Sunday, 14 April 2019

A Palm Sunday Sermon - What makes for True Joy?

Image result for palm sunday
Good Morning everyone.

Today is Palm Sunday, and we remember what happened when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, many years ago. But Palm Sunday did not just happen once. Now, how many Palm Sundays have their been? The obvious answer is it's the year 2019, so there have been slightly less than 2000 Palm Sundays. But actually I'd say there have been many more Palm Sundays than that. I doubt we could possibly count them, millions, even billions for certain.

Because Palm Sunday, like the whole of our Holy Week story, leading up to Easter, is not just something that happened, once, or even a day in the year; it is a situation and a challenge that we all face many times a year, a month, a week.

The people who came out to cheer Jesus' arrival into Jerusalem had good motives, they were doing the right thing; up to a point. It's good to cheer Jesus, to give him the recognition he deserves, "Hosanna", "Hallelujah", "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord".  Blessed indeed. But what we must know; what the crowd and even the disciples still didn't understand, was what it truly meant to welcome and follow Jesus, what it would demand of them. And because they hadn't understood, when troubles came, they fell away; and we know on Good Friday, the crowd were chanting something very different.

Remember the parable of the Sower, and the seed that fell on rocky ground. Jesus says this is "someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the Word, they quickly fall away."This is our crowd on Palm Sunday, and this is many people today, this is us whenever we get  carried away, get swept up in something we haven't truly considered and committed to. The joy of Palm Sunday the joy of the crowd, is a real joy, but it is only a shallow joy, a reflection of true joy, unless we understand what the Good News of God really involves and means for us.

I want us to contrast this day with some other days we remember in our Christian year. Some days of more glory, holiness, and worth. Think back to Christmas, or ahead to Easter, and to Pentecost. In these we have moments of true joy, because they are hard, limited and earnt.

Think about how difficult it was for Mary, young, blessed, Mary, to accept the Angel's command, trusting in God, despite the uncertainty of being a young, unmarried mother, facing a future she did not understand. Think of Joseph accepting he must take Mary as his wife, safeguard and protect her, and a child that was not his blood, in the face of what must have been confusion, misunderstanding and gossip in his community. Think of their journey with a heavily pregnant Mary on a donkey. And think of the wise men travelling a thousand miles on camel, hoping to find the Messiah. By the time Mary had survived childbirth in a stable, with the animals gathered round, and the baby lay sleeping in cattle manger, and the shepherds came telling them how Angels had broken the skies with joy and praise, Mary and Joseph had earned their joy, real joy, true joy, deep joy, that knows the cost and knows it has all been worth it.

And nowhere would this be more true than with the joy of the resurrection. We know how Jesus paid the price, not only in pain upon the cross, but in abandonment by his friends, in fear and anticipation before as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. And we know the devastation the disciples must have felt as Jesus was taken, and they were scattered. We know how many of them doubted, how Easter Saturday must have felt like an eternity, as time can slow to a crawl when we are faced with great tragedy.

But then Sunday came, and the Resurrection dawned on them, slowly and piecemeal at first; to a few women, and then a few men, and then more and more of the disciples, and the joy spread with the news, and grew for spreading; but still then it was a thin web of people who had this new and marvellous discovery, and the joy that truly goes with it, in a society that largely did not understand. Compared to this the joy of Palm Sunday was a shallow kind of joy, the joy of the crowd. And if you only feel that joy, or speak out, when a crowd is with you, then you risk crying Hosanna on a Sunday, and then Crucify, on the next Friday.

And there's always a lot of that around in any society. Modern social media and entertainment has created new forms of it, but it's always been there. Someone can find themselves basking in the praise of the online crowds one day, but faced by an angry online mobs the next day in response to a single misjudged, or misunderstood comment. Stripped of all context, online statements are even more ripe for misinterpretation, and instant news sites have an interest in feeding the cycle of giddy glee followed by bitter condemnation, it all makes for good clickbait.

But how do we avoid falling into this shallow joy?

Now when I say that the joy of Christmas, and Easter, and Pentecost is real, because it was earnt, I'm not trying to say that we have to earn our joy through what we do. I'm not preaching that our salvation comes through works, through what we do. No, because that was then. Mary and Joseph, and then Jesus, needed to do something then. But Christ then, hacked open the door, in the barrier between us and God, he smashed open the doorway, and now its there. All we have to do, is walk through to God. But we do need to have the awareness that those people on Palm Sunday, including the disciples, didn't have. Those people rejoiced when Christ seemed to be riding into Jerusalem to fulfill the prophecies they knew. But then when they saw him arrested, imprisoned, surrounded on Good Friday, they thought it was all over and so turned on him.

But why did they turn on him? How little endurance their faith had in the end. You know, I think its likely from our reading today that on Palm Sunday some of these people at least had not just emerged from Jerusalem, they were part of the crowds that had been following Christ through his ministry. Otherwise how would they have known who he was? In that case when the crowd gathered again on Good Friday they still had all the evidence of Christ: they had seen the Miracles, they had heard the wisdom and authority with which he taught; all that was still there.

And they didn't know their own prophecies that well either. Six hundred years earlier in the Book of Isaiah, the prophet had seen Christ, and said, "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished"

The people on Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, should've known that. I should know that. Do I have a faith that rejoices when all seems well, but falls away when things turn hard? Like the crowds of Holy Week, I still have the evidence of Christ, the miracles, the teaching, the wisdom and authority. I have more still, I have the cross, and the empty tomb. They are still there, when we feel our lives feel overshadowed by grief.

Of course we all have Palm Sundays, moments of ecstatic, cheering joy; and there's nothing wrong with a bit of joy, or just plain old happiness, or enjoyment. God knows, we all need and deserve joy. But we must be aware that God's promises, and Jesus' salvation is there in good times and challenging ones. Over the next week, which is often called Holy Week; from Palm Sunday we walk towards Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, when everything seemed bleak. But Easter Sunday is coming.  And we will all have our own individual Palm Sundays throughout the year; and Good Fridays when it feels like we're being crucified, and the sky turns black; and Holy Saturdays when it feels like God is sleeping and silent, even Dead in the Grave; but even when we don't know it, Easter Sunday is Coming! Resurrenction is coming, and the pouring out of the Spirit again, and strength and joy that lasts, and is truly real.

We know this because it did happen. And it has happened over and over again, in the history of the Church, in countries and nations all across the world, and the lives of people here. Time and time again it looks bleak, but God is not done, and we can be lifted to new heights of joy, and strength, and peace. And this hope is open to us all if we turn and place our faith in God, knowing the Spirit, and its power, and its joy, is secured for us through Christ's own deeds and sacrifice.  So in Palm Sunday we see joy, and vision; let us all sing, along with those people long ago, "Hosanna", "Hallelujah", and "Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord". They were right in that. But let us add to those people our understanding of the greater joy of Christmas and Easter, and a faith that rejoices on Palm Sunday, but also endures the same through the mourning of a Good Friday, or an Easter Saturday - in the world, or in our own lives - secure in the knowledge that Easter Sunday did come, and it still comes, and it will always come.

This is part of the power and beauty of the Christian message, and why it is essential to our world. Our message to a world that still worships power and wealth and success; that blessed are the meek, and the merciful, and those persecuted for righteousness sake, for they will inherit the earth, and the kingdom of heaven too. And Good Friday, when Jesus was cursed and reviled, and arrested and imprisoned, and beaten and killed, was a Good day too.

Let us take the rejoicing of Palm Sunday, and combine it with our understanding of Good Friday, and the deeper joy of Easter Sunday, and then we have a clear sight of the rejoicing there must have been in Heaven when Jesus came home. And you can imagine the Angels were waving palms, and singing and shouting like you can't believe. That's true joy, based on a hope that can endure, because it is based in God's infinite reality that lies far beyond all the rolling storms and ebbing tides and crashing waves of this world. We should be cautious of crowds at times, whether of the cheering variety, or the jeering variety; because we know that truer, deeper joy that lasts comes through, and despite, and in continuing awareness, of the struggles and griefs that form it.

And we glimpse that joy again whenever, with God's grace, we build a bit of the Kingdom of God on earth; and we shall see that joy made eternal and fulfilled to all the heights and depths of the Universe, when at last God's kingdom is fully built, and the earth is filled with the Glory of God, as the waters cover the sea, and grief and sorrow shall be no more.

Thank you. Amen.   

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Coming of the Wise Men - An Epiphany Sermon

"A Cold Coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of Winter"

That’s how T.S.Eliot imagined the Wise Men beginning to look back and describing their journey. I feel those words describe a few journeys I've all been on as well. Perhaps some Christmas journeys, or winter  commutes, when the car is iced over and then the engine won’t start.

The Wise Men, or Magi, who we sometimes call Kings, came from the East. There's not much to the east of Jerusalem once you leave the Holy Land itself. Not until you cross the Arabian desert and come to what we now call Iraq. That's almost certainly where the Magi came from. In those days Babylon, and its other cities, were still great centres of civilisation, with many astronomers who paid close attention to the stars. They were probably Zoroastrian scholars, that was the religion of Iraq, Iran and Armenia in those days, a religion worshipping one God whose rituals were centred around fire burning, and studying the stars.

It's 700 miles from the rivers of Iraq to Jerusalem, on foot and on camel. In this modern day I know that because I looked it up on Google Maps. Google gives an option for journeys on foot, but sadly not yet camel. But I assume it was the same length. That's a long journey though, on foot or camel, and mostly through desert, in a land with no good roads, no police force, across a hostile border. But still they came. We don't know how many magi, wise men, there were, though they are recorded bringing three gifts - Gold, Frankincence, and Myrrh. Pretty strange gifts, I imagine they didn't know exactly what they would find when they came. But rich gifts to be sure. Gifts worthy of a King: Gold and rare perfumes and incenses. Generous gifts, to haul 700 miles, for someone they'd never met. But still they came.

And the first thing the Wise Men did was make their way to Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, to the Palace of the King, and ask to see the New King of the Jews. We can only presume they thought it would be Herod's son, in some nursery in the Palace, whose star they had seen rising. They asked for "the King of the Jews" but they were clearly expecting more than a King, for they said they had come to worship him. In other words, they knew they were looking for the Messiah, God's anointed, who is both King and God. They must have made quite an entrance when they reached the Gates of Herod's Palace - exotic foreigners, who many Jews would have considered Pagan wizards, fresh with dust from the road, arrive in a caravan demanding to see God's messiah. And nobody at Herod's court or in the Priests of the Temple could tell them anything! 

When I think about this I almost laugh. You have to imagine the chaos and confusion this would have caused Herod and his court. The advisers running around like headless chickens and Herod screaming for answers. You have to the shock passing over their faces.These wise men from the East turned up at the centre of political power in the Holy Land to say not only that there is another King, which would make him a threat to Herod's authority, but that he is God's Messiah, meaning he would totally outranks Herod's authority, and if is widely recognised Jews will flock to him. Well that's one thing, and it's not a reassuring message in the middle of winter if you're Herod. But worse than that, some foreigners had come 700 miles and they knew all about it, but not one person in Jerusalem, the Capital, knew anything. Not in the Temple, not in the Palace. This is a failure of government intelligence on a massive scale. Herod's government would've had contacts with soldiers, bureaucrats, local leaders, with other governments, and with their own spies and informers, and not one of them knew a thing.

The old King James Version of the Bible says Herod was "troubled", and the NIV says he was "disturbed". I bet he was! In fact, I imagine both of those are quite polite ways of putting it. No wonder they scrambled around dragging in Chief Priests and scribes, trying to work out if anyone knew anything about this. Well no, they didn't specifically know anything, but they did know that Centuries before one of God's prophets had said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So they sent the Magi to Bethlehem with instructions to find this new-born King, and come back to report.

Now this was Herod trying to be subtle. Once he’d got over the shock, he must've realised that if nobody knew about this new King, this Messiah, then either not many supported him yet, or the Magi had got it wrong and he wasn’t there. I mean, people don't usually travel several hundred miles on foot, unless they're pretty certain, but still, it was possible. Bethlehem was a small place, a village, and Herod was obviously prepared to send soldiers to kill everyone who looked suspicious, because we know that's what he did in the end. But it would be a lot neater and quieter for Herod, if he could find exactly where this King was, if the Magi found anything, and kill him quietly.

The Wise Men knew none of this though. I'm sure Herod kept his scheming from them completely. They must have just been baffled by the whole thing. The Wise men had travelled all that way to see the King of the Jews, predicted by the prophets Centuries before, and these people had failed to notice the birth of their own Messiah. Pretty careless. But still, having been redirected on they went, and they came those last few miles, onward to Bethlehem. It can't have been what they were expecting, they had clearly imagined something like Herod's Palace. They were expecting a King. And what they got was a small, ordinary child, living with his Mother, and his apparent Father, in an ordinary house in a small village. But still when they saw the place "they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy", and when they saw Jesus with Mary "they fell down and worshipped him", and gave their gifts of "gold, frankincence and myrhh".

But why did they come all that way? Seven hundred miles from Babylon to Bethlehem. A long, hard journey, in "the very dead of winter". They weren't Jews. It wasn't the King of their people, it wasn't the Messiah promised to their people, they weren't suffering under Roman occupation. It wasn't even the God of their people, the God their fathers worshipped. But still they came, and they were filled with joy, and worship, and gave generous, royal gifts. Why? Because God had touched their hearts. They lived in a distant land, among a different people, but still when the time came for Jesus Christ to be born their hearts were moved. Moved enough to travel a long way in the middle of winter to find another people's King. It's not certain how they even knew about the coming of the Messiah.

The Jews had spent 80 years in exile in Babylon after Jerusalem was destroyed in around 600BC. And there were still many Jews who lived in what is now Iraq. Maybe these Magi had got to know some of the Jewish community there, maybe they had read their Prophets there and had heard about the Messiah that way. Second or Third hand, so to speak. Well for these few people that was enough. It was enough to move them to make a great journey, in the faith that it would lead to God's Messiah, to Saving grace.

And not just Saving grace, but grace that included them. God's saving grace that extends to anyone who is willing to turn to God. Nobody was expecting the Magi when they turned up. Not Herod, not Mary, nobody, only God. They came from God only knows for certain where, because something had happened, that meant when God reached out with a sign, the Star, they were able to see it for what it truly was, what it truly meant, and to respond. With hearts that still rejoiced even when God took them to an unexpected place and a simple, common home.

May our hearts be the same. The Wise Men remind us of the eternal lesson that it doesn’t matter who you are, what matters is how you respond. God sends joy and wonders in the most unexpected people and the most unexpected places, if only we are open to go and to appreciate them. But the Magi would never have come, if they hadn’t already had some contact with God's people before they saw the Star. They can't have been the only ones who saw it, but they were the only ones who knew it was a sign of God's grace. They must have already been waiting for this King of the Jews, for them to risk the journey. And have known with more than just book knowledge, something must have moved their hearts.

Maybe it was somebody they had known, perhaps a wise Jew living in Babylon, who had opened the scriptures for them. It is often a specific relationship with someone, sometimes for long time, sometimes just a chance encounter, that can put people on the road to God and a better life. Or maybe someone had just given them a copy of the scriptures to read and discover for themselves, and they had found God written plain on the pages of the Prophets and the heroes of Old. Sometimes left alone with God's words, people can find inspiration all by themselves, but still someone must've taken the step to have given them a copy of the Scriptures, and that was a lot more difficult in those days when they had to be copied out by hand. We never know how our kinds deeds and words may affect other people. We never know how taking an opportunity to speak to people about God, and the faith we have, might nudge them on the right path, to one day reach his loving arms. We also never know who God might call, or who might have their heart open to his presence.

That can be a challenge to us, because we must have no preconceptions about what God's people might look like. They can be familiar, or they can be strange. We can have no prejudices about who is worth speaking to about God, because it could be anyone whose heart is already open, just needing kind, truthful words to fall on their fertile ground.

The Wise Men were the first gentiles, Non-Jews to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, but they were not the last. One of the remarkable things about the New Testament is just how open it is to anyone. Jesus in his ministry made a point of including all the peoples in the immediate vicinity around Israel, as well as Jews of every sex, and rank and wealth. We are speaking today about the Magi, who probably came from Babylon. The Gospels also talk about Jesus being recognised by and blessing a Samaritan man, a Phoenician woman, a Samaritan woman, a Gedarene man (the one whose demons went into a herd of pigs), and a Roman Centurion. Do let me know if you can think of any I have missed.

In each of these cases Jesus preached to these Gentiles, healed these gentiles, praised the faith and commitment of these gentiles. And the early Apostles followed and built on this multi-national nature of Jesus' own ministry. From the first day of Pentecost when God made the disciples speak in many tongues, God began to gather many peoples into his Kingdom. The Ethiopian Philip met on the road, the Roman Centurion who, with his family, was the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit! At that point God was going ahead, even of the Apostles, shocking them with the reality that the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, had come on Gentiles. The Apostles could only try to keep up! Within 20 years there were Christian communities all the way from Rome to Jerusalem. In 300 years there were Christians from India in the East to Britain in the West, and in 600 years there were Christians in every country from China to Ireland.

In all these countries there were people whose hearts were open in Faith, Hope and Love, to the Good News of Jesus, and received the Holy Spirit, despite all the incredible differences in language, culture, and nationality. Today there are Christians in every country in the world, even ones like North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where Christian faith is completely illegal and so Christians are in terrible danger. And what an amazing thing that is. Still these days despite the many advances we have made in science and technology, our world seems as divided and fearful as ever. But our God has no tribe or nation, and the Good News of Jesus Christ, has no culture or race or language or colour. It touches the hearts of people in every time and place, because all people are God's children, who he seeks to gather into his Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is a community open to all who wish to belong. And for all of us who are not Jews, but are part of God's Kingdom, we should look back on those Wise Men with great respect and admiration. For they were the first.