Sermon for Sunday April 1st - Palm Sunday 2012
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Our Struggle, our Conflict - as St Paul Has to remind the flock in Ephesus - we are Always getting this wrong, the Focus of the Conflict
At the end of our Gospel we heard these words ‘Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.’ Mark in his Sparse way leads us into the sense of a gathering storm - Jesus has surveyed the battlefield - Conflict lowers on the horizon. And we are of course holding our breath, for we know what is coming - Actually even if we didn’t know, we could guess.
The Theme of Conflict is inescapable in Mark’s gospel - from the very first, Everyone and Everything seems to be in conflict with Jesus - the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the teachers of the Law, the Herodians - everywhere we turn we find people at odds with Jesus and HIs message. And its very easy to turn things around - to say as I started to write in this sermon - that Jesus is in conflict with Everyone and Everything - especially everything and all those people who deny life.
As if people can be easily split into neat categories - goodies and baddies. Those who are For Jesus and those who are against. Jesus we say is against the ‘Powers that be‘ - stripping that phrase of all of its power. ‘He’s against all those baddies, against all the people who are stopping what ‘We call justice’ we say. As if He has come to sort out the World on Our behalf. If only we could get rid of those people, those unjust structures, those diseases, THEN the world would be a better place. And So today, we cheer Jesus on in what we think is his Crusade to put things right for us. Just as they all cheered him on on that first Palm Sunday. As if we see straight and understand Him and are not ourselves in conflict with Him.
Of course there was a very powerful and legitimate ‘Cry for Justice’ in the minds of many in the crowds. They wanted shot of the Romans, or at least they did if they weren’t benefitting from Roman rule. Funny how we always tend to see matters in such terms. The Roman reign of terror - putting down the freedom fighters with ill focussed precision, Or the Pax Romana, enabling Decent People to go about their everyday lives and business in Freedom, depending where you stood. Some wanted a King who would overthrow the powers that be and then ‘all would be well’, But as Jesus warned them and as he warns us as well, the devil returns, and finding the house clean and well swept invites some of his friends along and the last state of the man is worse than the first. We do Not understand what he is really about, and we are not alone.
The Crowd didn’t understand what he was really about, nor did his disciples didn’t. We find Even them in COnflict with Jesus - they are Getting in the way, threatening to obstruct his path - we remember His Angry words to Peter - ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ - and there we may well find a clue - a clue to our own ignorance. For if Peter who has walked with Jesus and seen him heal so many, if Peter hasn’t got it - what makes us so sure we have. If Peter finds himself in conflict with Jesus - what makes us think We are not?
We cannot hear the words of Mark with anything approaching a sense of Comfort - in Mark’s account of Jesus we see writ large the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
No-one sees what he is about and Ultimately Everyone at one level or another is in conflict with Him - He is alone in the crowds. They are worshipping and rejoicing - ‘Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’- his face though is set like Flint - His adversaries are confronting him Even though Now some of them rejoice to see Him come, they will be the same ones who call out ‘Crucify’, the same ones who will Flee from his presence in the darkness of Gethsemane. Jesus is under no illusions - He is Alone. Everyone is revealed to be against Him - He Knows it - we don’t understand.
And the lack of our understanding is revealed in the gospel text. ‘Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.’ We are given warning, that this is All about Worship. It is about the Temple. Last week we thought about Worship - about the mystery of Worship and earlier in Lent about Jesus declaring, destroy this Temple and I will rebuild it in three days.
Last week when I was teaching the final session of our Lent course on Christian Practices, and in Worship in particular, I rather naughtily asked people in their minds to make a choice, along these lines ‘If I were to say to you that from now on you had to choose between Coming to Worship Sunday by Sunday and Going out into the World to ‘make it a better place’ - and you HAD to choose - which do you think you would do’. It was an unfair question perhaps, although it does perhaps reveal how much we think that we are in charge of our own lives that most if not all of us understand Sunday worship to be dispensible in a way that would have shocked many of our forebears in faith [I feel rather like a headmaster of my acquaintance, who week by week stood up at the beginning of assembly and berated the people who were late - except of course because they were late they never heard him :) ] But if you HAD to choose - I suggest that we are perhaps more of a view that we Know what is wrong in the world and so perhaps are safe to go out and fix it, without worship. In other words we see things in terms of fixing unjust structures or turning oppressors out of power - like the crowds. We don’t Understand that our whole way of being is under the judgement of the Cross - and that every Sunday we are re-oriented to See afresh the Way of Christ, to be Judged and Saved by it, and thus and ONLY thus set free to live for his Glory
Jesus ‘went into the Temple and looked around - he Sees. This is the place God’s Life is meant to burst into the World - the Symbol of God’s Presence and lIfe amongst his people, but it had become a place where Life was Taken - not a place where Life was ‘Given’. Where money was extracted from the poor in the name of ‘good business’ - where the Free Life of God had been made into yet another commodity to be bought or sold. We know there is a conflict coming at the Temple - a Conflict between Life Taken and Life GIven. Between Life Taken, and Life Given - the Two Ways And he Chooses the way of Giving His Life. Not an unwilling sacrifice - no one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. The Way of Kings in Israel had been take take take as the prophet Samuel had warned - it is the way of us all. But not the way of this Servant King. For this Conflict between Life taken and Life Given is The Conflict at the heart of it all, between the Way of Sacrificial Love and Everything Else. Between The Life of God and The Way of the World.
Which brings us to the second place in the text where we are shown that it is our Whole way of being under the radical Judgement of the flint faced servant of God , as the King comes into Jerusalem on a Donkey.
Now of course Much is made of the Donkey, of the humility of Christ, but what we perhaps fail to recognise that this was precisely How the King of Israel was meant to be. The Donkey was the Royal Steed - Israel’s Kings, God’s King was supposed to Ride on Donkeys. When the Kingship is first instituted - Samuel goes out to find Saul - who is off in the wilderness - looking for three donkeys he has lost, and when Solomon - Solomon in All his Glory is made King what do we read? he priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule, and led him to Gihon. There the priest Zadok took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. They took Solomon and had him ride . . . on King David’s mule. He was Made to. To remind him what it meant to be God’s king.
But the Kingship of Solomon was a Disaster, because although he rode on a donkey - in his heart and mind and in the hearts and minds of his people he rode on a majestic white charger. Because he Had to, because he was afraid of what it meant to be a King upon a Donkey. Do not be afraid says Jesus - over and over again - but we are terrified and most of all, we are afraid of the one who most truly represents us, the King who is meek and gentle - who comes to us meek and humble seated upon a donkey’s colt. The people See the King on a Donkey and so they Know he is the King because he is on a Donkey, but they do not see what the donkey signifies about Kingship. That here is a type of King who is utterly in Conflict with the Way of the World - Here is a King who is steely faced in his conflict with Everything - that this act of Salvation is first to Judge Everything, so that Everything might become that which is redeemed.
What do We see in King Jesus? Do we also see the Donkey and fondly imagine the White Charger? Do we secretly hope that this way of vulnerability is really only a sleight of hand, that God isn’t really like this?
Jesus in his Kingly humility is in Conflict with the Way of the World - The World revealed in the Kings it chooses for itself. And in his journey towards the cross - what becomes clear is that the illusions of everyone are swept away. We know the story of the Emperor who has no clothes - who is fooled and tricked by his Vanity into wearing the most incredible suit of clothes that only the wise can see, a suit that is no suit at all? And how the Crowd, not wishing to be fools all express their wonder at the clothes.Despite the fact that he is naked.
This is just like this story, except here the King is not vain - he knows he goes Naked into this week, bearing no sword, riding on a humble mule - and as his nakedness and humility comes into sharper and sharper focus - gradually the crowd See that he is Not the Powerful Warrior King they had wanted, and they begin to drift away to come back and hurl at him al their rebukes for not being the King They Want - as he stands scourged and whipped before the crowds they see him as he really is - the King who made himself Nothing - the King who emptied himself, taking the form of a Slave = How can you support a King who is a Slave?? - who Meekly goes to his death - and they Mock - they laugh - they scorn, so terrified are they of the Truth - that it is only in utter weakness and vulnerability that the world can be redeemed. Jesus is the true Emperor with no clothes - naked and not ashamed - not hiding. Not afraid.
And it is not only the crowd, it is his disciples too - they melt away. Perhaps because they had heard but never understood what he meant when he said - ‘no one can be my disciple unless he gives up Everything he has - lets go of the world - no-one can be my disciple unless he hates his father and his mother, yes indeed life itself - whoever would become my disciple must take up his cross - whoever would gain his life must lose it’. Like the crowd they had an image of Jesus that didn’t fit with his words, and chosen the image - the idol Jesus for the naked reality - and now as they approach the end it becomes terrifyingly clear, he meant every word of it, to become obedient even unto the death of the cross. That True Power is revealed in letting go of all Power. That true worship is not in the sacrifice of others, it is in the laying down of one’s own life. And they flee, and now it is clear, he is utterly alone. For He is the True King, and as it is clear as he goes to His throne, He has No subjects. All the other Kings have taken and taken and taken - All Human Kings and rulers do - but this King Gives - Everything.
It is this terrifying self emptying of Christ, this Utter vulnerability that has led some theologians to speak not unreasonably of the weakness of God - for in our sin skewed vision the Way he Walks in in Holy week is the way of utter weakness - of putting himself in the hands of evil men and women - that they might do what they want to him. Yet in this Final Conflict the way of Death is Overcome, for He chooses to Give His Life - and so it Cannot be Taken. There is No Triumph for the World over the One who comes in humility and weakness and Gives His Life
Jesus in Holy Week stands utterly against all that is, all the world in its fearful pomp and show, in all its grasping and taking and clinging on - In His Self Giving he pronounces judgement on it all, and shows us the Way to Life.
To quote the disciple who perhaps didn’t doubt at all, Let us go with him, that we too may die, and so live