Saturday, 31 March 2012

Palm Sunday: Fact vs Mystery

Philippians 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.


Have you been watching the planetary dance unfolding in our western skies these last few weeks? The planets Venus and Jupiter have been chasing each other towards the sinking sun whilst in the East Mars has been soaring into the heavens. And in the midst of them, this week, has been a bright new moon.

Now the moon is one planet that we know an awful lot about. We’re able to weigh it, and its mass is 7.3459 x 1022 kg, which is quite heavy. Its surface area is14,658,000 square miles or 9.4 billion acres, and it would take 4 days to drive around it by car, once you’ve built the motorway that is. We’ve even sent men there to visit and they’ve brought 382kg of moon rock back.

So apart from the earth it is the planet in our solar system about which we know the most. Yet not one of those facts explain why we look on it in awe every time it rises and shines in the sky. None of those facts explain why lovers find the moon so inspiring. None of those facts explain why some people refer to the moon as symbolic of a Goddess.

And that’s the difference between fact and mystery. Facts are interesting, and they might inspire you to want to know more information simply because you are of the kind of mind set that simply likes to know. But facts will rarely take you on any kind of inward journey. It is only mystery that inspires us to do that.

So today I want to talk with you about mystery and how Jesus used it. We’ll glance briefly at our New Testament reading, but for the most part we’re going to stay with Mark. What I want specifically to do is to challenge you about how you use mystery. We need to become aware that there is a time and a place for mystery and that in its place it can be a good thing.

But we also need to be aware that we have a responsibility to be straight talking too, when the time is right to do so, but with an awareness of what will happen when we do so. When we speak in those terms there are consequences - some good and some not so good.

You see the Gospel reading shows us the consequences for Jesus of when he, if you like, comes out. And we need to be aware that there are times and places where we need to say what we mean, and at the same time be aware that we may have to pay the price for doing so and, and this is the hard part, God may actually be requiring of us that we do indeed pay that price.

So let’s turn to the Gospel because in this section of Mark’s Gospel something completely new has happened. Up until now there has been something very significant about the miracle stories that Mark tells; something unique about his Gospel that we don’t find anywhere else. Over and over again Jesus does something that could draw attention to himself but he then instructs the people around him to tell no one.

There is an air of mystery around him. No one knows exactly who he is although many have their suspicions. Let me give you some examples. In Mark 1 Jesus starts casting out demons, but he won’t permit any to speak in verse 34 because they know who he is. In verse 44 he heals a leper and tells him to say nothing to anyone.

In chapter 3 verse 11 and 12 Jesus is confronted by evil spirits trying to shout out ‘You are the Son of God’, but he sternly silenced them. Again in chapter 7 we see him healing a deaf man and ordering him to say nothing, and the same thing happens again in chapter 8 when he heals a blind man in Bethsaida.

Now you can see a probable reason why he does this because a lot of the time his instruction to say nothing is ignored and it makes it hard for him to move around because everyone wants to see him, but nevertheless, for more than half of Mark’s Gospel this secrecy theme is quite clear. Jesus won’t say who he is and he won’t let the evil spirits declare who he is. He simply plays his cards close to his chest.

It is as if he cannot help but heal people because he wants to set the world right, or at least the parts of it he can touch. That internal imperative to love which is a mark of the Godhead drives him to try to relieve suffering. But he is also aware that if word gets out then he will simply be known as a healer when there is so much more he wishes to give.

The effect this has on human nature is to make us inquisitive. Some people will indeed have come to seek out Jesus because they had heard of the miracles, but many will come because they don’t know who he is or what drives him, but simply that there is something about him to which they are drawn. And Jesus himself won’t let on who he is. He simply lets them get on with trying to figure it out.

That is until the day we have come to call Palm Sunday arrives. And then it all changes, and it looks like Jesus may well have been planning this, that the act of making a statement about coming into Jerusalem has been on the cards for a while. Many people have speculated that Jesus had already arranged for the colt to be ready for when he needed it, so all he had to do was to send word via the disciples that it was time for the colt to be used.

Others believe it was another show of his miraculous knowledge about the world. But all that really matters is that now Jesus shows himself to the people of Jerusalem, their capital city, the centre of power. Jesus enters visibly this time, not in secret, and his actions and the actions of the crowd declare his regal yet servant status.

The words of the crowd leave little to the imagination. Hosanna means, ‘Save us!’ He is blessed because he is a descendant of David, a part of the regal line, and they were sure this meant the new kingdom was coming, and Jesus says nothing. On this occasion he allows himself to be defined, and he says nothing to the crowd to quieten them down. The secrecy of his earlier works is shed and the mystery fades.

And then what happens? Within just a few days he is crucified. Why? From an earthly perspective you could argue that it’s because Jesus didn’t live up to the expectations that they had of him, and that’s what happens when you let yourself be defined by others. It was inevitable that Jesus would be killed because this time he let the crowd define him, except they got it wrong.

So when he didn’t live up to their expectations they discarded him. It could have been different, of course. Jesus could have gone along with the crowds and become the kind of king they had wanted. But he didn’t. He carried on being the kind of King that he was, but because he didn’t fit with their definition of monarchy they allowed the jealous religious rulers finally to have their way.

And this is what happens when you allow something to be defined. As soon as it’s defined it’s no longer a mystery. That much is obvious. But what if you’re wrong with your definition? And what if a large proportion of people have accepted your definition? You the once a mystery has been defined it loses its power to change things in other ways.

That, I think, is a part of what Jesus feared throughout his ministry. If he allowed people to put him into a box then he would be strait-jacketed, no longer able to challenge people on a multitude of levels. He would simply be Jesus, the miracle man. Before long it would be a case of, ‘Do something new Jesus, we’ve seen it all before. We know who you are and we’re bored now’.

This is exactly what Christianity has done with the cross of Christ. Since the beginning we have tried to define what exactly Jesus did. But Jesus never told us. All he said was that when he was lifted up from the earth he would draw all people to him. He never told us how, just that his death and resurrection would draw people to him.

So for the last two thousand years we’ve treated it like a problem to be solved. A current interpretation is that sin deserves the punishment of death, and we’ve all sinned so we all ought to die, but God killed Jesus in our place. For a vast proportion of Christians that is exactly how the cross ‘works’. They have defined it, and in so doing have drained it of some of its power.

It is precisely because it is a mystery that the cross has such power. We cannot define exactly what Jesus did. That’s why every Good Friday I preach a new sermon about the cross, and I will again this week. Its meaning is wreathed in layer upon layer of mystery and there is always something new to explore.

So I believe mystery is vital. But also there is time for plain talking. In the events leading up to his death Jesus did a lot of plain talking. He stepped away from mystery and told it like it was and so they arrested him and crucified him, and it was necessary for our sakes that they did, but Jesus was still in control.

And that is what I meant when I said that at some points in our lives we have to step away from mystery but to be prepared to count the cost when we do so. For the most part, in our culture, it is better to share the Gospel in terms of a journey into God’s presence because then people will be inquisitive about making that journey. If we tell people what they can expect; if we define the mystery, they may be uninterested in exploring, and we may be wrong.

But sometimes we have to say the facts. Sometimes, and usually it is to do with issues of prophecy or justice, we have to simply state the truth. And like Jesus, we may be being called to accept the cost of our honesty. Mystery and fact walk hand in hand, one in light and one in shade. May God give us the wisdom to tell them apart and the courage to speak out when we must do so. Amen.

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