him. That includes our supreme written testimony to him, the books of the Bible.
Now you can take this to ridiculous extremes. You probably know the story of the preacher giving a children’s address and who asks the question, ‘What is grey, furry, with a tail and climbs trees?’ A little girl nervously raises her hand and says, ‘I know the answer should be Jesus but it sounds like a squirrel to me.’
In other words, I do not mean that we look for all sorts of doubtful interpretations in the most obscure of Bible verses, but I do mean that the overall thrust of the Bible in all its diversity and difference is to point to Jesus Christ.
There is still a place for those of us who can offer something by delving into the original meaning of the Scriptures. It gives us a base from which to work. But we are not limited to what the original authors meant, because what we are called to do is see that the biblical books have what some people call ‘a direction of travel’ – they point to Jesus. And that means we can all with the help of the Holy Spirit profitably read and discuss the sacred writings with a view to drawing nearer to Christ and following him more closely.
Thirdly and finally, let us see worship with new eyes here. For this I want to concentrate on the shouts of the crowd:
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
(Verses 9b-10)
There is a lot conflated here. Take the word ‘Hosanna’. We perhaps think of it as a word of praise, rather like ‘Hallelujah’. It did turn into that, but it began as a cry of ‘Save us’ and then became praise or an acclamation for a revered figure, such as a rabbi. In with all that you have the longing for the kingdom, and it could be either a restoration of David’s throne that is desired or a passion for final redemption. Somewhere in these words, then, you potentially have a number of elements of worship mixed up: praise, intercession and declarations of allegiance.
Again, the natural meaning at the time for the crowd would have been perhaps to honour Jesus as a great teacher and to pray that God might bring deliverance (of a political variety) through him as he rode into Jerusalem. Nevertheless, it couldn’t have been terribly militant, or – as I said in the introduction – the Romans would have taken more of an interest.
But for Christians, we see these hopes transformed and magnified in what we have come to know about Jesus. He is more than a rabbi; he will bring a salvation of a kind nobody could have imagined; he is bringing in a kingdom altogether vaster and more comprehensive in scope than previously dreamed.
And this Jesus – the king who would be enthroned on the Cross – is worthy of worship. This Jesus – who does more than merely meet our own aspirations but ushers in a universal kingdom where all will be put right – is worthy of worship. This Jesus – so much more than a rabbi – is worthy of worship.
When the crowds shout their well-meaning hosannas, the Christian sees with new eyes the allegiance of which Jesus is worthy. When the crowds seek salvation, the Christian sees the salvation to come. When the crowds shout in anticipation of the kingdom, the Christian sees the call to pray and work for that kingdom, to the glory of Jesus Christ the Lord.
The worship we offer on Palm Sunday, then, is more than some hymns, prayers, readings and reflections. If Christians have eyes to see Jesus through Palm Sunday, worship will be an expression of commitment and devotion. It will be an oath of allegiance, a renewal of vows. After all, every part of life – past, present and future – has meaning in the light of him. And therefore in our worship we dedicate not only the ‘spiritual’ but the physical and the material to him in praise for who he is and gratitude for what he does.
This Palm Sunday, let us have the eyes to see Jesus as he truly is, and to respond fittingly to him.

Sabbatical, Day 64: Palm Sunday Pain

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Today, I start a new series of videos produced by Damaris Trust for Holy Week. In the first one above, Richard Collins talks about Jesus’ rather unusual entrance into Jerusalem. He discusses the significance of this event in terms of what it tells us about the kind of king that Jesus is, and the kind of kingdom into which he calls us.

Palm Sunday can be taken as a joyful day. We think of the crowds waving their palm branches, welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem. Yet as we know, pain is in the background. ‘Bow thy meek head to mortal pain, then take O Christ, thy power and reign,’ we sing in the hymn ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’, which is laced with the anticipation of the Passion.

Right now, Debbie and I feel pain for friends. In the last few months, three Christian couples we know have separated. All have children. Sometimes we think we might know a partial truth of what has happened, but we have been careful to keep quiet and definitely not to extrapolate a small amount of data on its own to form conclusions. Our rôle is to be available if wanted, and most of all to pray.

I think each time the two of us talk privately about these tragedies, we give each other a certain look. It says, ‘There but for the grace of God we go.’ Not that God’s grace isn’t available to our friends – of course it is – but the sense that things can start sliding from small things, or something from the past we thought was buried might boomerang back from over the horizon and hit us, or we might make an uncharacteristic slip.

Not that I’m saying this is what happened with any of our friends, because we simply don’t know, and we don’t want to speculate. Rather, it’s that sense that we all need the mercy of God. We also need to keep that fine balance between the sense of security in mutual love and yet not allowing ourselves to take things for granted.

I think that’s all I want to say tonight. Say a prayer for these couples, for us, and for yourselves, whatever your domestic and family circumstances. May God guard us all. May we do our part in response. And may God work in the lives of our wounded friends.