Church Sermon

Palm Sunday 2014 (Job 28:9-17, John 12:12-19, Hebrews 2:5, 9-18)

Rev John Bremner, Unknown Date
Part of the Festival Sermons series, preached at a Palm Sunday 2014 service

Palm Sunday
John 12: 12 – 19; Job 28: 9 – 17; Hebrews 2: 5, 9 – 18

My friends, the annual cycle of Christian festivals – Christmas, Easter, Pentecost – is a two edged sword; or, perhaps we may say there are two sides to the coin. On the one hand there is the repetition of the familiar story, with the familiar Biblical texts, some of which, I am sure, we could almost recite from memory, and this repetition helps us reconnect with the foundations of our faith, year in, year out. On the other hand, there is the problem of whether it is possible for a preacher to say anything new, anything that hasn’t been said many times before, about a festival such as Palm Sunday. The stories are so familiar; could there really be anything left to say about them?

So I propose a slightly different approach today: I intend to look at Palm Sunday through the passages we have heard read to us from the Book of Job and from the Letter to the Hebrews. By using these two passages as a lens through which we may try to understand what Palm Sunday means, we might learn something more about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and its importance for us.

Starting with Job, you may well feel that there is such a contrast between the celebrations of Palm Sunday and the general gloom of the Book of Job, that nothing is to be gained by looking to Job for insights into today’s festival. But I would disagree. The Book of Job invites us to step back, to reconsider, to ask questions, to put another point of view into the situation. If Palm Sunday is all about welcoming Jesus, with crowds rejoicing, with disciples enjoying being at the centre of attention, then Job’s questions may allow us to look for something deeper. Because we need to ask the question: Is Palm Sunday only a day of rejoicing? Is it, from the point of view of the Christian of a later generation, really only presenting the crowd with its rather superficial view of Jesus? The crowds see Jesus coming to establish God’s Kingdom, but to them this means kicking out the Roman occupiers. Is that all there is to say, or is there something deeper, something connected with Job’s question concerning wisdom: Where, in all this, is wisdom to be found?

And therein lies the real question about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on a donkey, surrounded by the cheering crowds. Is this wisdom? That is to say, surely Jesus knew that all this was just froth! Surely he, of all men in history, did not need to be warned that, quite honestly, the crowds were fickle and would be just as likely to turn on him as welcome him! Can this be a wise thing to do? Surely it would have been better to ignore the main Passover Festival celebrations and celebrate the feast in Galilee, along with others – the old, the very young, the poor – those who were too weak or economically destitute, and therefore not able to make the journey to Jerusalem. Or, on the other hand, we might ask what use were a bunch of enthusiastic disciples and an ad hoc collection of visitors to Jerusalem going to be against the most ruthless and efficient army in the known world? Where is wisdom to be found on this Palm Sunday, as Jesus enters Jerusalem surrounded by the cheering crowds?

The crowds assume that God is on their side – and one hundred years on from 1914 we are only too aware of the problems such assumptions can cause! Some in the crowd assume that Jesus will win – maybe not an easy victory, but at the very least a victory in the end against the Roman oppressors. Some in the crowd assume that Jesus, being the Messiah, will not need to fight the Romans, as God will produce a miracle and the Romans will be thrown into the fiery pit which awaits all God’s enemies. Some in the crowd are just there so that they may tell others that they saw it happen, and, of course, they would run a mile if they were actually asked to do anything practical in the coming confrontation. Yes, in a sense, all the world is there: the rich merchant hoping to make a profit out of it all; the poor widow longing for justice; the young man looking for adventure; the pious, prayerful woman who awaits the coming of God’s kingdom; the sceptic who doesn’t believe any of it – yes they are all there in the crowd, along with those who fear this Jesus, who fear that their position of authority will be undermined by this carpenter from Nazareth.

Where in all this is wisdom to be found? Strangely enough, from a human point of view, once we start to look at Palm Sunday realistically – once the froth has died down – we can see at once that there is here nothing of wisdom at all. This is stupidity. Jesus is acting in a way which can only lead to disaster! Surely Jesus is making a big mistake here! Can it be the case that Jesus, having preached in Galilee and elsewhere, having been at the receiving end of attacks from the religious authorities, but also having been the object of the love and support of the ordinary folk who flocked to hear him and who saw the miracles which he did – can it be that Jesus had now fallen into the trap of mistaking his true situation? Might it be that Jesus had fallen into the trap of thinking that God’s power and God’s kingdom were to be found in popular uprisings, or in political confrontation? Had Jesus come to believe that, as Job puts it, ‘the search for earth’s precious things’ was now his top priority? Had he fallen into the trap set by the Devil back in the days Jesus had spent in the wilderness, and was Jesus now about to turn stones into bread, throw himself off the top of the Temple, and seek to be tyrant over all the kingdoms of the world? If not, why enter Jerusalem in this way? Where is wisdom to be found in this day of superficial celebration?

The only answer to that which we may give is that ‘wisdom’ needs to be redefined. From a human point of view, this crowd singing ‘Hosanna’ looks just like so many other such crowds down the years, cheering on a hero who has yet to prove himself; but what does this event look like from God’s point of view? After all, throughout the Bible story, we find that what looks good in human eyes usually looks bad in God’s eyes – and vice versa. If Jesus is entering Jerusalem in this way, then either he has lost the plot, or there is something else happening which the crowds, disciples included, do not understand. And perhaps we need to look back a minute or two to when we were thinking about God being ‘on our side’ as we seek the defeat our human enemies. Maybe we need to ask a different question: not in the first instance ‘Who is our enemy?’ but rather, ‘Who or what is God’s enemy?’ Is that the question we need to ask? Perhaps that seems to you to be a strange question, but think for a moment: if God has an enemy then that enemy is also our enemy, for if God is defeated, what hope is there for us? But who is God’s real enemy? And how will Jesus win against such an enemy? To answer that question we need to turn to the Letter to the Hebrews.

In the passage we heard read to us, Jesus was described as one to whom all things have been put in subordination. He is Lord of all. But he is also described as one who has suffered. He has taken upon himself our human nature, has shared our humanity and is not ashamed to be called ‘our brother’. He is on our side in the battles we face day by day, tempted as we are in all things and therefore very able to help us in our weakness, in our temptation. He is, indeed, our High Priest, who intercedes on our behalf with God the Father.

But this ‘sharing’, in which Jesus took upon himself our human nature, meant that Jesus also had to experience not only our life, but also our death. After all, Jesus’ sharing in our life could hardly be said to be of any real use to us unless the end of life was also confronted. And the end of life means, potentially, the end of all things. After all, God is the God of life; the name of God in the Old Testament is ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I am who I will be’. The very name of God involves the verb ‘to be’: life, and eternal life at that. Death, therefore, is, by its very nature, God’s enemy. And in the Bible death is tied up with sin. Death and sin are alike: they bring into stark focus our separation from God. True, we believe in life after death; but we are so used to thinking about life beyond death that we forget that this is only a possibility because of Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ, sin, our separation from God, leads to total death. Without Jesus Christ there is no hope whatsoever beyond this life. But with Jesus Christ, there is hope.

However, in order that we might live this hope, in order that we might share in Jesus’ life, he has to share in our death and, beyond sharing death, conquer death: that is what the writer of the letter is saying. Therefore, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, surrounded by cheering crowds, the real enemy is not the Roman occupiers, as the crowds all seem to assume. Human enemies come and go; in the long-term, they are of little eternal importance. No, the real enemy is death, which is sustained by our sin. Sin – separation from God – leads to death. Sin and death: these are the enemies which Jesus will have to confront in the days following his entry into Jerusalem. These are the real enemies. “And the last enemy to be destroyed is death”, writes Paul to the Christians in Corinth (I Cor 15 v 26). Jesus Christ, so aware of human sin, so aware of the threat of annihilation which is posed to us by death, Jesus Christ enters Jerusalem not in order to bring about God’s kingdom through confrontation with human enemies, but to bring in God’s kingdom through confrontation with spiritual enemies.

At a superficial level, Palm Sunday may seem to be about the Jewish hopes for the end of Roman domination. At a superficial level it may seem to be about the establishment of God’s kingdom through human means. But that is only the superficial level, and Jesus never deals with anything at a superficial level. He knows, as he enters Jerusalem on a donkey, that the real battle is spiritual. It is the battle between spiritual life and spiritual death; it is the battle between human sin and God’s forgiveness; it is the battle between human wisdom and divine wisdom.

“Where us wisdom to be found?” asks Job. The human eye, cynically watching the crowds flock to Jesus will say: “Not here!” But God sees things differently. He sees Jesus entering Jerusalem not intent on fighting a physical battle but intent on fighting a spiritual battle. In God’s eyes, wisdom is to be found in Jesus Christ. The fact that the disciples and the crowds do not understand this in no way brings into question this fact. For in the end, our standing before God will depend not on our blindness and stupidity, but upon Jesus Christ and his victory on the cross. Wisdom is to be found in Jesus Christ, our merciful High Priest, who chooses the way of suffering, leading to death on the cross; he does this so that we might be given new life, freed from the fear of sin and death through his resurrection from the dead. This is true wisdom – God’s wisdom! To God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the praise and glory, now and through all eternity. Amen.

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Job 28:9-17

9He putteth forth his hand upon the rock; he overturneth the mountains by the roots. 10He cutteth out rivers among the rocks; and his eye seeth every precious thing. 11He bindeth the floods from overflowing; and the thing that is hid bringeth he forth to light. 12But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding? 13Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living. 14The depth saith, It is not in me: and the sea saith, It is not with me. 15It cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof. 16It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, with the precious onyx, or the sapphire. 17The gold and the crystal cannot equal it: and the exchange of it shall not be for jewels of fine gold. (KJV)

John 12:12-19

12On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. 14And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, 15Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass's colt. 16These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of him, and that they had done these things unto him. 17The people therefore that was with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead, bare record. 18For this cause the people also met him, for that they heard that he had done this miracle. 19The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold, the world is gone after him. (KJV)

Hebrews 2:5, 9-18

5For unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come, whereof we speak. (KJV)

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