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!

Shadow of Death

WALKING WITH GOD. No.43

Psa 23:3 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

Life in this Fallen World is a complete mix. There are mixes of people. There are some who are incredibly rich and have everything the rest of us could dream of. There are some who are poor and don’t know how they will make it from one day to the next. But there are also varieties of experience within an individual life. There are times when we are healthy and everything seems to be going well, times when we are happy and contented with not a worry in the world. Then there are times when our health deteriorates and we feel low and every step of life seems hard and difficult. And then it gets worse and before we know it we are walking in the shadow of death. Illnesses and accidents occur and what makes it worse, they come with no warning. It would be so much easier if we received a letter from heaven that said, “In two weeks time we have seen that you will be having a serious accident but don’t worry you will be over it in a month.” But we don’t and so we didn’t expect it and we don’t know how it will work out or how long it will take. The absence of those things makes serious illnesses or serious accidents such harrowing experiences. The walk through the valley of the shadow of death is not a pleasant one!

The description of this experience that we have just used, and which David uses in this psalm, is very graphic. A valley by definition is a low place with high sides where you can feel shut in. In a valley sometimes the sun is shut out and so there are shadows so that part of it seems in semi-darkness. David speaks of the shadow of death, a shadow of darkness that seems to hang over you, threatening to completely obliterate the light from your life, when death comes.

You may find in your Bible a note next to the phrase, valley of death, indicating an alternative rendering, through the darkest valley. It may not be death that threatens; it may be a variety of other things. In our nation we live in confusing times. The news recently was of a couple who were falsely accused of child abuse and for two years their children were wrongly taken from them. For two years they walked through a very dark valley, a valley filled with the darkness of frustration, anger, fear, anguish and so on. It was a horrible time. A woman can accuse a man of assault at work and before he knows what has happened he is suspended pending an investigation which may take months. Whereas we once had a society where you were innocent until proved guilty, there is now, in these sorts of cases, implied guilt until innocence has been proved, and those waiting times are times of immense darkness.

It may be that we have fallen and society is not forgiving. We have done something wrong, sincerely regretted it, asked forgiveness of offended parties, but still the Law is going to take its long, slow process, and while it does, we walk through a very dark valley. We wonder how we could have been so stupid, we wish it had never been found it, we wonder what will happen to us, and we wonder is there any hope of being ever able to walk an ordinary, good life again? These are some of the dark valleys that we find ourselves walking in, and in them we even despair of life itself. What help is there?

David had one hope, one help, “you are with me.” The presence of the Lord, the knowledge of His love, those were the things that kept David going. The concept behind the whole psalm was what upheld David – The Lord is my shepherd. David saw that in life, it was the Lord who led him and therefore if, in their walk together, it involved walking through a very dark valley, David would not worry because his shepherd was there looking after him, guiding him, providing for him, protecting him. As one of God’s sheep he knew the security that, although the place or circumstances of the walk may be temporarily dark, it was temporary and even while they walked it, it was as they walked it together. He was not alone and the One who walked it with him was much bigger than the circumstances and would see him through them.

Because such a thing is so common to the human experience, it is quite possible that you are going through a ‘dark valley’ time. Key questions! Do you know that you are one of God’s sheep, one of His children? Do you know Him as your shepherd who is there for you, looking after you in the midst of the circumstances, providing for you and protecting you? It is this knowledge that enabled Paul to instruct, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5:18), but note what he says. It is not give thanks for all circumstances but give thanks in all circumstances. You can give thanks that God is there with you and as you put your life in His hands He will provide all you need in that valley to bring you through until you come out the other end. There will be an end, and until you get there, remember, you are not alone, The Shepherd is there with you in it.