Friday, 2 April 2021

Palm Sunday in Lockdown - Luke 19:28-44

After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethpage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and 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 untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
By Zambian painter, Emmanuel Nsama
They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”


It is a great joy to be back here with you, after so long. It has been a hard three months since Christmas. Hardest, of course, for those who have lost loved ones in the last year; but hard, certainly, for us all.

I remember Palm Sunday when I was a kid. The church would be packed, and there would be a donkey and palm crosses and we would process up and down the village high street behind this donkey singing hymns and waving palms. It could seem a bit goofy at times, but, boy, do I miss it now. There's something profoundly joyful about getting out of your seat and out into the fresh air, to walk together and cheer and sing. And those emotions, those simple emotions, are incredibly important, because through them we open a window to experience the Kingdom of God. I hope we are never too old or wise to let ourselves go into Joy, into Love, into rejoicing, because those things transform the earth into heaven.

When our hearts swell at the beauty of the world, at the company of our family and friends, when we worship God, and remember and appreciate what he has done for us, then we open ourselves up to God. Being human means being trapped, to some degree: trapped by our own frailty, trapped by our own weakness, by the memory of grief, and at no time more than now. So our vision of heaven through our joy and love is always like looking into "a cloudy mirror", or a blurry photo, but it is a real glimpse of heave none the less, and that is something worth remembering. 

We should remember that on Palm Sunday especially. The crowd cannot help but break out into song as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, praising God for all the things, the miracles they have seen. And by just letting it out, letting the joy run out, they are doing something incredibly important. After thousands of years of waiting God has come to his own city in person, and they get to be the ones who declare it, who welcome him in. They are speaking the truth, a truth that will change the world forever; and not just the truth of facts, but also the truth of the heart, the truth of meaning.

Some people I know have seen angels, and some people have talked about times of worship when they felt so full of the presence of God that it was like Angels were worshipping alongside them. We see that in the Bible at moments of great joy, particularly at Christmas. The shepherds were amazed and terrified because Heaven could not contain the joy, and the skies split open with Angels praising and singing at Christ's birth. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem we can be certain for every person in the crowd there was an Angel too, repeating those same words with a sound we can barely imagine.

Jesus riding into Jerusalem is the one time he was welcomed as he should be welcomed, as the King. Those people stood there and sang for all of us. But it is just a reflection of the greater joy when Jesus rose from the dead and into Heaven, bringing with him all those he saved from Hell; and it's a reflection again of the Joy when Christ will come again, and ride into the New Jerusalem; when Heaven and Earth are united and shall  be one and the same forever.

Those people two thousand years ago may not have understood all this. They knew they were doing something serious, something important. They knew what the Messiah meant for their people, but I don't know if they realised, that above and beyond they were making the world turn and the angels sing. They were only people, but they sang the same song as the angels in Heaven. Maybe the angels make a more beautiful noise, but they sing the same song, and the joy of the crowd is taken up and repeated all the way to the throne of God.

So Joy is a serious business, and worship is a serious business, and letting ourselves feel the beauty of the world and of God is a very serious business. And, my friends, that joy and beauty is all around us. There is a very famous start to a poem, that I have always loved, by William Blake, the man who wrote Jerusalem.  It says "To see the World in a Grain of Sand, And Heaven in a Wild Flower, hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour". I'll repeat that.

We have been trapped in a narrow place, these last few months: in many cases separated from friends and family. But the beauty of God's creation is still all around us. The Bible says "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies show his handiwork". Now we can interpret this to mean the world is a dead thing, like a book, in which we can deduce evidence of God's Glory, like a detective looking for clues. But I think the Bible is saying something much more. The Prophet Isaiah said "you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; and the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands", which has been turned into a great song.

The world God made is alive, my friends, and its beauty shouts of the Glory and Beauty of God. Jesus reflects those words of Isaiah in our reading today. The Pharisee leaders demand Jesus rebuke his disciples, telling them to keep quiet. But Jesus says "if they keep quiet, the stones themselves will cry aloud". I think he was quite serious. This moment on Palm Sunday when Jesus rides into Jerusalem as its King, is too important. If men and women keep quiet, the angels and the stones themselves will cry out. This is a moment on which the world turns. And even in Lockdown the beauty of the world around us is still declaring the Glory of God, still giving us a window to see the beauty and joy that will be complete forever when we see God not "in a cloudy mirror, but face to face".

There is beauty all around us, in our historic church that we are gathering in again today; in the fields, and grass, and skies and animals. If you walk up Dyers Lane out into the fields, you will see the young lambs bleating and dancing. I strongly recommend it. Again and again in scripture Jesus is called the 'Lamb of God'; or a Shepherd, who cares for his sheep. As William Blake said, "Heaven in a wild flower", or in a lamb.

The events from Palm Sunday, leading up to Jesus's Crucifixion, death and Resurrection a week from today, on Easter Sunday: these are the most important events in History. As a Christian I believe that the whole Cosmos, the meaning of the Universe, was changed forever by those events. Through Christ's sacrifice we have forgiveness, grace and the hope of Eternal Life; and the Kingdom of God has been spreading, person by person, from that day to this. But even in purely secular terms they are also the most important events in history, because of 2 billion Christians in the world today, and for all the historical events that have followed on from those events, and been shaped by it.

But if you'd been there, if you'd seen it, it maybe wouldn't have looked like that much actually. If you've ever been to a professional or international football match, you've probably seen a larger, louder crowd than was there on Palm Sunday, two thousand years ago.  But you haven't seen a more important one. Mark Twain once said "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog". Don't judge events by their size, or noise; or people by their rank, or status, or bank balance. "Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour". What we do and what we experience, each day, is more important than we realise. Maybe some of the people went out to that Palm Sunday crowd because they went with a friend, or because it was a bright day, but they made history forever.

Even in Lockdown, even with all the restrictions we operate under, we still have the chance to embrace beauty and joy, and to love one another, and so to look upon the face of God. You matter! We all matter! How we respond to each other, and the world around us, matters! The Bible points us in the direction we should go: through Faith, Hope and Love; along the narrow road of Truth; to do Justly, Love Mercy, and walk humbly with our God. By obeying Lockdown restrictions these last months we all have saved lives, at a cost to ourselves. And that is just as true for those who have sadly lost loved ones themselves. And it is something that we should all be proud of, amid the sadness about all that we have missed.

What we do matters, and how we respond matters, which brings me to the last part of our reading today. After the glorious welcome of the crowd Jesus stops, and weeps; and offers a terrible warning over the city of Jerusalem, where most of the people would not recognise his coming; and next Friday, many would cry for his crucifixion. What happened in Jerusalem was people could not recognise a King who came in peace, riding on a donkey. A King whose Kingdom is spiritual, that is "not of this world", and taught that they should "give unto Caesar what was Caesar's, and to God what is God's". 

In years to come anger against the Romans who occupied Jerusalem grew, until it broke out into War. But the Roman Empire was too strong, and eventually Jerusalem itself was surrounded and destroyed, just as Jesus had warned. If Jerusalem had embraced the route of peace, and spiritual transformation, the city could have survived, and transformed the Roman Empire from within.

But though Jerusalem was destroyed, nothing has destroyed the importance of what happened two thousand years ago between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. The community founded on Jesus Christ survived and grew, as it survived and grew through centuries of persecution under the Roman Empire, and it survives and grows around the world to this very day. 

When you hear about the ancient Christians surviving through years of persecution, and when you hear about Christians today in parts of the world that are very hostile to them: what stands out again and again, is the intense but simple faith, hope and love they have. Faith in Christ as King, Love for God and each other, Hope enduring, that God's Will will be done. It seems they are charged up by their experience of God's Beauty & Glory in every circumstance, even when they face hostility and hatred from human beings. Despite the ongoing challenges of our situation, may we all find that same joy in the good gifts around us.

"Peace in Heaven and Glory in the Highest!"

"Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord"

Amen

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