April 9 2017
Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 21.1-11
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
“The road from Jericho to Jerusalem carries us for some fifteen miles up a dry and stony wadi, with barren hills on either side where no sign of life is seen except for the occasional Bedouin with a few goats.”
This is how Francis Wright Beare begins his old but still useful commentary on our Gospel reading from Matthew this morning.
Today, the road from Jericho to Jerusalem takes us up route 1, with Jewish settlements to the right and left of us. Whether these count as signs of life is a matter of legitimate dispute.
Jericho is 400 metres below sea level – part of the lowest land area on earth. The summit of the hill on which Jerusalem is built is about 800 metres above sea level.
The pilgrims thronging to Jerusalem for Passover faced a steep and dusty ascent. And then they came to the brow of the Mount of Olives and saw the city and its temple spread out before them.
This afternoon, the Christian community of Jerusalem will walk down from the Church of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives and enter the Old City through the Lion’s Gate. The mood – like that of the ancient Jewish pilgrims – will be festive, almost carnival-like. It will also be defiant – and in that respect too, not unlike that of the ancient pilgrims, who were coming to celebrate Passover in a land and a city occupied by the Roman empire.
For this procession is not just a way of remembering and celebrating the coming to Jerusalem of her king. It is also a form of self-affirmation, a way of saying we are here. Treat us as badly as you please, make life as difficult for us as you can: As a community we are not going anywhere. This is our city, just as much as it is the city of Muslims and Jews.
This is our city, because it is the city at the centre of the universe that Jesus of Nazareth enters as the king of peace, riding peaceably on a donkey.
At the mood of Jesus as he surveyed the city on that first Palm Sunday we can only guess. He has come to Jerusalem to confront the rulers of his people, and he knows they will reject him. By Friday, the man on a donkey will be a man on a cross.
As to what happens then, he can be confident, because he trusts in the God he calls Father, but he cannot be sure. With Second Isaiah, he may say, “The Lord GOD helps me; therefore … I know that I shall not be put to shame,” but he cannot know in advance how this will play out. Sitting on the donkey, with shouts of acclamation all around him, he rides by faith.
And this, we Christians say, is how God returns to Zion, and to us.
Our lectionary for Palm Sunday offers us an embarrassment of riches. There are two readings for Palm Sunday, but then four more readings for the passion of Jesus Christ, for his suffering and death. Read them all, and we have almost no time for anything else.
In Jerusalem we don’t need to do that. On Thursday, we can go to the Church of the Redeemer or later to St George’s Cathedral to remember the last supper, and afterwards we can walk with our Anglican or Lutheran friends and partners to the garden of Gethsemane. On Friday, we can rise ridiculously early to walk with them the way of the cross. In a city full of churches of every Christian tradition, there is no shortage of services for Holy Week.
This morning, then, Matthew 21 will do. We don’t need to read Matthew 26 or 27 as well.
But we should think about them, for the shadow of Good Friday falls heavily on this Sunday.
The best sermon on our theme this morning has already been preached. It is preached by Paul – or perhaps I should say sung, for the passage really is a hymn – in our reading from his letter to the church in Philippi, a city in ancient Macedonia.
At the centre of this sermon, Paul alludes to Isaiah 45:
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear.’
Paul takes this key statement of Jewish faith in the one and only God and transforms it in the light of Holy Week and Easter.
Now it is at the name of Jesus that every knee shall bow, for God has given him the name that is above every name. God has given him the name of God – the name that pious Jews when they read their scriptures never pronounce but always replace with the word Adonai, the word Lord.
If we want to sum up the faith of the early church in three short, easy words, it is these: Jesus is Lord.
In those days, as in our own, there were many competitors for the title of Lord: Alexander the Great, for example, who succeeded his father Philip to the throne of Macedonia and went on to conquer Greece and pretty much the whole of the known world. Alexander saw himself as divine and others did the same.
Or Caesar Augustus, who put an end to the Roman civil war that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar and brought an imperial peace to the whole world. An imperial peace is only a parody of real peace; but many saw Augustus as divine too.
In our day too, there are such figures. Look no further than the present occupant of the White House, who may not be divine but certainly is full of himself.
As they are, so in our own more modest way are we – until Jesus of Nazareth shows us a better way. Like Alexander or Augustus, we want to climb, to achieve, to perform and prove ourselves. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we want to be like gods. We want to be somebody.
Jesus, says Paul, goes in the opposite direction. Jesus understands that being like God does not consist in self-assertion, in grasping, or in domination, but in emptying oneself.
Jesus is not a climber. He comes down – down into our flesh, down into the depths of our sadness and enslavement, right down into the form of a slave nailed to a cross. In all of this, he shows us what it really means to be divine.
To be Lord is not to lord it over others but to serve them – just as God does.
On Thursday in St George’s Cathedral, as the Anglicans behind me strip the altar, I shall read Psalm 22.
I did this last year and the year before, so now, it seems, it has become what I always do. It’s reassuring that Anglicans and Presbyterians have more in common than at first appears.
Psalm 22 is one of those psalms that begins in one place and ends in another – although, if we read it again, we may find that the two places are really the same.
The psalm begins with a question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – words that Jesus will quote on the cross. For 18 verses, it paints a picture of one who truly is abandoned.
But then it switches – to a God who does not hide his face from the afflicted but hears our voice when the one who is forsaken cries to him.
The point, says the psalm, generalizes: All who are afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
When Jesus of Nazareth recites the opening words of Psalm 22 on the cross, we must understand him as having the whole psalm in mind: Yes, I am forsaken; but God will hear my cry.
Jesus is doing what Paul is doing: understanding his life and death in the light of his people’s scriptures.
But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus is there on the cross reciting a theological script: that he is thinking to himself, “This is not a nice way to die, but three days from now, with a bound I shall be free.”
He doesn’t know that.
Dying a cruel death at the hands of the Roman empire, he trusts in his Father. We who have the benefit of hindsight know, or believe we know, how the story turns out. But Jesus does not have the benefit of foresight. He has the benefit only of faith.
And that is how it is with us also.
When I was back in Geneva last month, I stumbled across Henri Nouwen’s most personal book, a secret journal written at a time when he felt utterly abandoned, when he had lost his self-esteem, his sense of being loved, even his hope in God.
In his journal, he writes this instruction – to himself, and also to us:
“God is faithful to God’s promises. Before you die, you will find the acceptance and the love you crave. It will not come in the way you expect. It will not follow your needs and wishes. But it will fill your heart and satisfy your deepest desires. … Cling to that naked promise… Your faith will heal you.”
Nouwen wrote this, we should not forget, when he was on his own cross.
At the beginning of Holy Week, the man on the donkey, the man on the cross, has only two things to say to us. These two things are, in fact, the same thing; and they are all we need.
First, serve others as I have served you. And second, trust in God.
Your faith will make you whole.
All glory, laud and honour to thee, Redeemer King (CH4 364)
Oh, set ye open unto me the gates of righteousness (CH4 78: Ps 118)
Ride on, ride on , the time is right (CH4 370, tune: CH4 365)
O God of blessings, all praise to you (CH4 177)
Ride on! ride on in majesty! (CH4 365)
Francis Wright Beare, The Gospel according to Matthew: A Commentary (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981)
Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997)
Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent (Cincinnati, OH: St Anthony Mesenger, 2011)
NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013)
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (London: SPCK, 2002)