Palm Sunday asks us ‘What are you expecting? Why?’ It challenges our thinking, and highlights the mismatch between what we expect and how God is acting.
This sermon was helped by a few different commentaries: R T France Matthew NICNT; N T Wright Matthew for Everyone; G. Gorgan Psalms THOTC.
I’m sure that lots of you have been to Calke Abbey over the years. It’s not quite what you expect from a National Trust property is it? Yes, it’s got the usual parkland, café, gardens and so on, but the difference is that they have decided not to restore the house to its former glory. The National Trust have stopped it from falling down, but have left the clutter and the peeling wallpaper, and the general sense of abandonment that lots of the rooms have. And they describe Calke Abbey as ‘the un-stately home’.
It’s a bit different, not quite what you might have been expecting, particularly if you’d been round other National Trust places before. But you wouldn’t know at first glance.
Which is the, probably slightly strained, link with the reading! This is the sort of procession that people would have wanted, would have been looking forward to, had heard about. The gospel reading quoted from the prophet Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The prophets had talked about it, the people were wanting it! A very large crowd spread cloaks and palm branches on the ground. People go ahead of Jesus and follow Jesus shouting and singing. It wasn’t long ago that Jesus was telling his disciples to keep quiet about the fact that he was the Messiah, and now this! This is an announcement on a grand scale. It’s a declaration. A statement of intent. It’s going to be noticed and it’s going to provoke a response. Especially as Jesus marches straight into the Temple and causes further chaos by overturning the tables, clearing out money-changers, and arguing with the chief priests.
This is it. This is the moment where the wandering preacher and miracle-worker gets the crowd on his side, gets rid of the hated Romans and their collaborators and liberates Jerusalem! So Jesus does this (Matthew 21:17):
And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.
He went to bed. That isn’t how successful revolutions start off. The leader doesn’t whip the crowd into a frenzy and then go back home for a sleep, no matter how well-deserved.
What are you expecting? Why?
The crowd that had followed Jesus knew what they were expecting. They had followed him, many probably from Galilee, as they travelled down together for the Passover. They had heard him teach, had seen him heal. They knew he was a prophet and were expecting great things. Although not the great things that actually happened…
Meanwhile, the people of Jerusalem were confused and concerned “Who is this?” they ask. What’s going on? And they have to be told. They are not expecting this, they are confused and uncertain, scared about what a revolution might bring. And they are right. The events of Holy Week bring about the greatest revolution. Although not in the way that they might have been expecting.
So, what are you expecting? Why?
One of our temptations sometimes with God is to try and turn our relationship with him into a series of exchanges. If I do this, then God will do that. Or, a magic spell. If I say these words in the right way, or if I do this, then God will make sure that this happens. If I just pray harder, believe a bit more, be a better person, then everything will be all right. Which we can then use as an explanation for when things don’t work. It was my fault because I hadn’t done something in the ‘right’ way. But, that’s not how it works.
The Triumphal Entry shows us that there is a mismatch between our expectations, our hopes, our prayers and God’s answer to them. What we’d like and what we get aren’t even always on the same page. God doesn’t follow our logic, God so far exceeds our expectations that we sometimes have to ask, like the people of Jerusalem, what’s going on?
All of which is why we use palm branches in the shape of crosses. Jesus is king! Jesus is hailed as the coming Messiah, the anointed one of God, the promised Saviour, the one who would lead the revolution, get rid of evil, sweep away what was wrong and restore God’s kingdom. But, Jesus’ throne is a cross and his crown is made of thorns.
There’s another reminder of the mismatch between our expectations and God’s answer in Psalm 118. The crowd that was following Jesus would have been used to using. Psalms 113 to 118 are a group called the Hallel Psalms. Hallel means Praise. They are the psalms that would have been used by pilgrims as they walked up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. The Praise Psalms.
The Praise Psalms praise God for his glory, his care of his people, his power, his compassion and love, for the way that he cares for us in the midst of our troubles, and that those troubles are not the last word. Like the prophets, they look forward to a time, when God’s kingdom is fully here and everything will finally be as it should be, as God intended it to be. And to express their confidence in that, they express the things that they are looking forward to as though they have already fully happened or are fully happening now. Which can give us problems unless we read them in the right way.
And as we heard in Psalm 118, a procession is described, as the king leads the people, with green branches in hand, up to the temple. It’s a joyful celebration of the loving power of God, restoring his people, giving them hope for a future.
So, people used this as part of their understanding of what they were still looking forward to when they celebrated Passover. Passover is the yearly celebration of God leading Moses and his people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom. It was a celebration of praise and thanksgiving, but also a time of longing for freedom and the coming of God’s king and God’s kingdom. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” the psalm says. In other words, the king. The anointed king, chosen by God.
Because alongside the praise was the longing for God to save his people. ‘Lord, save us!’ is the great cry in Psalm 118. And ‘save us’ is the word ‘Hosanna’, which then gets used as a cry of praise, a bit like hallelujah does. Because God has saved his people, will save his people, and will go on saving his people. Again, it’s the past, present and future all rolled into one.
But, before any of that, is this strange verse: “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” And that’s really a summary of what we commemorate and celebrate this Holy Week. We remember Jesus’ rejection and death, and we celebrate that through Jesus’ resurrection he is shown as the cornerstone, as the foundation for us being able to come in praise and sorrow to God. Jesus is the cornerstone of a new, better, greater building.
The stone the builders rejected. Presumably because it didn’t look quite right. Didn’t quite fit with the scheme. Had some damage to it that they thought made it unsuitable. Our expectations and God’s purposes don’t always match up. How we look at things, the way we see things, and how God sees them can be different. How God sees us is different. Because God sees us without the excuses that we try and make for ourselves. And because God sees us with a pure love, a love that endures for ever. And a love that transforms. We are truly known and truly loved.
So, Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and declares himself the king. And Jesus comes into Jerusalem and shows that he’s a different sort of king. He spends the rest of the week telling and showing people that their understanding of what kingship looks like is wrong. Which again isn’t really a surprise to people who knew their Old Testament well. One of the things that the prophets keep coming back to is that they’re not really sure about kings. They’re not God’s first choice of organising things. Well, not with a king who isn’t God himself anyway…
So, what does this mean for us? Well, why do we think that it is any different now than it was then?
Now, as then, Jesus comes as king. Now, as then, Jesus comes to bring God’s kingdom into our lives. But, that might look different to how we expected.
In the classic book Mere Christianity, C S Lewis uses this picture, which I’ve found a helpful one over the years. You might find it helpful. And if you don’t, feel free to ignore it!
C S Lewis writes [Mere Christianity, Book 4, end of chapter 9]:
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts [terribly] and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought that you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. And he intends to come and live in it himself.”
That’s what Lewis says. Actually, God is already living in it, in us, himself – this is an on-the-job renovation! God doesn’t live in a caravan nearby until the work is finished. He doesn’t refuse to complete the deal until all the contractors have signed off their parts. We’re not a Calke Abbey, where God deliberately leaves bits of the mess for people to look at. No, God is living in the midst of the dust and rubble and beauty and excitement of the on-going building project. And he doesn’t sub-contract either!
We are temples of the Holy Spirit, palaces for King Jesus. Half-built temples, perhaps. Palaces where there are still rooms that are going to need a lot of sorting out. Temples where Jesus needs to clear out things so that there is even more room for worship of him.
We’re going to end with a time of reflection. As we listen to some quiet music, I’d invite you to look at your palm crosses, thank God for his enduring love and ask him to exceed your expectations.