13 April 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Palm Sunday is in many ways the beginning of the end—a door that opens on a final week in Lent filled with far too much story, far too much meaning to take in in the time we have. The story behind it is a carefully orchestrated parable; not a parable that Jesus tells, but rather a parable that he enacts. The story, the setting, the props and the main characters are selected from a storehouse of prophecy. And their combination, drawing upon the Psalms, Isaiah, Zechariah, and even hinting at Malachi, is a combination so potent that once the story begins, Matthew cannot stop it. Once Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey colt, evoking the image of a son of David going up to his enthronement, and the people cry out their welcome, nothing can stop what is about to happen.
In this parable, there are three main characters. Jesus, who for the first time in this Gospel reveals himself fully, allowing and accepting public acclamation of his Messianic identity. The crowds of pilgrims, who are headed to the Holy City to celebrate Passover, the great event of God’s deliverance of a people from slavery in Egypt—a people for his own possession. Finally, there is the city of Jerusalem itself. More will need to be said about Jerusalem in a moment. But for now it is useful for us to remember its first appearance in this Gospel. It is when Herod learns from the Magi that a child has been born who is King of the Jews. When Herod heard this, the text says, “He was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Ominous foreshadowing. Something is terribly wrong with the Holy City. It is on life support and it doesn’t even know it, or in denial. The Messiah enters the city, in peace, in meekness, on a donkey colt, not on a warhorse. He would have claimed what was rightly his, and perhaps indirectly does this anyway, but in the end, he comes to diagnose the city’s disease. The pilgrims’ boisterous hosannas and shout of recognition—“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”—shake the foundations of Jerusalem, who, trembling, can only ask, “Who is this”? The real question, the unspoken question that Jesus addresses, is “what has become of Jerusalem?”
Jerusalem, “the daughter of Zion,” the apple of God’s eye, the site of the temple, the house of God. The Lord first comes to his temple, an event long waited for, etched in the peoples’ collective mind by the powerful words of the last of the prophets, Malachi. But the temple has been desecrated. He sweeps it clean of its pollution. This is not spring cleaning such as we undertook yesterday; Jesus’ actions are the graphic images of divine rejection. But for a moment, he shines a light on another possibility, as he turns the polluted temple from department store into an infirmary, healing the lame and the blind, as children continue to sing the messianic refrain: “hosanna to the son of David.” The chief priests and scribes standing by refuse to believe what they are seeing.
The story that unfolds from here, a long one beginning with Jerusalem, will end with Jerusalem. It is a courtroom scene, and Jerusalem is in the dock. Jesus presents the evidence, and pronounces sentence. The kingdom is to be torn from them, the religious leaders, and given to others.
On this narrative goes from indictment to indictment, finally reaching such a level of severity in the seven statements of woe in chapter 23 that one can almost not bear to read them. But I will read one: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” A fig tree bearing no fruit, a temple bereft of God, a religion long on words but short on godly action. The woes thunder their indictment, but the climax of this part of the story is quiet—a somber lament tinged with regret and echoing deeply personal pain: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her; how I would have gathered your children as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you would not. Behold, your house is left to you desolate.” Abandoned by God. And I see in my mind's eye a jailor, slowly swinging closed the heavy barred door of the prison cell, and as the door follows its arc it gathers speed until it slams into its iron frame, clanging shut with the awful sound of eternal failure. As the deathly quiet returns, and the jailor turns to depart, there is an almost inaudible creaking of a hinge as the door swings back open just a crack.
“For I tell you,” says Jesus, “you shall not see me again until you say, ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of The Lord’.” The same words cried out by the pilgrims who announced the entrance into the city of Jesus as Messiah; now spoken as words of hope to people God cannot help but love. He will love them to the cross, and on the cross, as we heard in the passion Gospel, Jesus would take upon himself the abandonment of Israel; Jesus, the one true, faithful Jew. A second chance: but more than a second chance. And we are linked to hope by this Messianic invitation each time we worship, whether following the Sanctus we say it, or sing it, or hear it sung in Latin. We proclaim the Christ and our solidarity with the pilgrims entering the Holy City. Jesus spoke these words in preparation for his death; we, in the celebration that his death means our salvation and life. The door of salvation is graciously left ajar, and we squeeze through it every time we receive him in our hearts by faith, each time a foretaste of the great Messianic banquet to come.There is more darkness ahead before the light will shine. But we are able to say with confidence, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
© 2014 Philip H. Towner