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Sermon for 9 April

When the excitement fades, the work begins

It was about 8 o’clock in the evening and I was working late in my study up at school, where I'm the Chaplain. It’s such a good time to get the more mundane tasks done, when the bustle of the place gives way to the briefest of silences. But not this night. My door burst open and two girls, in floods of tears, asked if they could talk. "Of course!” I said, consigning whatever task I was working on to tomorrow’s to-do list.

They sat down and I managed to decipher, between the sobs, that they had just seen a video on Facebook of a boy, about their age, who was terminally ill. He explained his condition and how it had affected his life, but what had touched them the most was how upbeat he was about it all. Towards the end of the video, he made a plea for people to raise money for the charity engaged in research on his condition, so that others did not have to endure what he had endured.

This was why they had come to see me: I have responsibility for the School’s charitable fundraising and they wanted to respond to the young boy’s call to arms. I think what struck me was this: their tears were real and their intent was genuine; they had been cut to the heart by what they had seen and had to do something.

Being aware that it was 8:00pm and having a number of years experience in dealing with late-night teenage outpourings of emotion, I made a suggestion: "Go back to House, take some time to gather yourselves and with a clear head, come back to see me with some ideas of what you would like to do.” "Okay,” they said and I sent them on their way.

Something told me that once the emotion of this moment had dissipated, we would not speak about this again. I was right.

Palm Sunday stirs up all kinds of peculiar feelings within me: on the one hand, I’m giddy with excitement at the thought of the procession through the village with the donkey, the smiles, the curiosity of those whom we pass by and yet if I scratch the surface, there lies below a nervousness about what is to come in the next few days: how quickly we go from "Hosanna!” to "Crucify!”

So why do things deteriorate so quickly? How is it that the anticipation of great triumph we enjoy this Sunday descends so rapidly into denial, desertion and deceit of Jesus’ inner circle by late Thursday and the crowd which welcomed him with open arms is asking for his blood come Friday?

I think it is something to do with the excitement of expectation. You see, the crowds, which gathered that day had a very clear idea in their heads of what the Messiah would look like; in the Book of Zechariah it says:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

And let’s not forget that today we have palm branches, which for the crowds of the day would have looked a lot like the military victory of the Maccabees that was celebrated some 150 years earlier by waving palm branches. There could be no doubt: this was their guy, the warrior who was going to ride into town, overthrow the oppressors and make everything okay again. Little wonder they were excited!

But as the week progressed, things began to change. Jesus’ very next act was to cleanse the temple: to turn the tables over and say that everything they were doing was an abomination before God. This is followed very quickly by Jesus telling the crowds to pay their taxes to the Romans, the Romans! And then he questions the authority of the religious leaders.

You can imagine the sideways looks and furrowed "Hang on a minute!” looks exchanged between the people in the crowds. What, at first glance, looked like the beginning of a victory for the Jewish people turned into a long list of reprimands from the guy who was supposed to liberate them.

"This wasn’t what it was supposed to be like: it was supposed to be easy, it was supposed to be about that lot over there getting what they deserve. Now, Jesus arrives telling us that we’ve got it all wrong and it’s we who have to change the way we behave! Well, thanks, but no thanks: we’d much rather have Roman rule than be told by this upstart that we’re the ones in the wrong. He’s clearly not the Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy and he has to go.” Put simply, the crowds turned on Jesus because he told them that if they wanted to see change, it had to start with them.

Palm Sunday is an important and painful lesson for us too as we begin our journey through Holy Week. How often we can feel full to the brim with the first flush of religious enthusiasm but eventually, this gives way to the hard, relentless work of forgiving the unforgivable, of loving the unlovable, of healing what seems to be beyond repair.

Palm Sunday is an important lesson in realizing that if we want to see the kind of change promised by God, then it has to begin with us, right here, right now and we have to keep chipping away at it, even when the thrill of "Hosanna!” has dissipated.

Palm Sunday is an important lesson in realizing that being agents of this kind of change is costly, in requires sacrifice and it will take us through denial, desertion and deceit, all the way to the cross.

Palm Sunday is an important lesson in realizing that it is when the excitement fades that the work begins.

I’ll leave you with the words of the poet Malcolm Guite, from his Sonnet for Palm Sunday:

Now to the gate of my Jerusalem,
The seething holy city of my heart,
The saviour comes. But will I welcome him?
Oh crowds of easy feelings make a start;
They raise their hands, get caught up in the singing,
And think the battle won. Too soon they’ll find
The challenge, the reversal he is bringing
Changes their tune. I know what lies behind
The surface flourish that so quickly fades;
Self-interest, and fearful guardedness,
The hardness of the heart, its barricades,
And at the core, the dreadful emptiness
Of a perverted temple. Jesus come
Break my resistance and make me your home.


Posted: 11-04-2017 at 07:56
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