Introduction and Call to Worship On Palm Sunday, we praise Christ as King and come into his presence in wonder and worship as we celebrate his love for us – separated now by social distancing but one body of Christ gathered in our own homes for worship as one corporate body. Together we sing Hosanna! Today’s Readings First Reading Isaiah 50:4-9a In contrast to Israel’s proud disobedience, Isaiah proclaims the qualities of God’s true servant, embodied in Christ: he attends to God’s instruction and humbly suffers human injustice for the sake of divine vindication. Second Reading Philippians 2:5-11 Paul commends Christ’s example: Jesus humbled himself on humankind’s behalf, giving up his divine status, and even life itself. Now God calls all to bow to Christ’s supremacy over his entire creation. Gospel Matthew 26:14 – end of 27 [27:11-54] Pontius Pilate accedes to the Sanhedrin’s demands and the crowd’s anger, and orders Jesus’ execution. Having been brutalised by Roman soldiers, Jesus is crucified amid the mockery of priests and passers-by. But as he dies, the earth shakes, and the Temple curtain is torn in two. HOMILY “But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge.” (Matthew 27:14) As far as the Roman Empire was concerned, the province of Judea was a backwater – an outpost. Yet it is here, in the depth of the Middle East that something extra-ordinary is happening. Jesus, Lord of life and love, becomes an outcast, condemned for heresy by religiously orthodox leaders and crucified by the Roman State outside Jerusalem’s city walls. The loud shouts and joys of welcome, as Jesus was received into the great city upon the back of a colt, are soon replaced by the cruel cries of a bloodthirsty people. Even Pilate is not sure this is right, and he asks the crowd, “What should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” We are told by Matthew in his Gospel account that all of them said, “Let him be crucified!” So, Pilate asks them a more specific question, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shout more, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27: 22, 23) This is not the message proclaimed by the great Prophet Isaiah, who foretold the coming of Jesus with words familiar to us from Christmas: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2) Yet it would seem this crowd in today’s Passion Gospel Reading is very much walking and speaking in the dark, whipped up in a frenzy of excitement and intrigue. They represent each one of us today and all our failings. In the Holy Week sequence of events we see God’s plan for salvation unfolding. This year in very unfamiliar circumstances as we are unable to physically attend St Mary’s Church building, we are called to follow, from our own homes, a spiritual path that leads from the celebration of Christ as King on Palm Sunday to his death upon the Cross on Good Friday and three days later His New Life, risen as ruler over all on Easter Sunday. It is quite a journey and a lot to take in. Where are we in this story? Where are we on the path that leads to eternal life? We have the blessing of hindsight. Of course, for those on the ground at the time events moved at a pace and were beyond their individual control. Although Jesus is the focus of this episode, for those around, he is a mere disturbance or distraction, to be ejected to the edge and sent up to Calvary to be dealt with. Pilate’s concern is keeping peace for the Emperor; the orthodox religious are pre-occupied with the purity of their practice and their control. In the process they, perhaps unwittingly, condemn Jesus and in the process the very God whose interests they purport to serve. For the Roman soldiers, Jesus is a mere object on whom they can vent their brutish frustrations before his execution. Jesus becomes the scapegoat for the bitterness of passers-by and fellow criminals alike. He seems unable even to deliver himself from such dreadful anguish and suffering. If this crucifixion drama were ended as Jesus breathes his last, those who dispatched him would have successfully consigned him to an insignificant role in history. Yet even here, the Gospel writer Matthew describes events that point beyond the Cross to something more. As Jesus breathes his last the very ground on which everyone stands is shaken. The Temple curtain is torn in two from top to bottom, signifying a seismic shift as the historic and greatly symbolic barrier between God and humanity is torn in two. God longs to be fully in relationship with His creation, with you and I, and nothing will now stand in the way of that. Then, finally another outsider, a centurion utters words of absolute truth, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:54) Shouts of “Hosanna” may have marked Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem just days before, now the silence of the tomb beckons. This week I will be asking at each stage of Holy Week, where are we in this story? Perhaps we identify with the women and John the beloved disciple, drawn to stay with Jesus and watch at the foot of the cross, albeit at a distance, as he achieves the ultimate defeat of the powers of evil. His suffering must have been an agonising and dispiriting spectacle. For some of us now, isolated from those we love, it may well feel like we are carrying our own cross, too. But Jesus was still loved, and so are we. Jesus’ way of conquering through love and sacrifice, rather than force and destruction, may not seem to be winning the day in human eyes. His willingness to accept isolation – separation from all he loved – is quite extraordinary. To many of us, this period of lockdown is at best frustrating or an inconvenience or we may even question its necessity (please stay home and safe!). Friends, staying safe and staying close to the Lord are both essential this Holy Week. So, in our own lives today, situations may look out of God’s control, let alone ours (such as the coronavirus pandemic) – like Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion. But they are not! God is involved and active and loving and reconciling all things! Just think of the sacrificial offering of so many key workers and NHS staff – some of whom worship with us regularly, and of whom I for one am so very proud. God is working through them to watch over us all and keep us safe! Our present situation and all who are suffering must be offered back to God in prayer. Our Holy Week journey affords us such an opportunity to witness to the cross of Jesus, his rejection and suffering, and know that God understands how we feel in this time of isolation and bereavement. Our challenge is to walk faithfully, no matter what the cost or challenge. Our attempt to live-stream worship is part of that commitment to continue to meet and know that we take up our individual crosses with the Lord of all life and love who walks with us. And as we do, so we ask of the events of Holy Week: “Where then am I in this story?“ SUMMARY 1. The agendas of political and religious powers did not accord Jesus central status. 2. Jesus’ crucifixion appeared to confirm him as failed leader and despised outcast. 3. But his death is accompanied by signs that start to overturn the world’s assumption. 4. We are called to live in faith with Christ at the centre, however things may seem. 5. Where are we in the Holy Week story? What is our voice saying? 6. May we be willing to take up our cross and remain faithful in worship.