Sermon - Sunday, 14 April 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 14 April 2019.

Scripture: Isaiah 50: 4-9 / Luke 19: 28-40

Text: When Jesus came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.              (Luke 19: 37, 38)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

Mile after mile, and all of it uphill: when Jesus reached the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem, the walk from Jericho would have left him hot, dusty and tired.

Jericho is some twenty miles from Jerusalem but if you are walking, these are twenty very demanding miles.

From one of the lowest points on earth, some 825’ below sea level, the path Jesus followed would have wound its way up and through the inhospitable Judean desert.

By the time he reached sea level, about half way, he would still have had a Munro sized climb ahead of him.

And given we know it was the season of the Passover, in other words spring, it would only be as Jesus approached the summit that the barren limestone desert would have given way to green vegetation.

Visually the change would have been quite dramatic.

So as we read the story, knowing he had just come from Jericho via Bethphage and Bethany, when Jesus and the whole crowd of disciples reached that point on the Mount of Olives where the road starts to go downhill into the Kedron Valley and up again towards the city wall of Jerusalem, it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture a fairly hot, sweaty, dusty and tired group of men and women.

And my question is this: Jerusalem may have been their destination – but did it mark their journey’s end or did it mark its beginning?

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday which heralds the beginning of Holy Week.

Known as the triumphant entry, today we hear about the slow and dramatic parade of Jesus and his disciples down the Mount of Olives - although in Luke’s more restrained telling of events, palm branches are conspicuous by their absence.

What is evident, however, is that this seemingly final journey has been many weeks and months in the making. 

It was at Caesarea Philippi, many miles to the north in Galilee, Jesus first told his disciples he was headed for Jerusalem and the fate which awaited him -  that having suffered at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, he would be put to death and on the third day raised to life.

The disciples had been badly shaken by the news and Peter in particular had been vehement in his protest he would never allow any such thing to happen.

Yet here they are some weeks later, Jesus, Peter and the whole crowd of disciples a short distance from Jerusalem.

Had the disciples forgotten what Jesus told them?

Did they not believe him?

Or despite Jesus’ stern rebuke, was Peter persuaded that he and the others would be able to protect and defend him?

Everything in Luke’s narrative suggests there had been a degree of careful planning and preparation for this moment.

As Jesus approaches the villages of Bethpage and Bethany two disciples are sent ahead to fetch a donkey and they are also given careful instructions on what to do and say if they are challenged.

Clearly Luke wants us to know something significant is taking place and as Jesus makes his way down the Mount of Olives, he tells us people spread their cloaks on the road while the whole crowd of disciples welcomes him with shouts of praise.

This further detail is also significant because within ancient Israel there was a prophetic tradition of acted parables.

When words seemed to have little or no effect, or when people simply refused to listen, the prophets would resort to some dramatic action to make their message clear.

So, for example, in order to get across the message that having broken their covenant with God and refused to follow God’s commandments, God’s people Israel were rotten and useless, Jeremiah bought, wore and then buried a linen belt.

By the time God told Jeremiah to dig it up, the belt, like the people, was rotten and useless.

And in a passage regularly interpreted as a sign of the Messiah, Zechariah spoke about the future king of Israel coming to Jerusalem not warrior like and riding a horse but as a peaceful Messiah seated on a humble colt.

As the two disciples fetched the colt, the royal overtones so carefully kept secret throughout his ministry are at last allowed to come to the surface.

And to ensure his readers are left in no doubt, Luke tells us as Jesus and his disciples make their way down the Mount of Olives, he is welcomed into Jerusalem as the king who comes in the name of the Lord.

However, as one journey is reaching its destination, can we see in Luke’s story another journey is about to begin, not just Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, but the journey which marked and still marks God’s purpose in creation?

From the moment God called Abram to leave his home and his people and travel to the land God would show him, God’s people have been a people on the move.

The Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament record, for example, the people of Israel’s many trials and tribulations as they made good their escape from Egypt spending forty years in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

We hear of Israel’s exile into Babylon and then of the people’s eventual return to re-build a ruined Jerusalem.

And then with its echoes of the Christmas story, where suddenly with the angels there was a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and singing Glory to God in the highest, so heaven and earth are woven inextricably together as Luke’s Palm Sunday account draws all which has gone before into the person of Jesus.

God’s journey, the divine pilgrimage, now has a human face and voice.

Given the impact it has had, it is remarkable to think Jesus’ ministry of preaching, teaching and healing probably lasted little more than two or three years.

And this too is remarkable; what he said and did, not only resonated with people then, it resonates with people today, this donkey riding king whose kingdom is based not on military might or wealth or political power-broking but on justice, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, hospitality, mercy and love.

And because we glimpse in Jesus something of an alternative kingdom based on justice, mercy and love, as he comes to Jerusalem it is important to know whether the journey has reached its destination or arrived at its starting point?

We know what the coming week will bring.

We know Jesus will cause a commotion in the temple, upset the tables of the money changers, and declare God’s house to be a house of prayer.

We know Jesus will wrap a towel around his waist, wash his disciples’ dirty feet, and tell them if they want to be great then they too must follow his example.

We know in an upper room he will break bread, even with the one who is about to betray him.

We know in a garden he will pray and weep as even his closest disciples cannot stay awake.

We know he will be kissed, betrayed, deserted, denied, put on trial, tortured and crucified, his remains placed in a borrowed tomb.

And because we know these things, today we are left wondering, is this it, is that how it ends, Jesus’ life, your life, my life, the journey of life, the journey of faith, the experience of loving and of being loved, God’s purpose in creation?

As Luke recalls us to the promise of the kingdom, he bids us hold fast, to remember the message of the angels, and through the darkness of the coming week, to fear not.

Far from being the journey’s end Luke wants us to know this is where faith begins, faith that injustice will not prevail, faith that death does not have the last word, faith in the victory of God’s love over all that is evil and over all that would frustrate God’s purpose.

Etched on a gravestone in the graveyard surrounding our church you will find these words:

Dry those tears and let the daisies grow

And the forget-me-nots where children wander

O’er mounds we call graves

But where we know our loved one is not

No, the truth is much grander

And as Holy Week begins, what is that grander truth?

Surely it is this; that as Jesus and his disciples came down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, far from reaching their destination, their real journey is about to begin.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen