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Confrontation in Jerusale Palm Sunday

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 20, 2016 1:02 pm    Post subject: Confrontation in Jerusale Palm Sunday Reply with quote

A Service written and given by Jim Stearn

Doncaster Free Christian Church

Sunday 20th March 2016

“Confrontation in Jerusalem” A service for Palm Sunday

Greeting and call to worship

Good morning, everybody. Welcome to this calm place hallowed by generations of faith.

Let us worship together in the way of our Unitarian faith, which is in fellowship, thoughtfully as well as devoutly, and always of our own free will.

Today is the Festival of Palm Sunday. This is a great Unitarian festival, because we can celebrate the courage of the man Jesus in undertaking his great mission of protest against injustice- ideals that are central to what we believe.

Our service will follow the run-up to one of the greatest narratives in religion, the Easter story,

Chalice Lighting

But first, I light our chalice. A flame was lit in Palestine two thousand years ago, and it burns brightly to this very day and will continue to do so. Let our chalice flame represent this inextinguishable beacon of truth and goodness.

Jesus the Humble Teacher

Our usual image of Jesus of Nazareth is as a humble wandering teacher and healer bringing the consolations and joy of the Holy Spirit to ordinary people with his calm wisdom and parables. I am sure this image reflects much truth. Jesus could have stayed like this, remaining popular and even influential in and around Capernaum and the byways of the Judaean Hills, whilst being more or less ignored in Jerusalem. He taught people how to pray, and will you now please sing together the prayer that He gave us.:

The Lord’s Prayer (sung)

Our first hymn describes those halcyon days of his teaching ministry.

First Hymn: When Jesus Walked (HFL 99)

When Jesus walked upon the earth
He never talked with kings;
He talked with simple people
Of doing friendly things.

He never praised the conquerors
And all their hero host;
He said the very greatest were
The ones who loved the most.

His words were not of mighty deeds;
But many times he spoke
Of feeding hungry people
And cheering lonely folk.

I'm glad his words were simple words
Just meant for me and you;
The things he asked were simple things
That you and I can do.

The Approaching Storm

But the Bible records from the beginning of Matthew 17 how this happy way of life ominously changed during the last year of Jesus’s life. John the Baptist had been imprisoned, and beheaded, apparently to please a courtesan at a feast. It is plain that Jesus was chosen to take over the leadership of the great revivalist movement started by John. He underwent what we now call a “makeover” with a new all-white outfit and cut, oiled hair and beard He became a celebrity and a focus of hope, as in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”:

He also adopted a more aggressive style and a more critical message. Our next reading is the authentic voice of prophecy, prophecy against Jerusalem in the true sense of the word, which rails against abuses: “If you go on like this” cries the prophet “there will be a terrible price to pay!” Scholars of the Bible call it: The Great Denunciation.

The Great Denunciation: Extracts from Matthew 23 (King James Version)

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!

Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel!

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.

Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.

Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:

That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.

Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!

Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.”

The Entry into Jerusalem

However welcome and inspiring these prophetic words would have been to a disaffected population, crying out for leadership and for their grievances to be stated, this agenda would not endear Jesus to the repressive authorities. Be in no doubt- the regime of Herod, the puppet king fronting for the Roman Empire, was as brutal as anything we can imagine even in these cruel times of torture and repression in the Middle East.

These words: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee” can bear no other meaning but that agents or “prophets” had been going to Jerusalem urging revival, and they had been taken and killed.

Jesus decided to force the issue by going to Jerusalem in person at the packed and emotionally climactic time of Passover. He took a tortuous route through many towns, as if to consolidate and rally support in each of them, teaching and healing everywhere as he went.

Make no mistake, His coming was expected. There is historical evidence that as Jesus entered Jerusalem on one side, a full Roman legion, the unstoppable armoured equivalent of a tank brigade in today’s world, was marching in on the other side. Trouble was brewing.

Jesus did not even try to slip unnoticed into Jerusalem: he opted to fulfil a prophecy that would make his coming that of a long-awaited King, to everyone who knew their scriptures- and that meant almost every Jew. The next reading shows why the ass’s colt did not symbolise humility but was a deliberate and provocative declaration of aspiration to power.

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.

Let us sing a Unitarian version of a great hymn written for this day.

Second Hymn: Ride on! Ride on in Majesty! (Unitarian version)

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
As all the crowds “Hosanna!” cry;
O Jesus, take your road ahead
With palms and scattered garments spread.

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
Jerusalem’s soul to justify!
The fight for freedom now begins
O'er power abused and ingrained sins.

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride to defy
The grasping scribes and Pharisees
And chastise their hypocrisies.

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
Your last and fiercest trial is nigh;
To strive in one decisive hour
‘gainst Roman force and Herod’s power.

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
The angel-squadrons of the sky
Look down with sad and wondering eyes
To see your bold self- sacrifice.

"Confrontation in Jerusalem": the Cleansing of the Temple.

The next day Jesus took a band of followers to the Temple, and to overturn the tables of the moneychangers, and also the stalls of the sellers of sacrificial doves; and he forbade any man to carry any vessel through the Temple.

He is recorded as crying out: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called of all nations the House of Prayer? But you have made it into a den of thieves’” Recall His words from the Great Denunciation condemning the gold of the temple.

This was not a lone Jesus tipping over a couple of small tables. That image belongs to old Sunday School lithographs. Surely these so-called “tables” would have needed to have been secure wall-to-wall counters accessed from behind like those in a modern bank? Otherwise piles of money would have been permanently at risk in a city like Jerusalem. There must have been Temple police or guards, so where were they when he was wrecking the trading foyer and banning anyone from carrying pots in and out? Pretty clearly, they had been outnumbered and overcome by protesters who meant business. Many scholars seeking to penetrate the apologetics of the Bible account have concluded that it attempts to play down a major assault, perhaps a full-scale riot. I even feel like asking: if it was not a riot, then why not?

There is an obvious parallel here with contemporary events: with the great mass demonstrations in North Africa, especially in Libya, in Cairo's Tahrir Square and the terrible repression currently happening in Syria, and with many similar protests elsewhere in the world such as in Prague's "Velvet Revolution", the Portugese “Carnation revolution” that pushed out the evil dictator Caetano, and the mass peaceful protest gatherings in India to support Ghandi.

Most of all I think of Martin Luther King and the great mass protests against racial discrimination in the southern states of the USA, which entailed the deaths of many protesters and ultimately the death of the great preacher and leader himself. He in turn was called after Martin Luther who dared to take on the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church with its Inquisition and public burnings of so-called heretics like himself, and his great defiant saying at Worms: “Hier steh’ Ich, Ich kann nicht anders!” – “Here I stand, I can do nothing else!” This led to him being excommunicated and sentenced to death- fortunately he was never caught.

You may be wondering why I am picturing Jesus as a political figure, a revolutionary leader taking on the government of his day. Should we not regard him as only a religious figure and leader? Yet in the Israel of the Old Testament, or in Gospel times, or indeed at the present day, the line dividing religion and politics is very hard to draw.

I am sure that Jesus felt himself called by God to undertake this, to complete John’s mission. Think of Abraham ordered to sacrifice his precious only son, born against all nature to Sarah in their old age, after he had been assured that Isaac’s seed should be numberless as the stars. This is sometimes presented as a test of obedience, but it was more: it was being required to put his trust in the impossible.
I am equally sure that Jesus felt compelled to trust in the impossible, to take on overwhelming odds, knowing the price of failure would be terrible but willing to undertake the risk anyway: So many people in many places have stood up to resist oppression- the human spirit rising undaunted to the challenge despite impossible odds. It has been stated as “better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees”.

To honour all who have stood out so, our third hymn is from those tumultuous days of Martin Luther King’s mass protest in Birmingham, Alabama, the great anthem of ordinary people moved to join in mass demonstrations.

Third Hymn: We shall overcome (204 in HFL)

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome some day

We'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We'll walk hand in hand some day

We shall live in peace
We shall live in peace
We shall live in peace some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall live in peace some day

Truth shall make us free
Truth shall make us free
Truth shall make us free some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
Truth shall make us free some day

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome some day

In the Home of Simon the Leper

At the end of the first day Jesus and his band left the city walls. By the Mount of Olives Jesus delivered some of the last of his teachings in a powerful and hard-hitting sermon.

Jesus stayed at Bethany in the home of Simon the leper where an incident of great significance occurred. Jesus is often referred to as “Christ”, meaning “The Anointed One.” There is only one gospel record of his being anointed. Mary Magdalene was the woman in the life of Jesus, and there was clearly love between them- whether or not this ever found physical expression. That was their business. There are those for whom this is unthinkable in Jesus, as the loss of His sexless, virgin status would have left him unfit to be a so-called “perfect sacrifice”; they have traditionally branded Mary as a harlot. We can take a more liberal view and regard her as a normal, loving woman who was intelligent and who aspired to be more than a drudge or back-ground figure. To her, representing all women living in social subjection, fell the great honour of anointing Jesus. The ministry of a woman was good enough for Him.

Mary Magdalene Anoints Jesus

When Martha set a supper for Jesus and his band,
Mary came, an alabaster jar of nard in hand.
Going to the Master, she fell weeping at His feet,
Splashing tears to wash away the soiling of the street.
With kisses she then cleaned them; with her hair she rubbed them dry;
Then broke the jar and poured the nard, the best there was to buy,
Upon His feet: wonder and consternation and perfume filled the air;
And Jesus, now Christ the Anointed One, sat calmly smiling there.
Judas cried:”To feed the poor we should this money save!”
But Jesus said: “Rebuke her not, she prepares me for my grave:
“This act of love will be remembered unto the end of days,
“And the poor will still be with you, as I will not, always.”
And He prayed to God in secret hope that her reward might be
To be the first to see Him, after the victory.

The Last Supper

Two days later was the sacred festival of the Seder Torah, the Feast of the Passover. Jesus and his band re-entered Jerusalem to celebrate in the Holy City. Some disciples were told that when they arrived they should follow a man carrying a water jar to a safe house, what spies call ‘tradecraft’,clear evidence of clandestine preparations and organisation.
Anyone who has been in the middle east will remember the sand dust, fine as talcum powder, that gets everywhere about your person. The story says that Jesus washed the feet of the twelve disciples, the inner most group of his followers. Clean feet would feel very nice; especially as being observant Jews they would have washed before sitting down for the communal meal.

Over the meal, the youngest disciple present would have asked: “Why do we do this thing?” and the senior Jew, probably Jesus, would have recounted the passing over of the Angel of Death whilst the firstborn of Egyptian households were taken, the final plague that broke Pharaoh’s will and made him release the Jews from bondage. This and other parts of Jewish history would be symbolically relived. Unleavened bread, the so-called “bread of poverty” would be eaten, and perhaps four toasts in wine were made. The fourth cup, Hallel, would be about hope for future redemption. If the unleavened bread was a bit stale, soaking it in wine would have made it more interesting and enjoyable.

The Gospels relate that Jesus indeed soaked sops of bread from his cup and passed them out with words about his blood and body which are recalled in every service of Christian communion. It is difficult to know how to believe this part of the story as ingesting blood was forbidden to Jews. Perhaps He said: “If this goes wrong they will crush me like this (crumbling a piece of bread) and spill my life blood like this (splash of wine on the table). Whatever, the shared camaraderie before battle is unmistakable.

Jesus then briefed everybody that if things went disastrously wrong they should scatter, lose themselves in the crowd and deny all knowledge if challenged. Simon Peter indignantly said that he never would, and was reproved with the prediction that he would indeed do so not once but at least three times in the first few hours. Jesus also said that one of them would betray him. He sent Judas out on an undisclosed errand.

The Gospels relate that, before they left the table, the party sang a song together. This was probably one of four Psalms still traditionally used for this purpose at the end of the Passover meal, of which the first, Psalm 116, is the most apt and the most likely candidate.

Psalm 116

I love the LORD, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications.
Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.

The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.

Then called I upon the name of the LORD; O LORD, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.

Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.

The LORD preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me.

Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee.

For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.

I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living.
I believed, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted:
I said in my haste, All men are liars.

What shall I render unto the LORD for all his benefits toward me?
I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
I will pay my vows unto the LORD now in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

O LORD, truly I am thy servant; I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid: thou hast loosed my bonds.

I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.

I will pay my vows unto the LORD now in the presence of all his people.
In the courts of the LORD's house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem.
Praise ye the LORD.

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

Jesus and his trusted lieutenants then went outside the city walls to the Garden of Gethsemane. He charged them to watch and to pray and to take enough rest for the great events to come on the morrow. This is the climax of the first part of the Easter story, and is a fitting introduction to our prayers which have been reserved to follow this part of the service.
You might be a traditional Christian, even a committed evangelical placing a special interpretation on all these events, or you might occupy a very different position as a liberal humanist, perhaps in great sympathy with the "liberation theology" aspects, but however you look at it the dilemma facing Jesus was just as terrible: His courage and determination were being severely tested.

It was “make your mind up time” and Jesus went to God in prayer and meditation for guidance, strength, and courage. Was it to be “Go!” or “Call it off, try again next year”? We here do not regard him as the boss’s son, a god knowing he could not die anyway, but as a man of all too vulnerable mortal flesh and blood staring his own terrifyingly brutal death in the face. Perhaps what Jesus said to Peter: “… the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” was an ironic reference to his own condition in that hour.

Christians say that in what is called “the agony in the garden” Jesus prayed on his own behalf about his personal fear, but I think it demeans Jesus to suggest that this was his primary concern. The best parallel that I can think of is found in the memoirs of Dwight David Eisenhower, who late on 5th June 1944 gave the order that would send 100,000 men to try to wade ashore under gunfire in Normandy the next morning.Many fine men would surely be killed. He then had to pray and try to sleep overnight with this terrible responsibility so as to be fit in the morning.
Jesus had a similar dilemma. He had aroused the hopes of a multitude, who would surely follow him at great risk on the morrow. Not just he himself but all of them were in personal danger of death or mutilation in the fighting, or arrest and torture, or cruel execution. Failure would bring on all his supporters reprisals too terrible to contemplate.

The decision in Jesus’s own case had been irrevocably taken when he entered Jerusalem. Now history was unfolding all too quickly, with himself as its agent. It was never an option to run away and recant his views in The Great Denunciation, just to live as a pitied coward. I am sure that what disturbed him was his responsibility for the danger and death facing all who would follow him and also those who would oppose them.
And yet He himself had taught on the way to Jerusalem: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father knoweth. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

This enables us to understand the words attributed to Jesus in the Garden:

Reading from the Gospels: Matthew 26:39

And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.


Let us pray for inspiration from this story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

As Jesus felt compassion for the victims of oppression in his day, may we feel like compassion for all those in ours, and especially for the people of Syria in their unimaginably terrible conflict.

As Jesus spoke out against injustice, may we likewise speak out for justice.

As Jesus walked towards Jerusalem to come to their aid, may we too walk the way of compassion.

Like Jesus who stopped on the way to heal the sick and tend to those broken in body, mind or spirit, may we too may be a source of healing to all in need.

Like Jesus who entered Jerusalem with courage in his heart may we find courage in ours.

Like Jesus who took the time to pray and to be silent. may we each through our prayers, meditation and reflection find our right way on this journey of life.

Spirit of Love and Life, may we hold your vision of justice and peace ever before us.

Spirit of Love and Life, stay close and bless us as we strive to do our best and to act for the best.

These and all the prayers of our hearts we offer in faith, as we pray the way Jesus taught us to pray, as Jesus surely prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, singing.

The Arrest

And then the matter took an abrupt turn: Jesus’ dilemma was solved for him. An armed posse burst into the Garden, and Judas at their head of them went straight to Jesus kissing him in greeting. The posse then arrested Jesus and made to take him away. Peter at least was wearing a sword and attacked them, but Jesus reproved him and applied healing to a wounded ear before going with his captors.

The wheels were irrevocably set in motion. The only way left for Jesus to control events was by his courage and example, taking everything on his own head and dying for His testimony.

Our fourth hymn is No 102 in Hymns For Living, a very decent example of traditional Unitarian attitudes towards Easter week.

Fourth Hymn: Hosanna in the highest! (HFL 102)

Hosanna in the highest! ,
Our eager hearts acclaim
The prophet of the kingdom,
Who bears Messiah's name.
O bold, O foolish peasants,
To deem that he should reign!
The temple and the palace
Look down in high disdain.

Long ages dim the message
And custom has sufficed
For merchants and for princes
To bow, and own him Christ.
But when a kindred spirit
Arises from the plain,
The seats of power tremble
And crucify again.

O first of many prophets
Who come of simple folk
To free us from our bondage,
To break oppression's yoke,
Restore our eyes from blindness,
Make clear the life, the way
That leads through love and justice
Unto the peace-crowned day!

Notices and Offertory


Our service is ended. We must go our ways, but our shared fellowship endures until we meet again. (extinguish chalice) May God, whatever you conceive God to be, go with you and remain with you now and forever.
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