Archive for April, 2010

April 25, 2010 – 4th Sunday after Easter

Since two of our readings for today refer directly to a shepherd, I figured that this would be a good topic for a sermon, so I began to do some research into shepherds. Even though my family was for generations involved in sheep ranching down under, I have to confess that I didn’t really know much about it, being far removed from any kind of farm life. I knit, and I love eating lamb, and that is about my total involvement with sheep. As for shepherds – well, I can’t really say that I have ever met one in person.
Some of the things I found out were new to me. For instance, I had thought that, in ancient Israel, the main purpose of sheep was for sacrifice. We are always reading about lambs and goats being sacrificed for various reasons. We even refer to Jesus as the Paschal Lamb, and talk about how he was the willing sacrifice who made atonement for our sins. However, according to what I was able to find out, sheep were more highly praised for their wool than anything else.
In another part of the New Testament, Jesus says, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” In the middle east, at the time of Jesus and before, the sheep did indeed know the voice of their own shepherd, and would follow him where they were led. Even today, in smaller farms, this is true. And not only do sheep follow a familiar voice, they will flee from one which they do not recognize. They follow the voice of the one they know, and trust, the one who tends them carefully and would lay down his life for them. Given the importance of the sheep to the economy of Jesus’ time, it is not surprising that a shepherd would be prepared to do this. Because of this, and because most of the sheep were raised as wool producers, sheep tended to stay in a flock for a number of years, and developed a relationship with their shepherd. Because of this, and because of their trust in the shepherd, they would follow him wherever he would lead them – to, for instance, the still waters and green pastures spoken of in today’s Psalm, where they could be revived. Likewise, if we listen to the shepherd’s voice, and if we follow him, our souls will be revived.
However, it is not only to peaceful places that the shepherd leads his sheep. In order to arrive at a good place, at a place of rest, it was sometimes necessary to travel through dangerous territory, through the valley of the shadow of death. There, the shepherd’s rod and staff protect the flock from natural hazards and from the hazards spoken of in the Gospel reading – from the thieves and robbers who steal, kill, and destroy. The sheep must go out of the pen in order to find fresh pastures. They must leave their comfort zones, as, day after day, the shepherd calls them to find new places to feed. Out of the pen, there are risks, risks of getting lost or stolen or eaten by predators. But with the shepherd watching over them and guiding them, they can go anywhere.
God is never content to leave us in our safe places. God is always calling us, to new pastures, to new ministries, to new experiences. We can resist, and stay safely at home, but when we do, we are missing out on the promise of abundant life that Jesus shares with us. But we can’t experience this abundance from the safety of the pen. We must go out and take risks. However, we don’t go alone. The good Shepherd goes with us. So we have to decide if we will follow the voice, or if we will stay in the security of the pen. There is comfort in the familiar, and fear of the unknown, and it is easy to come up with excuses not to follow. What waits outside the pen is, indeed, full of risks and dangers, but it is also full of promise and pasture, joy and hope.
As most of you know, I used to be an English teacher, and poetry was probably my favourite thing to teach. One of the poems which I really loved was “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. Just in case, you are not familiar with that poem, I will read it to you, and you should listen carefully, because there might be a pop quiz afterwards.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Life is full of choices to be made, and we need some kind of direction in making the right choices. Listening to the voice of the Shepherd will help us make our choices, help us decide which road to take. But which voice is the Shepherd’s?
Jesus says, “The sheep know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” The problem that we have today is in coming to recognize Jesus’ voice in the midst of the voices which surround us, calling us in every direction. Society tells us that we are called to be as successful as possible. Friends and family question our choices. To whom should we listen? How can we hear the voice of the good Shepherd in all the clamour of everyday life?
To answer this, let us take a look in the Old Testament, in 1 Kings, chapter 19, when Elijah was looking for the Lord. And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. It was in this still, small voice that Elijah found God, and it is in the quiet times of our lives that we can hear God’s voice.
When we are surrounded by voices, this time of quiet becomes even more important. When each of the voices seems to be right, this time of quiet becomes essential, so that we can sift out what is true from what is false; what is wrong from what is right. And this is not as easy as it may seem, because often we, alone, cannot discern what we should believe. This is another time when we need to listen to the voice of the good Shepherd, when we must prayerfully discern what is being said. We cannot simply decide that those people who say what we do not want to hear are wrong, just as those people who say what we DO want to hear are right. Often, the opposite is true. Often, the words which soothe us are words of poison, while those which challenge us are the ones which will help us grow in Christ. Many people sound as though they are speaking with the voice of God, and we need to listen – critically and reflectively. It is not enough to say – uncritically, unreflectively – that what some people say in the name of the Lord is wrong. It is not enough to say – uncritically, unreflectively – that what some people say in the name of the Lord is right.
What we have to do is to listen to the voices around us, and those within us, and then, after prayerful reflection, after diligent study of God’s word, and after quiet and peaceful dialogue with others, ask ourselves, “What is Jesus telling me to do?”
A few years ago, there was a popular slogan – WWJD – which appeared on bracelets, T-shirts, and many other items. Of course, it meant “What Would Jesus Do”, and for a while, it seemed that you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing this. It seems to have fallen out of favour these days, but I believe that, if we listen to Jesus, we will know what he would do, and what he wants us to do. Ask yourself, what WOULD Jesus do? What is the Spirit telling me to do? What would Jesus do about the middle east? About same-sex unions? About hunger and HIV in the global south? About out of control consumerism, materialism, and secularism?
These questions can only be answered by us – and for us – as individuals and a congregation if we enter into a continuous relationship with the Lord and with each other. A relationship like that of sheep to the shepherd and sheep in a flock to each other. A relationship in which we spend time with one another, eating, listening, playing, listening, praying, listening, supporting each other, and did I mention listening? Even then, the answers we get may not be the ones we want or even the same answers that someone else gets. However, I think that we might be surprised at how often the answers are the same, when we all try, in good faith, to listen to the voice of Jesus. The important thing is not that we come up with THE answer, the definitive answer to any question we ask. It is that, in listening and in struggling with the issues, we live the answers that we have already been given by the Good Shepherd. If we look at the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, we will see the answers. Here, Paul wrote, “Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, admonish the idle, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.”
Our Shepherd’s voice is clear about how we should act and how we should live. It is clear what our attitude should be towards others, whether we regard them as friends or as enemies. And if we have trouble figuring out exactly what the Shepherd is trying to tell us about issues within our families – and our society and our world – we will not be wrong if we just do what he has already told us. If we trust that, no matter what happens, no matter what the valley of the shadow of death we find ourselves in is like, no matter what dangers surround us, that if we keep following the voice we already know, the voice we recognize, the voice we have already heard, that our Shepherd will keep us safe and bring us to God’s house, where we will dwell forever.
If we listen to and follow the voice of the Shepherd in little things, the things that show how we ought to love God and how we ought to love each other, and if we devote ourselves as the early church did after the first Pentecost to following Jesus’ teachings and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread together and to prayer, then we will discern ever more clearly what God is saying, and we will know what God wants us to do. And, as an added bonus, we will find within ourselves, a peace that passes all understanding, a peace that endures, even when thieves and robbers try to steal it away, a peace that brings glory to God because others see it in us. Thanks be to God.

Advertisements

New Elders

On May 2nd, 2010, Kathleen Johanson and Matthew Hatvany will be ordained as Ruling Elders. This will take place during our regular Sunday worship at 10:30.

April 8, 2010 – First Sunday after Easter

On Thursday, we took part in the service of Tenebrae in this church, at which time, the topic of my meditation was “I believe”. In today’s Gospel reading, we saw a lot of unbelief, which I will be talking about in a few minutes, but before I do, I wanted to mention Mary Magdalene. What do we know about this woman? I mean, for sure, what do we know about her? Well, our knowledge base concerning Mary Magdalene is actually very limited, and more framed by what we do not know than by what we do know. If we take a close look at the Gospels, we find Mary Magdalene mentioned by name in all of the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The fact that all four gospels name her, specifically, seems, to me, to prove that she was there on that first Easter Sunday. Other than that, though, her name rarely appears. In Luke, chapter 8, we are told that Jesus had cast out seven demons from her, and that she was one of a group of women who supported Jesus. In Mark’s account of the resurrection, it is also mentioned that Jesus had driven seven demons out of Mary Magdalene. But that is all we really know about her.
Many legends have grown up around Mary Magdalene. But nowhere in Scripture do we find any other references to her. She is not the woman caught in adultery. She is not the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. She is not the sister of Martha and Lazarus. But she is the person chosen to be the first one to witness the resurrection. She is the first person to experience Easter. And that is certainly enough to make her important to us, and to the disciples.
If we look at today’s gospel reading, we will notice a couple of odd things – other than the fact that the tomb was empty when a dead body had been placed in it just a short while ago. Just listen to what happened to Peter and the other disciple: So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. Now, let’s just jump ahead a couple of verses. Mary stood outside the tomb, crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb, and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. None of the commentaries I consulted offered any explanation as to why Peter and the other disciple did not see the angels. Maybe the time was not right yet. Maybe it was important that Mary be the first one to really know what happened.
But she was not the first to understand that Jesus’ body had not been taken from the tomb. When Peter and the other disciple entered the tomb, they saw that the cloth which had been around Jesus’ head was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Remember that Jesus was a carpenter, who would have worn an apron. A good carpenter, after his work was done, would have neatly folded his apron, so that it would be ready for him the next day. As far as one of the disciples was concerned, this folding of the linen cloth indicated that Jesus’ work was done, that it was finished, and that he had risen from the dead. So they went back to their homes, no doubt to try to figure out what the next step would be, now that Jesus had risen.
But not Mary. Mary stayed. She had come to the tomb early in the morning, so that she could be alone to grieve. And now she stayed, to be alone again. And it was while she was alone that she saw the angels. And while she was alone, she saw the risen Christ. But she did not recognize him. Why? Because, despite the fact that she was one of his followers, one of the believers, she did not believe that Jesus would rise from the dead. None of them really believed that this would happen. But when Jesus called her by name, when he said, “Mary”, then she knew him. Then she knew that he had, indeed, risen from the dead.
But why Mary? Why did Jesus choose her to be the first one to see him after his resurrection? We know, from various snippets, that she was with Jesus, in some form or other, throughout his ministry. But so were the disciples. Why, then, was not one of them chosen to be the first? It is possible that Mary, along with the other women who followed Jesus, made more of a commitment to Jesus than the male disciples. For women to leave their homes and families, to travel the length and breadth of Galilee in those days, would have been more dangerous in many ways than for men to make the same commitment. Aside from the physical dangers, women who did this would have severely damaged their reputations. And they did make the commitment, even if they were often overlooked by the early writers.
At the foot of the cross, when most of the disciples had fled, after Peter had denied even knowing Jesus, the women were there. When his body was taken down from the cross, the women were there. Who wrapped Jesus’ body in linen? Not the disciples! It was Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus, who were both high-ranking Jews, and secret followers of Jesus. And who came to the tomb on that Sunday morning, to prepare Jesus body completely? It was the women. We are told that when Mary found that the tomb was empty, she ran to Peter and the other disciple, and told them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.” Even Mary, the one who had been cured, did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, as he said he would. Not until she saw him, not until she recognized him, and then she went to the disciples with the good news.
I remember, a few years ago, interviewing a religious leader, who will remain nameless. He told me that he did not believe that Jesus had physically risen from the dead. I have been in study groups with people who call themselves Christians, who say that they do not believe that Jesus had physically risen from the dead. They say things like – I am a scientist. I know what happens to the body after death. He could not have physically risen from the dead. Well, I cannot argue with that. We all know what happens to the body after death. But we are not talking about the body of Jesus Christ, the son of God, he who was made flesh for the sake of our redemption. For his entire ministry, Jesus flouted the laws of nature. He made water into wine. He cured lepers. He cast out demons. Not one of these things can be explained scientifically, and yet they happened.
Easter Sunday is the key to our faith. Without it, nothing else matters. And to those people of the 21st century who think that they have the answer, that the resurrection is just a symbol, I refer them to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all med. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death comes through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
People who follow Jesus simply because he was a good man, because he was a great teacher – these people are missing so much! Paul said, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” They are to be pitied because they just do not understand. You have often heard me say that sometimes the disciples seemed to be not very bright, that they sometimes were unable to understand what it was that Jesus was telling them. But they were much smarter than people who do not accept Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. These people, these people who know all about the natural laws governing what happens to bodies after death, they do not know what lies beyond death, what comes after. It is only through god, it is only through faith in his eternal Word that we can come to some limited understanding of it.
These people – the religious leader, the members of my study group – acknowledge the law of God, and the goodness of Jesus Christ, but fail to acknowledge the great gift he has given us – the gift of eternal life. This is the good news we preach – the news that because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we, too, share in eternal life. We, too, will rise from the dead. We were given a new law through Jesus, but more than that. We were given the chance at a new life, a life that will last for all eternity.
I have heard people say that the most important thing is to live a good life here and now, because that is all there is. This kind of faith has as its focus the doing of good deeds. It is known as “justification through work”, and is not something we as Presbyterians believe in. We believe in justification through faith, and it is through faith that we become part of this new life, this Easter life, brought to us through Jesus Christ.
We can look at creation all around us, and see the power of God, but if we do not acknowledge that there will one day be a new earth, one day the old one will pass away, then our faith is weak. It is focused on the here and now, when Jesus wants us to focus on the hereafter.
Jesus Christ is risen, and he is with us today, and he will be with us forever. He is here, in our hearts, in our words, and in our actions. He is here in the love we show for each other, and even in the questions we ask, in the doubts we feel. He was there when Thomas doubted, and he resolved Thomas’ doubts. But he said to Thomas, “You saw and you believed. But blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
But Mary Magdalene saw and did not recognize Jesus. The disciples a few days later on the road to Emmaus saw and did not recognize Jesus. Just so today. Our physical eyes are not much help in recognizing Jesus, in seeing the risen God. It is through the inner eye, the eye of the soul, the eye of faith, that we will see him. We believe in the resurrection – not because we were convinced of it – but because we have come to know Jesus Christ through our inner experience.
Skeptical people, like the ones I have already referenced, demand proof, empirical proof, hard facts, data. But they are not going to get it. Skeptical people, with Thomas, say, “Unless I see it with my own eyes, unless I touch the spot where the nails pierced his hands and feet, unless I put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” But we say, “I believe even though I do not see.” If everything in religion could be proved, if everything in religion were based on hard, cold facts, there would be no need for faith. And then what would make religion different from any other part of our lives? What would be special about coming here on a Sunday morning? Wouldn’t it be just as easy to go out for breakfast? It is our faith that brings us here each week. It is our faith that gives us the inner experience of the risen Christ.
I remember once hearing in a sermon that we, as Christians, are Easter people. This does not mean that we only go to church at Easter, but that it is Easter which forms us, which dominates our faith. Mary Magdalene did not believe, but came to believe. The disciples – except for one – did not believe, but came to believe. The empty tomb is difficult to understand, but – to me – it is more difficult to understand those people who cannot accept its message of hope.
In my house, I touch switches, and lights come on. I turn on my computer and have access to more information that I can ever use. Do I understand how electricity works? No. But I know that it does. I have faith that, when I need light, it will be there for me. Have I figured out how I can do research in England without leaving my study? No. But I know that I can find all sorts of facts that are true just by doing a google. The longer I live, the more things I find that I do not understand, but I accept that they work. The empty tomb is difficult to understand, and I don’t think that we need to understand it. All we need to do is to accept it. All we need to do is to have faith that it happened, and that, because of it, we, too, will rise. We, too, will have eternal life. Thanks be to God.

Meditation for Tenebrae, April 1, 2010

Today, we will read the account of the passion from Mark’s Gospel. This is not one which is often used, but I chose it for a specific reason. I wanted to start my meditation by sharing with you a meditation written by a great theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
It is based on another section from Mark. So let us listen to Mark 9: verse 24. I believe. Help my unbelief. Just to refresh your memory, this was said by a father who had come to beg Jesus to heal his son, who was possessed by an evil spirit. He had previously asked the disciples to cure the boy, but they were unable to do so. Why? Because the father did not believe. But when he saw Jesus, he was desperate. He begged Jesus not only to cure his son, but to help him in his unbelief. And this is what Bonhoeffer wrote: “Your faith shall be tried by sorrow. God sends his children sorrow just when they need it most, when they have become far too confident on this earth. Then a great hurt comes into our lives, a hard sacrifice, a great loss, sickness, or death. Our unbelief rears up. Why does God demand this of me? Why did God allow it? Why, yes, why? That is unbelief’s greatest question. It tries to choke our belief. No one is spared this anguish. It is all so puzzling, so mysterious.
In this hour of godforsakenness, we may and ought to say: I believe, dear Lord; help my unbelief! Yes, dear Lord, even in darkness, even in doubt, even in godforsakenness. After all, dear Lord, you are my dear Father, who makes all things work together for my good. Dear Lord Jesus Christ, you yourself cried out: My God, why have you forsaken me? You wanted to be where I am. Now you are with me. Now I know that, even in my hour of need, you do not forsake me.

Yes, Lord, I do believe. Help me to overcome my unbelief.
Bonhoeffer was one of a group of clergymen who refused to bow down under the Nazi regime in Germany. He wrote this meditation in the midst of the turmoil that was destroying his country, and that came close to destroying the world. At that time, he was not the only person crying out for God; he was not the only person to feel abandoned by God. But he did not turn away. He remembered that Jesus himself cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And if the Son of God himself could feel abandoned, how much easier is it for us to feel that same way.
Yes, Lord, I do believe. Help me to overcome my unbelief.
Today, many people feel abandoned. We hear tragic stories of young people who are bullied, and the desperate measures they sometimes resort to. They have nothing to cling to, no faith to hold them up. We hear of people who have turned their backs on the church, believing that there is nothing here for them. In this secular society, more than ever, we need this to cling to. We need this to have faith in.
Yes, Lord, I do believe. Help me to overcome my unbelief.
Every night on the news, we see a new tragedy. We hear about random, senseless killings. We hear about suicide bombers. We hear about gang fights, which escalate and escalate, resulting in more and more deaths. We struggle to protect our children from such events, looking for something positive to give them instead.
Yes, Lord, I do believe. Help me to overcome my unbelief.
Hard as it may be to believe sometimes, there are still stories which show us that, not only is there a God, but that he is still here, among us. At times, he may not be Presbyterian. At times, he may not even be Christian. In fact, at times, he may not even be a “he”. We have seen God in people like Mother Theresa, who devoted her life to working with the lowest of the low. We have seen God in people like Father Damian, who gave his life working with lepers. We have seen God in Mahatma Gandhi, who worked tirelessly to help the poor of India. But, you know, we don’t need to look only at famous people to see the face of God. Just down the road from this church is a homeless shelter, where volunteers give countless hours to help others. Just up the road is St. Brigid’s home, where volunteers visit those who are no longer able to get out. Volunteers read to the residents, have coffee with them, and just sit with them. In all of these people, we can see God.
Yes, Lord, I do believe. Help me to overcome my unbelief.
On this, the darkest night of the church calendar, the night on which Jesus was betrayed by one of the twelve, on this night we can all pray with that unnamed father in Mark’s Gospel. We can all pray with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While we wait in darkness for the joy that is Easter, let us pray, Yes, Lord, I do believe. Help me to overcome my unbelief.

200th Anniversary of our Church Building

200TH ANNIVERSARY – ST. ANDREW’S CHURCH

The weekend of June 11, 12 & 13, 2010 marks the beginning of celebrations for 200 years in our beautiful heritage building.

The activities will be as follows:

Church Services
Friday evening – Gratitude for our 200 years of continuous worship
Sunday morning – with the Kirking of the Tartans

Fellowship Hour – following the services

An Art Exhibit by St. Andrew’s Art Group

Guided tours of St. Andrew’s church and Morrin College

A Cocktail hour and a Supper

A Fund-raising Show

We would love to have you with us for our 200th celebrations.

For more information and for reservations, please contact us at standrewquebec@yahoo.ca

The cut-off date for reservations is May 25th, 2010

March 28, 2010

I don’t know if you noticed in the bulletin today, but this Sunday has a double-edged title. On the one hand, it is known as Palm Sunday, but it is also known as Passion Sunday, as it marks the beginning of Holy Week, and the beginning of the end for Jesus. I have always found this contrast, this juxtaposition of triumphant joy and complete agony interesting, and wondered why it happened this way. Alas, the answer seems to be purely pragmatic. At one time, this was strictly Palm Sunday, and marked Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, with only a hint at what was to follow. For the entire next week, the church calendar was filled with the story of the Passion, culminating with the death on the cross. In some churches, even now, there are special services on every day. While this is not part of the custom in our denomination, we can see it in other churches right here in Québec City. On Monday, our Anglican friends down the road will re-enact the footwashing of the disciples by Jesus. On Friday, they will be taking part in the Walk with the Cross to which we are also invited. On Saturday, they will hold the Easter Vigil, which is one of the highest and most solemn ceremonies in their church year. Many churches hold a sunrise service on Easter Sunday, at which time the story is told of the discovery of the empty tomb. Some churches make a ceremony out of hiding the alleluias on the Sunday right before Lent, and bringing them out in triumph on Easter Sunday. Now, in the 21st century, people seem to be too busy to take part in this many services, so Palm Sunday was kind of combined with the week of the Passion.
And it is this combination which causes problems for some people. How should we feel today? Palm Sunday is a day for celebration, a day of joy, as we see in our hymns. Passion Sunday, on the other hand, is a forerunner to Jesus’ death on the cross. On Christmas Day, we celebrate the birth of a baby with joy. On Good Friday, we commemorate that baby’s death with the deepest sorrow, and on Easter Sunday, we rejoice in the resurrection. But what do we do on Palm Sunday? Jesus is riding into Jerusalem in triumph, to the loud hosannas of the crowds of people. If that is not grounds for celebration, for rejoicing, then nothing is. But I know, and you know, that these same people will turn their backs on him in just a couple of days. These same people will be calling out loud for him to be crucified. So how can we celebrate? How can we rejoice? At just one week away from the most important day in the year, just one week away from Easter, we have to decide how we feel about Palm Sunday.
Let’s have a look at what happened on that day some 2000 years ago. Let’s see if we can figure out what emotion makes the most sense today. To start almost at the beginning, we will look at the disciples, Jesus’ followers, who had been waiting for what seemed like a long, long time for this day to come. After three years of wandering from place to place, they were about to be vindicated; they felt sure that Jesus’ moment of triumph had arrived, and that his kingdom on earth would be established.
And there were the crowds – the crowds who had come up to Jerusalem from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate the feast of the Passover. This was probably the greatest day of celebration in their religious year, the day when they remembered being delivered from the oppression of Pharaoh. But they were now celebrating it again under the cloud of oppression, as they were oppressed by the hated and feared Romans. So they waited. They waited for someone who would rescue them, someone who would free them, as Moses had freed their ancestors. They knew what and whom they wanted; and, when Jesus arrived, they recognized him as the Messiah, as the promised one.
But how DID they recognize him? His disciples, those who had been with him for three years, had an advantage. But how did the ordinary people figure out that this wandering teacher and healer was the one they had been waiting for? After all, he seemed to be just one of thousands of other Jews, traveling to Jerusalem for the high holy day. There was nothing special about him. But wait, there was one thing which WAS different. Unlike the other travelers, Jesus called for a donkey, a donkey colt that had never been ridden, to carry him into the city. So what? This means nothing to us, in 2010.
Well, to understand this, we need a bit of a history lesson. First of all, no Jew would have ridden into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Even wealthy people who came to the city in a cart or on a horse would have walked the last part of the journey, out of respect for the holy city and with a sense of reverence towards God. But Jesus, who had just spent three years walking all over the country, called for a donkey to carry him on the last little bit of his pilgrimage, the two miles from Bethany to Jerusalem. This seems to make no sense. But that is because we, unlike most devout Jews of that time, have not studied their holy book, their Torah, so we do not know of the prophecies concerning the Messiah. In the book of Genesis, we read: The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him, and the obedience of the peoples is his. He will tether his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choicest branch. (Gen. 49: 10 – 11) To many Jews, this was a prophecy which they understood as a reference to the Messiah. So there is that. A prophecy is being fulfilled before their very eyes. But there is more. Jesus said: Go into the village ahead of you and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Again, this means little to us in 2010, but remember that this was still a time of animal sacrifice, and according to the book of Numbers, animals which were going to be used for sacrifice – for sacred purposes – were meant to be unused, undefiled from previous tasks. (Num 19: 2) A donkey which had not been ridden was one which was unused, which had done no other tasks, and we know that the man who was going to ride it into Jerusalem was, indeed, going to be sacrificed.
Now it is starting to make sense. Now we are beginning to figure it out. Jesus, at last, is revealing himself. He is finally laying claim to the title of Messiah, the one sent from God, the one who is going to do a sacred mission. While we, in 2010, may have missed it, the down-trodden Jews did not. And what do they do? How do they respond? Many people spread their cloaks on the road and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting: Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!
This spreading of cloaks and branches in the path of a triumphant warrior or king was not an uncommon custom. We find references to it in the Old Testament and in other ancient writings. When Jehu was anointed king of Israel, the people spread their cloaks on the bare steps so that his feet would not touch them, (2 Kings 9: 13), and the people who were doing this for Jesus would have known of this story.
Now, let’s have a look at the word Hosanna. In ancient times, before Jesus was born, it had a very different meaning. It came from two Hebrew words – yaw-shah, which meant save or deliver, and naw, meaning pray. So Hosanna would have meant something like save us, we pray. But by the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the original meaning had changed. It was now used as a shout of praise directed towards a powerful person – in this case, the most powerful person of all, the Son of God himself.
The people who greet Jesus shout, Hosanna! To us, in 2010, this is still a joyful word, a word of triumph.
The irony of this is that, although the people didn’t know it, Jesus was a king. The irony of it is that he did come to save them – and us – from oppression – but not the oppression of Rome. No, Jesus came to save us from the oppression of sin, from the oppression of Satan. He came to set people free from a lifetime of separation from God. He came to set them – and us – free to live a life of purpose and hope, a life grounded in the assurance of eternal life with him.
Yes, Jesus came. But he did not come as an earthly king, riding into Jerusalem on a white charger. Instead, he came on a donkey, and a donkey that did not even belong to him. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came in poverty. And not only that, he came prepared to give up even what he had! He came to give up his life so that we, his people, might be freed from sin, and receive eternal peace with God.
The crowds were looking for a saviour, an earthly saviour. And today, people are also looking for a saviour. The joy is that we have one! The flip side of having a saviour, however, is that he expects things of us, too. We can cry Hosanna with the crowd, but that is not enough. In order to accept Jesus as our saviour, we have to let him into our lives. And if we do that, my friends, our lives will change forever.
By admitting that we need Jesus, we are freeing ourselves from all kinds of stresses, all kinds of worries. Some people think that they can manage just fine on their own, thank you very much. What an opportunity they are missing! An opportunity to be transformed by Jesus’ love into what God wants them to be.
The crowds in Jerusalem seemed to be accepting Jesus, but we know that just a few days later, they turned their backs on him. How many of us do just that, I wonder? We gather together on Sunday mornings, and praise God, and pray, and give our tithes and offerings. And for the rest of the week, even knowing that we have Jesus loving us, we just don’t think about it. Every week, we carry our own burdens, just as the crowds carried their cloaks and the palms. Every week, we have the opportunity to lay down our burdens and to be lifted up by love. There is a hymn which contains the words: They’ll know we are Christians by our love. And love is what it is all about.
Because Jesus was born into Bethlehem, because he rode into Jerusalem, because he was crucified on Good Friday, and – most importantly – because he rose again three days later, it IS all about love. And, it is all about joy.
Well, I guess that we have figured it out. With the crowds, we will shout hosanna today, both in its original meaning of save us, we pray, and in its more meaning of triumphant joy. With the crowds, we will lay down palms for Jesus to ride over. And even better, we will lay down our burdens for Jesus to take from us. Even knowing that Good Friday looms ever closer, we live in the hope of Easter which is to follow. We live in hope of the resurrection. This is what we, as Christian people do. We acknowledge Good Friday, but we look forward to Easter. Let’s wave our palms with the crowds, but, unlike the crowds, let’s continue to praise Jesus. Let’s continue to live as a saved people, a people loved by God. Thanks be to God.