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Palm Sunday

Sermon for Palm Sunday

Readings: Isaiah 50:4–9a, Philippians 2:5–11 & Matthew 21:1–11

In today’s first reading, Isaiah gives us some insight into life as a prophet. He acknowledges that the talent he possesses is a gift from God, not something he can take credit for himself. And he recognises that God has given him this talent, so that he might provide comfort and support for others. Isaiah also knows that God is constantly prompting him, to be open to receiving the true meaning of the Scriptures that he reads, so that he, in turn, is able to explain the meaning of Scripture to the people he is responsible for teaching. It would seem therefore, that divine instruction or teaching, is dependent on God’s initiative.

What is the experience of those, like us, who are receiving the instruction or teaching? How much is dependent on God’s initiative, and how much are we responsible for? 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. So we must be willing to listen, and to truly open our hearts to learn, if we are to receive the true meaning of God’s word in Scripture.

Today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel, describes the triumphant reception that Jesus receives when he enters Jerusalem the week before his death. The entire scene is reminiscent of the welcome that the kings of Israel received in ancient times, especially with the strewing of palm branches, and the cries of Hosanna ( from Psalm 118:25–26) which means “God, save [us].” 

The reception that Jesus receives makes perfect sense in the context of the Jewish people waiting for the coming of the Messiah. They were waiting for a descendant of King David to come and free them from oppression and persecution under the Roman Empire. As we know, David was a mighty warrior, so the expectation among the Jewish people was that the Messiah would also be a warrior king, who would come riding on a magnificent steed to lead a revolt against the Romans and drive them out of the land. Of course Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem on a magnificent steed, but on a humble donkey and colt, and those hoping for a liberator from the Romans miss the significance of this. 

Matthew quotes from the prophet Zechariah who wrote: “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.” (Zechariah 9:9 NRSV)

And in turn, Zechariah is alluding to the time of David’s exile from Jerusalem when, having nearly been defeated by his enemies, he was riding on a donkey (2 Samuel 16:2). God saved David in battle and delivered him back to Jerusalem as king. Zechariah speaks of the future Messiah who, like David, will return to Jerusalem on a donkey and “proclaim peace to the nations.” 

Ultimately, however, the people of Jerusalem are not willing to accept that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures, or to truly open their hearts to him. So even though the divine instruction and teaching of Jesus is initiated by God, the response of the people to his instruction and teaching is initiated by humans, and it is of course completely counter to God’s nature.

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.


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