This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Palm Sunday 2019.
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:28-40
Palm Sunday is one of those days when you’d think the sermon, and the Bible readings, would be obvious. Maybe that’s true, but then you all know me well enough now to know that the obvious sermon topic is very unlikely to appear when I am preaching, and even if it does appear it will be given a surprising slant. So no, today we heard from Isaiah and Paul rather than Luke, but don’t worry, the donkey is on his way.
Today’s passage from the Hebrew Tradition, from Isaiah, is the third of four so called “servant songs”; in this song the servant is speaking directly to those Israelites who have strayed from God’s ways while they have been exiled. The teacher in this case is not so much one person as he is a representation of the true Israel, the nation (and the group of people within it) who have stood their ground amidst abuse and disrespect from The Fallen because they know that The LORD is Israel’s companion and vindication. The advice is to the straying people of Israel, but also to the Babylonians, and it is to say that God is faithful and dependable and so all hope is far from lost, even in this dire situation. The teacher’s task, as it is in all four servant songs, is to take the word of God which God has spoken to him and to proclaim that word to the world, beginning with the fallen within Israel, the ones described as weary in Isaiah 50:4. Conversely it is this mob of weary and disheartened who rise up and beat up the prophet with all the spitting and sneering and beard-pulling action; but even this has not disheartened the prophetic voice, since it shows to him how much his message of deliverance is required. The servant says in Isaiah 50:8, he who vindicates me is near: who will contend with me. In other words, God has my back, so bring it on, and let’s argue this thing out. At the same time the teacher knows that scorners are gonna scorn, so he’s aware that even though God will vindicate him as a teacher and God will vindicate his message, he will still be beaten up and worn down in the work of teaching.
The same theme is seen in today’s Psalm, 31, which reads as a prayer for deliverance in the midst of distress. Read, indeed hear how the psalmist complains to God how worn out with trying and with sorrowing he is. This worshipper comes to God and tells The Father that he is mocked, shunned, abandoned, and shamed by his neighbours. The psalmist has no friends except for God, but God is trustworthy and faithful, God is listening and compassionate, and God is his God who has eternity in sight. No matter what other people say or do or think, the man or woman who remains faithful to God and to the calling of prophecy and teaching will be saved because God is steadfast in love.
Many of you know that I used to work as a schoolteacher. I once might have said “I used to be a teacher”, but that’s not true: I still am a teacher, I just don’t work in schools any more. So, as a teacher still, and one of God’s people set apart by God and the Church to bring the word from God to the people of God, I have some insights into this.
The first is that teaching can be physically dangerous. Regardless of what we read in Isaiah, I can tell you that I have been assaulted at schools where I have taught. I have been spat at and spat on, I have been kicked, punched, pushed, wrapped in sticky tape, had furniture thrown at me, had nuisance phone calls threatening me with arson, and I have been the subject of graffiti and emotional bullying. (And that was just in the staffroom…) And whilst no one has had a go at my physical person at church, yet, I have been emotionally beaten up in my teaching ministry in congregations through gossip, derision, and agendas pushed through councils of the church to have me banned from preaching because my words (which I maintain were God’s) pricked somebody’s pimple. I get why the Pharisees were angry at Jesus, and the exiles angry at Jeremiah and the suffering servant, I’ve been there on the receiving end and I’ve had my theology and my mental stability questioned by people who were offended by the gospel as I proclaimed it. I know that I can also get shouty and sarcastic in my speech, and because of that I’m focussing today’s thoughts on those few times when I was not in the wrong.
The second is that teaching as an activity is useless if no one is learning. For example, I could pause here for a moment and give you a twenty minute run down on how to add numbers across the tens barrier. If you have enough fingers you can add three and five to make eight; but how do you add three more to eight when you run out of fingers. I can teach you how to do that, I can teach you a number of ways how to do that, but you wouldn’t actually learn anything. Why not? Well because you all know, already, how to do that. Even as I gave this example, of adding three to eight, many of you went, “yup, eleven”, in your head, and none of you needed to remove a shoe to get enough digits. What is the point of my teaching if you are not learning? In fact if you are not learning then I would argue that whatever it is that I am doing up here, it isn’t actually teaching at all. In the same way I could give you an excellent sociolinguistics lecture on Russian Formalism and the concept of ostranenie, as developed by Viktor Shklovksy. You would all be amazed, no doubt, but would you be educated, would you actually learn anything? Or would you be confused? Even if I translated ostranenie into English as “defamiliarisation” would that help? Even if I tell you that this is more of a narratological concept than a sociolinguistic one, and ask whether any of you noted the deliberate mistake three sentences ago, would that help? Again, if you’re not learning, then I’m not teaching.
And perhaps putting points one and two together, if you don’t want to learn from me, then I’m not teaching you. I cannot teach you if you don’t want to learn, and since this is church and not school I can’t force you to learn and keep you in your seat until you do. In fact the last time I tried to force someone to stay in his seat until he learned something he stood up and threw the chair at me. But, again, this is church and you can’t do that. I hope I’ve made my point though, even if I am not in physical danger of immanent assault, and even if I pitch my sermons and Wednesday Bible studies at your level rather than at child or postgraduate speciality level, if you don’t want to learn then you won’t. And if you don’t want to learn then I can’t teach you. That’s okay, maybe you don’t need me to teach you, maybe you already know everything there is to know and so nothing that I say, even with eloquence and a sound pedagogical structure, will interest you in the slightest. Maybe you don’t need to be here at all, or I don’t. Maybe that’s what the exiles in Babylon and the Pharisees in Jerusalem thought about the bearers of God’s word.
Jesus wasn’t like that. From Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi we read how the mindset of Christ Jesus, an attitude of humility and self-emptying, complete trust even in death lead to his exaltation and glory. In a congregation where many of you hold the doctrinal position of “no creed but Christ”, here in Philippians 2:5-11 is a manifesto for us to proclaim, the complete words of scripture telling the life story of Jesus from incarnation to resurrection. What it means to be like Christ, to be a Christian, is to be humble in humanity and obedient toward God. We know this is the right way because the man who acted most fully in this way was exalted by God to the highest possible glory. This is the attitude and the conduct that God rewards, because this is the human life by which God is most fully blessed. Blessed are the teachable, for they will hear God most clearly and therefore obey God most fully. The existence of Jesus, (more than his shape or his attitude) his very being is one not of grasping but of surrender. More than what Christ does or even who Christ is, this is what Christ is as Christ, God the Son. Christ is open-handedness, Christ is letting go, and Christ is unambiguous and unlimited trust in The Father, even as Christ is The LORD. When all of that was accounted for in the incarnation and death of Jesus, at the resurrection the God-ness of Christ was restored. Both are the real Christ, God the Son was no less God for being Jesus from Nazareth, the Son of Man. Neither are we or anyone else any less the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) for being alive as women and men today. Godliness is not about how much of a spiritual presence you are, rather than flesh-and-bone, godliness is about how much like God you are when God was flesh-and-bone. Are you humble, do you know who you are and who you are not? Are you teachable, do you know what you need to learn, and are you willing to listen to whichever teacher God sends you, be that a preacher, a podcast, a book, a shared experience with a mate, or an epiphany at the end of your bed. And if you want God to speak to you in a book or a podcast, and God speaks to you in a sermon or a song, will you listen, or not?
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Friday on which he died, Luke tells us that Jesus was riding a colt. Previously two disciples had been sent ahead to find the colt and to inform anyone who asked that the Lord needed the colt and that they should be allowed to take it. The fact that Jesus was actually riding the colt shows that the colt was allowed to be taken to Jesus, and for him to ride it. Someone was listening to God at that point, even when God spoke in the accent of some random Galilean who was sprung in the middle of untying the beast. When Jesus (and the colt) rode into Jerusalem the people cried out “blessed is the king who comes!” and “peace in heaven and glory!” Again, they had been listening for God and were ready to hear the word of Heaven however it came. The ordinary Judeans heard God speak, even in their own voices, and even when the highly educated and rigorously theological scholars could not. How ambivalent do you need to be to the coming of the Word of God that you are dull to the sounds of worship, dull to the presence of the Word Incarnate (even in humble form) standing in front of you, so dull that even the singing or rocks would probably escape you?
Seriously, how dull? Dull enough that within a week you’ll hang the King of Kings for treason, and the God of Gods for blasphemy? Today is Palm Sunday, open your ears, open your eyes, open your hearts; let worship alone open your mouths. And in the name of every teacher who has ever lived to help you learn, please, resist every urge to be dull.