Sermon for Palm Sunday
Readings: Isaiah 50:4–9a, Philippians 2:5–11 & Matthew 21:1–11
In today’s first reading, Isaiah tells us something of what it’s like to be a prophet. He starts by acknowledging that the talent he possesses, is a gift from God, and not something that he can take credit for himself. And he recognises that God has given him that talent, in order to provide comfort and support for others. Further to that, Isaiah knows that God is constantly prompting him, to be open to receiving the true meaning of the Scriptures that he reads, so that he can in turn communicate that to the people who he is responsible for teaching. It would appear that divine instruction or revelation, depends upon God’s initiative.
I’ve often wondered about this in terms of my own preaching. There has been many a time when I have reflected on the Scripture readings for a particular Sunday, and explored commentaries by theologians and scholars about each reading, looking for inspiration or a spark to develop a message for the congregation, but nothing has been forthcoming. Then there are other times when the readings seem to ‘speak to me’, and the message is crystal clear.
I have also wondered what the experience is like for people in the congregation who are listening to the message I am giving. Do they hear it? Do they understand it? I think that too, depends on God’s initiative. The sixteenth century theologian, Martin Luther, writing in a commentary on this passage from Isaiah, suggested that words of Scripture, which have inherent power, do not always entice those who hear them to believe. He believed that for the Word of God to be effective, for revelation to occur, there must be “a most harmonious relationship between the learned tongue, the ready ear, and the heart prepared for learning.” If any of these three things is missing, the circuit will not be complete.
My preparation for today’s sermon seems to have been one of those occasions when God had “wakened my ear”, because I certainly found it easier to discern the message that I am to share with you, and that message, is all about the “otherness” of God’s ways.
The passage from Matthew’s Gospel described the way in which Jesus entered Jerusalem the week before his death. It’s a passage most of us are probably familiar with, and in church we associate it with decorating the church interior with palm fronds, giving out palm crosses to members of the congregation, and then having the whole congregation processing into the church building singing such traditional hymns as All Glory, Laud and Honour. Those associations with “pomp and ceremony”, mean that we sometimes miss what was truly happening when Jesus entered Jerusalem on that day in history.
We need to remember that Jewish people in the time of Jesus were living in expectation of the coming of the Messiah, which means ‘Anointed One’, that is, they were waiting for a descendant of King David to come and free them from oppression and persecution under the Roman Empire. King David had been a mighty warrior, and the nation of Israel had flourished under his rule, and so the Jewish people expected the Messiah to be a warrior king, riding on a magnificent steed, who would lead a revolt against the Romans and drive them out of the land. Instead, we have Jesus, whose teaching included what we might call pacifist statements such as “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies”, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey. Clearly God’s ways are not the ways of the world.
God revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. It is through the life, actions and teaching of Jesus, that we come to know and understand the nature of God, and what God expects from us as human beings. Writing from his prison cell in Rome, the Apostle Paul urged the members of the church at Philippi to let Jesus’ way of thinking and acting serve as the template for their own lives.
To human beings caught up in envy and selfish ambition, equality with God, which Paul talks about in verse 6 of today’s reading, would appear to be a great prize, something that could be gloried in and exploited for their own purposes. But this type of attitude reveals a clear misunderstanding of God’s power. God is not in a rivalry with human beings for glory or majesty. God, the creator of all, is not in competition with creatures for power or resources. Unlike us, God has no position to defend, no personal interests to protect.
Therefore, to be in the form of God is not to exploit one’s superior power, but to exhibit God’s free, self-giving love. Which is what Jesus did when he died on the cross. Jesus, though he was in the form of God, took human form and humbled himself, being obedient to God’s will, even thought it would result in his death.
Paul reminds us that we should of the same mind as Jesus. There were some in the church at Philippi whose aim was to satisfy their own selfish ambition, to draw attention to themselves, whereas the aim of Jesus was to serve others, to focus attention on God. As disciples of Jesus, we must always think, not of ourselves but of others, not of our own glory, but of the glory of God.