This is the text of the online Service which was prepared for Sunday 5th April - Palm Sunday.

Call to Worship

In these confusing times, when what was normal seems to been put on hold,

when things we could not have imagined are coming to seem normal,

when we cannot be sure tomorrow will bring,

in these confusing times, we choose to remember that God is with us, that God is love,

and that God holds everything and everyone.

Lets take a moment to pray…

Eternal One, whose gentle, whispering voice has been detected by many over so many years, we come now to listen for that for most ancient wisdom, for that word which can be your word to us. 

We thank you that we have a comfortable place, where we can settle and think and pray. 

We thank you that there is so much care around us, so much good being done.  We thank you for the faith we are invited into, the faith that in our silent inner places we sense to be true, the faith that you are with us and for us, the unchanging presence in a time of so much change, the unfailing presence in a time when so much seems to be under threat.

So now we confess our anxiety, and our frustration.  We recognise where we feel disappointed, or let down.  And when we look more deeply within, we discover that we ourselves have been a source of frustration to others, that we ourselves have been disappointing.  We do not think of such negative things in order to hold on to them, to be dragged down by them, but we offer them to you, coming to you just as we are with no defence and no pretence.  We offer ourselves to you, for in you we find forgiveness, in you we find freedom, and when you set us free we are free indeed.

We thank you, and we say together the words of prayer which were once taught by Jesus….

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,

for yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.

Introduction

To begin with, can I thank you for all the messages and comments I have received in response to these simple online Services.  They have been universally positive, which I know can’t be realistic because nothing is ever universally popular, but the fact that people have wanted to express appreciation and encouragement and have kept their less positive reactions to themselves says a lot that is good about the people we are.  I just hope that these videos help us to feel connected during this time of separation, connected to each other, connected to this community of believers and searchers that we call church, and also connected to the deeper parts of our lives, the quiet whispers of hope, the sense that we are not alone, no matter how much or how little might be going on around us.

I was reminded this week of that great verse in the book of Isaiah which says, “do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have you by name.  You are mine.”  Do not be afraid seems to take on a bit of a new significance in these strange days, and I know that it might sound glib and empty.  We are afraid for ourselves, perhaps are afraid for vulnerable friends or relatives, perhaps we are afraid for our jobs or our futures, perhaps we are afraid when we wonder when it will all end or how it will end or what the new normal will be when it does.  All of that is real and not to be disregarded, but we have an ancient message, perhaps it is a word of God for us,  which says, do not be afraid.

Why should I not be afraid, with all this going on?  “Do not be afraid because I have redeemed you”.  We don’t need to find the answers, we don’t need to put everything right single handed, we don’t need to do it all on our own, because we are not all on our own, there is one who has redeemed us and we can trust him.

I say “him” because we are limited be language, and I assume you don’t therefore think that I am imagining that the great creative force of life which creates all that we know and so much more is actually limited to a particular personality or gender, for surely whatever we mean by God is bigger and more all encompassing than that.  It is that God, the big one, who calls you by name, by your name, and assures you that have an eternal belonging in him.

There is a lot of fear around, and it is understandable, but it is nothing new.  Were we not always worried about health, and worried about those we care about most, and worried about money and anxious about the future?  This current crisis has brought all of that into focus, and perhaps the fear seems bigger than ever.  But we do not need to be gripped by fear.  We don’t need to be gripped by fear when there is so much positive stuff going on.  People are setting up groups to care for others who might need help, people are phoning friends just for a chat and a human connection, people are stopping rushing around and finding time to reflect on their lives, the planet is getting a chance to cleanse itself and breathe in some fresher air, who would have believed all of that would have been possible a few weeks ago.  But most of all we do not need to be gripped by fear when we know that we are held in the gentle but firm embrace of that all-powerful force of love that we call God.

Do not be afraid for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name.  You are mine.

This is Palm Sunday, the day when we traditionally recall the story of Jesus big arrival in the city of Jerusalem.

Let’s read our bible passages for this week, then we can reflect on them for a few moments…

First we have some words from one of the psalms which has long been associated with the Palm Sunday story, then Matthew’s account of what happened when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem.

Psalm 118: 19-29

Open to me the gates of the Temple; I will go in and give thanks to the Lord!  This is the gate of the Lord; only the righteous can come in.  I praise you, Lord, because you heard me, because you have given me victory.  The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all.  This was done by the Lord; what a wonderful sight it is!  This is the day of the Lord's victory; let us be happy, let us celebrate! Save us, Lord, save us!  Give us success, O Lord!  May God bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  From the Temple of the Lord we bless you.  The Lord is God; he has been good to us.  With branches in your hands, start the festival and march around the altar.  You are my God, and I give you thanks; I will proclaim your greatness.  Give thanks to the Lord, because he is good, and his love is eternal.

Matthew 21:1-11

As Jesus and his disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage at the Mount of Olives. There Jesus sent two of the disciples on ahead with these instructions: “Go to the village there ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied up with her colt beside her. Untie them and bring them to me.  And if anyone says anything, tell him, ‘The Master needs them’; and then he will let them go at once.”  This happened in order to make come true what the prophet had said: “Tell the city of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you!  He is humble and rides on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  So the disciples went and did what Jesus had told them to do: they brought the donkey and the colt, threw their cloaks over them, and Jesus got on.  A large crowd of people spread their cloaks on the road while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds walking in front of Jesus and those walking behind began to shout, “Praise to David's Son! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise be to God!”  When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was thrown into an uproar. “Who is he?” the people asked.  “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee,” the crowds answered.

Sermon

It is a bit unfortunate the way we normally do church.  I suppose that statement could be true in many ways, but I mean the pattern of how we do Easter.  We have our Palm Sunday celebration, where back in the day we would have lots of children acting out the grand arrival of Jesus, waving branches and singing about the donkey and all of that, which was generally a popular Service.  Then, a week later, we have Easter Sunday, all triumph and glory and new life, which even now is one of the busiest Sundays of the year in terms of church attendance.

Why is that unfortunate?  Well its because we miss out the bits if the story that come in between.  The bits of the story that come in between are not easy to live with.  Perhaps it seems perfectly reasonable to choose to go from the Big Parade to the Empty Tomb and skip the stuff that makes us uncomfortable: stuff like how Jesus ate his last meal with his closest friends, all of whom would betray abandon or deny him; that these friends couldn’t even stay awake while he prayed in terror, that the crowd would hit out at him for not living up to their expectations, that the people would twist him a crown of thorns and press it on to his head.  That is uncomfortable, not just for the way it makes us humans look.  it is uncomfortable to watch Jesus going through all of that and never once showed enough self-respect to fight back or even attempt to save himself.  So if we can just go from the palm waving welcome to the brightness of Easter morning we can avoid feeling bad about ourselves, and avoid feeling bad for Jesus.

The crucifixion is not an attractive part of our story.  You may have been told at some point that it was your fault that it happened, that Jesus had to die because of the bad things you have done, that God needed to see his son killed so that he could forgive you.  I think there is a lot of deep truth in that, and I think that it is good for us to reflect on the harm we might be doing in life  when our stronger instinct is to complain about the harm others are doing, and I think that the ultimate message that there is forgiveness, that there is redemption, is the most healing and restoring thing we can ever come across.  However, to look at the cross and think that it is all about us – can also be to miss the point.

When we think the cross is about us, the only view we can have of God is of him standing in heaven looking down at it all in judgment, judging us, and punishing Jesus.  But the thing is, God isn’t standing above the cross.  God is the one on the cross.  The problem is that when we wonder what God is like,  we tend to start with what we are like and then project that up until gets really big.  We sometimes feel vengeful so God must be vengeful.  We sometimes want to smite our enemies so God must want to smite his enemies.  That’s why it’s hard to imagine that God would willingly choose to be poured out for us on the cross because we’d never do a thing like that.

Well, as Albert Einstein said, “the same thinking that created a problem cannot solve the problem.”.  If we humans can cause so much harm to ourselves and to one another and to our planet, why could we expect that a bigger version of us who lives in the heavens could somehow solve it all.  The good news is that there is a reliable way know about the nature of God, but it’s never to look at ourselves and it’s always to look at Jesus.  The way to know the Father is through the son; anything else ends us being about us and not about God.

So it is really stunning to then realise that the most striking ways God chose to reveal God’s self was in a humble cradle and on a human cross.  From the cross the word of God is seen and heard loudly and clearly and the word is….forgiveness.  “Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing” is an eternally valid statement.  It is only a God who is unlike us - a God who enters our human existence and suffers our insults with only love and forgiveness - who can save us from ourselves.  It is only a self-emptying God, the one we see in Christ Jesus, who, in the words of St Paul, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,  humbled himself to the point of death— even death on a cross – only this one can save us.

This is not a God who stands at a distance in judgment, but a God of amazing grace.  Because while the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross is not about you - it is certainly FOR you.  In fact, God is so for you that there is no place God will not go to be with you.  Nothing separates you from the love of God in Jesus ….not insults, not betrayal, not suffering, and as we will see at Easter – not even death itself.

So don’t go jump from one triumphant moment to another and skip the bit in between, for it is the bit in between which is central, this difficult but profoundly important image of God a self-emptying God who pursues you and saves you with relentless, terrifying love and who ultimately will enter the grave and the very stench of death in order to say even here, even here I will not be without you.

 

Prayer

God of spirit and life, of flesh and bone, of silence and presence, we take a moment to simply breathe in that reality, the reality that your presence unites us, wherever we are. 

Once again we find our thoughts turning towards Easter, the marvel and the mystery of, the pain and the despair of it, and ultimately, the hope of it.

May we not miss out on any of that, even as we are missing out on so many other things in these days.

May we not miss what it tells us about you, and what it tells us about ourselves, and what it tells us about who we are in you.

May that perfect love cast out all fear from within us,

so that we may help one another to cast out any fear that arises among us.

This Easter, may we know, at least as much as ever before, that you have redeemed us, that you are calling us by name, that we are safe in you. 

So we ask your blessing on those who are sick, or who are sad, or who are anxious…

we ask your blessing on those who are serving, those who are caring, those who are having to make hard decisions…

we ask you blessing on our community, and our church,

we ask your blessing on our families, and all those we care about most.

Almighty and everlasting God, who in your patient 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 come to share in 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.

 

Amen