A sermon for Palm Sunday evening; the service was for an outreach service for the ‘Senior Friends’ who attend a few times a year and have a tea afterwards. The readings were taken from the lectionary. That of course meant that we didn’t actually have the gospel account of Palm Sunday! (That’s for the morning service!). I got round this by having the first two hymns tell the story (Ride on, ride on and a locally written one).
I found the commentary on Zechariah by Ralph Smith particularly helpful (Word Biblical Commentary volume 32 Micah-Malachi).
It was done to grow the British Empire. It was done during World War II to show the march of the Allies across Europe and the Far East. It has even been done recently on the sea-bed under the North Pole. What am I talking about? The act of planting a flag. Planting a flag symbolises conquest, symbolises the gaining of territory. It is a way of showing that this territory belongs to a kingdom, that this territory is part of something bigger and more important.
As we’ve been reminded in our hymns, today is Palm Sunday. This is the day in the Church’s year when we remember Jesus fulfilling the reading we heard from Zechariah. Zechariah’s prophecy was made perhaps 500 years before the time of Jesus and was looking forward to the coming of God’s promised king. And the Psalm that we read together was the one that the people sang as they welcomed Jesus: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”! It was one of the psalms that the pilgrims would have sang as they gathered in Jerusalem and looked forward to the coming of God’s kingdom and the coming of God’s anointed king.
Zechariah was a prophet who helped God’s chosen people to look forward to the time when Jerusalem would be restored to them, when they would come back from Exile, when the Temple would be rebuilt. Zechariah helped God’s people look forward to worshipping God in the Temple again, and encouraged them to think what it would be like if God’s anointed was actually king.
It was a vision of peace, prosperity, and justice. It begins with a call to sing, rejoice, and shout because the king is coming, God’s chosen king. And what a king! Not a king who brings war, but a king who brings peace, who is humble, who will remove all the weapons of war. A king who rides in on a donkey, not a horse. In other words, a king who rides in on a working animal, not a war horse. A transit van, not a tank or bullet-proof car.
This is a king who will bring freedom, who will bring peace and justice, who will bring help to the down-trodden and forgotten, those at the bottom of the pile. And it is a king who will bring in God’s kingdom over all the earth.
So, Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is like him planting a flag. It is a flag which shows that God’s kingdom has come, that God, through Jesus, is bringing his reign over all the earth.
Now, in case you’re wondering who it was that planted a flag on the North Pole’s sea-bed, it was the Russians five years ago. Five years ago this summer, the Russians sent two mini-submarines 14,000 foot under the sea to plant a flag in the seabed below the North Pole. This wasn’t any old flag either. It was a rust-proof titanium flag, which could last for hundreds of years. The Russians did it as a bit of a stunt as part of the on-going arguments over who actually owns the North Pole.
It didn’t go down terribly well. The Canadian foreign minister at the time was quoted as saying “This isn’t the 15th Century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory’.” It’s an argument that’s going to go on for years yet. And that shows very clearly one of the problems with planting a flag. It’s not really enough on its own. It’s a good start, but more needs to happen.
And of course for Jesus this act of planting the flag, of showing that he was God’s chosen king, bring God’s kingdom was only the beginning. Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week, that time of year in the Church’s calendar when we remember the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. So, here on Thursday we will be holding a communion service to remember Jesus breaking bread and drinking wine with his disciples for the last time.
On Friday we will be gathering with Christians from the local churches to remember together Jesus’ crucifixion. And then we will spend some time reflecting on that here in church. And then next Sunday we will be gathering to celebrate the fact that Jesus, God’s chosen king is alive and reigns for ever. We can celebrate the fact that the king that Zechariah looked for has come, and calls us to be part of his kingdom.
During World War II, flags were planted after the fighting, as a way of showing the victor. There are moving photographs of flags hanging from ruined cities, with people celebrating because freedom had arrived. A hard-won freedom, a freedom that had claimed many lives, but freedom. There are other photographs of soldiers struggling to raise a flag to show that this part of the battle-field had been claimed. The hard fighting had already been done. There might be more to do, but this part, this street, this hill, this town, had been liberated.
And this is what Jesus has done on the cross. He has brought about God’s kingdom, he has brought freedom, he has restored the prisoners of hope as Zechariah puts it. Because of Jesus we are invited to be part of God’s kingdom. Freedom and liberation are ours. The flag has been planted.
But, during the British Empire, flags were planted to claim territory, to show that the land was the Empire’s. The hard work had yet to be done; perhaps including fighting. Certainly including much hard work by many people to build houses and roads and defences in order to make that land a working part of the Empire.
Our second reading was from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He was writing to the early Christians to encourage them, to help them with their problems and struggles. They had become part of God’s kingdom, God’s flag had been planted in their lives, but there was still much hard work to be done to bring the territory claimed fully into God’s kingdom.
In the part that we heard read tonight, Paul is encouraging his listeners to remember what they already knew about God. He is encouraging them to look at God’s kingdom and see the riches that it holds and that God has given and will give to us.
And that of course is why the palm branches that we have are in the shape of a cross. They remind us of the sort of flag that Jesus planted, of the sort of king that he is, and of the type of kingdom that we are invited to become part of. It is a kingdom that brings peace, justice, and prosperity. It is a kingdom that is beyond our imagination:
“no eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him”
It is a kingdom that holds out the promise of eternal life. And it is a kingdom that challenges us to live our whole lives under it, so that all our thoughts, words and actions are working for God’s kingdom. That’s hard work, yes. But, God promises us that he will be with us and will help us by giving us his Spirit, if we plant the flag of his kingdom in our lives, in every part of our life. So “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures for ever”. Amen.