Perhaps unusually, when I think of Palm Sunday I remember two stories. One is a biblical one – Michal in 1 Samuel 6. Her husband, King David, is returning from a procession where the Ark, the symbol of God’s presence, is finally being returned, carried into the capital. He has danced, exuberantly, with joyous abandon, not a response of duty or kingly restraint, but of openness to God in the freest of worship. But Michal, who has watched the celebration from the isolation of a window, greets him with sarcastic ridicule. There is no celebration for her. Lest we are too quick to judge, hers is a tragic story where she has been the pawn, the victim, of political events in which her husband and father were enemies.
The second is a few years ago when a friend of mine was receiving a series of blessings from God in a season where she was experiencing the Holy Spirit in new ways. I felt on the outside, envious of the sense of closeness to God others seemed to find so easy. I had not meant to be scathing, but clearly something in my attitude reflected my feelings. A good friend, she told me that my stance was hurting her heart. I apologised, and the relationship remained strong, but I retained a sense of looking in from the outside, like the Match Girl glimpsing the beauties others experienced.
And so to Palm Sunday. Again there is a huge celebration as Jesus – the bodily presence of God – is carried into the city. But not everyone can join in. The Pharisees are disturbed, and ask him to rebuke the disciples. Jesus says if they are quiet, the stones will celebrate. Creation must recognise the arrival of the creator – if people don’t, the stones will!
Perhaps we are too harsh on the Pharisees. After all they refer to him as teacher, and they don’t ask him to stop the procession, just to quieten his disciples. Perhaps they were scared it would be deemed an uprising and bring down the wrath of the Romans. Certainly they were concerned to keep the tradition, the laws which they saw not as a means to win God’s approval but as a sign of his love and grace. Whatever the reasons, they cannot celebrate. They love God, want to serve him, but as Jesus is carried into Jerusalem they just can’t join in. And they want to stop the joyous celebration of others
Sometimes even for good people, joy can be elusive. This is a break-out moment. It does not take away from the sadness which will come. Indeed only a few moments later Jesus is racked with sobs over the city he loves which will reject him. Jesus knows this entry is provocative and what will ensue. But biblically celebration and sadness can sit side by side. For a moment we can let go our sadness to celebrate the exuberant goodness of God – his presence in our midst. All worship comes from joy, but a joy forged sometimes from the darkest of places. When there’s ‘pain in the offering’ – as we sometimes sing perhaps too lightly or with too little understanding – there is a profound depth in worship.
Joy perhaps needs to be distinguished from noise. It may include it at times – it clearly did on this occasion – but joy can break out in gentleness even in environments where we are quiet, or through the quietest of personalities. There are sadnesses that no work, no duty, no striving or attempt at denial can heal. But joy is still a possibility. It is a possibility because the king has come. The presence of God is here.
Imagine how different it could have been if Michal could for a moment laid aside the disappointments of her life and made her way down, hitched up her own skirts and danced. If the Pharisees could have left aside their worries about getting it right and joined hands with the children. If you or I could leave aside all the valid and huge concerns of our times and simply, for a moment, enjoy the presence of the King, our extraordinary Saviour.
It can be hard to really open ourselves up to the celebration, the joy of God. It may be personal circumstances, quiet hurts and pains, known or unknown to others. Communion is a good way to again recognise and receive the presence of God into our lives no matter what. Or perhaps we worry about our reputation, or that of the church, or about doing things right. Yet maybe God is calling us to joyous celebration. This is about the heart more than what we do. And certainly, let’s decide we are not going to criticise those who express their joy differently from us, with more or less exuberance. We can celebrate together as we enjoy our differences.
So today let’s open ourselves to the joy of God. He comes to us again: our King and our Saviour.
- Matt Redman Blessed be your name
Photo by Poppyette on Pixabay
Check out our Lent, Holy Week, and Easter resource page for inspiring posts, helpful products and resources, and gathered lists of liturgies and more to help you plan an Easter service, a solo journey through Holy Week, or a family adventure.