Palm Sunday

PALM SUNDAY – Heralded

Matt 21:8,9 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

David the psalmist wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psa 23:4) It seems an apt description of this week ahead – the valley of the shadow of death. For Christians this week ahead is a week of mixed emotions. On Good Friday there is the awfulness of the events of that day when we rejected the Saviour of the World. Then of Easter Sunday there is the celebrating that he is alive. But as we walk through this week ahead, there is the awful shadow of death hanging over it, the death we know is coming at the end of it.

It is that, perhaps, that makes the events of ‘Palm Sunday’ so incongruous. We know, because we’ve got it in writing and we’re looking back on it, that his death is coming, but death is the last thing on the mind of the crowd who welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. Indeed this travelling preacher seems to be the master over death because it was only a few weeks back that Lazarus was raised from the dead by him and the word has spread around the area like a tsunami rushing out from an earthquake epicentre, so now here he is on his way to Jerusalem with the crowd getting bigger and bigger by the moment.

It almost seems like he inflames them for he sends some of his followers to borrow a donkey and he mounts it to ride up to and through the gates of Jerusalem. The words of the prophet Zechariah, taught in the synagogues throughout the land, are being fulfilled before their very eyes: Say to the Daughter of Zion, `See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Mt 215 quoting Zech 9:9). Some who have come from the north remember the time when he had fed five thousand with virtually nothing and the word had started to spread that this was their new messiah-king, a worthy king for Israel surely!

Thus they herald him as their king, yet nevertheless for some there was this shadow of death hanging over it all. The disciples had heard their master say a number of times that they would go to Jerusalem and there he would be killed (see Mt 16:21, 17:23). They had heard it and they had grieved. Peter had even rebuked him for saying such things.

How unreal those words must have seemed now, with the crowd screaming and shouting and applauding him; yet those very shouts would have had the exact opposite effect upon the religious authorities within the city, who became more and more anxious and sought opportunities to arrest him.

God’s plan was clearly declared by the prophet Isaiah, that “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53:5)  The Cross is the necessary end of this week because of our sins; that was God’s declared plan, but it needed the work of men. The Lord knew how the crowd would react with just a little prompting, so the raising of Lazarus just a few miles and weeks away, and the riding in on a donkey were just gentle fuel to fire the passions of men of power to move against Jesus. As Peter later said to the Jewish crowd on the day of Pentecost, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23).

Yes, this Sunday is a terrible combination of the knowledge and plan of God, the shallow adoration of a self-seeking crowd and, eventually, the sinful scheming of powerful men. How terrible! How wonderful!

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4. Inn-Keeper’s Wife

4. The Inn Keeper’s Wife

(Warning: In this little series of ‘meditations’ there are simply wonderings about what actually some of the people in the Christmas story felt. They are obviously based on Scripture but they are only wonderings, for we do not know. Yet, if they help us really think into the wonder of what happened two thousand years ago at the time we call Christmas, that will be good.)

The woman gently settled on the bed with a quiet sigh.

“Have they gone yet?” came her husband’s voice.

“Yes,” she replied with a smile that was swallowed up in the darkness.

“Noisy bunch of hooligans, disturbing the sleep of good people!” and with a further “Hummph!” she heard the sounds of him turning over and a few minutes later, gentle snoring.

She lay there in the darkness thinking back over the past hours.

How vulnerable they had appeared when they arrived at the door of the inn an hour or so after dark. The young man looked tired out; no, exhausted. There was an air of desperation about him as he pleaded for a room for he and his young wife. She too looked like it was very much the end of a hard day.

Her heart had gone out to them as she realised that the young girl was obviously in the final hours of her confinement. She wished she had a room left for them but the last one had gone earlier in the day. It was all these poor people pouring into the town to be counted.

One part of her had just wanted to send them away because she was already so busy coping with the crowded inn and yet, something in her seemed to say, take them in. She wondered if any of the neighbours might be able to take them but she knew already that that was a hopeless thought, for every spare room in the town was being let out to the returning crowds.

“All I can suggest is that you use our stable round the back. You can put your donkey there if you like, and if you want to bed down in the straw I’m sure my husband wouldn’t mind.”

As the young man helped the girl down off the donkey she gave a groan. “Please help us, Mary is about to have our baby.”

“I can see that, young man,” she had replied, “come on then, quickly, bring her round the back. The offer still stands; it’s the best I can do for you.”

And so it was that the young couple had settled in the stable at the back of their inn. From time to time she had gone round to check on them. The young man hadn’t wanted her to leave them but the call of duties in the inn meant she had to be coming and going.

But then the contractions had started to come more quickly. “Please, don’t leave her,” the young man had begged. She had stayed and within minutes it had seemed, the stable had a third occupant. She had hurried back into the inn to find some cloth to wrap him in and now he lay beside his exhausted mother. Peace had descended on the stable and she had just been about to leave them for the night when there came this hullabaloo from outside. There was noisy talking and laughing. Whatever next, it’s the middle of the night!

She had gone out to see the cause of the noise, and there they were. There must have been about fifteen of them – all men of course, giving no thought to the rest of the world trying to sleep.

“What do you lot want?” she had demanded.

“Do you have a new born baby here?” one of them asked.

“Yes, but what’s that to you?”

“We’ve been told to come and see him,” came the answer.

“Told? Who told you to come?”

“Angels,” another one cried loudly. There was a chorus of assent.

“Angels?” she had replied? “Whatever are you on about?”

“There were angels, missus, hundreds of them in the sky. They sung to us.”

“And they told us to come because a saviour had been born.” another chipped in.

“But it was so wonderful we just had to come,” a third added.

Her mind had been in a whirl. “You’d better come in then, here, round the back in the stable.”

Still chattering excitedly the motley band of shepherds had followed her round to the back of the inn.

It was only as she had pulled open the big door of the barn that a hush fell over the group.

The single lamp hanging from a beam allowed them to see a startled couple protectively clutching their baby.

They filed in silently and, as if by command, knelt down around the little family.

For some reason tears ran down a number of their faces.

“Oh, the little lamb,” one of the onlookers whispered.

The young mother smiled, “Yes.”

“What’s his name?” another one ventured.

“Jesus,” the young father answered.

“Doesn’t that mean deliverer?” another asked. “I mean I remember that from when I was young,” he added with embarrassment.

“Of course, you idiot, the angel said he would be a saviour.” came from another, who then shut his mouth firmly for it seemed that harsh words were out of place here.

“Thank you mistress,” one of the older shepherds whispered to Mary and turning to the others, “Come on you lot, we’ve done what we were told to do. Let’s leave them in peace.”
And then they had gone and silence ruled the night again. She had returned to bed at last. These had been strange happenings. As she lay there, with tiredness gradually easing her into sleep she thought to herself, “Well I don’t know what has been going on her tonight, but I was a part of it, not that anyone will remember me though.” And she slept.

Passage covered by the story above:  Luke 2:4-20

1. The Challenge

(Today we start a fresh set of meditations as we take a break from Luke – we will come back to Luke later on.)

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.1

Isa 1:1 The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

I approach this set of meditations more self-consciously that I have ever written before. This is going to be a challenge. I have read Isaiah a number of times, I have written a number of Bible studies from within it, and it’s an amazing book. However, over the past two years, I have been challenged by facing up to some of the more prominent atheists of the world who question the Old Testament and who say that it portrays an angry, vicious God who is totally different from the God portrayed in the New Testament. I confess that this has helpfully stirred me to challenge my thinking and my Bible reading, to see the God, who is described by the apostle John as ‘love’ (1 Jn 4:8,16), as the God of love in the Old Testament. That will be one of the key ideas I will be working on in these studies in Isaiah.

I am also going against the grain of some commentators in that I am going to assume that the book we call Isaiah was written by just one person and was not written by several people. My assumption is that if there are two or more phases of writing in this book, it is simply because Isaiah went through phases of understanding or revelation, as we all do. Again, as I tend to do with all these mediations, I am calling them meditations rather than studies because although there is a study element in them, I want to be wider ranging and verging on the devotional or personal. I may also range over broad swathes of a chapter at a time, and sometimes verse by verse.

This is first for my benefit and then for yours. I want to enjoy this book and enjoy writing about it, as I have so often enjoyed many other parts of Scripture. This is not a ‘hard’ exercise, but an enjoyable one! Yes, the subject matter of the first half of Isaiah especially, is about failure and destruction, yet let’s face it honestly, with the full revelation of Scripture, and see both the awfulness of sin and the wonder of the mercy and grace of God that is here revealed. (I’m not sure as I start this particular set whether we will cover the whole of Isaiah or just the early chapters.)

After the above introduction, telling us that Isaiah received revelation during the reigns of four kings, we find him – whoah! Hold on, we mustn’t go too fast. Look what that first verse says – The vision. Singular! The whole book comprises a panorama that affects Judah and Jerusalem. Yes, there are going to be a number of ‘oracles’ (e.g. 13:1. 15:1, 17:1 etc.) and there are going to be included a number of personal happenings involving Isaiah (e.g. Ch. 6,7,8, 20 etc.) but all of these things contribute to the big picture that involves the Lord and His people. Jerusalem was all important as it was the place God had established His ‘house’, the Temple, the place of encounter between God and His people. This whole book with its many facets and styles, which have confused so many commentators, is actually like a patchwork quilt, or a mosaic, or a collage, and it all contributes to the vision, the overall revelation from God for His people at that time, so we must see it all as a complete package. Yes, there are specific individual bits but we must recognise that they are just parts of the collage that make up the whole.

So, here he goes in chapter 1: Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the LORD has spoken.” (v.2a). Isaiah has caught a sense of God’s voice speaking. What has the Lord said? “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” (v.2b). God speaks as a father whose children have rebelled against Him. Now something I have observed over the years is that we attribute to God feelings that we have, and so you can take the Lord’s words in different ways and with different feelings behind them, depending on how we view Him. Some people have a negative view of their father and so attribute negative attitudes to God. Now of course we’ll never know the complete truth until we get to heaven, but bear in mind the challenge that I spoke of earlier – that we learn to see God as the God of love who is the same in the Old Testament as He is in the New.

Listen to how He continues to illustrate what has happened: “The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (v.3). You can take that as a negative if you wish, but look at the description of Israel, “my people”. God is hurt, as a father is hurt by his children disregarding him, but God still speaks of them as my people. Yes, He is not casting them away simply because they turn from Him. In the West today it is common, when one partner in a marriage has been unfaithful, for the other partner to divorce. Separation comes so easily, but the Lord is not doing that. They are still His people, still His children, and so He wants to remedy the situation. Simply, His people do not understand. They are short sighted and cannot see the folly of what they have been doing. Now the Lord could have abandoned them, given them up and walked away and started afresh with a new group of people – but He didn’t! They may not be committed to Him but He is committed to them! That is love! Love can say some strong words, but it still hangs in there, it still remains committed.

There are a lot of chapters in Isaiah, a lot of words, so this is a lot of communication from God, sharing His vision about Israel. It is a vision that sees their past and the folly that has brought them to the present. It is also guidance and direction of how to deal with their present plight, so that they may be part of His future blessed people. It has warnings in it, to be sure, but it also holds out great hope. Let’s try to see as much as we can through this kaleidoscope of a book, and try and catch as much of the vision as we can, the overall picture of the revelation of God about His people. Only He sees truly, only He sees the reality of life, and so only He can share that reality. Let’s watch for it.