If you had been in the city of Bristol on Palm Sunday in the year 1656 during the brief flourishing of the English Commonwealth, you would have seen a remarkable sight. A one-time Quaker named James Nayler arranged to ride through the gates of Bristol on a donkey hailed by a group of followers. Nayler was a famed preacher and a polished debater but people immediately recognised an outrageous and blasphemous claim when they saw one. Nothing needed to be said, the act itself was enough. The news spread like wildfire. Nayler was hauled before Parliament in London and came to a sticky end.
In the same way, when Jesus made his little private arrangement to borrow a village donkey and ride into Jerusalem no words of explanation were necessary. Jesus intended – and people recognised immediately – his Messianic demonstration and his challenge to political power. The crowds of Passover pilgrims flooded out of the Temple city with their palm branches and cloaks and their hope. Hosanna – Save! Hosanna to the Son of David. Hail to the Lord’s anointed great David’s greater Son. But Jesus had his death in mind.
Jesus went next to challenge the religious power of the priestly Temple system. Upending the ancient equivalent of the Bureaux de Change he not only confronted corruption but challenged the comfortable and profitable sacrificial system at its very core. No money changing, no animals, no animals, no sacrifices. Jesus has his death in mind.
The next day Jesus passes a fruitless fig tree. He’s hungry. He curses it. It withers. You’ve heard of the risqué vicar who swears deliberately in the sermon and then when the respectable congregation take a sharp intake of breath she challenges them to care just as much about avoiding sin/injustice/climate change* delete as appropriate. Jesus’ shocking curse is not really about the tree at all but the withered leadership and covenant life of Israel. They will not see their Messiah or embrace God’s anointed – it would cost too much politically, it would be too radical a change to their religious authority. And they have Jesus’ death in mind, too.
Everybody has got Jesus wrong – they either think too little of him or too much of him. The disciples and the crowds think he is coming to bring political liberation – they can’t imagine his death being part of the deal. And the chief priests and the scribes think he is no more than James Nayler – a pretender and charlatan – they have his death in view alright but they don’t grasp that it is God’s work and God’s plan.
And tucked way there right in the middle of the story is a lovely and unique scene (verses 14-16); a little oasis of the ordinary in the middle of the turmoil. The blind and the lame come to Jesus for healing in the Temple Courts. They are delightfully oblivious of the crisis unfolding in front of them. They don’t care about the politics which is too high for them – they have more immediate needs, clothes on their backs, food in their mouths. Limbs that don’t work, eyes that can’t see. They just need Jesus. When he touches them their lives are renewed and transformed. And they seek him out in the Temple which is the very symbol of their exclusion from life and status amongst God’s people. But they don’t care. Jesus is everything. He is all they need. He is enough. His touch is enough.
This season is a good time to still ourselves, to simplify and to hear once again the words of Psalm 131: ‘O Lord my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high, I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvellous for me, but I have calmed and quietened my soul.’ We stop. Jesus we need you. We need your presence and your power. We look to Jesus with simple faith and trembling hope.
Jesus touches the lame and he heals the blind right before the watching eyes of his detractors – ‘they saw the wonderful things that he did’. But they won’t budge an inch. It is the children who celebrate Jesus. Perhaps the grown-ups lack courage, right there under the noses of chief priests in the Temple courts but the children are running around: oh there’s Jesus – Hosanna to the Son of David. And they bring the echoes of the pilgrims cries right in to the city – to bounce off the walls of the Temple courtyard itself. Like the faith of the lame and blind, the praise of the children comes with directness, simplicity, unadorned – from the mouth of the kids comes perfect praise. But still Jesus had his death in view.
Lord in momentous days we turn to you in simple trust and trembling hope. We lower our eyes, we bow our heads reach out our hands and invite you to renew your life in us once again. In uncertainty be our rock, in fear our confidence and in business our refuge. By your Holy Spirit renew us today we pray. Amen.