Sunday 5th April – Palm Sunday Reflection given by Revd Sue McCoan to the joint online congregations of St. Andrew’s Ealing, Wembley Park and Holy Trinity Perivale
The Old City of Jerusalem is an intense and bustling place, at least in normal times. Narrow, often steep streets, little alleyways, shops and cafes teeming with life – probably not much changed, in essence, since the time of Jesus. Dominating the city, taking up a full quarter of the space, is the Temple Mount, and central to that, in his time, was the Temple itself. Next to the Temple Mount, the Antonine Fortress housed a garrison of Roman soldiers, to keep order and to remind the Jewish people that as well as fearing God they had better also fear the emperor.
Jerusalem was the place where it all happened – business, religion, Roman governance – all concentrated into half a square mile.
It is into this city, this hub of all life and power, that Jesus rides.
Jerusalem is towards the south of the country.
Jesus was brought up in Galilee, in the north. It’s a very different place – a rural environment – some of it farmed for arable crops or vineyards, some open land for the grazing of sheep and goats. Nazareth was one of the larger towns with probably only a few hundred people; Capernaum, the home of Simon Peter, was a fishing village on the shores of Lake Galilee. People worked hard but at a slow and steady pace. Jesus moved at this pace too, travelling on foot between villages, pausing to heal, to preach, to respond to need. He became known, and sought after.
For three years or so, this was his ministry and it was fine. And then things moved on. Simon Peter recognised Jesus as the Messiah; God gave Jesus and Peter, James and John the tremendous experience of the Transfiguration. And after that, Jesus begins his journey towards Jerusalem. He moves from open space to crowded city; from familiar countryside to unknown territory; from people whose lives he knows and shares to powerful strangers. It as if the whole of his life is being funnelled into a narrow space, focused into this one hotspot.
Bible reading: Matthew 21:1-11
Jesus is not the only person arriving in Jerusalem. People are coming from all over the country to celebrate the Passover festival. If Jesus had wanted only to join the celebrations, it would have been easy for him to slip in unnoticed in the crowds. But this is not what Jesus has come for. The funneling and narrowing down of his physical environment mirrors a sharpening focus on the work he has been sent to do.
The hymn ‘My Song is Love Unknown’, which we have a little later in this service, remind us that the narrowing down doesn’t start from Galilee. Verse 2 says, ‘He came from his blest throne’. The Son of God had the freedom of all eternity, with the Creator and the Holy Spirit. He chose to become human in one person, Jesus of Nazareth, narrowing down to that body, that place, that time. O, the willingness of God to accept our limitations, our human life! – and then further to make choices that narrow his life down until he enters that city gate and there is only one way forward.
We have had our lives narrowed down in the last couple of weeks in ways we could hardly have imagined; all sorts of things we can’t do, people we can’t see, that we have always taken for granted. We might be finding it difficult to adjust because things have changed so quickly. It’s not something we would wish on anybody and I know some people are really badly affected, not least financially. But maybe, as we experience this loss of freedom and narrowing of options that was not of our choosing, maybe now, through this, we might begin to appreciate just how much it cost Jesus to make the choices he did, just how much he has given for us and for our sake.
So here is Jesus, just outside the city of Jerusalem, ready for the final confrontation with the powers of the world. Look how he does it. He stages an entrance that is a deliberate echo of a victory parade, riding into the city gates like a conquering king – but no fine robes, no military display, no parade of captives. Just an unarmed, unprotected, man.
In the 1970s, interviewing the American feminist Gloria Steinem, the interviewer tried to pay her a compliment by saying she didn’t look 40. Steinem shot back: ‘this is what 40 looks like’. Jesus in staging this entrance is saying, ‘This is what majesty looks like’.
This is the majesty that comes, not from domination or wealth or military victory, but from God. This is the majesty that is rooted in humility and service. This is the majesty that will carry Jesus through the week, as he challenges the institutions of power. This is the majesty that will triumph over all those institutions because all those institutions hold onto power through fear – and this majesty is not afraid.
It is one of the shocking elements of the Christian gospel, that God conquers not through being more powerful, but by giving away all power.
So bring it on, you Pharisees. Bring it on, you chief priests and Sanhedrin. Bring it on, you Romans. This is the week when the whole life and purpose of Jesus comes into focus. This is Holy Week. And Jesus is ready.
Let’s pause, and hear the first part of the hymn, My song is love unknown.
Hymn: My song is love unknown v1-3
In these uncertain times, we might be facing our own pain and sadness, our own anxieties. We might long for a God who can sort everything out and take the pain away. Today we remember that God is not in the business of making life easy for us; that the power of God is in being powerless; and that God will walk with us through the dark times, will love us and love us until we are lovely again.
This is holy week, and we too are ready, ready to walk with Jesus towards the cross. May we walk with humility, knowing what Christ has done; and may we walk with confidence, knowing that he did it for us.