Sunday, 14 April 2019

Marching for a new world

Palm Sunday 14 April 2019, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29 
Luke 19.28-40
Imagine, if you can, a population that has lost faith in its national leaders…
            Imagine a country where political instability is the order of the day,
                        and those who govern cling to power using a toxic mix
                        of deceit, bullying, and outright coercion.
            Imagine a country where the alternatives aren’t much better.

Imagine a vast crowd, marching through the streets of the capital city,
            chanting and laughing and crying out
                        that the way things have turned out
                        is not the way any of them wanted things to be.
Imagine a crowd longing for an alternative, a new leader,
            who will finally do things differently.

And, of course, there are others who aren’t so convinced,
            who watch the crowd from a distance, fearful of the power of the mob,
            those who want the crowds to disperse,
                        to allow the processes of government to proceed,
                        for better or not, in good order;
            those who are afraid of making things worse by pandering to populist opinion,
                        who see the rule of law, and due process, as paramount.

Welcome, to first century Palestine.

Some of us here this morning will find it easy to visualise the scene,
            because we were there, just late last year,
                        and the geography we saw hasn’t changed all that much
                        over the last two thousand years…

And as you retrace the steps of Jesus from Luke 19,
            taking the road from Jericho to Jerusalem,
            you find that it’s uphill all… the… way…

Jericho is 258 metres below sea level,
            part of the Dead Sea depression
            that forms the lowest point on the surface of the earth.
Whilst Jerusalem is 754 metres above sea level,
            giving an elevation change of over a kilometre,
            all to be climbed, in the first century, on foot in the desert heat;
                        a very different experience from the air conditioned minibus
                        that we were fortunate enough to have at our disposal last year.

By the time Jesus got near to Bethphage and Bethany,
            situated on the Mount of Olives facing Jerusalem,
                        just the other side of the Kidron Valley,
            he and his disciples had already put in a couple of days’ of hard uphill slog.

And then Luke tells us about this slightly strange scene
            where Jesus sends his disciples on ahead into the village
                        to find a young male horse that has never been ridden,
                        and bring it to him.

It quickly becomes clear that this is something Jesus has been planning for a while,
            because it seems there’s some prior arrangement with the people in the village
            to let his disciples take their animal without challenge.

And so the colt is brought to Jesus,
            the disciples throw their cloaks on it, Jesus jumps on,
                        and they all set off across the Mount of Olives,
                        making their way towards Jerusalem.

And then, suddenly, the handful of disciples
                        who had come up with Jesus from Jericho,
            become a multitude of disciples, praising God joyfully with loud voices,
                        loud enough to be heard across the valley
                                    and attract the attention of the Pharisees
                                    who quickly come to see what’s going on.

And then, equally suddenly, and for the first time in the gospel,
            Jesus gets a new title.

‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’,
            people start to chant.

After a whole ministry of assiduously avoiding the title ‘King’,
            unexpectedly, sitting on a colt on the Mount of Olives,
            Jesus is loudly hailed as King by his own disciples.

The whole thing has the air of being a massive setup.
            This isn’t happening by accident:
                        A suspiciously large crowd of disciples,
                        the pre-arranged availability of symbolically important horse,
                        and a new chant which takes things to a whole new level in terms of impact.

It’s all starting to sound very Zechariah chapter 9 verse 9.

Let me remind you, in case you’ve forgotten.

The book of Zechariah, one of so-called ‘minor prophets’ of the Hebrew Bible,
            was written some time after the Jewish return from Babylonian exile,
and it speaks, tantalisingly, of a hopeful future:
            of a time when Israel’s political strength would be restored,
            when the economic stability of its capital city would be re-established,
            and when its rebuilt temple would have religious superiority once again.

And as part of this hope for a new world order,
            of a renewed political, economic, and religious ascendancy for the people of Israel,
Zechariah painted a picture that profoundly shaped Jewish theology
            for the next five hundred years,
giving shape to what became known
            as the hope for a future messiah.

Zechariah said (in chapter 9, verse 9),

“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.”

The Jews of the first century knew full well
            what their Messiah was going to look like,
and Jesus and his disciples
            deliberately enact that scene almost to the letter.

What on earth is going on here?

Well, I think it sounds like what, in community organising terms,
            we would call an ‘action’.

Many of you will know that Bloomsbury is an active part
            of the community organising network London Citizens,
            which seeks to make our city a more just place.

And one of the key lessons of community organising,
            is that you only get the change in society
            that you have the power to demand.

You can shout about injustice until you’re blue in the face,
            but if you don’t have enough power
                        to persuade the-powers-that-be to change,
            nothing is likely to change.

The Citizens method suggest that there are three kinds of power in the world:
            financial power, political power, and people-power.
And if you don’t have a lot of money,
            and if you don’t have politicians in your pocket,
            then the way to bring about greater justice in society is to organise people.

So you network people together, drawing in churches, mosques, synagogues,
            schools, universities, and community groups,
until you have enough people who care about injustice
            to begin to make a difference.

And then you plan what’s known as an ‘action’:
            a deliberate act, involving people in sufficient numbers to get noticed,
            to draw attention to the injustice you want to challenge,
            and to put pressure on the gatekeepers of power.

So, for example:
            A business that is not paying the living wage,
                        may find a large group of people outside its head office
                                    on the day of their AGM,
                        visibly drawing attention to the fact
                                    that they are not treating their employees with dignity.
            Or a City Hall might find a large group of people
                        making a tent camp on its doorstep,
                        on the very day they are taking decisions about affordable housing…

You get the idea.

And I think that what we have going on here in Luke’s story of Palm Sunday,
            is Jesus undertaking what we would, today, call an ‘action’.

He’s done his power analysis,
            and he knows what he is setting out to challenge:
He is setting his face
            against the economic corruption of the Herodian regime,
            and against the political domination of the Roman empire,
            and against the religious compromises of the Pharisees.

Just like Zechariah before him,
            he identifies in his society the unholy trinity of power
                        that is economics, politics, and religion
                        all in each other’s pockets;
            and he can see that each of these has become corrupted,
                        so that it no longer serves the people,
                        but rather controls and oppresses them.

So Jesus gathers his crowd, and enacts his action;
            deliberately modelling his entry into Jerusalem
            on the archetypical messianic text from the Jewish Scriptures.

“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.”

Zechariah would have been proud.

Sometimes, on Palm Sunday, we emphasise Jesus going to Jerusalem to die,
            setting his face towards the cross,
            to sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity.

But today, I’d like to suggest that we look at it slightly differently.

This isn’t Jesus going to Jerusalem to die,
            although clearly that is a possible outcome.
But rather, this is Jesus going to Jerusalem to announce his kingdom.

Just as Martin Luther King never set out to be assassinated,
            but nevertheless recognised that his actions were endangering his life
            as he spoke and acted against the oppressive powers of his day;
so Jesus didn’t set out to be crucified,
            even though his actions to call out the abuses of power
            were certainly making that a possibility.

This is not a death march,
            this is not a dead man walking.
This is Jesus symbolically embodying
            all the things he had been talking about
            over the past years of his public ministry.

All the parables, all the healings, all the exorcisms,
            had been pointing to one thing:
which is that the old world of power and domination
            was not going to get its way for ever,
because a new world is coming into being,
            where evil will be cast out, where corrupt power will be challenged,
            and where those who have been diminished will be raised up.

It’s no wonder the crowd started to go wild,
            the thing they’ve been waiting for, for five hundred years,
            is finally happening.

And the timing couldn’t have been better,
            Jesus is entering Jerusalem in fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy,
            in the precise week of the great Passover celebration,
which introduces a whole other layer of symbolism to Jesus public ‘action’:

The original Passover, you will remember,
            was the final act of God in persuading the Pharaoh
            to release the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

After the plagues of frogs, locusts, and the like,
            the angel of death visited the houses of the Egyptians
                        taking the lives of their firstborn children,
            but passing over the houses of the Israelites
                        who had marked their doorposts with the blood of a lamb.

And Jesus’ symbolic entry to Jerusalem
            is timed to coincide with the annual celebration
            of Israel’s release from slavery.

The point couldn’t be clearer:
            this is God’s new exodus, it is God’s great Passover,
Jesus has come to bring into being a new world,
            where the powers of empires like Egypt and Rome
                        would be challenged at their very core,
            and where the corruptions of religious compromise and economic exploitation
                        would be named and shamed,
            opening a new path to freedom for those enslaved.

And so the crowd shout words from Psalm 118.26

"Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" (19.38)

giving us yet another highly symbolic reference from the Hebrew Bible.

Psalm 118 was a traditional song sung by pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem,
            it is a hymn of praise to the God who defeats all his foes,
                        and establishes his kingdom.
And the crowd around Jesus start chanting it,
            pinning yet more hopes on Jesus
                        as the fulfilment of all the nation’s deepest longings
                        for justice, renewal, and restoration.

And so Jesus enters Jerusalem,
            taking the path from the Mount of Olives,
            though the Kidron Valley
            and back up the hill on the other side to the city of David.

And although Luke doesn’t record it,
            I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to hear the crowds
            still singing Psalm 118 as they draw near to the city gates:

“Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.” (118.19-20)

I spoke a few minutes ago about how public actions
            are designed to challenge the gatekeepers of power,
            to bring about the possibility of change.

Well, the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem is just such an action,
            and by anyone’s measure it was supremely effective.

We get the initial response within our passage from Luke’s gospel,
            as the Pharisees who have joined the crowd
            tell Jesus to order his disciples to stop.

But of course, Jesus is having none of it,
            the moment of his great public action has arrived,
            and nothing is going to get in its way.

So he tells the Pharisees that it’s useless
            to try and put a plug in the dam once the crack has appeared,
            and that the flood of God’s new kingdom is coming whether they like it or not.
‘If these disciples were silent, the stones would shout out’, he says.

And, of course, so it proves to be.
            The revolution is coming, and nothing, nothing at all, can stop it.

Of course, as we who have heard the story before know very well,
            the revolution doesn’t come in the way that the crowd around Jesus expected.
There’s the horror of Good Friday to get through
            before Easter Sunday dawns.

But the tide has turned, the dam has cracked,
            the possibility of a new way of being has been glimpsed,
and the good news of the in-breaking kingdom of God
            will not be silenced.

People are going to find release from their sins,
            those who are bowed down by the powerful trinity
                        of politics, economics, and religion,
            are going to find a way through the darkness
                        to new life and new hope,
            as they encounter a new trinity of faith, hope, and love.

The revolution that Jesus brought to Jerusalem
            wasn’t, in the end, the revolution the crowd were shouting for.
He didn’t take David’s throne, overthrow Rome, depose Herod,
            and send the Pharisees packing.

He did something far more significant.

The kingdom that Jesus inaugurated,
            was not a renewed kingdom of Israel,
            based in Jerusalem and defined by geographic limits.
It was the kingdom of God,
            which extends to all people, in all places, in all times.
It was the universal kingdom of love
            which always, in all places, and in all times,
                        offers a persistent, unquenchable challenge
            to those unholy powers that seek to deny love,
                        and to require people to live in fear.

And so we come to ourselves,
            gathered here in central London,
celebrating the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

And I wonder what the significance of this event is for us?
            What is the good news of the in-breaking kingdom for us, in this place?

Lent and passiontide are probably the most depressing
            season in the Christian year.

Some of us have been echoing Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness for 40 days and nights,
            by denying ourselves of something through Lent.
Some of us have already fixed our sights on the cross of Good Friday.
            We know the desolation of Easter Saturday is coming.
            We know there is a journey of suffering before we get to Easter Sunday.

And yet, what do we meet today on Passion Sunday,
            Palm Sunday as it is sometimes called?
Here at the start of the Octave of Holy Week?

We meet Jesus triumphant!
            We meet Jesus entering the city
                        to a fiesta of praise and acclamation
            as the crowds cast their cloaks before him
                        honouring and praising him
                        as the king who comes to bring good news to the city.

And I can’t help but think, sometimes,
            that if Jesus, the week before his crucifixion,
            with the weight of the world on his shoulders,
can enter the city and share in the joy of its citizens at his arrival,
            then maybe we too can find joy in the midst of the troubles of our lives.

You see, another one of the lessons of community organising,
            is that changing the world should be fun.
Laughter is a powerful tool for healing hurt and defusing tension,
            a smile can unlock gates that no battering will shift.

And you don’t need me to tell you this morning
            what the problems are in our world.
Death and despair, politics and power, suffering and starvation
            confront us every time we turn on our TVs
            or open a newspaper or news app.

And Jesus knew all about the difficulties and dramas of human life,
            he knew what the Romans were doing to people,
            he knew that Herod had betrayed his people
                        in exchange for money and power,
            he knew that the religious leaders
                        had sold their souls in exchange for security.

But that didn’t stop him from entering into the triumphant joy
            of his people at the coming of their messiah.

We often speak of the gospel of Jesus,
            we often proclaim the good news of his coming.
But all too often we live as though the message he proclaimed
            was one of middle class guilt and mild self loathing,
rather than one of triumph in the face of death,
            and joy in the face of sorrow.

There is good news to be found on Palm Sunday,
            there is joy to be found in following Jesus into Jerusalem.

Sure, it may not turn out as we expect,
            and I’m pretty sure that this time next week,
                        even after we have lived through the cross and got to resurrection,
            there will still be news of corrupt politicians,
                        morally bankrupt economics, and religious compromise.

But this is what Jesus came to challenge,
            and he invites us to join him not just in sorrow
but in the moments of joy and laughter
            that summon into being a new world.
He calls us to create with him a world
            where power is transformed, where oppression is challenged,
                        and where the mourning of death
                        is turned to the bright day of new life.

So as we march together over the threshold of Palm Sunday
            and enter the sacred, powerful ground of Holy Week,
as we open the gates to a future unknown and unchartered,
            which certainly includes suffering and death
            every bit as much as it includes resurrection and new life,
let us do so with joy,
            because we are following in the footsteps
                        of the one who came to Jerusalem
            to enact a message of good news for all people.


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