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IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH (Palm Sunday 2021)

Reflecting this week on the events of that first Palm Sunday, and particularly the hollow praises of the majority of the people who witnessed Jesus’ so-called ‘Triumphal Entry’ into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11), reminded me of another incident forever etched on my memory from my student days at Spurgeon’s College back in the 1960s. [NB. It is a sure sign of old age when stories from one’s youth are amazingly clear, but what I did yesterday is exceedingly hazy].

There was a very ‘sound’ church, just a short bus ride away from the college, popularly known as the ‘coffin’ church because it was coffin-shaped in structure (I don’t think it is there anymore), who were having a visit one Sunday from a very well-known fundamentalist preacher of the day (I forget who). Anyway, a few of us decided to go and hear him. I recall the Church Service well for two specific reasons. Firstly, the Children’s Talk (do you remember those days?) was on ‘the abomination of desolation’ (Matthew 24:15,16 KJV). I don’t think any of us adults understood a word of it, leave alone the children. Secondly, there was a man in the congregation who vociferously and enthusiastically (rather like the crowd on Palm Sunday) greeted virtually every sentence the famous preacher uttered with a loud ‘Amen!’ or ‘Hallelujah!’ or ‘Praise the Lord!’. This went on for a good 20 minutes – it was like listening to a radio play in stereo – ‘Amen!’ Hallelujah!’ ‘Praise the Lord!’. And then he knocked his hymn book off the pew on to his foot ‘D%*#£*%*n!’ he shouted with equal vociferousness! We were still laughing when we got back to college an hour or two later!

In conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well (John 4:1-42) about ‘worship’, Jesus reminds her that the only kind of worship God wants from us is worship that is ‘in spirit and truth’ (v.23). What does this mean? Well, the word ‘worship’ essentially means to ‘declare the worth of something or someone’, in this case declaring God’s worth or value! Although the Greek word for ‘spirit’ (pneuma) is capable of signifying ‘Spirit’ with a capital ‘S’, that is, the Holy Spirit, I don’t think that is what it means here. I would suggest that it is a reference to the human spirit. What Jesus is saying here is that when we worship God, the kind of worship God wants from us is that which comes right from the heart. Worship that is genuine, and which aligns itself with God’s ‘truth’ – the sincerity God wants to see in us. More ‘Hosanna!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’ than ‘D%*#£*%*n!’

The worship offered to Jesus that first Palm Sunday was vociferous, enthusiastic, seemingly wholehearted … but just a few days later those same voices that were shouting ‘Hosanna!’ (Matthew 21:9) were crying out ‘Crucify!’ (Matthew 27:22,23). What Jesus is looking for in us is fervent faith not fickle faith! Not ‘easy believe-ism’ but dedicated discipleship. As William MacDonald reminds us: ‘The Saviour is not looking for men and women who will give their spare evenings to Him, or their weekends, or their years of retirement. Rather He seeks those who will give Him first place in their lives.’ At first sight this seems very demanding but in reality, to hand our lives over to God ‘lock, stock and barrel’ so to speak, is actually very releasing. I recall overhearing an evangelist friend of mine, William Hartley praying one day (he had been given a car by some friends, and the tyres had become worn), ‘Father … your car needs new tyres!’ This car was not his car but God’s car. Hartley was a man of great faith who lived by faith … and sure enough a few days later the four new tyres were fitted to the car (donated by an anonymous doner who, without knowing the need, felt led by God to give William some money ‘for work to be done on his car’). A committed life is a releasing life! As Paul reminds us, ‘In absolutely everything God is working for the good of those who love him, those who seek to live out his plans and purposes’ (Romans 8:28).

Moreover, true worship is not just about what we do for an hour or so in church on a Sunday – singing hymns, saying prayers, listening to sermons.  True worship is also about what we do every day of week – the selfless service we offer to God and others – whether inside the church building or even more so outside the church building. As Evan Hopkins suggests, Jesus ‘looks today, as he has ever looked, not for crowds drifting aimlessly in his track, but for individual men and women whose undying allegiance will spring from their having recognized that he wants those who are prepared to follow the path of self-renunciation which he trod before them!’

When Jesus mounted that donkey, and rode into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, accepting the adulation of the crowds however fickle or faithful it may have been, he knew full well what he was doing. He knew that the shouts of praise would turn to calls of condemnation. He knew that what lay ahead of him was not a throne but a cross! Do we know what we are doing? With our words? With our lives? With Jesus?

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

~ Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

~ Jim Binney

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