Today is Palm Sunday, I am sure many of us have been here or indeed at other churches when there has been great celebration, waving of crosses, processions outside the church building, singing, shouts of hosanna and praise? I personally love Palm Sunday for all these reasons, in fact it is a whole liturgical year since I was due to stand here/at St Andrews with Anna Davis and lead All age worship, we had it all planned a big celebration, as we would reflect together on the joy that was felt as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that unbroken colt, as the words that had been prophesied long before in Zechariah 9 came to pass. However, that did not happen, all our plans changed, the country was thrown into turmoil, churches closed and we all experienced Covid lockdown number 1!
What a year it has been, I expect each of us has had quite different experiences of the time spent under Covid restrictions so far. Although our experiences may be different, one thing I am certain of is that whatever the last year held for us, it was nothing like we expected at the beginning of 2020!
Today is an important day for us in this parish, it is the first time this year that our churches have been open for public worship, as we slowly begin to emerge from lockdown number 3 (and hopefully the last one)
We may be able to gather now, but still our worship and how we can meet is still very different to what we consider to be normal. We have social distancing, masks, communion in one kind, no singing and many of our church family both new and not so new joining us online, there is also a rather worrying lack of tea and cakes too!
It seems poignant that the doors of our buildings have been closed since Christmas, the time when we celebrate Jesus coming to earth as a small baby, and here we are standing on the edge of Holy week, a time when we remember and reflect the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for all upon the cross – Just like the manger, without the cross the whole Christian message would be meaningless.
Something that I love about scripture is how it never gets old; we can read a passage that we are already familiar with and each time we can discover something new. I want us all to go on a journey through today’s Gospel, so that we can see what we notice and wonder where we would find ourselves in this story.
Mark 15 begins just after Judas has betrayed Jesus, He has been arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. Pride and envy had overcome the chief priests and elders, they had seen how Jesus had been received and celebrated and this put their position and status under threat. After arresting Jesus they wanted Him gone, they were seeking a way to inflict the death penalty on Him, all they needed to do was to find a crime they could pin on Him that would fit the punishment they had planned!
We heard in Mark 14 how many got up and gave false testimonies, twisting the truth of what Jesus had said and done to suit their own agendas, eventually charging Him with blasphemy. The very same crowds who a few days before had waved palms and greeted Jesus with cries of Hosanna, now turned upon him, hurling stones and insults. The guards then take Him away and beat him.
Oh, how quickly things can change. We see by Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus just how easy it is to get carried away with the crowd and act very differently to how we would expect, especially when under pressure or in highly charged environments. If that is what we believe will be easiest or will keep us safe or popular!
Is this something you have ever experienced, maybe at some time you have changed your mind under the influence of a crowd and made a decision that surprised yourself, or have you been on the receiving end of someone changing their mind, for no good reason? (or at least not a reason you could see?)
Jesus is presented to Pilate, who has recently himself been on the wrong side of Caesar having been held accountable for the recent insurrection. We see in John 19 how the religious leaders use this against him to pressurise Pilate into finding Jesus guilty, therefore applying the death sentence that they have already decided is needed.
Now Pilate was probably accustomed to people begging for mercy and disputing the accusations that had been made against them, yet here is a man, Jesus who stands with complete dignity in silence and does not put up any argument – Pilate was quite rightly thrown by this and could not understand Jesus’s silence. Pilate questions Jesus and from the few words Jesus spoke in reply, Pilate knew that He was not guilty for what he had been accused. In Luke chapter 23 we hear how Pilate declared to the crowd that he found no basis for charge, he then sent Jesus to Herod because as a Galilean Jesus came under his rule, Herod too did not find Jesus guilty. Prior to these events Pilate and Herod had been enemies, but this brought them together as friends. Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate. – How amazing is that, even before his death, and under such dreadful circumstances Jesus is bringing peace and redemption into hostile relationships.
The custom at the festival was at the request of the people a prisoner would be released. When the crowd asked him to do what is the custom, Pilate tried to influence the crowds by naming Jesus and asking if it was him, they wanted to release.
The Chief priests stirred up the crowds and the mobs demanded Barabbas be released, this was a man who had been found guilty of murder during the uprising, the name Barabbas translates as son of the father – they chose to release this son, a known criminal instead of the one who had answered simply I AM when asked if He was the king of the Jews!
When Pilate asked what they wanted him to do with Jesus they cried out crucify him, Pilate again asked for what crime, the crowds ignore and avoid answering his question, instead shouting louder and louder, crucify, crucify, crucify!
Wanting to keep the crowd happy and avoid any further riots, Pilate released Barabbas had Jesus flogged and sent Him away to be crucified.
The cruelty that Jesus faced at the hands of the Roman soldiers is unimaginable, not only was He physically beaten and whipped, but they also stripped Him and mocked Him, dressing Him in purple Robes and pressing a crown of thorns deeply into His head. As they knelt in false homage to Him, they struck Him over the head with a staff and instead of the kiss that would have been given to a worldly king, they spat in His face! Although Jesus is divine, He would have felt the pain of every word and every strike, He came to earth as a small baby and here he suffers the pain and humiliation fully as a human man, yet also as God.
As they are leading Jesus through the streets the crowds are following, this is the procession Jesus refers to in Mark 8 when he invited people to take up their cross and follow Him. In artwork we are familiar with seeing the image of Jesus carrying the cross that he will die on. In reality, it was most likely that the vertical posts would have been fixed features of the landscape, in fact Jesus had probably passed by these during his day-to-day life, if He did, I cannot help but wonder if He knew that would be the place He would die and how must that of felt?
The part of the cross that Jesus would have been carrying was the horizontal post, this would have been solid wood – not the lightweight ply we have today. His hands would have been tied to it and He would have been walking with His arms outstretched, completely unable to stop Himself from falling. Something that would be almost impossible for the strongest and fittest of men, let alone a man injured and exhausted who had endured such beatings and cruelty.
Now the Romans were pretty efficient organisers and would not have wanted anything to delay their plans, an injured man struggling to carry the cross he was destined to die on was not something they had time to wait around for, so they order Simon of Cyrene to step in and carry the cross for Jesus.
Cyrene was an area in Northern Africa in modern day Libya, where many displaced Jews lived. Simon would have travelled between 800 and 1000 miles to get to Jerusalem for the festival. This was long before the days of cars and easy jet, this was a major journey that would have taken a huge amount of time, planning and energy. I am not sure about you, but I am often guilty of parking as close to the doors of the shops as I can, so I don’t have to walk to far. I cannot even begin to imagine taking on a journey such as this, this was obviously something of great significance and importance to Simon.
Simon is mentioned by name in 3 of the 4 Gospels and is described both by the place he had come from, and in Marks gospel as the Father of Alexander and Rufus. This leads many to believe that he would be known to people more as a father of these two sons, rather than his own identity. In much the same way lots of people know me as Hayden & Josie’s Mum, rather than Nikki – their association is with my children rather than myself.
Mark tells us that Simon and his sons were passing by on their way from the country, they were travelling in the opposite direction on their way to worship at the temple. With no mobile phones and social media, they would not have had a clue about what was going on, they stumbled across this procession purely by chance, yet what happened next completely interrupted their plans and changed everything.
When the Romans ordered Simon to carry the cross for Jesus, this was not something he could refuse – unless he wanted to possibly suffer a similar fate himself. When he encountered Jesus, Simon had to stop what he was doing, turn around and go in the opposite direction – knowing that he would not be able to return to the temple he had travelled all those miles to worship at afterwards. By carrying the cross Simon would have been covered in the blood and sweat of Jesus, deeming him unclean not just physically but spiritually too.
I wonder how he felt, what would his sons have made of this, possibly this trip to the temple had been planned for many years, yet here it was being snatched away from them, in circumstances completely beyond their own control – everything disrupted and changed, does this sound at all familiar?
When they reached Golgotha, Jesus is offered wine mixed with Myrrh, this would have had a mild anaesthetic effect, but Jesus refused this – choosing instead to fully feel every piece of pain and suffering that they inflicted upon him, as they drove nails through His hands and feet and hung Him upon a cross to die.
At noon darkness came over the whole land, it is in this darkness that Jesus cries out those words – Eloi, Eloi, Lema sabachthani – which means My God, My God why have you forsaken me?
How many times in the past year, or indeed your lifetime have you found yourselves in a place of darkness calling out to God, wrestling with trying to understand His purpose and His will in something, maybe questioning his existence, feeling alone, unaware of or unable to notice His presence?
I know I have and through speaking to other people I know I am not alone with this. It can be a real struggle and throw us into turmoil, when we doubt or question our faith or are unable to get our heads around circumstances and feel like God has abandoned us. I believe that if Jesus the son of God calls out so desperately to His father in the darkness, then we too are justified to do the same.
We see God’s mercy shown as Jesus cries out and takes His last breath, at which point the darkness lifts and the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom, breaking down the barrier that had been in place holding everyone apart from the most Holy priests back keeping them separated from God. once the curtain was torn the barriers came down and the Holy place was open to all, the barrier between God and His people had been removed once and for all.
Jesus the made the ultimate sacrifice, although He was God, He did not regard equality to God as something to be exploited, He was born in human likeness, then was obedient and humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Let us just think about that for a moment. I find sometimes the familiarity of the story can get in the way of fully feeling and understanding the enormity of what Jesus did. In the same way we can sometimes become detached when watching the news, it can all feel a bit distant and unreal to us, or so overwhelming that we simply switch off to stop ourselves feeling the pain. Jesus died the most horrific of deaths, so that the slate would be wiped clean, the debt of ALL humankind has been paid.
Let us now go back to Simon and his sons, I wonder how their lives were changed by that encounter with Jesus?
Mark probably wrote his gospel in Rome, so used names that would be understood and recognised in that area. In Romans 16 verse 13 Paul says greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord and his Mother who has been a mother to me also. Many scholars believe this to be Rufus, son of Simon of Cyrene. From Pauls letter we know that Rufus and his Mother were both serving in the Roman community of believers. Was it the events of that day as Rufus journeyed to the temple with his father and brother that led to him believing and then taking the message home to his mother? Did everything change for them and many others the day they met that man, Jesus of Galilee? That encounter changed, well they may have thought ruined all their plans, yet here we see the impact of Simon turning around and carrying the cross of Jesus, and his part in the story of Jesus is still making an impact and changing lives over 2000 years later.
How many of us have had our plans changed, circumstances forced upon us that we had not foreseen – perhaps like Simon and his sons, these changes give us an opportunity to meet Jesus, to turn around and allow Him to transform our lives, and the lives of those around us forever!
The Message version of today’s Philippians reading says this:
If His love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care, – then do me a favour: agree with each other, love each other, be deep spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front, don’t sweet talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
This is the power of the Cross, Jesus died so that we may live that way, without Him it could not be done. And even more than that we live under His promise – the best is still to come – He will return, and the full glory will be revealed. Jesus died for each and every one of us and the invitation is there, it is up to us to seek out and recognise those encounters with Jesus, then pick up our Cross and follow Him.
Unlike Simon, there are no Roman soldiers forcing us to carry the cross, instead we have the love, mercy and grace of God our father – who invites us every day to turnaround and follow Jesus. The debt has been paid, the darkness has lifted, in the words of Jesus upon that cross – it is finished!
Dare we say yes to that invitation today, to pick up our cross, follow and let Jesus transform and renew our lives, the church and the world today all for His glory?
Let us pray
Thank you that the debt has been paid, and that you love us just as we are,
help us to recognise encounters with you
and give us the courage to say yes,
to pick up our cross and follow you,
so the glory may always be yours.
Help us to trust in your promise to always be with us,
knowing you will lead the way.
In the name of your precious son,
our saviour Jesus Christ we pray.