Palms, Prayers and Paintings

We had a great children’s service for Palm Sunday this week; I always love it when the children lead us in worship, even if we didn’t manage to have a live pony like one of our neighbouring churches!! The Children’s Minister used a lot of Biblical art on a second screen, which was a really good way of setting the scene. The image here was particularly thought-provoking, as she suggested we wonder about what Jesus was thinking. Some people would no doubt have thought of his divinity, and considered that he wept because he foresaw what was going to happen to the city in 70 AD, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem. Others may have remembered his humanity and wondered if he was more than a little afraid, not because he knew what was going to happen, but because he didn’t – only that his destiny was about to be realised.

Thousands were visiting Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. Prayers would have turned their thoughts to the Exodus, and God’s deliverance of the Hebrew slaves 1200 years before. But in 29 AD, it was a bittersweet remembrance, for their Promised Land was ruled by Roman occupation forces. The focus was on a new longing for deliverance, and a prayer that God would restore the nation. Jesus’ arrival spoke to them of wonderful possibilities. They had known him as a rabbi, a prophet and worker of miracles. Now he came mounted, from the east, at Passover – all prophetic signs of messianic hope. Spirits ran high in anticipation of a powerful military deliverance. They laid down cloaks, a symbol of submission to royal authority, and waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” This Hebrew word had a rich history. It was used to pray for the drought-breaking autumn rain, but also to commemorate the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks. 200 years before, Judas Maccabeus had entered Jerusalem amid shouts of Hosanna and palm branches, and Jesus knew that.

But the crowds hoping for a Saviour missed the significance of the donkey – a beast of burden, a symbol of servitude. A king going to war would ride a horse, but a donkey would signify coming in peace. Later, gospel writers made the connection with Zechariah’s picture of a monarch whose rule is gentle and whose reign is peace. I suppose Jesus could have stormed his way to power and overthrown the Romans, but he was not to be the military hero they expected. His way was one of obedience and service, of the reign of God in hearts and lives. The disciples were beginning to grasp this, but most of the crowd were not ready for such an antihero. The same people who shouted “Hosanna”, would soon be crying “Crucify”.

Jesus carried on, knowing he was going to disappoint them, that they might turn against him. Despite the darkening horizon, Jesus goes resolutely on, ready to die, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. (The chronology of events in Holy Week is a little murky, but I subscribe to the view that Palm Sunday was lamb selection day, the day families purchased the perfect ram they would slaughter for Passover.) This was not a kingdom of pomp and power, but of service and sacrifice.

I would like one day to visit the John Paul Getty Museum in California; it was constructed by NZ company Fletcher’s, and its project manager lives in Howick. There is, in that museum, a huge painting (3 x 5 metres) called Christ entering Brussels 1889, by James Ensor. It has a powerful impact. An enormous crowd surges forward during a sort of Mardi Gras. Costumes in the foreground witness to Ensor’s message; a red-cloaked bishop has the face of an atheist social reformer, a skull in a top hat signifies death. By contrast, the figure of Jesus is humble and small, almost nondescript, identified only by his donkey and a dull halo. Yet, I’m told, his position at eye level is the focal point and draws the viewer to notice him. When all is said and done, he is still at the centre, even on a donkey.

120 years later we might imagine Christ entering Botany in 2009. We are in the crowd jostling to welcome Jesus with a shout and a palm frond. When Jesus looks at our community, and into our hearts, what will he be thinking? Will he weep over us in despair? Does he know we will let him down like the disciples, or turn against him like Judas? It’s quite likely. The disciples lost their confidence and so do we. That’s why we need him.

To chew over: What is Jesus weeping over in my life right now?

A Psalm for Palm Sunday:
King Jesus, why did you choose a lowly ass to carry you to ride in your parade?
Had you no friend who owned a horse --a royal mount with spirit fit for a king to ride?
Why choose an ass small unassuming beast of burden trained to plough not carry kings.
King Jesus why did you choose me a lowly unimportant person to bear you in my world today? I'm poor and unimportant, trained to work not carry kings --let alone the King of kings
and yet you've chosen me to carry you in triumph in this world's parade.
King Jesus keep me small so all may see how great you are.
Keep me humble so all may say
Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord.
Joseph Bayley.