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Sunday 29 March 2015 – sermon for Palm Sunday

Readings: Psalm 118:19-29; Matthew 21:1-13

Sermon                                                                                                           Palm Sunday

I wonder what you thought about the cricket world-cup spectacle. Especially during the matches where there is great fanfare and celebration at the end of play. Whoever wins at the end of the day – there are fireworks and loud music plays. All the modern trimmings of a victory parade. A spectacle. Interviews – reports – and assuming that the black caps have won (I am writing this before knowing who will face them in the final – blue or yellow) – great celebration and jubilation!

There have been other spectacles this week. Including the tragic crashing of a plane – where the pilot is alleged to have said: “one day I will do something that will change the system… and everyone will know my name and remember me.” A tragic spectacle and way of being remembered.

And then there is an interesting spectacle in the form of a bye-election result over night in Northland! Say no more! Political grandstanding can also be a spectacle – an event of sorts. With their own victory parades.

So back to the cricket final later today. The headline I saw was this: “Black caps captain Brendon McCullum leads his men into battle against Australia today in a historic cricket world cup final.” The black cap captain put it this way in an interview: it “creates the greatest stage we can ask for.”

These are spectacles – great events involving public statements and celebrations or commiserations.

Palm Sunday was a bit like that. Except there were no fireworks and no TV coverage.

Loyalty and recognition are central in these things. Which brings us to the Palm Sunday crowd. Where would you have been positioned on that day?

THE CROWDS on Palm Sunday

Traditionally we have given them a hard time. Not really a good thing to be cheering for Jesus and then calling for his execution a few days later. Even though it preaches well. I have told children’s stories with this line – “yay for Jesus! Away with Jesus!” Such fickle people! I have preached along those lines many times on Palm Sunday.

But is it true? We gloss over the text (as preachers) – and often miss on the subtleties.

It seems actually that we are dealing with two groups of people   – the crowds who came along with him (likely to be his followers and especially those who were touched by him and healed), and the city – meaning the people of Jerusalem who were kind of perplexed. Who is this and what is this all about?

We see this in verses 10 and 11: When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”  The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

I am sure that even those who were healed and obviously over the moon about Jesus would not really understand what it meant when he was received as a King.

But they were happy with the notion of a prophet (who speaks and acts for God) and they seemed okay that he was from Nazareth (not a great pedigree!).

The disciples had other ideas about him being King. Just in the chapter before (Matthew 20) Jesus had to remind them of the nature of his kingship. James and John’s mother is asking for favours for them. Have a look at the chapter before our reading for today:

Mat 20:20  Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

Mat 20:21  “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

Mat 20:22  “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered.

Mat 20:23  Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

Mat 20:24  When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Mat 20:25  Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Mat 20:26  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, Mat 20:27  and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— Mat 20:28  just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

The disciples knew – or should have known better – that his kingship was different.

The crowds were moved, however. One way or the other this was a significant moment. They responded!

But a crowd involves individuals making choices. It was still a personal response. We should remember that they would only have had one cloak – which they spread on the road.

They would have known an example of this from their bibles – one hopes – for example when Elisha sent one of his team to anoint Jehu as King in second Kings – this is what happened: 2Ki 9:13 They hurried and took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, “Jehu is king!”

Tom Wright also says  this: In the long folk-memory of Jerusalem and its surrounding villages, stories were still told, and some of them by this stage were written down, about the famous Judas Maccabaeus who, 200 years before, had arrived in Jerusalem after conquering the pagan armies that had oppressed Israel. He, too, was welcomed into the city by a crowd waving palm branches (2 Maccabees 10.7). And he was the start of a royal dynasty that lasted for over a hundred years. Indeed, the Herod family had intermarried with the Maccabaean family, and the chief priests claimed a similar status.

People who throw down their cloaks like that are actually making a statement about what they think is going on. There is loyalty involved! And royalty! The person welcomed and hailed as king or conqueror would have to be worthy of the honour and sacrificial response – especially of laying down your only cloak in his path. I can’t think of a modern equivalent – except perhaps at a concert when people throw things onto the stage?

Of course there is the more recent (than Jesus) story of Sir Walter Raleigh who threw down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth the first so she didn’t have to walk in the mud!

It doesn’t happen often today for leaders and politicians. They usually have a whole team organizing those kinds of things.

SIGNS OF A KING – albeit a different one.

There were clear signs of a King. The fulfillment of prophesy is there. And the key title that crops up: “Son of David!” Jerusalem had been his capital city a thousand years earlier – and they were hoping for a King like David to rescue them from oppression.

And to be fairer to the crowds who hailed him as King (perhaps some of his actual entourage did run away) – it’s not that easy when your leader is arrested. The Roman armies were pretty savage – and not to be messed with. If you see savage armies at work today (and we do daily on our TV screens), you may get a sense of how frightening it would have been.

But the expectation was there – for Him to be King on their terms – in line with the hope that they would be liberated eventually. They had very different expectations. He was not coming to win a war – but to be killed.

HOW DO WE RESPOND?

I think we sometimes want Jesus to be available on our terms according to our agenda as well. Tom Wright puts it this way: The meaning Jesus attaches to this so-called ‘triumphal entry’ is quite different from the meaning they are wanting to see in it. That, perhaps, is where we can learn most from this story today. People turn to God, notoriously, when there is something they want very badly. Of course, that’s like finally deciding to learn to use a telephone only when you urgently need to call an ambulance; it would have been sensible to find out how to do it earlier, when it wasn’t so important. But that’s how people are.*

* Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 69). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

OUR RESPONSE as individuals and a group – some final thoughts. 

Consider these:

  • What would we need to lay down before Jesus today? (Individual answers will be unique really) – sacrificing in some way? Laying down your only cloak: – sacrificial living and giving?
  • Is there some other way we need to give honour to Jesus? What kind of King is he to us today?
  • Are we afraid too? Referring back to the “fickle” crowd. They would have been afraid when Jesus was arrested.
  • Remember the cry “Hosanna” – Hoshiana (v25 of Psalm 118) – which means “save us!” It has become a praise word. It is a song of Passover, which included the line – blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. What do we need saving from? Only you can answer that.
  • Do we allow him to be a prophet to us? Speaking into our lives and cleansing our temples? Is our church also used as a pious hideout while needy people are outside on the margins.

And then the consequences in the temple are worth noting: Mat 21:14  The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. Mat 21:15  But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. Mat 21:16  “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?”

  • He turns the temple into a place of healing (the blind and the lame would have been excluded from the temple). With Jesus in the temple worship becomes truly life giving. Is Jesus’ reign manifested beyond our church – where people are really transformed – by the life giving words?
  • The children cry out – and the authorities are rattled by that. Are we? It’s a threat to the chief priests and the scribes. “Do you hear what they are saying” – he responds with Psalm 8:2 – “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.” 
  • He is the king who saves instead of oppressing. Heals instead of exploiting! This is a totally different Kingship in every sense. He is the Saviour King.

So do we acknowledge him – wave branches and declare his praises – in our lives? We would do well to go back to Matthew 10:32-3 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.

He still makes claims on our lives. Let’s listen to Him especially through this Easter week.

Amen.

Sunday 22 February 2015 – forgiving from the heart?

Readings:

Psalm 32:1-2; Matthew 18:15-35

Message         

This is an amazing passage. If you thought the Sermon on the Mount had challenges, read Matthew 18!

  1. Excommunication

The first few lines where we pick up the narrative in verse 15 are used by some churches as a process of excommunication. Listen to the process. It’s quite simple really:

Mat 18:15  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

Mat 18:16  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

Mat 18:17  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

And of course treating them like pagan or gentile or a tax collector is not the end of the road. These people were not beyond redemption. Ask Matthew about his career!

  1. Being forgiven and forgiving

The story of the unforgiving servant is like stand-up comedy really. When you consider the amounts of money involved. Jesus’ listeners would have had a good chuckle! 10 000 talents equals about 100 million days’ wages. It raises some questions thought – as all good stories do. Why did the master let that debt get so big, for example? *

And of course the Master catches up with this man who fails the requirement to forgive as he was forgiven. So the debt is reinstated – all 100 million days’ wages worth. He gets handed over. The idea of a debtors’ prison has always struck me as odd. How do you pay your debts when you are in jail?

Here’s the line that speaks of consequences:

Mat 18:34  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This would have got Jesus’ hearers in a tiz/tizzy too – Jews didn’t practice torture, but Romans did!

And of course, the original plan was this: Mat 18:24  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.

Mat 18:25  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

The most expensive slave in those days was worth about 1 talent. Even if he had three kids, the guy would have recouped only 5 talents.

So the grace act begins with the man’s plea:

Mat 18:26  “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’

Mat 18:27  The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

So he goes off and demands that the other man pay him. You know the rest of the story. People notice the injustice and tell on him!

The story is in response to Peter’s questioning of course! Who else?

It is told to illustrate the teaching on forgiveness that Jesus gives. It should not have been a surprise to Peter – who starts the conversation. We’ve talked about this before – how Peter thinks that forgiving your brother up to seven times is okay. No, says Jesus – 77 times. Or is it 70 times 7?

It would have been no surprise to them because they would have heard Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s prayer: Mat 6:12  Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

So what do we do with this?

I think that the first passage from verse 15 is key to making things right. Accountability and truth telling are closely connected to forgiveness. And remember – follow this pattern and you won’t be using the old triangle method – You – person A – are mad with person B – so instead of going to sort things out – you tell person C. (Gossip and scandal – both serious sins). Listen again to the pattern:

Mat 18:15  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

Mat 18:16  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

Mat 18:17  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

When we see “church” here we sometimes assume that this is the big organisation of today – and “telling it to the church” means standing up and announcing to the assembled people of God that the person is being kicked out, after due process of course.

That’s probably a mistaken view. Here’s why.

The context is a shepherding or pastoral one. Right before this discussion is this telling passage:

Mat 18:12  “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?

Mat 18:13  And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.

Mat 18:14  In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.

Anything to do with sheep is what we call today a pastoral matter. And when people are excluded in some way for not responding to correction, the purpose is to bring them to their senses (or to bring them to repentance) so that they will admit that they have wronged and for the sake of the church’s witness and unity they should make right and return. Return to the fold!

And central to this is relationships. When “church” is mentioned in bible times the chances are it’s a small group probably meeting in a home. Not in a church building.

So relationships would matter a lot. You could not hide in a crowd in a small group.

And confronting people is not easy. We are also sinners. Tom Wright puts it beautifully:

Every time you accuse someone else, you accuse yourself. Every time you forgive someone else, though, you pass on a drop of water out of the bucketful that God has already given you. From God’s point of view, the distance between being ordinarily sinful (what we all are) and extremely sinful (what the people we don’t like seem to be) is like the distance between London and Paris seen from the point of view of the sun. And so on. We can all relate to that.

The key thing, as I have already said, is not that one should therefore swallow all resentment and ‘forgive and forget’ as though nothing had happened. The key thing is that one should never, ever give up making forgiveness and reconciliation one’s goal. If confrontation has to happen, as it often does, it must always be with forgiveness in mind, never revenge.

Forgiveness is fundamental to the fabric of who we are as a Christian community.

Wright says “forgiveness is like the air in your lungs.   There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate very quickly.

Whatever the spiritual, moral and emotional equivalent of the lungs may be (we sometimes say ‘the heart’, but that of course is a metaphor as well), it’s either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing to forgive others, it will also be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness. But if it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other. This is a hard lesson to learn.

Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 39-40). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

THE COMMUNITY WE BUILD

So all of this is about community in the Kingdom of God – the kingdom that we pray to come on earth “as it is in heaven”.

Our church Mission statement is printed every week: “Building loving communities that help people find and follow Jesus”.

These communities are more likely to “find” Jesus (although I hasten to add that he is not lost – usually we are) – people are more likely to find and follow Jesus in a community that is open, honest, and walking in the light. (cf 1 John 1).

We put people on committees when in fact they are needing community.

And community is more likely to sort out relationships than a large crowd of people who don’t really know each other anyway.

Which is why the apparent harshness of the final verse is so important.

Mat 18:32  “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.

Mat 18:33  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’

Mat 18:34  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

Mat 18:35  “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

There is a serious warning here. These are matters of the heart.

When someone apologises to you for doing wrong, you know when it’s not from the heart.

I’ve experienced that. And I saw it in action when boys who were fighting were forced to apologise without them actually understanding how damaging their behaviour was. Forcing kids to say sorry (usually to siblings or friends at school where there has been a scrap over something) usually involves body language that is the direct opposite of their words.

Without repentance – confession of sin can also be perfunctory. Unthinking, an obligation, a kind of a duty. Often self-focused – wriggling getting out of trouble without really feeling remorse.

Those kind of apologies usually say something like “if I have offended you or hurt you” when we all know that they did. And they follow with “it wasn’t personal” when you know it was totally!

Let’s learn to fix things!

Amen.

*  Jarvis, Cynthia A. (2013-12-09). Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2 (Kindle Location 3734). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.