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28th March 2021

Travel with God

Passage: Matthew 21;1-11


Do you remember when the Vicar of Dibley produced a Nativity Play?
And how David Horton- the local Lord of the manor and Chairman of the PCC- argued that King Herod did not quite deserve his role as the villain of the piece. After all, Herod had been a powerful king, a wealth creator, a patron of the arts. Could there not be a more sympathetic approach to his killing of all the children in Bethlehem?

The trouble with any story is that different people will interpret it in different ways, depending on where they are in their own lives. In the Palm Sunday story- of Jesus entering the city riding a donkey- even the people who were right there at the time would have seen this drama from different perspectives.
Jesus’ disciples took it as an opportunity to declare their loyalty: he is finally making a public declaration that he is the Saviour of our people and we are going to cheer him on.
The religious leaders took it as blasphemy. We are about to celebrate a holy festival and this man is profaning it with false claims.
The Romans saw signs of a possible riot brewing, whilst the Jewish freedom fighters were just waiting for the word to attack.
And there would have been many more people in the background, who admired Jesus but were watching nervously as he “went public,” hoping he knew what he was doing.

Where do we stand? We hear this story with the benefit of hindsight. We know that everything seemed to go downhill from here. The religious leaders set out to trap Jesus. The freedom fighters waited for a sign to rise which never came. The Roman Governor bowed to pressure to order Jesus’ execution and the disciples, when confronted with the thought of crucifixion, ran away in terror. And to those watching anxiously from a distance, this unfolding drama became a tragedy: with people helplessly swept along by forces of passion, weakness, evil and fear.

A few weeks ago, people were asking questions as to why the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, having abandoned their royal role because of media pressure had chosen to give a high-profile television interview to Oprah Winfrey. No comment….
But you cannot help wondering why Jesus, having avoided the spotlight for so long, asking people to keep quiet about him, should have made this very public entry into the capital city. It was festival time; the city was crowded. He rode a donkey when everyone else would have been walking as pilgrims. The Romans were already on high alert for signs of trouble and the religious leaders poised to kill anyone who disturbed their holy festival. What was Jesus thinking?

Was he just swept along by the enthusiasm of his disciples and crowd, helpless to stop them? That’s not likely. He had faced far greater pressure to court publicity.
Or was he finally taken over by his own desire for public recognition? Again, not likely. He had faced down the devil himself on that issue right back in the desert.

Over and over again the Gospels stress that everything in the drama of Holy Week was meant to happen, which means that we have to conclude that Jesus was deliberately making a public statement here. And, with everyone in the that crowd looking at him from a different perspective, his statement was one for each of them to understand.
By entering the city at festival time, riding a donkey as King David had done before him. Jesus was stating that he was the promised Messiah of his people. The religious leaders got that message.
To the freedom fighters, the donkey held another message- that Jesus had not come for war but in peace. Put the swords down.
To the Romans Jesus was making a statement about power: that their empire of force and brutality was up against an alternative reign of justice and peace.
And to those who had been his followers, Jesus was asking “just how far are you prepared to follow me? “

There is a high challenge here for all of us. For either Jesus is the Son of God, in which case we should be worshipping him and following him wherever he leads us; or he is just an exceptionally good man, who was possibly misguided; certainly, let down; but we can take him or leave him.

It is not an easy challenge to answer. Because, again with hindsight, we can ask where does it get you- to follow Jesus? The journey he took after Palm Sunday went through disappointment, anger, betrayal, isolation, despair, pain and death. We can get all of this right here, right now, without having yet more piled on us through following Jesus.

But the fact that a story takes a turn from a bright place to a dark one does not necessarily mean that it will turn into a tragedy; that failure and defeat will be the end of his story and ours. We are being invited here to travel with the God who came in Jesus Christ.
And, unlike the gods of some ancient traditions, who took grim pleasure in seeing human beings destroy themselves; who would even stir up misunderstanding and misfortune so that people would get things hopelessly wrong, the Christian Gospel is the other way around. In the events of Holy Week, the Son of God goes down right into the darkest depths of existence so that he can bring up those who have become trapped there. The resurrection on Easter Sunday offers hope to every single person who is trapped in guilt or failure; pain or loneliness; the victim of their own wrongdoing or someone else’s.

But new life in Jesus Christ will only come about as we follow Jesus Christ and as we give him the place in our lives which the Son of God should have. The challenge of Palm Sunday is repeated on a daily, if not hourly basis in our lives; the darkness of Holy Week is repeated far more often in our lives than we would wish; but, as we commit ourselves to travel with God, we can trust that our journey will always reach the place of resurrection.