Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of what is commonly known throughout the Western Christian world as Holy Week. It is the first of eight days that truly shook the world. For the past 2000 years the events of that first Holy Week have resonated throughout history, and have enabled billions of the world’s inhabitants to find peace in this life, and hopefully eternal rest in the life to come.

As I reflect on the events of those days I note that the Saviour went through the whole gamut of emotions and every imaginable pain, and not all of those were in the Garden of Gethsemane and at Calvary. One of my earliest memories is of a Church service one Palm Sunday. Nothing about the service stands out, but as I walked out of my local parish church holding my mum’s hand I was given a cross made out of a palm leaf. Each Palm Sunday, although this isn’t a tradition in this Church, my mind always go back to that Sunday when I was four or five. I didn’t understand what was happening, but it was the first time that I had been given something when I went to Church. 

I think that sometimes we skip over the events of Palm Sunday if we remember them at all. We just remember the events of that day in terms of the entrance of the Saviour into Jerusalem. John’s Gospel records the events of that first Palm Sunday:

On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt(John 12:12-15).

The week begins on a high. Fulfilling Old Testament prophecy the Saviour enters Jerusalem triumphantly. He is greeted and lauded as the ‘King of Israel’. Why did the people greet him as such; John records that the people came because they had heard that he had performed the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. Maybe it was the hope that they had for the Messiah who would deliver them from Rome. The way that John records it suggests that he knew, and perhaps the Saviour did too, that those same people who came to laud and praise him might well be the first to desert him at the first sign of trouble. We might even consider that some of those who were in the crowd shouting ‘Hosanna’, five days later on Good Friday may have been in the crowd shouting ‘crucify him’. Indeed, the events of this first Palm Sunday are not complete until we see the chain of events that this triumphal entry set in motion. John further records:

The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold, the world is gone after him (John 12:19).

These Pharisees had an impact on many of those who would follow the Saviour:

Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God (John 12:42-43).

On this Palm Sunday we have to reflect on the actions of the chief rulers. Are we to be found among the disciples who stand with the Saviour, or are we, those who know the truth but are afraid to admit our hearts and our discipleship. An oft repeated saying is “If we were accused of being a disciple of Jesus would there be enough evidence to convict us?” Is he the centre of all that we do; do “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins”? (2 Nephi 25:26). Sometimes we also need to consider that in some places it may be easier to declare our belief, but it is less comfortable to live it. We are called to stand of witnesses of Christ at all times and in all places (Mosiah 18). We are not called to be lukewarm Christians; the Saviour has called us to be every moment of every day disciples of His. That discipleship comes at a cost, for each of us that cost will be different but we know that it will bring peace and joy.

The jealousy that the Saviour arose in the Pharisees ultimately led to his betrayal and death. That the Saviour knew what was to come is evident from the discussions that he had on Palm Sunday:

Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die (John 12:31-33).

The words that the Saviour used foretold his future crucifixion. It is evident that although the disciples might have misunderstood, at this stage the Saviour knew that which was to come. Maybe, as Passover was approaching he purposefully alluded to the events of Moses and the Exodus. The Book of Mormon draws the parallel between the two events:

Yea, did he not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come. And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal (Helaman 8:14-15).

I spoke about this in our Priesthood lesson a couple of weeks ago. The focus on the Saviour and his sacrifice is imperative if we are to hope for peace in this life, and exaltation in the life to come. We are told that there were many who did not turn to the brazen serpent because it was too easy; do we neglect the basic things that enable us to turn to the Saviour and have a relationship with Him. One of my favourite stories from the scriptures is about Naaman:

So Naaman came with his horses and with his chariot, and stood at the door of the house of Elisha. And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean. But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean? Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean(2 Kings 5:9-14).

In this story Naaman is angry because the prophet Elisha asked him to do a simple thing, he expected to have to do something difficult. It sounds strange to say that maybe sometimes we can be like that- we are happy to do the ‘big’ things or the things that can be seen by others, but the simple daily acts of the living of the Gospel are more difficult, because they’re not seen and we may not see immediate results, but a consistent living of the Gospel transforms us ‘line upon line’ and ‘grace for grace’. In this way we’re led to the parable of the ten virgins. I have one of the clay lamps that has a very small hole into which the oil is poured- it can only be filled drip by drip. President Kimball outlined this:

Attendance at sacrament meetings adds oil to our lamps, drop by drop over the years. Fasting, family prayer, home teaching, control of bodily appetites, preaching the gospel, studying the scriptures—each act of dedication and obedience is a drop added to our store. Deeds of kindness, payment of offerings and tithes, chaste thoughts and actions, marriage in the covenant for eternity—these, too, contribute importantly to the oil with which we can at midnight refuel our exhausted lamps (Faith Precedes the Miracle (1972), 256).

It may only be years later that we can look back and see the impact that small acts of worship and service have had on our lives. As I look back over the last twenty years and think about the seemingly ‘big’ things that I have done as I have served as Bishop on the Stake Presidency, it is not those callings that have kept me striving to draw closer to the Saviour, it the daily acts of the worship, the study, the prayer, the service, the partaking of the sacrament, worship in the Temple that have developed my spirituality and my relationship with the Saviour. I realise that that constant relationship is what has made all the difference.

Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise. And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls (Alma 37:6-7). 

Returning to the events of that first Palm Sunday. Two of the Gospel writers record the events of the cleansing of the Temple on this day:

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them (Matthew 21:11-14).

We often read this, quite rightly, as a condemnation of the practices prevalent in the Temple at this point in history. As I reflected on this, my mind was turned to the writings of Paul:

Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

Often, we read this, and it is often used, to refer to our bodies as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The context in 1 Corinthians 3 suggests that the more immediate context is that the Church, or the body of Saints, is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. If we read it in this way we can use the Saviour’s cleansing of the Temple to question and consider our lives as members of the Church. Are we focussed on the prestige of Church membership, the status that sometimes we enjoy? Or is the focus of our church membership and our participation in the Gospel focussed on a living of the two great commandments-to love God and to love our neighbour. If we focus on the latter, then our Church meetings and our Church service become much more focussed on our relationship with the Saviour, and that relationship is manifest in the way that we speak to and serve others. We should not be about seeking our own self-interest, or becoming puffed up- rather we should be about developing relationships with all of those people around us. If we hope for exaltation we must spend life developing relationships. The most important is with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But one important way that we do that is in relationship to other people. The Church (including the ward and the Stake) is organised to help us develop unified relationships that prepare us for exaltation. Each of us is an integral part of the Ward and we should each make every effort to develop this service and unity, without which we cannot hope for exaltation.

May I suggest three ways that we may be able to ensure that we don’t see the Church and the ward as a den of thieves, but that we see it as a Temple of the Holy Spirit:

  1. View each person as a child of God.  How is this possible, and why is this beneficial. In every aspect of our lives we stand as a witness of Christ.  We stand in is stead; do what he would do, say what he would say and place him at the front and centre of everything we do. We place him, and our relationship with him, before everyone and everything else. Using our family as a template is very useful, as we understand a person’s motivations, and look beyond their faults, we give them the benefit of the doubt, we do not hold grudges. We build a relationship which is built on a mutual relationship with the Saviour. This would make our relationships here, and beyond, more pleasant, more forgiving and enriching.
  2. If we feel on the periphery it is because we have moved. When we do not feel the Holy Spirit it is usually because we have moved ourselves away through our actions (whether we recognise them or not). The best way to get the Spirit back is to do things that move ourselves back towards him. This can be replicated on a ward or stake level. If we do not feel a part of things, then we may have imperceptibly moved away in thought or deed. What is our responsibility?- to do things that involve us and move us back towards the centre. If we do not feel a part of Relief Society- we attend Relief Society meetings. If we do not feel close to certain people, we make the effort to get to know them. If we do not feel as though others are serving us- we serve them.
  3. We pray for and sustain our leaders. We kneel down as families and pray for our Bishop and other leaders to be strengthened, and have the inspiration necessary. I think it is impossible to have unkind feelings for someone who we pray for. We fulfil our responsibilities, covenants and callings to the very best of our ability. We never criticise our leaders- if we disagree with the way something is being done, rather than muttering to others who share our discontent, we speak to the leader involved in a spirit of love, and share our concern. If they still feel the need to go ahead in the same direction, we do our very best to help the initiative succeed.

Through these small acts, our relationships with the Godhead will be improved and we will qualify, through Christ’s grace, to receive exaltation.  

Returning to Palm Sunday, the Saviour taught those who were with him as well as some who questioned him. As we read some of these teachings we can recognise how we can draw close to the Saviour in our lives.  In John’s Gospel we read:

The people answered him, We have heard out of the law that Christ abideth for ever: and how sayest thou, The Son of man must be lifted up? who is this Son of man? Then Jesus said unto them, Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth. While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light (John 12:34-36).

Although the Saviour is referring to the immediate time, where the disciples will only have a ‘little while’ with the light, and while they have that light they should walk- we can relate this to our own lives. We have the light of the Saviour to walk in- we have the example he set, the words he has given, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit that will enable us to live life in a way that we can find peace. The Saviour himself shortly after these verses shared the promise that when he left there would be Comfort and light available that would enable us to have peace:

But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (john 14:26-27).

What does this peace that is available to us through the atonement of the Saviour, activated by the Holy Spirit mean? Maybe there is a clue in the encouragement to let our hearts not be troubled. There are many things that could trouble our hearts- some of them are based on the temporal issues of this world- finances and the like. Others are troubles based on grief for the loss of loved ones, or remorse for sin. Through the atonement of our Saviour we are promised peace. We have a sure knowledge of the plan of happiness and how things fit into that plan. We might not know the end from the beginning but we know the God in whom we trust. A couple of weeks ago I attended the funeral of my eldest brother- as I listened to the eulogy and the words of the service it struck me that the hope that was being taught was found in the memories of the man we had known. It was those memories that would live on. It caused me to reflect that many of those mourning could not find peace because they did not have the hope that they would see David again. David wasn’t someone I knew well, and I mourned both the man I had known, but also the relationship that we never had the opportunity to develop. There is a peace in my heart though that he continues to live and we have far more to look forward to than just the few memories we shared. This peace and this hope are only available, however, if we walk in the light that is Jesus Christ.

I have a confession to make brothers and sisters. When I started to write this talk it was my intention to talk about Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. There was so much for me to learn from the events of that first Palm Sunday that I didn’t get any further. It is my intention, however, to explore each of those events in turn as I prepare for the celebration of Easter next week. There is so much to learn from every aspect of his life. As I reflect on Palm Sunday I am grateful to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the reason for our salvation, that he was triumphant over sin; I am grateful to be able to look to Him as he is lifted up and takes upon himself the pains, the sicknesses and the sins of us all, but most especially me. I am grateful to be able to be changed by Him into a new creature bit by bit. I am grateful to be able to walk in the light of a relationship with Him as I strive to develop relationships with God and all of those around me. Most of all I am eternally grateful for my Saviour and the love that he shows to me.