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2nd April 2023

Red Carpet or Rocky Road

Passage: John 12; 12-28


Well? Red Carpet or Rocky Road? As a matter of fact, they are generally one and the same thing. Ask any celebrity who has walked the red carpet and they will tell you that all it takes is one false move, one ill-advised comment, or one fashion mistake; one former friend with a grudge, one indiscreet family member or one unscrupulous journalist and the public who were cheering you hoarse will now be baying for your blood.

We need our celebrities to be greater than we are: more glamorous, successful, charismatic. We find it hard to forgive them when they reveal a weaker side. And, even in our ordinary relationships- how often do we project great hopes onto our partners, children, professional mentors, best friends? And then find it hard to come to terms with the fact that they are only human and cannot always be everything we want them to be? Many relationships crumple because we feel, in some way, let down by those who are not what we thought they were.

A great many people had projected their hopes and dreams onto Jesus, wanting him to do what they could not do: raise a rebellion against Rome and regain their independence. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem at the start of a great festival, the celebration of a past national deliverance, they cheered him- our Hero! But when they saw the animal he was riding, its’ significance started to sink in- this was a donkey, and when a King entered a city on a donkey, he came not to declare war but to create peace. Jesus was sending out a clear signal that he was not the kind of King these people hoped for. And Jesus knew that they would not forgive him for failing to be what they thought he was. It was only a matter of time before the red carpet of celebrity became the rocky road to the cross.

It has been said, hasn’t it, that what we dislike most about other people is generally what we secretly dislike about ourselves. We find it hard to admit the truth in this, but do you think this was true of the people who hated Jesus?

Did his people, the Jews, want to be conquering heroes and hate themselves because they were not? During the course of their history as a nation, civilisation had moved from being a fairly tribal society to the rise of the super-power. One great Emperor after another had set out to conquer the world. And this became the political ideal- ultimate success for a national leader was to become a world dictator. Ultimate success for a nation was to be the people who ruled the world.
But the Jewish nation had never quite achieved this. Briefly, under the reigns of King David and King Solomon, they had achieved a high level of international respect and economic prosperity, but they had never managed to take over the world. And surely, if their God was the all-powerful divinity they believed him to be and they his chosen people, they should be ruling the world. Why weren’t they? And, as foreign Emperor after Emperor took control of their country, the prophets promised them a Saviour, a Messiah sent from God, so surely this person would conquer the world for them?

But now, Jesus was clearly not set to lead them into war. And his failure (as they saw it) to annihilate Rome brought home to them their own sense of failure, their insignificance in the eyes of the world, their humiliation by Roman rulers. Popular opinion decreed that only those with a high level of political -and therefore economic-power really counted in this world. Which meant they were at the bottom of the heap and almost certainly hated themselves and hated Jesus because they saw their failure in him. They could not forgive him.

Reading the Gospels, we see that Jesus had clearly known all along that he was not the kind of Messiah people expected and hoped for. He had found it hard to make them understand that there might just be another way of being King and Messiah, besides the model of political dictatorship. He was up against the social, political and even religious teaching of centuries.
On Palm Sunday he was finally declaring himself King- that is what the riding into the city was all about- but he was also making a powerful statement as to what his kingship was about. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he was to say to the Roman Governor. “Slaughtering people into obedience is not what my kingship is about. Bullying people into acclaiming me Son of God is not what my kingship is about. Terrifying people into accepting me as Saviour is not what my kingship is about.”

Jesus’ power is the power of love, a power which values each and every human life as a child of God, rather than as pawns to be moved around the political chessboard. Therefore, Jesus’ kingship lies in creating community in which each member offers and receives from the other, rather than constantly striving to overcome the other. Jesus’ vision of world domination was to enable the kingdom of God: where seeds of faith and goodness would be allowed to grow and multiply; where good shepherds would care for their sheep rather than simply make money out of them; where enemies would stop and help each other; where children would be listened to; hungry people eat in banquet halls rather than in gutters; where workers would be treated fairly and would themselves work responsibly; where the vulnerable get justice and the social outcasts self-respect. It is all there in the parables he told: those powerful stories of God’s grace working in the world.

And this meant that, for Jesus the rocky road to the cross was the red carpet of victory. For Jesus, wounding, killing, cursing, bullying, hating, punishing would have been defeat; a betrayal of his kingship. On the cross he conquered the false ideals of power and revealed the true nature of God. In him we saw God’s glory, wrote St John, “glory” meaning the full presence of God. When Jesus spoke of his “glorification,” he was talking about his crucifixion because it was there that humanity saw the fullness of God.

It is still difficult for us, isn’t it, in our culture, to worship a God whose power is love rather than political dictatorship? And the Christian church has at times worshipped a false ideal and attempted to bully the world into Christianity. And sometimes I wonder if we are still sulking a bit because we can’t….
But the thing to remember about Jesus was that he never gave in. Right from the start of his ministry, when he told the devil to get lost because he was not going to use the devil’s way of conquering the world, Jesus remained the King, the Messiah, the Saviour he was and not the one people wanted him to be.

We need a God who does not give in. Like rebellious children, we find our sense of security in the one who stands firm in the face of our tantrums and refuses to change themselves to suit our changing demands. We neither want nor need a God who can be created in our image of the day.
And if the ultimate strength of this true, unchanging God lies in love, then here surely lies our salvation. Because this God can accept us as we are. He has no false hopes or expectations of us. He knows exactly what we are and what we might be.
This means that we are free to accept ourselves as we are; no longer slaves to self-hatred and feeling that the world would be a better place without us. And, as we find it possible to accept ourselves, so it becomes far easier to accept others with all their failings. And when people come to accept each other, they start to create community and from community comes peace and the whole world becomes a better place. This sounds like the work of a real King.

Palm Sunday- the last Sunday in Lent- takes us back to the start of our pilgrimage, when Jesus declares to the devil that he was going to do God’s work in God’s way, no matter how challenging that might be. Through the past weeks we have heard something of how he dealt with these challenges. Now, as he faces the final steps on the rockiest part of the road, his kingship challenges us: can we accept him for what he is? Can we pledge our allegiance to the God who bears the cross? I guess that most of us here today felt like turning and running away or at least like melting quietly into the background.

But the thing to remember is that this challenge is made in love, the most incredible, amazing love; love such as we have never known before; love with a potential to lift our lives right into the kingdom of God; love which can achieve in us more than we ever dreamed. As we cry “Hosanna! Save us now,” this King is waiting not to destroy us but to save us.
Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.