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Leytonstone United Free Church Sunday 28 MARCH 2021

Call To Worship:

As it is Palm Sunday you are invited to get craft. Find or make something to wave.

  • Try finding some paper and cutting it into a palm leaf shape.
  • Try going outside to find a big leaf.
  • Maybe you know where your Palm cross is from a previous year.
  • Maybe you can find something else to wave.

Opening Song: Make way make way

Song: We have a king who rides a donkey

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29

Song: I will enter His gates (He has made me glad)

Prayers & Intercessions

Prayers to say: Thank you God for...

Prayers to say sorry God for...

Prayers to say please God...

The Lords Prayer

The Lord's Prayer

Song: Hosanna

Bible: Mark 11:1-11

Reflection

I’d like to start by talking about tulip bulbs. According to Scots journalist Charles Mackay (no relation as far as I know!), in February 1637, bulbs were being sold in Amsterdam for more than 10 times the annual wage of a skilled artisan. In another example, 12 acres of land were offered for a single bulb. This was the tulip mania, one of the first recorded bubbles in economic history. People paying these vast sums anticipated that there was no downside, expecting that the only way that prices could go was up. When the prices suddenly crashed, many people lost all of their wealth. This is a pattern that has been repeated many times since then. Even now, we look at the price of BitCoin, doubling, trebling, quadrupling and wonder if it can go on forever?

When we think about economic cycles, about boom and bust, we usually fear the bust. However, some economists will say that we should fear the boom as well because that is often when bad investment decisions are made. The boom plants the seeds of its own future destruction.

With tulip mania, this should be obvious – it’s the belief that a bulb could ever be worth these prices that is the problem, not the return to reality.

Mackay gives his account in a work whose title has entered popular culture, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”.

We can all think of times when we see people react very differently in a group than they would as an individual. Being in a crowd at a football match or at a pop concert can be euphoric in a way that is impossible to replicate on your own or with just a few friends. Amy, for example, likes Christmas shopping when the shops are at their busiest.

But at other times, we see rioters on TV smashing property or attacking police officers, things they would never do alone. We have seen tragedies where people stampede, trampling and crushing their fellow human beings. We are aware of the connotations of mob justice. Crowds can be wonderful and crowds can be dangerous.

I wonder what the crowds that cheered Jesus into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday believed. It must have been an extraordinary thing to witness. Was it rational? Did itinerant rabbis often get such a welcome? Or did the crowd get carried away, feeding off each other, to expect things of this man that exceeded all practical possibilities?

This is the boom, the apparent peak in the Jesus’ popularity. When we think about Palm Sunday, we think of the celebration and jubilation and then puzzle over how it could go wrong so quickly from this point on.

However, as before, the boom contains the seeds of its own future destruction.

Let’s think about expectation.

If you invest some money in a fund, you do so with the expectation that you will make a profit. But as the disclaimer reads, “The value of your investments may go up as well as down”. In fact, if you are going to invest in the stock market, you should expect your investments to go up and down. As Simon, Bob and Gordon can tell you, sometimes the church’s investments look extremely healthy, other times you cross your fingers and hope for a recovery. It’s bad enough, of course, when you make your own decisions. But if you’ve hired an advisor who promises you big returns and then fails to deliver, how do you feel? Less-than-charitable, perhaps.

We also have expectations about each other within our society and family. When someone breaks the law, they are failing to live up to the expectations of their fellow citizens. A parent might say to a child “I expect better of you” if their behaviour isn’t up to scratch, expressing disappointment that what they hoped for hasn’t materialised.

So why does the crowd of people in Jerusalem get so excited by this man arriving on a donkey? The answer is that Jesus himself has deliberately raised their expectations.

This isn’t just a matter of people having heard the stories about his ministry and miracles, although that doubtless played a part. Just as important was the way that Jesus deliberately set about fulfilling prophecies from the Hebrew Bible, in particular the book of Zachariah, one of the minor prophets, which was written in around 520 BC.

There are six examples of the events recounted in Mark’s gospel echoing the book of Zachariah:

1) In Mark 11, Mark is unusually particular to mention that Jesus was at the Mount of Olives. In Zachariah 4:4, foretelling the coming of the Messiah “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem”

2) Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey – Zach Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

3) Zachariah concludes with “And on that day there will no longer be a merchant in the house of the Lord Almighty.”

4) Jesus’ words at the last supper in Mark’s gospel “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” echoes Zachariah 9:11 “As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.”

5) When Jesus predicts Peter’s denial (14:27) he says “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. And where is it written? In Zachariah 13:7 – ““Awake, sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the Lord Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.

6) Mark's account of the centurion who was Standing opposite the cross and 'saw how he died' is a remote echo of Zachariah 12:10: 'They will look upon the one whom they have pierced.'

Does Jesus feel that he is obliged to draw these allusions with the book of Zechariah? He knew and understood the Hebrew bible as we see from early in his life when he is at the temple. In Luke Chapter 2, Mary and Joseph realise Jesus is not with them as they leave Jerusalem. They return and find him at the temple, debating the scholars.

The society that he is in is quite different to ours. The people are aware of the prophecies, and they also strongly believe them to be true. In our more cynical age, we are unfamiliar with such rigid belief. Imagine if somebody turned up today claiming to be Jesus and performatively enacting elements of 500-year-old prophecies. We would probably think they had lost their marbles.

By deliberately choosing to ride in on a donkey, Jesus is playing with the crowd’s expectations. He is claiming the mantle of the Shepherd-King prophesied 500 years earlier, in a radical change of circumstances.

Up to this point, he had shied away from proclaiming himself the Messiah. In Mark Chapter 8, Peter calls him the Messiah and Jesus warns him not to tell anyone. In Matthew 17, after the transfiguration where Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain to Jesus in the presence of Peter, James and John, Jesus tells them not to tell of what they saw. Jesus had been careful not to be acclaimed publicly as the messiah all through his ministry.

But now he embraces it, publicly and provocatively.

The next major event of the week, he overturns the tables of the moneylenders at the Temple, driving them out.

Moneychangers and merchants have a useful purpose – if you’ve travelled a long way to make a sacrifice, you would want to be able to buy a lamb. If you had the wrong currency, you would need it changing. Perhaps these traders were cheating the public, taking large commissions, but Jesus wasn’t arguing for fairer rates.

But in any case the temple was a centre of commerce, full of money, so there would have been guards there – why wasn’t he stopped?

Was it just an occupational hazard for merchants that every so often a man would turn up to enact a specific piece of prophecy, and then the next day they would all turn up for work again?

However, the significance is that Jesus is continuing to build expectations and draw attention to himself and his followers.

I wonder how all of the disciples felt. Was this new to them too? It doesn’t seem likely that Jesus consulted them about this change in position. Was Judas the only one with doubts about the wisdom of this action?

Let’s consider the context that the Jewish people find themselves in at this time. In 63BC, the Roman legions had conquered Jerusalem. The people chafed under Roman rule. By 70AD, they would be in full-scale rebellion against the Romans, which would end in disaster with the temple destroyed. This was not a people at ease with the imperial power. They longed for the saviour that had been promised to deliver them.

When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, we know that the crowd shouts Hosanna. But we don’t often think about what “Hosanna” actually means?

In the Hebrew Bible it is used only in verses such as "help" or "save, I pray" (Psalms 118:25). In the Gospels it is used as a shout of jubilation and in that context, the word Hosanna seems to be a "special kind of respect" given to the one who will save.

The crowd are, as they see it, fulfilling their part of the bargain. He is proclaiming himself to be the saviour, and they are greeting him as the one who saves. They too echo the scripture, laying their cloaks on the ground in front of him as people did when Jehu was anointed King of Israel in 2 Kings 9.13. There is a deal being made here. In such circumstances, one had better be ready to deliver the goods.

Strikingly, we have all the ingredients for an insurrection. The people in a fervour for this new Messiah and a city full of people for Passover. The priests must have been terrified that this lunatic announcing that he was the king who would free them from the Roman yoke would bring the might of the Roman army down upon them.

Mark’s gospel relates that the priests decide to arrest him the night before Passover because they were afraid that arresting him during Passover would provoke riots. It must have been a volatile situation. They decided to act before the situation got out of hand.

But how did the crowd come to turn? The people who so enthusiastically welcomed Jesus as their saviour called for him to be crucified just a few days later. Why would that be?

Following his arrest, the priests take Jesus to the court of Pontius Pilate where they accuse Jesus of three crimes:

• Perverting the nation

• Forbidding the payment of tribute

• Sedition against the Roman Empire

It is obvious to Pilate that Jesus has not done the first two. In fact, he was on the record as saying “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” – essentially “pay your taxes”. This third charge is what leads Pilate to ask Jesus “Are you King of the Jews?” Jesus’ response “You say I am”, a strangely ambivalent response to a serious question.

At this point Jesus would most likely have been freed – had it not been for the crowd who had started calling for his crucifixion.

It is possible that in their eyes, Jesus’ crime was specifically that he had not been planning sedition against the Romans.

It must have been a bitter blow to them to see Jesus arrested in the presence of Roman soldiers. When the disciples prepare to fight, Jesus stops them and goes without resistance. That doesn’t seem like the act of a great leader.

The crowd would have wanted Jesus to proclaim himself King of the Jews in front of Pilate, announcing that he was here to fight against the occupying power. But he doesn’t even do that.

Now, here he is, his fate in the hands of the Roman governor. Far from freeing the entire people from Roman rule, he was powerless to even free himself. In fact, Pilate seems largely unbothered by this man. What a disappointment.

He must have looked like a fraud, and his claims to be the shepherd-king were just the actions of a delusional figure at best, or an elaborate hoax at worst.

Jesus’ actions in this week appear calculated to annoy everybody, with the things he does and the things he doesn’t do. But he knew this was coming. He had warned the disciples as reported in Matthew: "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!"

Jesus knew what was about to happen, and indeed deliberately engineered it. But the disciples didn’t really understand this warning either. And in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion they still didn’t understand, reduced in a matter of days from being the closest followers to the most celebrated man in the region to denying they knew him at all and to hiding from the mob. What a cruel shattering of expectations. The experienced the boom, and now they feel the bust.

The rest of the story is, of course, for later in the week. But there are still lessons for us all.

What are our expectations of God? Do we expect things of God that we shouldn’t? When we pray is it our expectation that God will deliver, or do we pray in hope and accept what God provides us?

All of us have prayed for things that haven’t been delivered. Some of the darkest times in our lives have happened despite our fervent prayers. Most of us will have been angry with God at some point. But is it His fault? Or is it ours for investing ourselves too strongly and ignoring that God has a wider plan for us all. Rejecting Him when he doesn’t live up to our expectations is a dangerous path.

Look around - we are all blessed with things that we didn’t pray for. I didn’t pray explicitly for the friends I have here, but here you all are anyway.

Rather than being like the crowds that welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday, rather than shouting Hosanna, then screaming “Crucify Him!”, contentment is found by learning to live with God, by accepting what he sends our way. Our relationship with God should not be one of boom and bust.

Song: Adonai

Closing Prayers

Song: Hosanna

The Grace

Credits:

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