Palm Sunday - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Palm Sunday

Mark 1:1-11

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The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.

And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;

And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.

I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.

And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.

10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:

11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

When I was at secondary school, I can remember being shocked and appalled by the admission of one of my fellow pupils - who confessed to me that, when reading a novel, she never bothered reading the whole thing.  Instead, she would read the opening chapter to find out who the characters were, and the closing chapter to find out what happened to them.  That way, she pointed out, you get the gist of the story really quickly, and you don't have to bother about the bit in the middle.

As an inveterate and incorrigible bookworm, I was incredulous.  Because I had long been aware that a really good book takes you on an emotional and spiritual journey.  At the risk of stating the obvious, you cannot begin to understand what a good book is about, nor discover its depths and its significance, simply by cutting to the end to find out what happens.

Let me give you an example.  The last time that I can remember being moved to tears by a novel - literally to tears (to the extent that the friend I happened to be staying with at the time had to take me out to lunch to help me recover!) - my powerful emotional reaction was triggered by the closing two sentences of that particular book.  And yet taken in isolation, those two sentences are pretty meaningless.  They certainly have no intrinsic emotional content, as you will discover when I read them to you.  That particular novel closes with these words (and I quote):

'But the game involves only male names.  Because if it is a girl, Laila has already named her.' 

Why did those words make me cry?  If you haven't already done so, go and read Khaled Hosseini's novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and you will perhaps understand.  But unless you have read the whole of that book, you will not even know what those words mean, let alone grasp their power and their significance.  Because a really fine novel is not merely a good story: it is far more than a plot, and it is far more than the sum of its words.

Indeed, going back to my childhood for a moment, I can also remember the joy of reading and re-reading old favourites.  Because with a really good book, it doesn't actually matter that you already know the plot and how the story ends.  In fact, that can be part of the joy, as you re-visit, and experience again, the same wonder and delight; the same excitement; the same enjoyment of familiar characters, the same twists in the narrative - without the book losing any of its freshness.  Indeed, you may find that you notice new things for the first time, or are reminded of features you had completely forgotten.  And the fact that you happen to know already how the story ends is an irrelevance.

Next Sunday, on Easter Day, this church will be full of people, some of whom we may never have seen before, and some of whom never normally attend church at all, except perhaps at Christmas and Easter.  And we shall, of course, be delighted to see them here, because this is a place where all are welcome, whoever they are, and whatever it is that brings them here.

And yet, when I think about them turning up on Easter Day, oblivious of all that has happened in the days leading up to it, I can't help but feel a little sad.  Because here we are, on Palm Sunday, at the start of Holy Week, poised to embark upon the most extraordinary, powerful, and life-changing journey of the Christian year - and those who only arrive at the very end may get the final chapter and the chocolate eggs, but they have missed everything that has led up to that point - everything that gives it meaning.

Most of us here today will be closely familiar with the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  But Holy Week is about so much more than simply a knowledge of the plot.  Because it is a story that needs to be inhabited; it unfolds a reality that demands to be lived. 

The final chapter of a novel can tell you what happens at the end of the plot, but, taken alone, it won't tell you why that story matters.  And exactly the same is true of Holy Week.  If Easter is to be understood properly, it requires us to undertake a journey, each stage of which needs to be inhabited prayerfully and reflectively, as we are led through one of the most extraordinary sequences of human experience imaginable.

From the partying crowds triumphant on Palm Sunday, to the quiet companionship of Maundy Thursday, to the betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the darkness, and desolation, and despair of Good Friday, to the strange and potent combination of emptiness and anticipation on Easter Eve.  And when, at dawn on Easter Day, we re-visit the wonder of that first Easter, we suddenly glimpse again the impact of an explosion so mighty and so powerful and so phenomenal that it blew a hole through history: an event that still has the power to transform lives beyond all recognition.

But all of that is yet to come.  Today on Palm Sunday the journey begins.  At first sight, this is an occasion of great rejoicing and celebration, as we join with those crowds in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and acclaim Jesus as our King, singing songs of joy and shouting 'Hosanna'.  But the palms that we bear today - a tangible reminder of the palm branches that they waved all those centuries ago - are given to us in the shape of a cross: an instrument of torture and death, of shame and humiliation.

And the joy and excitement of Palm Sunday, which seems so very real, is in fact, as it turns out, all just so much froth: the reaction of an excitable crowd, who think there is something in it for them.  Because, before this week is over, the very crowd that today is proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, will be baying for his blood.

And we are part of that crowd.  The shadow of the passion lies deep over Palm Sunday.  In the words of the hymn we shall be singing in a few moments' time:

Sometimes they strew his way

and his sweet praises sing

resounding all the day

Hosannas to their king.

Then 'Crucify!' is all their breath,

and for his death they thirst and cry.

 One of the most uncomfortable truths that Palm Sunday requires us to face, as we prepare ourselves for the events of Holy Week, is that when Jesus was nailed to the cross, to die a slow and agonising death, it was good, and upright, and law-abiding, and religiously-inclined people like you and I, who put him there.

So, I wonder what kind of an experience Holy Week will be for each one of us this year?  I wonder how far we are prepared to go in accompanying Jesus on the journey that he is about to make?  Because one cannot begin to understand or to experience the joy and hope and new life of Easter without first tasting the darkness that precedes it.  As I observed last Sunday, you cannot have a resurrection without first having a death.  Only one who has glimpsed utter despair, can fully understand the true meaning, and the true power, and the true value of hope.

It is perfectly possible to cut straight to the celebration of Easter Day, without the bits in between - rather like my school friend, who omitted the central sections of the books she read.  After all, most of us know the plot already.  But Holy Week is not merely another good story.  Rather, it is a reality to be inhabited.  It is powerful; it is life-changing.  And, if we are prepared to make the journey, its gifts can be ours.

Whether or not we choose to do so, of course, remains entirely up to us.


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