I’ve been fortunate to go to the Holy Land a couple of times, and I found the chance to visit and experience the locations of many biblical stories moving and enlightening. Of course, some of the attempts by the guides to tell you where specific events took place do rather stretch credibility, but there are a number of places where you can be fairly confident that what you’re visiting and looking at is pretty much the exact location mentioned in the Gospels. Standing on the Mount of Olives looking across to Jerusalem, you can see clearly the route Jesus would have taken when he road on a donkey into the city. He and the disciples would have gone down the fairly steep hill, across the dry valley and through the impressive gate – as you stand there looking, in 21st century Israel, you really can imagine that remarkable scene unfolding all those years before.
But of course it’s the meaning and significance of the scene that’s what really ought to capture our attention. I suppose the question that always comes to my mind on Palm Sunday is to wonder how it was that those joyful shouts of Hosanna had turned within the space of just a few days to the most cruel refrain of Good Friday as the crowds started shouting “Crucify him”. Or to put it another way, why is it that the celebratory palm leaves so many are holding in churches across the world this morning, have been fashioned into the shape of a cross?
Let me offer two brief thoughts in answer to that question, and they’re thoughts that have a relevance to our attitudes and the way we practice our faith today.
First off, in understanding why the mood changed so quickly and so dramatically, I think it’s clear that the people’s expectations were raised by Jesus and then disappointingly dashed. The crowds had welcomed and puzzled over the identity of this strange figure who rode into Jerusalem like a King and had the reputation of speaking and acting like a prophet. What might they have hoped for and expected? In a country still occupied by Roman soldiers and their rulers, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that some would have hoped for a figure who would challenge the Roman occupation. Perhaps here was a King who would begin a movement that would win their liberty (Zech 9). Or perhaps here was a prophet who would speak God’s word of judgment against these Gentile invaders; a prophet who would call down God’s wrath upon them. But Jesus was neither of these people and he did neither of these things – the people’s hopes for that sort of a powerful intervention on their behalf were disappointed. Jesus’ way was to be faithful to God’s call in confronting not just the power of the Roman army, but all the powers of this world, the power of sin and evil and death that he fought with and conquered on the cross.
It seems that the people’s expectations of what God was about to do were mistaken and so were easily disappointed.
In our own experience today, we have to be careful that we don’t raise in ourselves or in other people’s minds false expectations of God’s ways of working and intervening in our world. We often know very well what we want, but faith is actually about discerning what God wants and plans for us. God’s way was and is to confront evil and suffering through the self-giving love we see in Jesus on the cross. What St. Paul calls the folly and weakness of the cross is actually God’s way of responding to our needs. So we have to be careful to shape our own expectations and those of other people in response to a God whose way is cross shaped and not in the shape of a sword, to a God who exercises power as love and not as compulsion. This should affect how we talk about our faith and how we pray.
What the events of Holy Week teach us is that our expectations of how God will act in our world and in our lives need to be shaped by the vision of the one whose power is shown on a cross. It’s not just the palm leaves that are cross-shaped, it’s also the faith and the lives we are called to live out.
And I suppose the other factor in the palm leaves needing to be shaped into a cross was the fear and failure of the disciples who were unable to stand up for Jesus as the crowds and authorities turned against him. We can’t know exactly what difference it would have made if Peter and the other disciples and followers of Jesus had spoken up for him at his arrest and trial, but the reality is that their fear overcame them and they deserted their Lord. The loneliness and isolation of Jesus is one of the most poignant parts of the story of Holy Week. How quickly the story moves from the intimacy of the Last Supper where Jesus’ concern for his friends is paramount, in spite of the gathering storm clouds and threat against his life. How quickly we pass from the moving story of Jesus stooping to wash the disciples’ feet, to their failure even to watch and wait with him while he prayed in Gethsemane. The gap between the strength of Jesus’ spirit and the weakness of the disciples’ flesh is shocking.
I imagine we know something of that same gap ourselves, the gap between our best intentions and the reality of our daily walk with God. The failure of the disciples reflects our own failures to stand up for our faith, to be consistent, to always act on what we know to be right.
When we think deeply about the story of Holy Week, when we see how the changing mood of the people is not alien to us, but reflects some of the things we find difficult and challenging, then we come to see that our faith has to be rooted in something stronger and deeper than the celebratory palm leaves that greeted Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. We recognise that our faith needs something as powerful as the cross, the symbol of the redemption God has worked for us. We need that generous, self-giving love of God that reaches out to us even when we don’t deserve such love. The cross moves our faith beyond the level of our good intentions, to God’s power at work in us to forgive and redeem.
It can be hard travelling with Jesus from the joy of Palm Sunday through the painful events of Holy Week to the bleakness of Good Friday, because if we’re honest, we recognise something of ourselves in those who turned on him and those who deserted him. But we have to remember that the cross into whose shape the palms are twisted and towards which we travel, is a symbol of God’s faithful, enduring love that is so much stronger than anything else in our lives or in our world.
The message of Easter that we’ll celebrate next Sunday is that the cross is not in the end a symbol of defeat, it is a symbol of hope. Amen.
by Bishop Alan at Martham
20th March, 2016