Notes from the sermon by Paul Magnall on Palm Sunday 14th April 2019
Over the last few weeks we have been looking at “What do we value?” One way of identifying what people value is to see what they invest in. In what they invest their
But how do we know if we are investing in the right things? A popular way of deciding what might be the right thing to do is to ask WWJD or What Would Jesus Do? So this morning I am going to ask the question WWYV or What Would Jesus Value and contrast Him with some of the other major players in the Easter story.
Palm Sunday highlights a clash of powers, cultures, forces, movements that climax on Easter Friday through to Easter Sunday. To know what these powers valued we need to look at what they invested in and what they trusted.
So, let’s go to Palm Sunday nearly 2000 years ago.
The geographical context of this story is Jerusalem. On the whole Jesus has avoided the big cities and towns in his ministry so far. He has travelled the countryside popping up in one place and another and then disappearing into the quiet and the wilderness with his close disciples. The crowds build up and then he disappears again. The authorities feel threatened by his message and seek to arrest or kill him and then he disappears out of their reach.
But now it is his time. He goes to Jerusalem for the Passover, the BIG religious festival of the Jews where they celebrate their exit from the Egyptian empire and their freedom from slavery.
Central to this are the religious leaders, mainly the Pharisees.
The Romans were the conquerors. They were in charge and everyone knew it. A big Jewish religious festival celebrating freedom from empire meant there was a huge probability of trouble, protests against the Romans, even an uprising. So Pontius Pilate, governor of the region, would leave his base in Caesarea with a substantial force of soldiers to travel to Jerusalem to keep the peace. Caesarea was a nice Roman town on the Mediterranean coast, not a crowded, smelly, provincial city. And so Pilate arrives along a Roman road from the west to enter by the West Gate of Jerusalem, the entrance lined by local people forced to stand and cheer their Roman conquerors.
Another group, ever present, and one of the reasons the Romans left their nice coastal resort were the rebels. There were lots of different rebel groups who wanted to throw the Romans out of Judea and claim it back as God’s own country. Their big uprising would come later but for now they were a thorn in the Romans’ side, appearing, causing mischief and then disappearing again. They could be anywhere! They couldn’t quite get their act together but one day they would and that would lead to a major catastrophe with the destruction of the Temple.
And so to Jesus. As I said earlier, he had travelled the countryside and avoided the big centres of population. But now it was time, a nursing donkey and it’s baby donkey were organised, Jesus gathered his disciples and followers and rode into Jerusalem via one of the Eastern gates – both of which have huge significance which I haven’t time to go into here. And instead of long faced locals being forced to cheer he was surrounded by people who were genuine in their cheering. Such a contrast to the Imperial forces entering the West Gate – do you think Jesus was making a big point here?
So, what did these different participants in the Palm Sunday story value? What did they invest in?
The religious leaders, the Pharisees
- They valued the law. They invested their time in studying the scriptures in order to determine how to be pure and set apart for God. They wanted to be as white as snow and get every detail right. They believed that if everyone in Israel was pure then God would drive out the Romans and Jerusalem would be restored to its former glory. (And we know what Jesus thought of this – he called the religious leaders whitened sepulchres and condemned the way that they imposed their moral correctness onto the rest of society creating a burden for the already downtrodden)
- They valued the Temple – the centre of worship, the place where God dwelt amongst them. This for them was the place to be. And having Jesus talk about the Temple being demolished and rebuilt in three days was a threat to them.
- They valued peace. Even if it was Pax Romana. The Romans were clever, they allowed the Jews to have their religion as long as the religious leaders kept the peace. And the Pharisees were rewarded for keeping the peace with money and land (something that was actually against the Jewish law … but then they just reinterpreted the law!)
- They valued order, hierarchy, control, everyone in their place and theirs was at the top.
- The outcome was that the religious leaders kept their place and privileges, the Jewish faith and practice was tolerated by the Romans, order is kept but the poor and weak are trampled on and kept in their place. The prophet’s words of justice, mercy and humility are ignored. (The next few chapters of the Easter story after the entrance into Jerusalem are about Jesus challenging the religious leaders and what they valued).
So, to the Romans.
- They valued Empire, power and control. Their empire dominated the known world. They invested in their military so that they could control the nations that they had conquered and could defend and even expand their borders. They invested in roads and transport so that they could move their troops quickly to any trouble spots. I can imagine Caesar reclining on his couch when a messenger arrives.
“The English are revolting!”
“I know” says Caesar “they never wash!”
“No” says the messenger, “Theresa Maydica has declared something called Brexit and they are going to leave the Empire”
“Quick” commands Caesar, “Send our legionnaires Merkel and Tusk to stop them!”
- The Romans valued the wealth of the nations that they controlled. In Judea alone they invested in the fishing industry, vineyards and olive production just to name a few. Fisherman like Simon Peter and his brothers would have to provide the Romans with fish who barrelled them up in brine and transported them along their excellent transport system to the markets in Rome. Land was grabbed from local farmers to turn into vineyards to make wine for Roman consumption. When we read about miracles and parables involving fish or wine they may well have had a much deeper, social or political meaning!
The Rebels or Zealots
- They valued freedom from Roman control, they wanted their country back. Different groups had different ideas of how to do this but they all invested their time and energy in finding ways to subvert and overthrow the Romans, usually at huge expense to life as the Romans would just string them up on crosses if they captured them, or send them to the amphitheatres to fight lions or gladiators, or even demolish whole villages.
And so to Jesus. What Did Jesus Value? What did he invest in?
- People. Jesus seems to have spent a lot of time with ordinary people, sick, poor, people on the edge of society, the needy, those who knew that something was missing in their lives, people who were hungry for something better, who hungered for justice and peace (see the Beatitudes).
- Jesus invested in these people by listening to them, caring for them, loving them, by bringing God to them. As Jesus said to John the Baptist when asked if he was the one that God had sent “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Luke 7:22 NIV
- Jesus invested in ordinary people and valued them for who they were in the sight of God – part of God’s creation.
I believe Jesus had a vision, a dream of what the world should and could be like (Martin Luther King caught some of that dream). How the creator God had planned it to be like. Jesus wanted to share that dream by showing it happening, letting people know it was possible even with the forces of empire and domination against them. He was investing in what God had invested in when she created the Universe. It is a dream or vision that the prophets saw and spoke of ….
What Jesus was investing in is what he described as the Kingdom of God, not a place where the 1% live in ultra-luxury at the expense of the 99% (is there a parable there?) but where we all live together in the “Joy of Enough”, where there are no wars for control of oil fields, there are no climate refugees, no children picking rubbish off landfill sites, where we don’t have more plastic than fish in the ocean, people dying from polluted air or water. “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid”
As Jan said last week, God is passionate about Her creation, about us, about the world in which we live. This is why God invests in us!
On the sixth day God saw what he had created, what he had invested in and it was very good.
God so loved what He had invested in He sent His only son….
Jesus believed so totally in the Creator’s investment in us, in the whole of creation that he came and invested his whole life, even to death, for you, for me, for the whole of God’s creation.
Do we know our value?
Some websites about Palm Sunday and the Eastern Gates. Apparently there are two Eastern Gates, the Golden or Mercy Gate (see websites below) and the “lamb” gate through which the lambs were taken to the temple for sacrifice. Both gates brimming with significance that we never seem to hear about on Palm Sunday!