Friends, Palm Sunday is perhaps my favourite day in the entire Church year, and I certainly miss celebrating it with all of you in the way we normally would, with our procession of palm branches and congregational singing of rousing hymns.
It’s hard to believe, but this is now our second consecutive Palm Sunday under the restrictions of this pandemic; and I don’t know about you, but I am eager for all of this to be over. So in the meantime, I am in need of some patience.
And for that, we are invited to draw from the strength and example of Jesus.
Our collect or prayer of the day reminds us that to follow Jesus means to receive and follow His example, which is one of patience and humility. Those two virtues go together. Patience is the fruit of a humble mind. And for Jesus His humility and patience were triumphant through the ordeal of His cross. Humility and patience allowed Jesus to bear:
But through this, the humility and patience of Jesus proved victoriou, and our King was triumphant on the cross and in His death.
But that same humility and patience characterized His entire life and ministry.
Throughout Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus moving about almost in secret, teaching privately, speaking in coded parables, refusing to draw attention to His miracles. For example, in Mark chapter one, He cleanses a man suffering from leprosy, but then warns, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone’ (Mark 1:44).
Jesus does not seek out the power centers of Israel. He spends most of His time in the despised, grubby backwater of Galilee, the outskirts of the land. In Mark’s account, Jesus does not visit Jerusalem or the temple until His final days. All throughout His ministry, Jesus walks everywhere He goes, always on the move and always on foot.
[And friends, just as a brief aside, this is an important reminder for us: if you give your life in service to Jesus, you can often expect the same obscurity and lack of recognition.]
But for Jesus, things are different on Palm Sunday. His entry into Jerusalem was one of triumph - and certainly no secret.
Jesus intentionally stages a grand entry into the city. He accepts the praises of the crowd. Even His mode of transportation changes: no longer walking on foot, Jesus rides enthroned on a donkey, like the great King Solomon centuries before. The people lay down a carpet of clothes and branches in His path – what we would call ‘the red carpet’ treatment.
All of this was a piece of ‘public street theatre’ by Jesus - a self-conscious fulfillment of the Book of the Prophet Zechariah chapter 9, which tells of the arrival of Israel’s conquering king.
But for all the pomp and ceremony of this triumphal entry, our Gospel story today ends in anti-climax, or so it seems. Jesus is proclaimed as king by the crowds, but there is no coronation or anointing. Instead, He goes straight to the temple, but does nothing other than look around.
Now it may seem that nothing much is going on here, but as the events unfold over the coming days, we the true significance of this moment.
Here Jesus assumes the role of an Old Testament priest with His examination of the temple.
According to Leviticus 14, houses as well as people could contract leprosy: probably a kind of mold, mildew or fungus. To determine whether the house is defiled, a priest examines the house and then returns a week later to see if the infection has spread.
When Jesus returns to the temple the following day, He finds a spreading defilement. The temple is meant to be a house of prayer for all nations, but Jesus charges that it has been turned into a den of robbers.
This time, Jesus does act dramatically, cleansing the temple by overturning the tables of the moneychangers and driving them out.
Friends, today, on this Palm Sunday we celebrate the arrival of Jesus our King, but He is also the Priest, who comes to examine the temple that is His Church.
As individual Christians, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, so Jesus comes to search out and examine each one of us, our hearts, souls and minds. Ask yourself, what will He find?
That brings us to our Epistle reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul is writing to a church that he founded, and so he was very fond of them. But it would seem they had developed a competitive spirit and capacity for conflict. They were a house infected with leprosy.
And so before this mold could spread any further, Paul encourages the Philippians to cleanse themselves by imitating the example of Jesus.
Quoting the words of a very early Christian hymn, Paul reminds the Philippians that Jesus, though He was fully God, emptied and humbled Himself by His birth as a human being, throughout His earthly life, and especially in His suffering and death on the cross.
We might think that being like god means having things your own way. But Jesus demonstrated that to be like the true and living God means giving yourself away and sending yourself out in sacrificial love for others.
In other words, the way to become a mature human being in the likeness of Jesus is to refuse to be a little god at the centre of your little universe. This self-centeredness was at the root of that proud, competitive spirit that had infected the Philippian congregation – and which also infects our own lives and relationships. The opposite of this is a true Christ-like humility. As we see from the example of Jesus, humility is not about being wimpy, nor does it involve self-denigration (which is really just unhealthy self-absorption).
Rather, true Christ-like humility involves a down-to-earth integrity, a clarity about yourself, and an openness to others and the world around you.
So friends, throughout this Holy Week, over the duration of this ongoing pandemic, and throughout our lives, may we always be given the grace to follow the example of Christ’s patience and humility and so be made partakers of the strength and newness of life that come only from the power of His Resurrection.
In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.