Most of us are used to living our lives by making plans, and then carrying them out. Even if it’s only a simple ‘to do’ list or a shopping list, we are planning what we’re going to do during the day, or what we are going to be eating over the next few days. We then work through the plan, putting it into action. Afterwards we can review how it went and make changes, if necessary, to do it better next time.
This year many people’s plans have been thrown into confusion and disarray by the Coronavirus outbreak. Weddings have had to be postponed, often at great expense. Holidays have been disrupted or postponed. Other family events, like baptisms or birthdays, have been disrupted by the need to maintain social distancing in the wake of this terrible disease. Our planning has been thrown into confusion and has to be started all over again.
Palm Sunday is the only event we can say with certainty that Jesus planned in advance. He organised two of his disciples to go on ahead and fetch a donkey. He knew what he was going to do, and he knew the significance of the action he was taking. Matthew points it out clearly. Of all the gospel writers, he is the one who most emphasises the fulfilling of prophecies in Jesus’ life. At this point he quotes from Zechariah: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The palm branches that we traditionally wave on Palm Sunday we wave as a sign of triumph. They are a joyful expression of our belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Saviour sent to free the people from tyranny and oppression. Today Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, fulfilling the prophecies that the promised Saviour would enter his city. This year we cannot re-enact that scene as we normally do. The palms branches that I am blessing today will be distributed once we are able to meet in church again. Of course, for most of the year they stay in our homes. In the Vicarage we normally have them on display in the hallway for people to see when they visit us. Maybe this year, we might find something green and fix it to our doorway as a sign of the life of the church within our community, a bit like a Christmas wreath. We will be celebrating today, but as a church that is dispersed among the wider community in our villages. In Jesus’ day the people would have used other branches besides palm, so use anything that is to hand in your garden to decorate your front door.
The branches are a sign of victory for Jesus as he rides in triumph into Jerusalem. But for Christians down the centuries, palm has also been a sign of martyrdom, a symbol of suffering. St. John, the author of Revelation, describes it like this: ‘After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.’
Today, as we celebrate Jesus entering Jerusalem as King, shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’, we also look towards Good Friday, when he, as King of the Jews, will die hanging on the cross, and people then will be shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’. From the triumph of his entry into Jerusalem we soon enter into the darkness of his impending suffering and death.
Yet this also gives us a sense of hope. The God we worship is one who comes among us in all our suffering and weakness. He knows all about it, and he empathises with us by going through it all himself. No one expresses this more passionately than St. Paul:
‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.’
This week let us remember Jesus coming alongside us in our weakness, in our fear, in our sickness. He is there with those dying isolated from their loved ones, for he knows what it’s like to be deserted by his loved ones. He is there with doctors and nurses in our hospitals and health centres, for he himself went about healing the sick and encouraging his followers to do the same. He is in our homes wherever Christians live, for he promises to be with us always, to the end of the ages. And he calls us all to live in the light of the resurrection, leading us from death to life, and giving us a foretaste of the world to come where suffering will be a thing of the past and creation may live in perfect unity and love. This year we may not be able to follow the way of the cross through going to church services, but instead let us try to remember God in Christ who comes alongside us wherever we are, encouraging us to take up our cross and follow him. Amen.
Andrew Sinclair © Andrew JM Sinclair 2020