March 25 2018
Union of St Andrew’s Jerusalem and St Andrew’s Tiberias;
Ordination and introduction of Rev John McCulloch
Isaiah 50.4-8a; Psalm 43; Philippians 2.5-8; Mark 11.1-11
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
“The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple… behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.”
On the first Palm Sunday, Jesus of Nazareth rides down the Mount of Olives on a donkey and enters the temple. What did he think he was doing?
Tom Wright rejects the assumption that Jesus of Nazareth went about unreflectively, acting out a theological script, turning out exquisite parables and engaging with people automatically, without thinking through what God was summoning him to do.
Jesus didn’t ride into Jerusalem on autopilot or even with the benefit of Waze.
Jesus “didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, on a whim, that he might as well go and talk about the kingdom of God and see what would happen. He wrestled with it.” He wrestled in prayer and fasting.
By the time he got to Jerusalem, if not long before, he knew what he was called to do.
Those who greet him proclaim Jesus Messiah and king, and he doesn’t disagree. But something more is here. As Messiah, he embodies the destiny of Israel. More than that, he embodies the God of Israel in launching God’s sovereign rule over Israel and the world.
When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the Lord himself is coming to his temple.
The week ends outside the city walls as he slowly suffocates on a Roman cross. This is a real defeat – nothing in this life is as real as death – but it is also, and surprisingly, only apparent. The empire and its local puppets don’t get the last word. The one he calls “Abba” raises him from death – not to live happily ever after, but to reign from on high.
Although many leading Jewish families returned from exile in Babylon in the sixth century before Christ, the exile didn’t really end. The claim is controversial; but anyone looking at Jerusalem in the time of Jesus would be inclined to agree. This was not a city where God reigned. This was a city where crucifixion was commonplace and a pagan empire lorded it over its Jewish underlings.
What is, perhaps, less often remarked is that our situation today is no different. We still live in exile.
That claim too may seem controversial. But look around us!
Look, to begin with, at Jerusalem in our own time: is this a city where God reigns? Zoom out, and look at a Middle East where wars and tumults make a mockery of God. Zoom further still, and consider the world of international politics and the parlous state of our planet, and we may conclude that God is universally mocked.
In one respect, of course, our situation today is different. Christ has come to proclaim and embody the kingdom. Christ has died. Christ has risen. And Christ will come again, bringing with him the kingdom in its fullness.
After the second battle of El Alamein, when Montgomery’s Eighth Army defeated Rommel, Winston Churchill said, “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
On Easter Sunday, we can say the same.
We come from God and we return to God. In between, we mostly get lost.
We have a remarkable ability to remain unconverted – I mean unconverted in the fundamental sense, stubbornly refusing to turn to God and so be saved.
It’s hard to know what touches human hearts. There is, of course, the Holy Spirit, tugging quietly at our heart strings; but we are slow to notice.
God catches our attention on Calvary. We, and our world, kill Jesus. Jesus accepts his death, goes to the cross, and trusts that God is somehow at work in what we are doing to him. God accepts his sacrifice, vindicates his faith, and raises him to new life.
Our God is not a sadistic God who subjects a man to the death of scourging and crucifixion. Our God loves us so much that he gives his only Son to suffer and die for us and thereby touch our hard hearts and lead us to salvation.
The book of Ezekiel, written by the prophet and his followers while in exile in Babylon, includes a blueprint for the restoration of Jerusalem and its temple. It ends with the words, “and the name of the city from that day shall be, ‘The Lord is there’”.
The book of Revelation has a different vision. It looks forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where God will make his home among us. It looks forward to a new Jerusalem, the holy city coming down out of heaven from God. But in that city there is no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb”.
When our world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and his Messiah, we can shutter all our churches, mosques and synagogues, and no one will build the third temple.
But in the meantime we have work to do.
History is the medium in which God works salvation.
This is a day of new beginnings – for our churches in Jerusalem and Tiberias as we now become one congregation, for John and his family as he now becomes our minister.
But we are called to show the world that every day is a day of new beginnings. We are called – and God knows, we shall fail in this calling more than once – to reflect to this world the love of a God who does not give up on us even when we are tempted to give up on ourselves. We are called to cry out to Jerusalem that God is making all things new.
All glory, laud and honour (CH4 364)
O send thy light forth and thy truth (CH4 43: Psalm 43.3-5)
All who love and serve your city (Eric R Routley)
O Lord, your wounded word cries out (Iain D Cunningham)
Ride on, ride on, the time is right (CH4 680)
Bernard Lonergan, “Theology and Praxis”, in A Third Collection (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1985), 184-198
Eugene H Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005), 139
NT Wright, “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” in Nicholas Perrin and Richard B Hays, Jesus, Paul, and the People of God. A Theological Dialogue with NT Wright (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011)