Why Are You Doing This? Palm Sunday 2018

Palm Sunday – 25/03/18

I preached this morning at St Mary’s Datchet & St Thomas Colnbrook. I was given the wood carving as a gift from a very talented wood -carver in the congregation as a thank-you. I was really humbled by this generous gift. At the end of the service at St Mary’s a lady told me that her 15-year-old daughter really liked this sermon. This is high praise indeed!

Mark 11:1-1


This is the title of my sermon this morning ‘Why?’. I generally think that questions that begin with why usually require some thought and are often awkward.

Palm Sunday, this final Sunday is Lent, is a good stopping off place to ask some why questions. On the surface of tradition, today is generally a day of celebration, with waving of palm branches and the singing happy songs around the church. Some churches will have the hilarity of a donkey in the church yard.

Why are we doing this? Jesus asks this poignant ‘why’ question in verse 3 ‘If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this… and he provides an answer.

Why are we doing this? That is the question to ask ourselves this morning. Are we going about today in the right way? What is Mark trying to tell us in his writing? Sometimes it is helpful to have a slow-read through a familiar passage to pick up the things we might otherwise gloss over or miss all together.

Starting in verse 1…

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives. Why is this significant?

Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the east side. The view from the Mount of Olives over Jerusalem is breath-taking; you stand a few hundred feet above the city, what remains of the Temple dominates the view. Below you are the Garden of Gethsemane and Kidron Valley. This was the view at the first Palm Sunday and is the same today. However, the east side was not the side of Jerusalem with any power or prestige. No king would think of entering from the east side.

A brief bit of historical research argues that two processions entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday; Jesus’ was not the only Triumphal Entry. Every year, the Roman governor of Judea (Pontius Pilate) would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west, specifically to be present in the city for Passover.

The governor would come in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge.  This was Pontius Pilate’s imperial procession was described as:  “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.

Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.  The swirling of dust.  The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”

According to Roman imperial belief, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome; he was the Son of God.  So for the empire’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession was both a potent military threat and the embodiment of a rival theology.

There are two processions going on. One from the west that shows the power and might of the Roman empire. One from the east with a rag-tag bunch and a man on a donkey.

It seems a bit embarrassing really – one side of the city is caught up in the pomp and glamour and the other side is small and shabby. Now might be a good time to ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ as we move onto verse 3.

Has anyone ever asked you that question? Awkward – especially if you are caught in the middle of doing something dumb. Maybe you have asked this question of yourself or your children or a spouse. ‘Why are you doing what you are doing?’ Sometimes this question is asked with a tone of irritation or exasperation or anger; other times with suspicions or sarcasm.

I wonder how the by-standers asked that question of the disciples as they watched them untie the donkey. Disbelief? Sarcasm?

Remember that Jesus has given the disciples the answer to the why question ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately’.

What does the Lord need from us today? This is another dangerous question to ask. I think so often we are afraid of what is being asked, we get nervous that He will want more than we want to give; more than we are willing to give. We hold back because we don’t fully trust Him or the inconvenience is more than we can bear.

Yet we can overlook the end of the answer. The Lord will send it back immediately. Granted the Lord’s immediately and my immediately are likely very different. In Mark’s brevity, there is no mention of any further negotiation on the leasing of the donkey. It was simply given. How easily do we give to God when asked?

Whatever we give to God – we will receive back. Maybe not on this side of death or in the way we think. If Jesus was willing to return a donkey – how much more willing is He to return to us what we give him?

The answer of ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately’ given by the disciples obviously worked as in verse 6 ‘they (the bystanders) allowed them (the disciples) to take it.’

Donkey has been procured and Jesus gets on it – we are now in verse 7. If there was ever any question that Palm Sunday just sort of happened – Jesus has debunked that. He knew, had planned out what was to happen. It doesn’t feel very nice to wipe out the Sunday School image of a spontaneously jovial gathering coming together on the east-side of Jerusalem.

What was happening on the west-side of Jerusalem is the background against which we need to frame the Triumphal Entry of Jesus. That Jesus planned a counter-procession is clear from St. Mark’s account of the event.

As Pilate clanged and crashed his imperial way into Jerusalem from the west, Jesus approached from the east, looking (by contrast) ragtag and absurd.  His was the procession of the ridiculous, the powerless, and the explicitly vulnerable.

There was no armour, brass or leather on the east side of Jerusalem. There was cloaks and palm branches – virtually worthless items spread before Jesus and his borrowed donkey.

I’m not sure about you, but one thing I do not enjoy is looking foolish. I’d rather be overdressed and over-prepared than under. I’d rather be seen on the right side than on the wrong.

Jesus’ so-called triumphant arrival into Jerusalem throws up questions about whose side do I want to be on? How far am I willing to go to look foolish? How visible do I want to be? The fact that I swan around in a dog collar most of the time gives some indication – but what about when I’m not wearing it?

If we had had a full procession today – palms, singing, donkey outside on the green – how comfortable would you have been to have your work colleagues, neighbours, friends, etc to see you?

Now the crowd in verse 8 didn’t seem to be bothered with the visuals – they seem to be merrily going along the way spreading cloaks and branches. Which begs the question of why are they doing this?

Not only are they spreading out the laundry – they are shouting!

‘Hosanna’ means save or saviour. It also has a sense of immediacy to it ‘save now.’ The crowd is also calling to be ‘saved in the name of the Lord’.

One of my favourite television programs is Saving Lives at Sea about the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. The tension in each episode builds as the crews must search the sea – stormy or calm, day or night – for those that are lost. There is a real sense of urgency, of danger for both the teams and those people needing to be rescued. There is always a race to get the boats on the water, the members drop whatever they are doing and go.

Now imagine for a moment that when the call came into go – the crew stopped to put the kettle on, sat around for a while for tea and a biscuit before heading out to sea? No!

They don’t do that because they understand the urgency of the situation.

Hosanna! Save now, immediacy to it. Are we saved now?

The crowd that first Palm Sunday didn’t have the benefit of hindsight the way we do into their story. Would they have reacted differently that day if they knew that in a few short days their ‘Save me’ would turn to ‘Crucify him’?

I remember being struck by the observation made in a bible study group a few years ago – that Palm Sunday was the one day where the crowd got it right. Just one day. This person who made this comment went on to explain how he wanted to get Jesus right on more than one day, but every day.

We are finally in verse 11! The crowd then watched Jesus enter Jerusalem and go to the Temple – down the Mount of Olives which is steep, through the Kidron Valley where Jesus and disciples would return later in the week and up to the Temple.

Mark ends his account rather abruptly – Jesus looked around at everything, it was late (read this as they were probably hungry) so he went out to Bethany with the disciples. The end!

For Mark, Jesus the Messiah has entered the city, surrounded by the praise of those who entered with him. Jerusalem has her change to accept her king and her promise. But nothing happens. Jesus goes to the Temple and receives no welcome. Whatever Jesus has seen in the Temple – he clearly doesn’t like it given that he returns the following day to clean it out.

What did the crowd do? They have been praising and shouting and then it all just ends? Jesus seems to be headed in another direction. Are we going to go with him?

Why are we doing this?

Two processions.  Two kingdoms.  Two symbolic journeys into Jerusalem.  Stallion or donkey?  Parade or protest?  Which will I choose?  Sometimes (I’ll be honest), I’d rather just wave a palm branch, sing a few rounds of “Hosanna,” and go home.

The actual praise and worship Jesus invites me to enact on this last Sunday in Lent is far riskier; his donkey ride cost him everything.  I dare not join Palm Sunday’s parade too casually.


Lent 4: Mothering Sunday – Giving Up & Motherhood

Image result for hearts with cross lentI’ve fallen behind! I meant to do more writing and posting this Lent but  just haven’t made the time to do it. My last two sermons for Lent 2 & 3 were okay – passable even. I am still working on the condition of my heart – listening to it, having it tested through a number of events and it beats on. It is Mothering Sunday in the UK today. A day when hearts both rejoice and mourn. Here is my offering from this morning.

1 Samuel 1:20-28 & Luke 2:2-33-35

Well here we are again! Mothering Sunday. Looking around this morning I am aware that for many of you – this is not your first Mothering Sunday. Yet you made it to church – well done. Maybe you have had a thought or two about what you might hear this morning in the sermon and wondered if you would hear anything new. I have wondered that myself too!

While I fully appreciate and celebrate Mothering Sunday for the joy that it does bring, I know that this day is difficult for many people; motherhood can bring great heartache for many different reasons. It can be difficult for those who wanted to be mothers but were not able to for various reasons.

There are the mothers who found it difficult to be a mother who carry some guilt or resentment. Some people’s mothers weren’t exactly the loving and caring mothers they were supposed to be and the hurt of that lingers on. I think of the mother’s whose children died before they did and the enormity of that grief. Others here may be missing their Mothers who are far away or no longer living.

It is important to hold these tensions together this morning as this is what church family does. We rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.

Yet we try to find a way to celebrate mothers and motherhood for the joy and delight that it brings too. I know that motherhood has brought joy to many here as I have listened to your stories over the time I have been here. We have prayed for many of your children too.

One aspect of motherhood that I think most people overlook or portray in a negative light is the ‘giving up’ that is required of mothers. The giving up of motherhood begins in pregnancy with the giving up of one’s body as it is inhabited by another. Not having ever experienced this I can only imagine what this would be like. Everything is shared as a mother must care for her own body so that it can provide the right environment for the baby as it grows and changes.

Mothers may also have to give up or at least put aside their own dreams and goals for the sake of their child/children. This can be harder for some than for others. This is a considerable issue for many young women in the current workplace; women who put off having a family for their careers face consequences of fertility issues as they age. Some women also need to consider the effects that having a family can present to career advancement later. Many women must go to work out of financial necessity so staying home is not an option for many.

We can also fall into the trap that ‘giving up’ something must always be framed in a negative light; that giving up is the same as giving in. It is not!

In this season of Lent, we are asked to give up those things (albeit temporarily) which distract us from our relationships with God. Part of our growth and maturity as Christians is to give up those things that ultimately bring harm to ourselves and others. Giving up is not always a bad thing! Giving up can be difficult – especially if it is something that we are not prepared to give up. But that doesn’t mean it is a bad thing.

But to give up a child? Or give up on the prospect of having children for the sake of a career or vocation? It’s one thing to lay off the booze and biscuits – but a baby?!  In our readings this morning we see two mothers, Hannah and Mary, who both must give up their children.

Hannah seems to give up her Samuel voluntarily as she makes a vow to God. Mary is told that she will give birth to the Son of the Most High – this not a normal baby! Mary says yes to God – let it be according to your word.

Hannah (1 Samuel 1:20-28)

Hannah’s story is one of pain that is both public and private. Her pain centres on wanting something that she does not and at the beginning of the story cannot have. A baby. Hannah is desperate to have a baby – she is one of two wives and the other one was producing children. Hannah was tormented by Peninnah for not being able to have children.

We know from the beginning of 1 Samuel that the Lord has withheld children from Hannah and we are not sure why. Hannah has a husband who loves her regardless of whether she can have children or not. But his other, fertile wife is making sure that Hannah knows that she is deficient, worthless. This happens privately at home.

Hannah prays that God will remember her and not forget her and her misery. In due time – that is a way of saying that it happened when the Lord planned it – Hannah conceives a child. Like Moses mother, Hannah had to give up her son. Hannah wanted nothing more than to have a baby. She fought for one, pleaded for one, took all sorts of abuse about not having one. True to her word – once Samuel is weaned Hannah takes him to the temple and leaves him with Eli the priest.

Hannah’s sacrifice is rewarded with more children – 3 sons and 2 daughters. These children do not of course replace Samuel! He was the first one! But the others were a sign of God’s faithfulness.

Back to – sometimes we have to give things up – things we might feel we deserve or entitled to. Do we trust God enough that He will come through for us? Do we believe that He will remember us as He remembered Hannah?If we give up the things that God’s asks from us, we will be rewarded. We might not see the reward on this side of heaven – have to live with that.

We must remember that our view of the world is not God’s view of the world. He sees the past, the present and the future all at once. We are so much more limited and sometimes we apply our dim vision to God. But God is faithful and knows what we sacrifice and will care for us and love us through it.

Mary (Luke 2:33-35)

These few verses are part of a bigger story – one that we heard as part of Candlemas a few weeks ago as Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple to undergo the purification rituals required of new Jewish parents.

The whole of Christian life is one of blessing and sacrifice – we see that in the stories of Hannah and Joseph and Mary. They were given their babies to care for and then had to give them back to God. Hannah was remembered and rewarded. We too are remembered and will be rewarded.

In this exchange in the Temple, Mary and Joseph are probably shocked at what Simeon has to say! All parents learn about their children by getting to know them, spending time together, paying attention to them. I would suggest that very few parents learn about their children, let alone their future through elderly strangers at church!

Mary and Joseph do not know very much about their baby – up to this point, the shepherds knew more than they did. The other interesting part in this story is that Simeon doesn’t bless baby Jesus – instead he blesses Mary. Then he says, ‘this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.’

Mary and Joseph needed to be blessed! Tough times were ahead for them! They may not have fully realized in that moment what they were being told or fully understood the sacrifice that was to come. Jesus would be the baby who grew up to become to new Passover lamb. The one who would be sacrificed for the sins of the whole world.

Likewise, parents need to be blessed! I spent a good portion of my Friday afternoon holding the week-old baby of some very good friends. Baby Lilian is not the next Messiah and probably won’t be destined for the rising and falling of many. But her parents need to be blessed – with sleep, with support, with guidance as they guide Lilian and make sacrifices on her behalf. I would encourage you to bless the mother’s you know – young and ‘more experienced’. Encourage and remind them of the blessing and sacrifice that being a mother brings.

Lent is a season of sacrifice; giving up those things that we are either asked to by God or voluntarily give to him. Hannah gave up her first-born son to God to thank Him for the gift of motherhood. She was blessed with five more children.

Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple where his future was spoken over him, much to their surprise. They received a blessing of mercy. Why? Mary would one day stand at the foot of the cross while her first-born was crucified for the sins of the world.

How much sacrifice of giving up is asked of us? I don’t think we can quite compare with Mary. In the resurrection we see the ultimate act of sacrifice and the greatest act of blessing. We are blessed and restored through the sacrifice and giving up of Jesus and Mary.

Jesus cares for us completely and fully. However much or little we were loved by our mothers – Jesus loves us more, cares more deeply, knows us better and longer than they ever will. This is also true for those of you with children – Jesus loves them more than you do!

Wherever you sit today in the range of feelings on yet another Mothering Sunday – bless you. Let the love of God fall on you today.