Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/bT2XrYQfXWc.
Palm Sunday C 2016
Today we are celebrating Palm Sunday- it’s always bitter sweet isn’t it? Because even without the reading of the Passion narrative we all know the story, don’t we? We wave our palm branches and shout “hosanna” but all the time we know that Jesus, by the end of the week, will be dead. We feel, I think, embarrassed about the way the crowd is so fickle and I think most of us have asked ourselves if being in the Palm Sunday crowd we would have also shouted “Crucify him” just five days later.
So let me take us to that crowd and try to see who and what they see. We see a man, riding into Jerusalem. This is not altogether uncommon because triumphal leaders often make a symbolic journey riding into the big city. But we see a very ordinary man riding in, not on a great white war horse, in full regalia, but a humble man on a small donkey, or I hope really, that it was a young ass. He is not sitting on a saddle but on the cloaks of his companions- there is no magnificence and yet, somehow the crowd of people is building and you can hear them shouting out- they are shouting out praises to God for all the acts of power this man has done. And they are not just shouting but quoting a conglomeration of verses all about a King. And those of you in the crowd that are really switched on recognise the reference that Jesus himself is making to the king prophesied in Zechariah 9, “Lo, your King comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. There is a realisation here, I think that Jesus is making a very definite claim to Messiahship. He is the one that the Jews have all been waiting for and here he comes. It’s no wonder that the crowd grew and the shouting got louder and louder.
The Jewish people have been watching Jesus. He has travelled about healing and teaching and his fame as a healer has gone before him- people are anticipating his arrival in each town he comes to. But more than that people are hoping for a political voice and Jesus has certainly been that. Jesus has challenged the authorities and spoken out again and again about the poor and oppressed- he is offering hope that things might be about to change. And it is this political agenda that causes the Pharisees some anxiety. They tell Jesus to stop his disciples calling out inflammatory things, like here comes the King!!!! And Jesus tells them that at this moment it is beyond his power to stop the people and that if he did the very stones would call out. This proclamation is necessary. But not so that he will be carried in on their shoulders, as an earthly king, but actually, so that he will be such a threat that he will be crucified. Jesus is setting himself up here, as the scapegoat for the boiling up of anger that is threatening his nation.
So is the crowd fickle, as we have often heard it said? Or is it that Jesus himself has set up this situation so that his true nature will be revealed? Because the dusty man we see sitting on the donkey, is also God. God made flesh, God incarnate. But that is very hard to see until he dies and rises to life immortal. We can shout out that he is the King but until his purpose is achieved he is only one man in a small nation, at one temporal moment. For the people looking at him riding into Jerusalem, none of his glory can be more than fleetingly glimpsed.
For the early Christian church, which exploded post resurrection, there has clearly been a revelation. When Paul writes this letter to the Philippians somewhere around about AD 60-63, the truth is quite clear to them. Paul is not writing these amazing verses himself- he is quoting a hymn well known in the churches that have sprung up. The early church has had such an experience of the risen Lord that they have made this hymn in which they clearly understand Jesus as the Christ, and not just as the Messiah but as God incarnate. This has been a revelation, this has been an epiphany, and the community has turned it into a Psalm in order that the knowledge of the truth about Jesus, who was Jesus of Nazareth, but is now exalted, cannot be lost. And here we are, sitting in this church, celebrating this Palm Sunday because of the great revelation to the early church.
Humans find it very hard to realise what God has done for them- or even what kind of God, God is. This hymn tells us that the Word of God made flesh emptied god’s-self of the power and glory that would have made it impossible for him to be human and became the same as us. We human beings are created in God’s image but God had to humble God’s self to take on the role of a servant. So Jesus of Nazareth, is the Christ, the Messiah, but more than that, is God, but in a humble human form who comes to serve us by living human life, by dying and rising.
This idea of Kenosis or emptying is important because it is something that we are called to imitate. The Word, made flesh, empties himself so that he can take on human characteristics. We are called upon to empty ourselves so that we can be transformed by God the Holy Spirit working in us, abiding with us, transforming us, as Paul says in the second letter to the Corinthians, from one degree of glory to another. Jesus humbles himself, we are told even to the point of death. We read it today, didn’t we? But by the time this hymn was written, very possibly before any of the gospel accounts were written down, the Christians understood that the death on the cross was a necessary part of the process, and that while it was horrendous it was just part of the emptying that the Word did when God came to be one with us.
And God exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name. Well, what does this mean? Jesus, a perfectly ordinary name Jeshua, or Joshua becomes the name that tells the truth about God. The name means saviour, the one who saves. The one who restores relationship and makes us whole. The exaltation speaks of the transcendant God- God who is above us and beyond us in magnificent splendour. But, you know, God, at the same time, is immanent, with us, to save us and make us whole. This being true, every one of us, when confronted with the Word, will confess the glory of God. This isn’t, I don’t think, conditional- it is a simple statement of how it is when we meet God.
So what does this mean for us, we 21st Century bearers of Christ’s image? Well, Jesus of Nazareth is the human face of God, he is our model and we are being transformed into his likeness. Jesus, our model teaches us humility and service. Jesus teaches us to empty ourselves of the self-regard that traps us into selfish behaviours and to be true servants of one another and of God. We are called upon to confess God in our lives, to be examples of what transformation looks like and to give the glory of that transformation to God.
We are called to be like the very rocks that would shout out God’s glory!