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Palm Sunday Sermon by Revd Paul Lanham

Palm Sunday 2020

Matt xxi.8. A great multitude spread their garments in the way.

            'All the world's a stage and all the men & women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances'. Shakespeare could almost have written that about the events of Holy Week which we commemorate at this time. We witness a huge drama spread over several days with many people taking part. There are the major figures: Jesus (above all), Pontius Pilate, Annas & Caiaphas dominate the scene. Then there are those merely with walk on parts. Simon of Cyrene who was pressed into carrying Christ's cross. He had come all the way from North Africa, now he was unclean, unable to take part in the Passover Festival - but he became a follower after the crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea who gave Christ his tomb; he was someone of importance who privately cared about Christ & what He stood for. The penitent thief. I am sure that the two who were crucified with Jesus were terrorists, followers of that Barabbas who lived as Jesus died – how ironical that scenario is. Judas Iscariot, the enigma, surely the most fascinating figure of the entire Bible; there is infinitely more in his betrayal of Jesus than the Bible would imply. 

            Then there is the CROWD. They play a significant role in the Passion narrative and without them Christ could never have been crucified. Instead of taking the usual Biblical line, let's look at them more realistically. Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a donkey, mocking the generals who entered Rome triumphantly on a white charger surrounded by their troops and followed by the slaves they had captured. Jesus by contrast comes into the Holy City in peace on this symbol of humility, an ordinary looking man on a beast of burden. To us 2000 years ago it is full of meaning, but to others it is very different. Jerusalem is bursting with pilgrims. The threat of civil disobedience is at its highest, the Roman occupying forces are terrified of open rebellion. This could be the spark that sets off a riot that they are unable to control. But to make a move against this demonstration would be to risk greater trouble. They can only watch and hope.

As for the crowd, they are bored, looking for something to do, some form of entertainment. Then along comes this carpenter and His followers, mocking the Roman Triumph. It's always entertaining to mock authority and this is worth watching. Worth joining in, by tearing down branches, shouting what the disciples were shouting even if they don't mean what they are saying. To them the Triumphal Entry is no more than street theatre, a means of killing time. Jesus is relieving their boredom for a bit. They can have no idea that they are unwittingly taking part in the prelude to the greatest event, the greatest tragedy in human history – but whoever heard of a street entertainer being the centre of such an event.

Jesus enters Jerusalem – and He does two acts that make Calvary inevitable. First He cleanses the Temple, antagonizing the Jewish authorities and hitting them where it most hurts – in their pockets. Then He just teaches. This second act does three things; it's the most under-rated action in the tragedy. First, by teaching His own brand of religion where the Jews teach a completely different one, He antagonises them even further (if that were possible).  Second He shows Judas Iscariot (who was surely at heart a terrorist, a member of the Sicarii, the People of the Dagger) that He was not going to start the revolution that he joined the Twelve to be a part of; the betrayal of Jesus that follows is because Jesus has betrayed him. Third, He stops entertaining the crowd. He has become boring, they have no further use for Him.

It just needs one final element to set the tragedy into its final stages – someone who can whip up the crowd and turn them into the force that will ensure that Jesus is condemned to death. For the crowd have the power to blackmail Pilate into condemning Jesus to death; they can potentially cause a riot that will end the career of the ruthlessly ambitious governor. Pilate knows it and he will do anything to prevent it. Annas and Caiaphas also know this, and they know that they can also use the crowd to assert their power over Pilate once and for all. So Jesus also becomes a pawn in a power struggle over who really rules Israel. It's a fascinating scenario, a struggle also between two types of looking at life, between evil and good, materialism and spirituality, selfishness and self-giving. And the crowd, utterly disillusioned by Jesus bring everything to a head. Having proclaimed Him as Messiah they no longer need Him. They can bay for His blood, stirred up by an orator – because this too is street theatre, albeit of a much more sinister type. They can be swayed, they can be swept along by hysteria, they can get things done without realising the long term effects of them (I can't help rightly or wrongly seeing a parallel between this mass hysteria and the Nazi rallies at Nuremburg). The crowd hold the reins of power, not that they know it – and they are fickle.

It is the crowd that ultimately condemn Jesus to death. Without them Jesus could not have been condemned. Obviously they weren't the most guilty in Christ's condemnation but they played their part. In that passage that we read every Christmas, St John writes that 'the light shines in the dark & the darkness has never quenched it'. This lies near the heart of what Christ's Passion really means. It is a conflict between darkness and light, evil and good. On the one side there are Annas and Caiaphas, Pilate, the crowd and everything they represent. On the other side there is Christ the Son of God and everything that He stood for. Superficially it seems at Calvary that evil has conquered good, but in the Resurrection we see that good can never be conquered, that love will conquer hatred, light will conquer darkness. In order to have Easter there must first be Calvary, but on the cross Christ condemns everything that the world stands for. The ambition of Pilate, the hypocrisy and machinations of the priests, the fickleness and selfishness of the crowd, the materialism of the world as a whole. They are held to account as Jesus stumbles along the Via Dolorosa, and in dying He passes God's verdict on them. 

But it lies deeper even than this. I am fascinated by the trial of Jesus by Pilate. It is far too complicated to go into detail, but we see in Pilate's misunderstanding of Our Lord's Kingship the same misunderstanding that the crowd had at the Triumphal Entry, that the Jews had as they dreamed of the Messiah who would make Israel great again. 'My Kingdom is not of this world' Our Lord declares to the governor. Pilate can't understand because he thinks on a different level to Christ. Our Lord taught the priority of humility, of love, of unselfishness. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek. These are the values of the Kingdom, these are what He represents. So the cross becomes Christ's throne, His robes the tattered garments in which He died. Here He passes judgement on the world, but in doing so He shows His love even for those who others would see as His enemies. His spirit must be in us, as once again in spirit we walk the lonely path to Golgotha. Paul writes to the Philippians, 'Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, Who being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God. But made himself of no reputation, & took upon Him the form of a servant & was made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man He humbled Himself and became obedient even unto death, death on the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him and given Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow'. Christ reigns from the cross, the cross is the expression of everything for which He stands. The grief of Calvary leads as inevitably as anything could lead to the joy of the empty tomb and everything for which it stands. In pondering it we see His love for us and for the world; 

The Reverend Paul Lanham 

 we also see a challenge which as His followers we cannot avoid.    

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