Sunday 14 April 2019

A Palm Sunday Sermon - What makes for True Joy?

Image result for palm sundayMark 11:1-11
"As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”

They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve."

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! Resurrection 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.