“Light and Dark Places.”
Morning Service for Palm Sunday, conducted by Revd. Jennifer Millington
This sermon is taken from Philippians 2, verses 1-11; Luke 22, verses 1-6
Walking the Way: Light and Dark Places
When you picture Palm Sunday, do you see Jesus riding to glory?
Or Jesus riding straight into trouble?
Jesus was a hugely popular figure within his nation. Crowds followed him wherever he went. They loved what he did and were amazed at what he said. More than once they had tried to get him into a seat of power. Their current rulers, after all were the Roman Emperor, his allocated Governor, Pontius Pilate and his “puppet King” Herod Antipas. None of them cared what ordinary people thought or what ordinary people needed. None of them cared what ordinary people believed in; their god was “Power.” End of story.
The ordinary people dreamed of a leader who would care about them and care for them. They dreamed of a Messiah- a political and spiritual Saviour- and many believed that Jesus was this Messiah.
Some of the better- off citizens and the religious leaders were not so sure, though. They wanted a Messiah but they were not prepared to stick their necks out to get one. Under Roman rule they were not doing too badly if they just kept quiet and minded their own business. The last thing they wanted was some Messiah figure who would stir up the peasants to revolt, challenge the religious status quo and draw down the wrath of Rome on them all. So they watched Jesus suspiciously for any sign of trouble. And Jesus was quite well aware that they were watching him.
This entry into Jerusalem then was quite clearly confrontational. Donkey or no donkey, the crowds cheered Jesus and called out to him as King. And Jesus did nothing to stop them. The religious and social leaders were horrified and this, for them, was the last straw. Jesus was deliberately provoking a political and religious uprising. Therefore he had to go before there was a bloodbath. And the rest, as we say, is history….
Why do you think Jesus did this? Why did he ride into Jerusalem in such a way that he inspired the crowds to frenzied support and the leaders to frenzied attack?
Was he an innocent victim of his own success? Did he ride the donkey simply because he was tired and before he knew it, he was being thrust into a victory parade, like a modern celebrity suddenly finding themselves surrounded by the paparazzi?
Was he deluded about the level of his support? Did he believe that decisive action on his part would lead to decisive action on the part of the crowds but then they let him down?
Was he overtaken by forces stronger than himself? Did he hope that the end would be victory over Rome, only to find that he was not quite strong enough to make this happen?
And, you may be wondering, does it really matter what he thought? This happened two thousand years ago. It does matter because Walking the Way of Jesus means travelling through some very dark places as well as light. And when we end up in dark places, the first thing we ask ourselves is “why am I here?” Is it my own fault? Is someone else to blame? Are their forces beyond my control pushing me into the dark and holding me there? Is this somewhere I need to be for some reason I do not know? And, most terrifying of all, will I ever get out?
I was thinking how humility is not a very popular virtue these days. It has come to be synonymous with letting yourself be kicked around. We are hearing all the time of victims: victims of celebrity abuse; victims of professional abuse; victims of domestic abuse; victims of gender prejudice, racial prejudice, class prejudice. And these victims are reduced to such a low level of self-esteem that they cannot stand up to their abusers. They have become so “humbled” by the powerful people in their lives, that they believe they deserve no more than abuse, discrimination and prejudice.
This, we are rightly told, is appalling. No human being deserves to be treated in such a way. No human being should feel that they are so utterly worthless as to deserve abusive treatment at the hands of others. There are campaigns going on now all the time encouraging these victims to recover some self-respect, to stand up for their rights as human beings, to be the person they want to be and should be. And all power to them!
If you read the stories of Holy Week in the Gospels, you see a great deal of abuse going on, with Jesus as the victim. He suffers political and religious prejudice; he undergoes appalling levels of physical abuse, alongside both emotional and spiritual abuse. Over and over again he is told in word and action that he is worthless, deluded, dangerous, cursed by God, rejected by his people, abandoned by his followers. That is abuse, isn’t it? And coupled with being flogged and crucified, things cannot get much worse than that.
Those words in Philippians say that Jesus “made himself nothing, humbled himself, accepted even death on a cross.“
Jesus certainly displayed the virtue of humility. He did not retaliate, no matter what was done to him. But was this the same thing as being a victim? I am not sure it was. Philippians makes it quite clear, as do the Gospel stories, that Jesus chose to do what he did, to endure what he did. It was not forced upon him and therefore he was not a victim. He chose this way because he knew that for him, it was the right way.
A dear friend of mine, having been widowed, retired from teaching and with a fairly large house to offer, took in teenage boys who were on probation. A tough challenge and if you are hoping to reform these boys, there is an exceptionally high failure rate. She told me of the time when she and one of these boys had had a blazing row and ended up not speaking to each other. The fault had been entirely his and she was determined not to give in to him. He must speak first and apologise.
But when this not-speaking situation had gone on for some weeks, she went to talk to her Minister about it. And the Minister, having heard the tale, thought carefully, then told her gently that she must be the first to speak.
“But why,” she asked, “he was the one at fault.”
“I know,” said the Minister, “but you must be the one to make the first move because you are the stronger person.”
She went back and apologised to the boy for their row. Not because she was his victim but because she was his saviour. Without her exceptional strength of character to help him, his own weak nature would never have given him a chance of surviving in a harsh world.
Humility, then, is not about being kicked around against your will. Humility is about being able to see your life in the bigger picture; to set your needs alongside those of others and to choose the way of the Saviour rather than that of the victim. This was the humility of Christ.
It is frighteningly easy to end up with an unbalanced view of life.
Another friend of mine was angry and upset because a neighbour had parked their car outside her house in such a way that made it very difficult for her to get her own car in and out of her drive. When she remonstrated with the neighbour, their response was that there were no yellow lines on the road, no parking restrictions, therefore they were not breaking the law and she had no right to ask them to move.
We hear a lot of this, not only with regard to parking but in the higher echelons of business, social media, health and social care, politics. A huge scandal will erupt and the response will be “we have done nothing illegal.” And highly trained, expensive barristers will prove that no law has actually been broken. But “legal” is not the same thing as “moral.” Acting “legally” is not the same as acting “ethically.” And we are human beings with hearts, not robots working only to order.
I was reading an article this week about economics and the economic forecast- nice, cheerful bedtime reading… But the point being made was that while economics are very important- we cannot live on air and goodwill alone- they are never the whole story of a nation or a Government’s success. “The western world tends to think about human flourishing in terms of wealth and individual achievement. But the biblical concept of human flourishing is much greater and more holistic, not only for individuals but also for communities. Biblical human flourishing includes physical and mental wellbeing as well as relational harmony, justice, wholeness and peace.” So life, real life is about far more than physical and personal satisfaction. To measure national power purely in terms of the gross national product is to take a seriously unbalanced view on life and it is this unbalanced view which leads to the breakdown of communities, high levels of mental stress leading to mental illness, gross injustice across the world and eventually to conflict between nations.
I have never forgotten that powerful exchange of words between Otto Schindler and the Commander of a Concentration Camp in the film (based on true history) Schindler’s List.
The Commander boasts that he has been given power, ultimate power of life and death over the thousands of people in his camp. And Schindler says that real power lies in having the legal right to condemn people to suffering and death but choosing not to do so.
Humility is about taking a balanced view. Humility is about admitting that I am not the centre of the universe; that my legal rights do not always make things “right” for others; that my wishes, whilst perhaps making me happy may not make the world a better place; that my understanding of a current situation may be seriously limited and therefore I should seek help and guidance before taking any action.
And humility, far from making us powerless, can actually make us seriously power-full. Because when we can see the bigger picture, we can also see where we can make a difference to that picture; where we have the choice and the power to shine some light into a dark place. Otto Schindler ended up as a failed business man but he had enough incredible power in him to save the lives of 1200 Jews.
If Jesus was the son of God then he of all people could see the bigger picture. He could see that the single biggest darkness in his nation was spiritual darkness. The people had lost their way. They had lost their God. Their lives had become no more than a struggle for survival and a wrestling with hatred and fear. And the only way they would stand a chance of finding their way back to God would be if someone could bear the pain and injustice with them and for them; if someone powerful would also be humble enough to accept the way of the cross as the way to ultimate resurrection; if someone would go right down into the deepest darkness and show the light of God. Jesus Christ is not the victim of humanity; He is our Saviour.
So on Palm Sunday, was Jesus riding to glory? Or was he riding straight into trouble?
He was riding to glory.
He had chosen to take the way of the cross and this was the first step along that way. He knew exactly what he was doing and what the outcome would be. But he chose to take this way because he saw the bigger picture and offered himself as the way of reconciling people to God and restoring them to abundant life.
And will we follow him? Faith is something of an adventure. You never know where it is going to lead you, whether as an individual, as a church community or as God’s people in the world.
Faith means taking time every day to stop and think and pray. It means listening for what God is telling you; looking for what God is showing you; taking the path God is opening up for you.
It may well mean going against popular culture.
It may well mean putting your wishes and “rights” aside for the sake of something bigger.
It may well mean ending up in dark places as well as light.
It will certainly mean being humble before God, rather than arrogant in our own strength.
But, paradoxically, faith in something greater than ourselves, releases the most tremendous power in ourselves. For we come to realise that we have far more choices than we ever thought we did: we can choose the way of light out of the place of darkness; we can choose to be greater than our own weaknesses; we can choose to make a significant difference in the world and in the church because we walk in the power of God.
“So work out your own salvation,” says St Paul. “Keep on living and working and walking humbly with God. And in you, God will achieve his purpose.”
Can there be a better way?