Matthew 21: 1-11
I haven’t preached a sermon on Palm Sunday for over 15 years. It has been our tradition to gather together at one of our churches, to receive our palms together, to listen to the first half of the Passion Narrative, and then to walk together to the other church to listen to the second half of the Passion Narrative. Prayer, not a sermon, always followed that reading, but not today, for we are into the third week of lock down due to the Covid-19 measures, our churches are locked for the second Sunday in a row, and we would not be allowed to congregate and process, even if we wanted to. So you get a sermon instead.
However, in the growing tradition of these troubled times, the sermon starts with a picture, or in today’s case, two. At the head of the piece there are two photos of a basket of palm crosses, one on the altar, the other in the porch. These are the palms we had prepared for today’s service: they have been blessed, and will be kept in church until the day we are allowed back in. The first thing you will receive on that glorious day will be your palm cross. Junior Church will make their own palm crosses together as they meet virtually across the ether this morning. There are instructions on the website for making your own palm cross, if you can’t join the children in their session. We will do what we can to mark this extraordinary day in our calendar and look forward to the day when we can bring it all together, in church.
The events of Palm Sunday do not happen on a whim. This is a very carefully choreographed piece of political and Messianic theatre. The number of nods and winks that conspire together to drive the scene is remarkable. Jesus and his disciples have been preparing for this moment for a long time. In a deliberate public act of fulfilment of prophecy, Jesus claims his title as King and Messiah, and rides into his capital city to claim his rightful place. He does not head for the seat of government, however, but to the Temple, for that is where his kingdom will be proclaimed. He is a king who comes in humility, not in might. He is a king who is celebrated by pilgrims from around the land of Israel, not by the political elite. He is a king who unites throne and altar in one person, bringing together the two distinct lines of Melchizedek and David in himself. But his throne will be a cross, and his altar will be a table with broken bread and poured-out wine.
This deliberate act of confrontation and self-declaration sets the stage for the events of the coming week. Arguments will rage in the Temple precincts between Jesus and the Sadducees, Jesus and the Pharisees, and eventually between Jesus and the Sanhedrin, the rule council of the Jewish nation. Plots will be hatched, traitors will be bribed, dark forces summoned to do away with this king. While that goes on, Jesus will teach his disciples about the radical nature of their God, who provides equally for all who labour, whether all day or just one hour. Jesus will call his disciples to be ready, as bridesmaids with flasks of oil, in case the bridegroom is delayed. And Jesus will call his disciples to one last celebration of the liberation of Israel from Egypt, as he recasts Passover into the Eucharist. Everything is being turned on its head, and Jesus is orchestrating every move.
How does this sit with the image of Jesus as a king, “humble and mounted on a donkey”. Surely humble kings do not draw attention to themselves, nor parade in public, seeking confrontation. But this king does. The humility of Christ is not a self-effacing humility. It is divine love, visible in a human being. This humility is God in human form. Christ could have revealed himself in glory, as he did to three of his disciples on the mount of Transfiguration, but he does not do that here. He would have wowed the crowds, but that is not his approach as he enters Jerusalem. Instead, the crowds and the religious leaders see Jesus the man, fulfilling Scripture, speaking the truth with grace and clarity, challenging Israel to its very soul.
We are called to follow in the footsteps of this humble king. We are called to show our utter humanity, redeemed by divine love. We do this today by staying at home and by observing social distancing on our sole foray outside. We cannot claim to ourselves any particular grace as Christians that differentiates us from the rest of the world. We are just as human as everyone else, and for that reason our church buildings are closed. But we are still in the world, we can still communicate with others, we can still bear other people’s burdens, we can care, wherever we are. Christ, the humble king, can shine through our words and deeds even in lockdown. Our home-made palm crosses will spur us to love, as Christ loved us. Our home-made worship will lead us to pray for our stricken world. Our home-made community of grace will enable us to persevere, whatever the outcome.
Our God confronts the evils of this world head-on. Our God does not flinch from difficult decisions. Our God takes grace and mercy into the worst human situation, and redeems it. We are his followers, we are his agents now, here in Kew. May we rejoice in Christ’s humble kingship, and live as children of light, however dark our world may become. And may we encourage one another, stay in contact with each other, pray for everyone we know, every day, so that Christ’s love and compassion will bring us peace and hope, with rejoicing.
Rev Peter Hart