In this sermon preached on Palm Sunday, the Revd David Newton asks why we should keep Holy Week special.
The crowds loved him. The miracle worker from Galilee was finally arriving in Jerusalem as the city swelled for Passover. Whispers had gone round the whole area of this prophet with a new teaching and with power.
The sick had been healed, there were even a few stories of the dead being raised. Bread had appeared out of thin air. Parables had gripped the imagination of many. Physical and spiritual food was nourishing the people of this land.
And now this Jesus was coming into Jerusalem.
Here came the crowd pleaser, who stood up for the little man against the powerful – whether that be the Romans or the Religious Elite. Here came the man who had ordinary folk amongst his disciples. Here came the man who let women close, and even dared to speak to them.
This man, was coming into Jerusalem.
It was very definitely a triumphal entry. An entry of a King foretold. And so the people take up the refrain from Psalm 118; a Psalm quoted more than any other in the NT; a Psalm that had always been seen as pointing to the messiah. They take up its refrain with abandon, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
Those who knew their scriptures well might even have thought of Zechariah’s words: ‘see your king comes, gentle and riding on a donkey.’
Hosanna, they shout – an exclamation of praise, a promise of salvation. Hosanna. Could this be, is this really, the messiah?
What will he do? Is violence coming? A host of angels? Is he heading for confrontation with the religious elite or the Roman occupiers?
Right now though, such questions can wait. The people are riding high on wave of communal ecstasy, caught up together in that moment occasionally found in a sports stadium. Like sheep they flock and celebrate the man of the people, the hero de jure.
What then did people think when at the end of this most glorious day all Jesus did was walk around the Temple and go back to Bethany. A bathos if ever there was one. No immediate climax or showdown. No flag raised above the Roman Court. No sword drawn, blood split; not even a verbal spat with the Pharisees. He just went back to Bethany with the twelve.
Pure conjecture… but maybe it was here the people began to be a little less sure. Questions turned from hope… ‘could this be’ to disillusion… ‘maybe, I’m just not sure.’
For how is it possible to go from Triumph to Crucifixion in less than a week?
It seems, if you follow the narrative that the people begin to see more of the nature of the Kingdom of God… that it might mean a little more than having leprosy healed or bread and fish to eat. And they become less sure if they want this King of his Kingdom.
Jesus begins by overthrowing the economics of the Temple. Money-changers are thrown out; the entire setup of the sacrificial system is being castigated here. Not just the elite, but now the middle class are having their boat rocked.
A bit later he upholds paying taxes to Caesar. And so a whole load more people are turned off; clearly this so called messiah is not going to overthrow Roman tyranny and start a political rebellion.
The Kingdom of God seems to include a different economics, a different politics.
The incendiary little stories keep pouring in. We hear of Jesus sitting down and watching people give into the Temple Treasury. A bit awkward to begin with. And then he dares to suggest a poor widow is giving more than anyone else. The Kingdom of King Jesus, seems to be turning notions of status and place in society upside down now as well.
For Judas at least, the final straw was when a woman comes and pours a jar of alabaster perfume on Jesus’ head, anointing him for the Kingly task ahead.
Wasteful, disrespectful, inappropriate. Judas storms out; this man is not what he thought.
Economics, Politics, Status all turned up like the tables in the Temple. A crowd pleaser no more.
And so from here we enter into the story of the triduum – of Thursday, Friday and Saturday to be picked up later this week.
The same Psalm we heard earlier now brings forth a new refrain… ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone’. And this refrain will take us through the darkness before the Easter sunrise.
The crowd pleaser. The one they shout Hosanna for, becomes the rejected stone.
All in a few days.
At least one question this extraordinary narrative throws up for is this: are we just after the crowd pleaser? Do we just want Jesus the popular healer and teacher?
Or… will we follow him to the cross? Will we stick close to him, no matter where it leads?
And I guess this question is why I really do think that it is crucial that we keep Holy Week as something special – as one week out of 52 where we cancel plans, and engage whole heartedly with this narrative, sticking with Jesus all the way to the end.
If we manage to do that metaphorically through this week, maybe we will be strengthened to do it in life as well.
For at the heart of Holy Week, that begins with the extraordinary story we heard today, is not an ‘idea’ or a principle, that I can distil and preach to you, but a story we are called to live under and in and through. Will we live in it? Will we stick close to Jesus – to the cross? And so come through to resurrection?
Monday 26th March: Compline at 7.30pm at St Mary’s Comberton
Tuesday 27th March: Compline at 7.30pm at St Mary’s Comberton
Wednesday 28th March: Compline at 7.30pm at St Mary’s Comberton