Palm Sunday: When Jesus comes to town

Preaching on one of the great feast days of the church can prove a bit of a challenge for pastors who have preached from the same texts on the same occasions over many years. Palm Sunday or to give it a more official ecclesiastical title, The Feast of the Entrance of Our Lord Jesus Christ into Jerusalem – I’m certainly not high church, but there is something rather grand about that title – poses its own particular challenge.

For a start the texts are more limited than Easter proper or Christmas. Additionally, you know that the story is incomplete because it’s what happens in the next seven days that is going to shake the world and change history.

Despite those caveats, the events of Palm Sunday are an incredible revelation of the heart of God and the impact the presence of Christ has on people.

Even though we know that the people who hailed Christ as King on Palm Sunday would call for Him to be crucified before the week was out, the impact He had upon them was astounding. A people who were under the heel of Roman rule greeted Him with unsolicited excitement and praise. And before we point to this as evidence of the fickleness of public opinion, we should remember that Jesus did not reject their praise and defended their enthusiasm in the face of opposition from the Pharisees (Luke 19.38-40)

Palm Sunday is a reminder that when Jesus is present, people in the most difficult of situations find hope and joy. Hearts locked up in pain and grief are unlocked by the presence and power of Jesus. Palm Sunday reminds us that Jesu can restore broken hearts.

Secondly, the events of Palm Sunday remind us that God wants to reconnect with a lost humanity.

Jesus could have ridden into Jerusalem on a white horse. Or He could have found a camel. Or He could have walked. His chosen mode of transport was a donkey (Mark 12.7). Why? Undoubtedly He was conscious that He was fulfilling a prophecy made by Zechariah (Zechariah 9.9). He was also making a huge statement: He was a king, but He was a particular kind of king. He was a king coming seeking peace. Commentators say that the palm branches waved by the crowds symbolise a nationalistic desire for revolution. Jesus, they say, was under pressure to lead an army against the Romans. If that is true, entering the city on a donkey underlines His desire for peace.

Jesus is not captive to any political idea, left, right or centre. He did not come to destroy His enemies, He came to destroy enmity. He did not come to kill those hostile to Him. He came to kill hostility. He loved the Jews. And the Romans. He loves Christians. And Jews. And Jihadists. And atheists. And you. And your family. And your neighbour.

His desire is to bring peace between people and God.

Finally, Palm Sunday reminds us that when we follow Jesus, He rewrites the story of our lives. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that He writes our story into His story.

When Jesus sent His disciples to look for a donkey, it was just another thing to be done. Just another part of the operation to bring Jesus into Jerusalem. It was only when they looked back on that day that they realised they had been caught up in the purpose of God. God had been writing history and they had been part of it (John 12.16).

We do things every day that might not look significant in themselves. However, they all count. And even if we don’t see their significance now, one day we will.

May Palm Sunday, the Feast of the Entrance of Our Lord Jesus Christ into Jerusalem always remind us that He is still seeking an entrance into the lives of lost people today.

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Continue with the end in mind

In his phenomenally successful personal development book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey’s second habit was formulated thus: Begin with the end in mind.

It’s pretty good advice, to whatever area of life you apply it. Whether it is constructing self assemble furniture or building a suspension bridge, it helps to know what the outcome is supposed to look like.

When you know what exactly you are trying to achieve, it enables you to work with more focus. And the vision of the finished product often provides the emotional fuel needed to keep going when things come unstuck or progress seems slow.

Covey’s advice, whilst not taken directly from the Bible, carries biblical wisdom. Over and over again the New Testament reminds us that there is a life to come and a day when the way we have lived in this world will be assessed. Life is to be lived with the end in mind.

However much we recognise the truth of what the Bible teaches about the brevity of life and the life to come, the reality is that many of us end up wrapped up in the present with our eyes on what urgently demands our attention at any given moment. It is all too easy in a busy and demanding world to lose sight of how transient it is and to forget that we are only pilgrims in this world.

How can we realistically not only begin with the end in mind but continue with the end in mind?

Firstly, read the scriptures. That might sound like a very simple point. Unfortunately, it is not a given that all Christians consistently read the Bible.

I would suggest reading the Bible with special attention to the New Testament. Reading the scriptures connects us directly to the revelation God has given to us. There are over three hundred references to the return of Christ in the two hundred and sixteen chapters of the New Testament. I would suggest that consistently reading the New Testament will enable you to continue with the end in mind.

Secondly, reminding ourselves frequently of the main points of our faith.

Peter said in his second letter: “So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body” (2 Peter 1.12-13). We need to remind ourselves of the reality of Christ’s return because we are prone to forget! We could all be doing with frequent spiritual post-it notes reminding us that Jesus is going to return some day.

Finally, reflect on your life in the light of eternity.

What are you investing in the life to come? How is the life to come affecting the way you live now? Jesus (Matthew 6.19-20)  and Paul (1 Timothy 6.19 )said that giving our money to serve God’s work was a way of laying up treasure in heaven. When we reflect on our lives in the light of eternity, it gives us perspective, true perspective.

If you want to live a life worth living, begin with the end in mind. If you want to live a life worth living, continue with the end in mind.

The Wisdom of a Banker

Rothschild is a name that is synonymous with wealth. Even though the Rothschild empire was at  its strongest and wealthiest in the nineteenth century, the name still retains, for very good reasons, an association with opulence. What is impressive about families like the Rothschilds is that they have been able to pass  their treasures successfully from one generation to the next, a feat that is not as easy as it might appear.

There are probably numerous reasons why the Rothschilds and other dynasties like them have been successful. Hard work. Knowledge of their industry. The right connections.

But success demands more than those obvious virtues. It’s said that on his death bed the father of the dynasty, Mayer Amschel, gathered his five sons around him and, in words that combined advice with appeal, told his heirs “Maintain absolute unity”.

However talented or rich any family or organisation happens to be, without the cohesive power of unity, it doesn’t have much of a future.

Unity is a value that is celebrated throughout the Bible. Unity is something that is deep, not only within the heart of God, but within the being of God: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6.4). God is one.

Unity is something that is embedded deeply within the structure of creation. God creates man and then woman. Genesis comments that the two became one flesh. To read that simply as an explanation as to why marriages should be consummated far from does justice to the sacred revelation.

God never intended human beings to live lonely lives. Community was His plan, marriage its most intimate expression.  Unsurprising therefore that one of Satan’s first moves was to divide husband and wife. Division, whether in marriage or society – or church – has proved a very effective weapon in his armoury ever since.

Jesus prayed in John 17.20-23 that His followers would be one, just as He and His Father were one. Paul exhorted the church at Ephesus to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4.3).

And of course there is Psalm 133:

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity…For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life for evermore (vv.1,3).

Before the importance of  unity was recognised by ambitious bankers, it was in the heart of God and on the heart of God. I suppose the challenge of unity is that we all have to make compromises to make it work. We have to – sometimes – embrace things that are not to our taste. At other times we have to let go of “our thing”. Not always easy. Still, it’s a small price to pay for the promise that unity holds. “Life for evermore” is a lot better than our best plans or dreams. And let’s face it, it worked for the Rothschilds!

The Magic Key

If you have children of a certain age, you might well be familiar with The Magic Key stories. Three children and their dog set out on all sorts of adventures, courtesy of a magic key, helpfully attached to the dog’s collar. Unfortunately, I am a little too old to have had the pleasure of such reading material; we had stories that usually ended up with a dead giant or a dead wolf, or something like that.

If only we had magic keys to take us through life. Magic keys that would inject a bit of excitement into our sometimes mundane routines.

It has to be said that sometimes reading Christian literature and attending Christian conferences can at some level, usually an unconscious one, become a quest for a magic key. The one thing that will bring growth. The one thing that will bring revival. That elusive one thing.

Recently I spent twelve days in India. I spent time in two different locations. In one location I experienced the ministry of a city church. The other, was a mission station, though that is an inadequate description. If both ministries are not experiencing revival, then it must be pretty close to revival. If ever I had my chance to find the magic key, this was it.

So what was their magic key?

There are so many potential candidates.

For a start, the way they showed hospitality. What an incredible welcome we received. How we were honoured and cared for the whole time we were there was exemplary. In fact it was quite humbling. We were treated like kings.

The way these ministries reach out to their own communities in acts of service was also staggering. Feeding the hungry, educating children and caring for orphans. The mission station was even training nurses and ran a primary school for one thousand children and a secondary school for two thousand children and a hospital and…the list is almost endless. That was on one campus alone!

Evangelistic outreach was certainly not substituted for social action. Whether it was distributing Bibles or church planting, evangelistic outreach was to the fore. One church even decided that over the Christmas holidays – Boxing day and Christmas day included – that they would take a bus and drive, stopping to preach and sleeping wherever they could!

And then there are signs and wonders. The supernatural seems to be a normal aspect of life in India.

Of course, there was the very focused emphasis on prayer and fasting. Long lists of those committed to praying and fasting for a certain number of days during the year. Beginning the year with three days of prayer and fasting.

I could go on to talk about the dynamic, compelling worship, great steps of faith and acts of sacrifice, even to the point of laying down life for the sake of the gospel.

It was very clear that none of these things could or should stand alone. They all belonged together. It’s not all about prayer. Or social action. Or worship.

Or even evangelism. Though it has to be said that when I asked for some honest feedback about the western church, our lack of evangelism was highlighted. I might not have mentioned that, had not a missionary from Latin America said the same thing in a conversation seven months previously.

What, in my opinion, these Indian churches are doing that is so important, is that they have kept doing the things that are important since they were founded. There is no substitute for decades of commitment to the great commission.

So what’s the magic key? The magic key might just be to recognise that we have a whole bunch of keys which, if used consistently, will unlock doors and unlock God’s blessing over our churches. Perhaps the magic key is to recognise that there is no magic key.