Sunday April 5 2020
Dear Friends and Members of Great Meeting,
“Now this is come to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass… And the most part of the multitude spread their garments in the way; and others cut branches from the trees, and spread them in the way. And the multitudes that went before him, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.”
Today is Palm Sunday, and we have just read part of the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The gospel presents this arrival as the fitting manner in which a Messiah ought to be honoured. And subsequently these events of rejoicing are thrown into dark relief by the awful circumstances which succeeded them: the cleansing of the temple; the Last Supper; the Garden of Gethsemane; the apprehension, arrest and trial, the whipping and mocking and crucifixion of Good Friday…
We do not need to search deeply into the events of Jesus’ life to be able to see that his motivation and inspiration for his ministry did not come from any desire for worldly success: “My kingdom is not of this world,” was his reply to those who were hoping for a political messiah. Scholars tell us that the scriptural texts which probably meant most to him were the Songs of the Suffering Servant from the second part of the book of the prophet Isaiah:
“He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their face; he was despised, and we esteemed him not…”
Notwithstanding, it was the astonishing perception of Jesus that against all the imperfections and shortcomings of humanity, within us lay the possibility of salvation.
Theologians and the Church have long identified the human condition as “fallen” and “begotten of sin”. If that indeed is our nature, it was specifically to the sinners of this world, not to the righteous, that Jesus said he came.
One of the most enlightening things that we can hope to achieve is to recognise our own limitations and shortcomings. Faith is about humility, and each one of us has a lot to be humble about.
In The Mask of Religion Peter Fleck wrote “The story of Jesus’ life was the story of a gigantic failure… a failure of such dimentions that our western world, spiritually speaking, is still living by its grace: the grace by which the poor in spirit are blessed, the mourners are comforted, and the meek shall inherit the earth.”
Many will think: if only Christianity could provide an effective antidote to the pains of living; if only its story was bright and positive and optimistic. But Christianity has this incredible mystery at it core, which draws everything into focus (as it were) with the crucfixion of its prophet. As Fleck says, what greater failure than this could there be? And yet we, and the Church, understand this awful mystery as a victory of the spirit over death.
Struggling and striving after success has been the burden of many a life. We remind ourselves of what Jesus said: “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
As with many incidents in the life of the founder of this religion, the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was an acted parable. Here was one of the wisest and most illuminated of people apparently embracing his own destruction at the hands of antagonistic authorities. And by his actions, paradoxically demonstrating to his bewildered followers, the true nature of our humanity and spirituality.
From a prayer by A Powell Davies:
“We are thankful this day, O God, for the beauty of the earth renewed, for the lovliness of life and its promise, and for everything that brings awakening to the soul.”
We are thankful for all lives great and good, the memory of which can never perish, and the power and influence of which increase as we become more ready to receive them. We are thankful for those who in the mystery of life could find their path: those who in darkness lighted a lamp for others to see by; those who could bring to utterance the sacred insights of the spirit; those who have made more plain life’s nobler way.
And we are thankful for those the goodness of whose lives was more than lesser people could suffer the reproach of,,, Especially we think of Jesus, who walked in Galilee, carrying the radience of his vision with him and speaking simply to people so that they found new confidence and hope… Whose mission grew and took him to Jerusalem, where the people who had known and loved him hailed him as their king… We can hear hosannas still, echoing down to us through the centuries… We shall never forget him, or all the generations that come after. He laid upon the ages the touch of his humanity; he has marked a pathway from Nazareth to God. Amen.