Sermon preached at All Saints, Coddington on Palm Sunday 2015
Phil 2.5-11; John 12.12-16
After a week full of news about ancient royalty, I have been thinking – as I imagine have many of you - about our monarchy. Some of my most pleasant childhood memories are of going to watch the Queen on a number of occasions. As a child at a school near the Houses of Parliament, I used to watch the arrival of the Queen on the occasion of State openings. We used to have a lesson-free morning whenever the Queen came to Parliament and would wait excitedly – often in cold weather - as preparations were made for her arrival. There would be a military band in dress uniform. The police were there in force, not so much to control crowds as to parade themselves, mounted and resplendent in dress uniforms with silver lanyards. You could tell when the Queen was near. We used to stand opposite the gate of the Victoria Tower. There would be a clattering of hooves as shining black horses came into view, ridden by an escort of the Blues and Royals and the Life Guards. That meant we had a splendid view of some gleaming equine quarters, but we could look between the horses as the cheering grew louder until finally the Irish State Coach came into view. It was pulled by four beautifully groomed greys, with a tricorn-hatted driver and two or four footmen at the rear. They were followed by yet more mounted escort. They all moved at little more than walking pace, and passed through the great gateway as gracefully as dancers. Fanfares sounded inside the tower and we all cheered again. The horses stood as the Queen stepped from the coach and her train was carried by boys of our age, but in court dress. It was breathtakingly beautiful. And then we had to leave, to go back to school. We left the beautiful horses and their riders all standing easy and waiting for their monarch’s return home.
Just imagine, however, that instead of that ceremony – one you can still see in London, much the same as when I was a child – imagine that the crowd saw none of the mounted police, none of the glittering cavalry, heard none of the bands or fanfares. Imagine instead that a battered Nissan Micra were to drive up, out of which stepped an 88 year old lady clutching a couple of typewritten sheets in her hand, and that she had to ask the policeman at the door to let her in. It would be ridiculous. More than that, it would be a picture of bathos, an ignominious way for a monarch to arrive at her parliament.
In Jesus’ lifetime, Jewish people were waiting for their king to arrive. This had been predicted ever since their ancestors had been exiled to Babylon (in what is now Iraq) early in the sixth century BCE. But when, later that century, King Cyrus conquered Babylon, he allowed some of those Jews to return to Judaea. High on their list of priorities was the construction of a second Temple to replace the one that King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed in his conquest of Judaea. Building a second Temple was hugely important to them because they were looking to God to live amongst them as before, centred on his Temple. And they began to look for a new king who would be God’s regent, unlike their kings of old, but one who would rule with God’s authority and power. They were certain that God would send them such a king and there were hundreds of predictions and false dawns as they searched for God’s Anointed One, the mashiach. So it was natural that, when Jews gathered in great numbers for sacred feasts at Jerusalem, they would ask themselves if this would be the time that God’s hand would be revealed, introducing their saviour king.
As we know, a small number of Jewish people had identified Jesus as that person. His closest friends and followers believed that he must be God’s Anointed One. His authoritative teaching, his obvious closeness to the God he called Father, and some remarkable healings they had seen personally, all prompted them to hope that this man must be the long-expected Anointed One of God, the mashiach. In the second lesson this morning from St John’s gospel, we learn that Jesus was also being followed by people who had seen the most remarkable healing of all, the return of his friend Lazarus from death. They attested that Lazarus had not just been ill: he had been dead for four days, and then had stepped alive out of his tomb. This Jesus must be God’s Anointed One.
But where was the army of his followers? Were there bands of invisible angel warriors? Where was his armour, his ensign to carry his standard, his shield carrier, his sword bearer? Where was his war horse? Where were the trumpets and cymbals of a triumphant procession? Where were the banners of his followers and servants?
There were none of those marks of kingship. There was just a man dressed in ordinary clothes, and he was riding on every peasant’s runabout – a donkey. Other accounts say that he hadn’t even a saddle on the donkey: like a poor peasant, he sat on some coats to ease the animal’s burden. And his armed escort? A bunch of people, starstruck by his teaching or his healing, and carrying palm fronds! You could say it was pathetic in contrast to what the Roman occupiers could put on by way of display. But it was not pathetic – it was bathetic. My Oxford English Dictionary defines bathos as a “ludicrous descent from the elevated to the commonplace.” The events on Friday of that week proved to be a further descent when the crowds howling for Jesus’ blood presumably included some of those who had shouted in hope and expectation the previous Sunday. Beware of being greeted as a saviour: you will end up being crucified by the very people who sought to raise you up.
St John’s gospel, more than the other three gospels in our canon, does not pause for a moment to reflect on these contradictions. Rather, the evangelist carries calmly on – as though God was taking all this in God’s stride. From transient glory to bathos and humiliation is all in God’s plan because God alone knows what comes next. God’s willingness to be temporarily elevated in human opinion and then to be rejected and crushed by human fury and hate is a wonder at the centre of our Christian faith. It is so astonishing – so worthy of our reflection – that it should not surprise us to learn that the first Christians wrote a hymn about it. You heard that hymn read to you in the first reading this morning. I suggest you read it again at home today and give thanks for a God whose understanding about how to lead and save God’s people is so remarkable, so opposite to all that we might imagine.
The hymn in chapter 2 of the letter to the church at Philippi stands as a model of leadership for Christian people. The leader who commands our love and devotion is the one who does not seek to dominate us, but who serves us. Such leaders are always in danger of being elevated in the eyes of those they serve. That way lies danger, for adulation is a dangerous drug. The leader who adopts God’s model is not swayed by - and does not court - adulation. Instead she empties herself of all claims to power over others, and looks simply to serve the most profound needs of the people. Such leadership is costly: it can even kill you. But it is the model proposed by God and lived by God. Let us pray that we may look for and find such leadership in our time and in our lives.