The God who IS History
Genesis 49:8-12, Matthew 21:1-11, Philippians 2:5-11, Psalm 118
'By the values and conventional judgements of history, Jesus was a failure.
He is not on the right or the wrong side of history. He was not playing that game.
Jesus is the heart of history; his bravery, his graciousness is its moral purpose.'
Delivered Sunday 2nd April 2023
Forgive me for mentioning two politicians who were once in the ascendency and now are under critical scrutiny.
The first is Boris Johnson. His supporters dismiss his obvious character flaws with the mantra, ‘but he got the big calls right.’
The second is Jeremy Corbyn, whose supporters defend him similarly by saying, ‘he was on the right side of history.’
History is about big things, larger than life leaders, and major, epoch changing events.
For a time one group has the ascendency and for a time the opposite. Power games which exclude ordinary mortals like you and me.
There is an African proverb, ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’.
Nothing has changed since Jesus rode on a donkey (or rather two donkeys) into Jerusalem.
Jesus was determined to go to the city. It was a provocative act a bold, decisive, challenging piece of political theatre.
It feels like a carnival procession. Think Rio, Trinidad, Notting Hill. Large crowds, exultant people, a procession, animals, banners and palm.
Or was it an act of civil disobedience or a precursor to XR rebellion?
Maybe but I think there is more.
When the patriarch Jacob was dying, he gathered his sons around him and told them what he thought of them. You can read it in Genesis 49.
He told his eldest son, Reuben that he thought he was flaky – ‘unstable as water’. I like what he said to his son Asher. ‘Asher’s food shall be rich and he provides royal delicacies’.
Listen to what Jacob says of Judah. Judah is to be a ruler. He says ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from beneath his feet.’ (Genesis 49:8-12).
Going back to the Palm Sunday story, Jesus was in Judah’s capital city Jerusalem. The people were not ruling as was their birth right. Instead, their country was occupied under Roman military rule.
Listen to more of what Jacob says to Judah, ‘Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he washes his garment in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes.’
If you happened to be walking down the street in Jerusalem and saw the disciples unleashing a foal and a donkey then Jacob’s words may well have come to mind. Jesus is claiming the right of Judah to rule themselves.
Come this afternoon’s performance of Handel’s Messiah and you will hear a wonderful aria ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!’ The words are from the prophet Zechariah. ‘Shout aloud O daughter of Jerusalem. Behold your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he.
And guess what - More donkeys –
Zechariah says that the king that is coming will be ‘humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’.
Zechariah pointedly predicted that the saviour of Israel would ride a donkey, unlike most triumphant leaders on a white horse. A peaceful rule will come – ‘a battle bow shall be cut off and he will command peace to the nations’ foretells Zechariah.
Jesus coming into the city is the fulfilment of prophecy. These donkeys were not a convenient mode of transport, they were a sign that the promised king was claiming his rightful position.
The crowds know it. This piece of theatre contained enough clues. All it needed was a chorus.
The crowds knew their part and knew exactly what to chant.
Hosanna – save us.
It is spontaneous; ‘Save us – hosanna – blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’
It was a psalm for the Temple, acclaiming the High Priest. When he came out of the Holy of Holies, he wore a plaque inscribed with the name of God. The people would shout the psalm - ‘Blessed is the One who comes WITH the name of the Lord.’
This drama is hotting up.
Then we read, the crowds shout ‘This is the prophet Jesus of Nazareth’.
Prophet, Priest, King – the entire authority of Israel is invested in this man symbolically claiming his place with the full weight of Israel’s history on his shoulders.
The atmosphere must have been electric.
He goes to the Mount of Olives prophesied to be the scene of a great battle marking if not the end of physical time, the dawning of a new age.
No wonder Matthew’s Gospel says that the whole city was in turmoil. In its original greek, the city was ‘shaken’ – as in the aftershocks of an earthquake.
This was an earth-shattering event.
However, whilst it was dramatic, it was also futile. Within only a few days, a new drama unfolded and the chorus bayed ‘crucify’ and Jesus was hanging on a cross.
The city shook again. This time with a real not a metaphorical earthquake.
Nothing had changed.
The Romans still occupied.
The poor remained poor.
The outcast were still outcast.
The collaborators continued to collaborate.
I attended an amazing conference of Asian community organisations in Bangkok, courtesy of the World Council of Churches. Some Buddhists monks, living in Thailand as refugees from Myanmar, asked the conference to hold a demonstration about the situation in their country. They felt that the presence of a large international group would give them protection. We all assembled one afternoon for this demonstration.
It took place just one year after a student demonstration, in the same location, had ended with several students being shot by police. Understandably, there was a nervousness about our demonstration of solidarity.
As we were about to begin, someone announced – can the white people all go to the front. They won’t shoot if they see white people.
At this point, I felt a little ambiguous about the concept of white privilege.
Well, they did not shoot. Of course, they did not. The demonstration, moreover, was beautiful. It ended with an almsgiving ceremony when those gentle Buddhist monks held out their begging bowls and we filled them with fruit. The book of James says; God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. They were so gracious as well as brave.
When he entered Jerusalem Jesus was gracious and brave.
Dr King once said, “We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.”
Paul says, ‘let this mind be in you as it was in Christ Jesus, he emptied himself ... and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’
The manner of Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem is the best we can hope for in the transformation of our troubled times.
Thankfully, we do not locate Jesus among the great rulers of history. He is not a Boris Johnson ‘getting the big calls right’ or dear old Jeremy ‘on the right side of history’. Neither is he a Churchill, Napoleon, Gladstone, Richard the Lionheart, (Owain Glyndwr) Alexander the Great or even Good King Wenceslas.
By the values and conventional judgements of history, Jesus was a failure.
He is not on the right or the wrong side of history. He was not playing that game.
Jesus is the heart of history; his bravery, his graciousness is its moral purpose.
We have been speaking this Lent of the great contemporary challenges facing people of faith.
Too often, we view the crisis of the modern world, from a helicopter. We see strategic global power games – China, Russia, USA, EU. We see massive ecological forces moving toward one tipping point after another. We see unprecedented migration flows across and between continents. All very theoretical, logical, containing its own controversies and debates.
Whilst all that is true, it renders us powerless. Dr King called it the ‘paralysis of analysis.’
Turn it on its head. Today’s crisis is an accumulation of millions and millions of personal and family catastrophes.
Damage from fire and storm. Loss of loved ones in the pandemic. The loss of livelihood. The fittest members of the family moving away to earn money to send home. The need to escape hostilities and find respite. For some they are life and death issues. For others, they create practical challenges. For most of us they involve some dislocation, physically, culturally, emotionally.
Looking at it this way presents challenges, but it does not disempower. We can be involved. We cannot avoid being involved. We are involved. In these past weeks, we have not been talking about remote issues. They are ours. They impact on us and people all around us.
The rebellion led by our prophet, priest and king was but a pinprick on the body politic of the Roman Empire. It was easily quelled.
Perhaps the execution of Jesus was the ‘big call’ of Herod and Pilate probably thought he was on ‘the right side of history’.
They were wrong. But for the futile gesture of Jesus of Nazareth, Herod and Pilate would be unheard of.
The name of Jesus is the name above every name.
Some of us saw the film King again last Wednesday. The last footage of the film showed Dr King’s coffin carried on a battered old wooden cart. Significantly and poignantly, two donkeys pulled it.
The king who rode a donkey inspired another peace loving King – Jesus can be our inspiration too.
We began Lent by asking how people of faith should respond to the urgent contemporary challenges.
I think the answer is simpler than we imagine. People of faith need to remain faithful.
We need to be true to the prophet, priest and king who emptied himself of all but love.
Praying for the healing of the world is not futile. Serving our neighbour changes the world for the better. The Way of Jesus amplifies every small deed by adding it to the myriad of actions of the beloved community. Resisting the motivation of status, wealth and power, and learning from simplicity and wisdom is a worthy response to the fierce urgency of now.
John Newton wrote:
O Jesus, shepherd, guardian, friend,
my Prophet, Priest, and King,
my Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
accept the praise I bring.
The great task of people of faith, even for this tiny flock of Christ’s people meeting here, is to remain faithful to the Way of Jesus.