Liturgy of the Palms: Mark 11.1-11
Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Mark 15.1-47
For our first wedding anniversary, I decided to take Amy away for a weekend away in Paris. It’s the only holiday, as far as I can remember, that I completely organised myself. I booked a really reasonably-priced hotel close to the centre of Paris, near the Arc de Triomph, and sorted out train tickets and everything else we needed.
We travelled to Paris on the Eurostar, found our way on the Metro to the right station, and everything was going fine until we began to walk up the street that I thought the hotel was on. We walked all the way up the street until we reached the end, but didn’t see the hotel. So we walked all the way back down to the bottom again, and still didn’t notice it, and so we walked up one last time, following the directions I’d printed out, and right in the place where our hotel should be, was the Spanish embassy!
It was at the point that I realised that there were two streets with the same name, one right in the centre of Paris with the Spanish embassy on it, and one much further out of the city, where our hotel was situated, which was another journey on the Metro and a taxi ride away. I told you I thought it was reasonably priced!
And so we eventually did make it, after a big detour, to our hotel that evening, and had a lovely few days in Paris.
In some ways, the Palm Sunday service this morning is similar. We begin with a victory parade as we recall Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as King. But then suddenly things take an unexpected detour, as moments later we find ourselves re-living a very different kind of parade – the humiliating parade of defeat as Jesus is led out to Golgotha to be crucified.
Well, what happened? Why would God choose to die? And of all the ways to die, why on a cross?
You may well feel a little liturgical whiplash this morning – and if you do that’s okay, I think we’re supposed to! There could not be more contrast between our opening acclamation, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’, and the cry of the crowd in Mark’s passion reading: ‘Crucify him’.
From ‘Hosanna’, which literally means ‘Save us!’, to the mocking cries of ‘Save yourself!’
If we didn’t know God better, we could be forgiven for wondering, ‘What went wrong?’ It was all going so well, Jesus’ popularity was growing, his message about the arrival of the kingdom of God was spreading, and then suddenly it all ends so badly in the most pointless and brutal of deaths.
Except that throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been clear all along that this was precisely the plan. This isn’t a detour, his ministry hasn’t been derails, this was God’s plan all along.
He was never attempting to build the kind of earthly kingdom they were expecting, like the empire of the Romans – built on prestige and empty promises of salvation, but ultimately empty and corrupt.
No, the kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate is the exact opposite of that: A kingdom whose king would rather be born in a stable than a palace. A king who would rather enter his capital riding a lowly colt, than a towering warhorse.
A king who, rather than protecting his own life at all costs, would choose to give his own life, even in the most painful and humiliating way, for the lives of his subjects. That’s the beauty of God’s kingdom.
It’s a kingdom of sacrificial love, a kingdom of grace where the most undeserving, the most ashamed, even you, even me, are offered new life, because the only one of us who was truly innocent chose to give himself for our sake.
And where perhaps the least likely of all those who witnessed it, a centurion, can’t help but find himself exclaiming ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
I wonder, this Holy Week, will we allow ourselves to once again re-live the incredible suffering of Jesus? Will we choose to respond, like the Centurion, and place our lives once again in his hands?
And will we commit ourselves, once again, as God’s people to stand against the self-indulgent ‘kingdoms’ of this world, and instead embrace the sacrificial work of his kingdom?
Last Sunday, I quoted the Revd Samuel Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in his book on the cross. In that same book, he tells this story:
‘On the night of 6 March 1987, A cross-channel ferry carrying 500 people sank in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, 90 seconds after leaving harbour. The assistant boatswain had fallen asleep and failed to close the bow doors. The first officer hadn’t been present to check they were closed, and the boatswain had seen they were open but chose not to close them because it wasn’t his job. So water gushed into the open doors and the ship capsised, with the loss of nearly 200 lives. Later enquiries revealed culpability and complacency at every level of management. Almost every dimension of human folly, fragility and depravity contributed to the disaster.
It was like the Passion narrative all over again…
But he continues: ‘And yet assistant bank manager Andrew Parker, a passenger on the ferry that night, did a quite extraordinary thing. He saw two metal barriers, and, below, in the gap between them, he saw onrushing water. Behind him were dozens of people. So he held onto one barrier with his fists and the other with his ankles, and made his own body into a human bridge by stretching between the two barriers. Some 20 terrified people, including his own wife and daughter, climbed over him to safety. How he found the courage and strength, how he still was rescued after laying down his life for so many, no one could say.
But there was no doubt that in that disaster the world could see both the depths of human failure and the heights of human aspiration.Sam Wells, Hanging by a Thread, pp.27-28.
At the cross, we see the depths of human failure. Our failure, our guilt, our shame. But we also see Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God showing us the heights of human sacrifice. The heights of compassion. The heights of hope.
This Holy Week, may we immerse ourselves once again in the story of Christ’s sacrifice, in order that we too might live not for ourselves, but for him and the good of his world.
Almighty and everlasting God,
who in your tender love towards the human race
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
grant that we may follow the example
of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.