Palm Sunday

Today’s reading is Mark 11:1-11Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Aidan.

In 1917, Jerusalem was still under the occupation of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Ottomon’s grasp of the region had been steadily in decline, as British forces, with help from the Australian Light horsemen, had been moving from place to place, wresting the Holy Land from the grip of Turkish rule. By the end of the campaign, 18,000 British soldiers and 25,000 Turkish troops had died. In early December that year, the British General, Lord Edmund Allenby, arrived not far from the walls of Jerusalem.

This was the historic moment that Jerusalem would fall out of the hands of the Ottomons, into the the tenure of the British Government. It was reported that the night before he entered the city, General Allenby, being a Christian man, prayed to God that it might be a peaceful victory, so that none of the holy places might suffer any damage.

He had sent a wired message to London to receive instructions, and had received a very simple reply—just a scripture quotation: Isaiah 31:5Open Link in New Window“As birds flying, so will the Lord of Hosts defend Jerusalem, defending also He will deliver it, and passing over, He will preserve it.” He had this verse read aloud to all his troops in the foothills. Inspired by the idea of birds flying overhead, he gathered all the available aircraft they had for a fly-over.

On the morning of December 10th, what looked like hundreds of planes appeared, skirting low from over one of the hills south east of the temple mount. The sky was covered, wing to wing, nose to tail, with British airplanes, the 14th bomber squadron, biplanes, and captured German aircraft, anything that would fly. But they dropped no bombs. Flying over the eastern gate, one of the pilots dropped a note calling for peaceful surrender, signed by General Allenby himself. The inhabitants of the city were pretty terrified, most of them never having seen airplanes before. I mean can you imagine? And the pilot’s note, translated into Arabic, carried an uncanny double-meaning. It turns out that the letters of Allenby’s name, when spelled in Arabic, were vocalised more like Al-nebi, which in Arabic means ‘God’s prophet’, so I think you can appreciate the fearful gravity of the situation which called for Muslim Turkish surrender from a War General with the title of ‘God’s Prophet’. Well, in response they hoisted the white flag and surrendered the city without firing a single shot. Jerusalem was the only city in all of World War One to be captured without any bloodshed or gunfire whatsoever.

On the 11th December, Lord Allenby, on a military horse, with the representatives of the US, France, Italy and the Allies, rode up to the Jaffa gate on horseback, and then dismounted with his soldiers in order show the deepest respect, and a sign of peace, as they entered through the gate.

In the city itself the people filled the streets. Expressions of joy that the city had been delivered from the Turks were evident on every side, and flags were being waved. Many of the Jews who lived there were tempted to think, even though Allenby was a Gentile, that he, somehow, was the Messiah, who had come to liberate the City of the Great King from 400 heavy-handed years of foreign Turkish rule.

A ‘Triumphal Entry’ indeed. A triumphal entry through the gates of Jerusalem. As I think you can tell, these events were thick and laden with the sense that God was on the move, of prophetic fulfilments and messianic hope.

No less laden with the sense of these things was the story we have just heard read to us in Mark’s Gospel. Far more than Lord Allenby’s entry, the Lord Jesus’ descent from the Mount of Olives into the Eastern Gate amidst massive crowds of cheering and hopeful residents and pilgrims, palm branches aloft, was truly Messianic. But triumphant? Was it a “Triumphal Entry”? Well, to call it ‘triumphal’ would be a misnomer, because Jesus was aiming at precisely the opposite—a Lowly Entry. History is replete with military leaders riding on White Horses, gaining conquest and routing enemies, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon Bonaparte. A horse is a symbol of strength, of honour, of war, of power, of majesty. But Jesus came riding in, not on a horse, but on a donkey’s colt! The donkey—a beast of burden. It is the lowliest of the domesticated animals. A symbol of humiliation and servitude. Nonetheless, the messianic overtones of this act couldn’t be missed, as this is exactly what the prophet Zechariah had said would happen.

Rejoice greatly, shout aloud, Daughter of Zion! Behold, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious,… lowly… and riding… on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He does away with chariots and warhorses and weaponry. He proclaims peace to the nations and by the blood of his covenant, he will free your prisoners.” Remarkable words from Zechariah 9Open Link in New Window.

Odd words to describe a conquering king! His mission is not war, but peace. His self-image is not pomp and circumstance, but humble service. He will not use the sword to free the captives, but he will use his own blood, poured out in covenant mercy.

The crowds must have thought he was finally coming, after three years or more of kingdom preaching and acts of miraculous power, coming to rally his troops and take Jerusalem, overthrow the Roman Occupation once and for all, and deliver the capital by force, purify the priesthood, restore the Kingdom to Israel and sit exalted on the throne of His Father David, that his reign might extend, as Zechariah goes on to say, “from sea to sea, from the Great River to ends of the earth.”

All of this still holds truth yet unfulfilled. But at that time, at His first coming, his troops were peasants and fishermen, forgiven sinners and rescued prostitutes. The lowly ones and the outcasts. His force was forgiveness, His exaltation to the throne was being hoisted up onto a Roman Cross. This was the most ironic, upside down kingly entry that could’ve ever happened. The crowds did not perceive it yet, as we can see by the way they threw their cloaks on the ground in front of him. This was an ancient way of ‘rolling out the red carpet’, as it were. There is only one other time in the Bible that people have thrown their cloaks on the ground before someone in procession, and that was Jehu, in 2 Kings 9Open Link in New Window, when he was being heralded as the new king. They blew the trumpets and declared “Jehu is King, long live the King!” But Jehu’s mission was to avenge blood. Jesus, (whose name in Hebrew is very similar to Jehu, but with an added ‘shua’, meaning the Lord Saves), Jesus came not to avenge blood, but to pour out his own blood so that transgressors could be redeemed.

The crowds sing, quoting words from Psalm 118Open Link in New Window (a Psalm that would typically be sung by everyone later that very week during the liturgy of Passover meal).

“Hosanna!” or in Hebrew, Hoshiā-ānnā, meaning, “Come save us now,” “Save us now, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you.” Go and have a look, afterwards, at the second half of Psalm 118Open Link in New Window, and see if there are any phrases and ideas that strangely remind you of Jesus—it’s really interesting!

Despite all this fanfare, what does he do when he gets through the gate, and into the temple courts? “The Lord will suddenly come to his temple!” said the prophet Malachi. The tension has been rising, the expectation mounting… Mark tells us: Jesus looks around, he sees the time, and then he leaves. Just goes straight back to Bethany.

Is that not the most anti-climactic ending to this story you could possibly imagine? He gets to the end of his red carpet, and then he does… nothing! All that singing, all that excitement. You’re in the crowd and you literally think that today is the Day. Goodbye Romans, Hello Son of David. Goodbye oppression, Hello victory. This is the moment the prophets have been speaking about for hundreds of years. And it suddenly ends with a yawn and a ‘see-ya-later.’ What!? The utter implosion of climax and fulfilment is actually completely intentional. Jesus wants them to know that things are not going to pan out how they’d expected. In fact, it’s about to get dark. Real dark.

I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s words:

It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
But love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

The events that followed less than a week after this paradoxical procession, must’ve felt to the disciples like it had all gone wrong. God’s love, his rescue plan, it turns out, was not a victory march into the city. No, it was being dragged out of the city, a walk of shame up to Golgotha to die. A cold and a very broken Hallelujah.

Technically, in the Church of England’s liturgy, we’re not supposed to speak or sing the word ‘Hallelujah’ during this solemn season of Lent. It’s too joyful, you see. We’re supposed to save it till Easter Morning. But I think a cold and a broken Hallelujah is quite appropriate in these times.

Nothing about this last year has felt like a victory. And we are by no means out of the woods yet. We are all well acquainted with the hardships, the bereavements, the confusion, the losses. We’ve all asked, where are you God? Why did you let this happen? Can’t you see all the terrible things that are resulting from this? How long, O Lord?

These were the questions that Jesus’ followers would have been asking by the end of this coming week. But we need to remember, that when Jesus turns triumph upside down, when he doesn’t meet our hopes and expectations, when nothing seems to be going right, when there’s pain in the waiting, when he allows awful things to happen… we need to remember, that he is not absent, and he has a plan, and it’s all bending towards his perfect timing and his perfect will, and though we don’t understand it yet, though evil seems to gain the upper-hand, he is secretly, quietly, patiently, working all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. The darkest day yielded brightest light, and our dark days will not be for nothing.

As I’m sure you know, there will have been many in those crowds in that procession, who were so easily swayed to and fro by the changing winds of public opinion. Today, “Hosanna!” Tomorrow, “Crucify Him!” Sounds a lot like cancel culture. We are a fickle species. But hold fast to him, and don’t give up, don’t let failed expectation offend you, don’t grow impatient with his strange, upside-down ways of doing things, and don’t let world’s lies turn you against him. It’s not over yet, and he will carry us through. Pain will give way to peace, hurt will give way to healing, and all that is wrong will be made right again.

Amen.

There will be a video version of the service.

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