When hard times come. Palm Sunday 2020

I’m going to take a few minutes to look at this Palm Sunday story. Matthew speaks of how the crowd cut branches and spread them on the road to make a carpet for Jesus as he comes to Jerusalem riding on the donkey. But the other writers in the bible speak of how the people waved palms.

1. The faithful followers

The followers of Jesus, his disciples, are obedient. They do what he tells them.
Even though they must have been scared.
A few days earlier, Jesus had told them that when he gets to Jerusalem he would be arrested, tried and executed.
We know that they are scared because Thomas, one of the twelve disciples, who was always looking on the bright side of things, says, ‘Let’s go to Jerusalem with Jesus and die with him’.
But even though they are frightened, they continue to follow him and to obey him.
They do what he says – they follow his instructions – there may have been a bit of cloak and dagger about it: Jesus prearranging things with the owner of the donkey, and even giving him a password – but, we are told, “The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them”.
And they bring him the donkey and the colt.

I’m standing in front of an image of a C16th icon of the Triumphal entry. It comes from the Pskov region. I love this. Here we can see the disciples following Jesus. He’s on the horse (I’m told they didn’t have asses in C16th Pskov so didn’t know how to draw them) and they are behind him. They are huddled together and don’t look completely happy! In fact, while Peter is saying, ‘Come on, let’s follow him’, one of them is definitely pointing back. He doesn’t want to go to Jerusalem. He wants to go home.

We live in difficult times. That is a bit of an understatement.
Mike showed me a picture of a movie house which had the following notice above its door: This movie house is closed until real life stops behaving like a movie.

And we wonder how we can live as faithful followers of Jesus in a time like this.
Well, we -  of all people - should not be surprised that hard times will come. Sometimes those hard times will come specifically because we are Christians; but we are also told that hard times will come because we live in a sinful and fallen world.
But when the hard times come, we need to keep and guard our inner life, our life with the Lord Jesus.
And because we can’t come to church, it really is important that we put aside time to pray and read the bible on our own, and to grow in our personal relationship with God.
We need to make time to come as we are into the presence of God – to confess our sin, to praise him, to listen to his word, sometimes to pour out our soul to him, and sometimes just to sit and be still in his presence.
Some of you may find either the morning or evening prayer that we are doing from church useful. But even if we are doing that, we need other times when we are alone with God.

And even though we can’t receive communion, we still can receive him: his focus, his forgiveness, his peace, his strength.
And then, having received from him, we obey and we serve. We do what he says.
We need to learn to trust him, that his way and his word really is the best way for us to live.

Living in small flats with other people really pushes us and our relationships – even if we love the other. For many, the discipline of obedience will be about humbling ourselves and saying sorry; it will be about making little sacrifices – joining in that game that you don’t want to play, giving up the Netflix evening that you had promised yourself, beginning to do the sort of jobs that we would never have done before.
Josh tells me he has discovered the broom – and not just to keep the kids at a distance.  
And we look to see how we can serve: in little ways. As we work we are diligent and faithful. And we can all message or email someone, pick up the phone, look out for the neighbour – particularly if they are on their own, and continue to give

The disciples followed Jesus to Jerusalem even though they were fearful and didn’t want to be there.
I suspect that most of us don’t want to be where we are now. May God give us the grace to continue to follow him and to trust him, even when it gets hard.

2. The coming King

The focus of Matthew’s story is Jesus.
He is the one fulfilling the predictions of the Old Testament prophets – that God’s king will come riding on a donkey and a colt.
Matthew is not particularly clear whether Jesus rode on the donkey or the colt, but then it wasn’t important to him. What is important is that the prophecy mentions both donkey and colt – and Matthew wants us to realise that the prophecy is fulfilled by Jesus.
And the crowds acclaim him: He is the son of David. David is the great king who reigned about 1000 years earlier. And God promised David that one of his descendants would be His King, who would bring in his Kingdom and who would reign for ever.
And the crowds declare that this ‘prophet from Nazareth’ is that one – who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna means ‘Save’. So, they declare that he is the one who has come to save us.

They thought that he was the one who would save them from the oppression of the occupying Roman forces, that he would establish Israel as the new imperial power, that all nations would bow before them and serve them. They thought that he had come to make them great again – just as they had been great when David was king.

Well. They were sort of right. Jesus had come to save them, to set them free – but from something far more oppressive and crushing than any occupying force.
He came to save us from sin (from the power of sin, the condemnation of sin) and death.
He came to save us free from hatred and unforgiveness and envy and the desire for revenge and self-centredness.
He did not come to rescue one people from the oppression of another people, so that they in turn could oppress others. He came to save us from oppression, full stop.
He came to bring justice and mercy, to lift the crushed, and bring down the mighty – so that we might learn to love and serve each other.
And he came to break down the consequence of sin which separates us from God, so that we might have intimacy with God.

But to do that, it was going to cost him everything. It would cost him his life. A week later he would be hanging naked, like a piece of meat, with his hands and feet hammered to a wooden cross.

I love the way that this icon painter (writer) illustrates this. Jesus is being carried to Jerusalem on a horse (apparently they didn’t have asses in C16th Pskov). He is the king coming to the city of the king. But he is being brought to the city. His face is turned to the city, but he is seated with his back to the city. And above him is a tree.

3. The hope of heaven

The triumphal entry tells us two stories
It tells us of how Jesus came as king to Jerusalem, was at first welcomed, and then rejected. We will read about that in a few minutes.
But it also looks to the future when Jesus will return in glory, when he will come as king to finally and fully establish his kingdom.
That is why, in this icon, the children are dressed in white, and the city elders have white or red clothing and head covering.  They stand for the saints and martyrs greeting their king.

We live in hard times. For some it is particularly scary, and we will be tested to the very limit. But we are called to be faithful, to focus on Jesus, and to hold on to our hope.

What we have here is a movement – a movement from the top left – from the cities of this world, down the mountain, through the wilderness, past - or maybe through - the dark cave, as we, with the disciples, follow Jesus – fearful but faithful. At times the crowd praise him; at other times they cry for his blood. But we are not on our own. We are surrounded by the praise of the saints – those with us and those who have gone before. And our destination is a new city, the new Jerusalem, the city of God and of God’s king, a place of beauty and of safety, and a place of praise. 


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