Sermon - 29th March 2015
Revd Andy Braunston
The Passion reading we’ve heard read to us and the song we’ve just sung, My Song is Love unknown, tell us so much about Jesus’ unjust trial, torture and death and it’s a brave preacher who dares reflect on this reading which is at the heart of Jesus’ story. There is much within the story that we will be reflecting on over the coming week – especially on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday but today we’re encouraged to compare and contrast the glory of Palm Sunday with the agony of Gethsemane and Calvary. At first it’s hard to make the link – those crowds acclaiming Jesus which later turned on him but the link, for me, is the discussion about what it meant for Jesus to be 'King of the Jews'.
By the time we get to Holy Week in Jesus’ ministry scholars think he’d been preaching and teaching for some time. The authorities were disturbed by his religious message that was direct and rather critical of the religious authorities of the day. They were worried that people would acclaim him as their king – the long-promised Messiah - and so bring down the wrath of Rome upon them. Contemporary Christians have rather underplayed the politics of Jesus’ message preferring, instead, to focus on what we call moral and spiritual teaching – as if morality and spirituality can be divorced from politics.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a breath-taking act that combined some obscure prophecy, a lampooning of Pilate and a dangerous confrontation with the authorities.
Passover was a febrile time in Jerusalem and the Roman governor would have come to Jerusalem, with extra troops, to ensure order and security. Normally he’d have been based at Caesarea on the coast, but for Passover would have come into Jerusalem. As he came in from the West on a powerful stallion, Jesus comes in from the East not on a stallion but a humble donkey. Matthew expands the account from Mark which we read today and explained Jesus’ action with a quote from Zechariah which contrasted Alexander the Great and Israel’s Messiah who will enter Jerusalem “humble and riding on a donkey, on a coal, the foal of a donkey.”
Why does Zechariah’s Messiah do this? “To cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (9:9-10) The Messiah comes to bring peace – not the peace of Rome which came from military might and oppression but from God’s non-violent justice. On the one hand we have Roman might and power, on the other we have the Messiah riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. This is so much more than humility but a radical display of how power should work. Jesus knew what he was about – and he was careful to retire each night to nearby Bethany where he could be protected by his own people more easily than in the city. So the king of the Jews had his own demonstration of what power should be about.
Matthew, Mark and Luke put Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple into Holy Week and this represented his decisive break with the Temple authorities. His actions were provocative and disturbing and one can easily imagine Ciaphas and his associates getting more and more worried about what Jesus would do next and how that would bring down upon them the wrath of Rome. Messiahs were trouble; coming kingdoms threaten those who wield power now.
When the authorities do act against Jesus the theme of King of the Jews or Messiah returns. At his trial before the religious authorities Jesus confessed to being the Messiah. At his trial before Pilate the issue is about his own Kingship – though Pilate clearly expects kings to be rather different to this. Before being taken to be crucified the soldiers mock him by calling him King of the Jews and dressing him in mock royal garments. Finally, on the Cross, the charge against Jesus is “The King of the Jews” and the passers by mock him and his claim to be Messiah.
All of the references to King of the Jews are full of irony – even the crowds who acclaim Jesus on the first Palm Sunday are ironic as we know how the story ends and how febrile is public opinion. But there is a deeper irony – the one who rejects violence and domination has violence done to him and is dominated utterly on the cross. The one who proclaimed love, peace, justice and God’s coming kingdom feels the weight of the kingdoms of this world bear down upon him.
Jesus is the king who leads by example, the king who serves, the king who goes into battle. Much has been made this week about Richard III – the last English king to die on the battlefield – later kings were rather more sensible. Yet Richard died in an effort to keep onto a throne which was being challenged or usurped (depending on your view of history) and, at best, had some explaining to do about his nephews in the Tower. Jesus’ lead into battle was very different. The battlefield was the cross, no soldiers fought with him, and those ranged against him didn’t know either what they were doing nor what the end result would be.
As the sun set on Good Friday the powers of evil who seek to rule this world would have breathed a little easier. The troublemaker had been dealt with. The crowds didn’t rise up to protest against his execution. His voice had been silenced with the minimum of fuss. No more cries in the Temple, no more sermons lampooning the rich or the powerful, things could get back to normal now.
We know the end of the story of course; a story that compels and energises us. We know that the powers bit off more than they could chew, that on Easter morning the tables were turned as Jesus rose from the dead proving forever, that darkness cannot ultimately triumph over light, evil cannot win forever over good and that it can be fooled into thinking it’s won.
The Messiah, the King of the Jews, was so much more than his followers thought he was. He was so much more than the authorities feared he was and he is so much more than we imagine with our tendency to pin God down. His call to do justice, to resist evil in all its forms, to love God and neighbour still compels us to take up our crosses and follow him through the triumph of Palm Sunday to the tragedy of Good Friday and, ultimately, to the wounded glory of Easter Day.