We hear a lot of scripture read in church from Palm Sunday to Easter Day. Of course how much you hear depends on how much church you attend! But it might be helpful to provide you all with a sort of overview of the things you can expect to hear at Holy Week services.
Unsurprisingly, the principal liturgies of Holy Week draw their readings first and foremost from the gospels. Through this year we are reading quite a lot of Matthew’s gospel, but during Holy Week we lean very heavily on John, with his fuller description of the Last Supper. It is from John’s account, for example, that we hear the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday.
The readings from the gospel accounts of the events of Holy Week are supplemented with readings from the New Testament that for the most part offer the reflection of the early church on the passion and death of Our Lord; and so the well-known passage from the Epistle of St Paul to the Philippians is traditionally read on Palm Sunday; we will also hear quite a lot from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is going to be my preaching focus for much of Holy Week this year.
But we will also hear many readings drawn from the Old Testament, readings that are chronologically prior to the events of Holy Week, but which are understood by the Church to point to the saving work of Christ in various ways. So for example on Maundy Thursday, we hear the story of the first Passover in the Book of Exodus, juxtaposed with accounts of the Last Supper from John’s gospel and St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. And at the Easter Vigil, we will hear several of the old Sunday-school favourites – Jonah and the Whale, Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, Moses and the Red Sea – all understood as pointing in different ways to the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. Many of the other readings from the Old Testament for Holy Week are taken from the prophecy of Isaiah, and specifically from a number of poetic passages from Isaiah often known as “the servant songs”. These passages have been central to Christian attempts to make sense of the suffering and death of Jesus from the very earliest days of the Church.
The servant songs helped the first followers of Jesus to make sense of the idea of a suffering Messiah, rather than the triumphant Messiah that they seem to have expected.
We heard one of them for our Old Testament reading this morning. And it expresses a strange and surprising confidence. The Servant has a clear sense of being set apart by God, and a clear sense of having been given a task:
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
But the Servant also describes His suffering in terms that are reminiscent of the sufferings of Jesus described in the Passion narratives:
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The song continues with a sense of determination, and a profound sense of trust and confidence in God:
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
When Jesus rides into Jerusalem seated on a donkey, He surely knows that this action will set in train a series of reactions from the religious and secular authorities that will lead to His death. In all four gospels there is a clear sense that Jesus’ understood His destiny; even if we approach it from the perspective of plain common sense, the briefest acquaintance with the history of the Jewish people under Greek and Roman rule sets Jesus’ death in the context of the deaths of any number of would-be messiahs and leaders of national and religious revivals. The death of John the Baptist is just one example of many.
But Jesus rides into Jerusalem nevertheless. In the build-up to the Passover, the great celebration of the liberation of the Israelites, at a time when the authorities were surely on high alert, Jesus stages what He knows will be perceived as a provocation. But He did not turn backwards, He set His face like flint. At this point He has already thrown Himself entirely on the Father’s love, in complete confidence and trust.
And if we look again at the passage from Isaiah, we might notice something else. Not only does the Servant have a complete trust in God, but He also has total humility. The Servant does not express any confidence in Himself, He does not say that He will overcome His enemies through His own strength, but rather: “it is the Lord who helps Me”; “He who vindicates Me is near”.
The humility of Jesus is traditionally celebrated on Palm Sunday. Jesus’ humility in taking on our flesh, Jesus’ humility in riding on a donkey, Jesus’ humility in dying on the Cross, Jesus’ humility as an example to us. Confidence and humility are two virtues that we do not often speak of in the same breath, and yet Jesus’ confidence and Jesus’ humility are profoundly related. True humility comes not from all those little self-deprecating tricks we play on ourselves and others, but from true confidence in God. And true confidence cannot be confidence in ourselves, because in any human being there is always the possibility of failure or worse; but true confidence in God comes from true humility about ourselves.
The idea that true humility is the key to true confidence is paradoxical, and it’s not an idea you’re likely to find in any self-help book, or hear from any motivational speaker. And yet the connection between humility and confidence is an immensely helpful one. A profound confidence in the loving purposes and power of God, combined with an honest appraisal of ourselves, offers a remarkable liberation. It offers a release from the games and tricks of both false humility and false confidence, it offers a release from both self-deprecation and self-assertion. It offers a release from the fear and anxiety associated with loss of control, as we recognise that we were never really in control in the first place, but that God is.
Jesus takes this interplay of humility and confidence to its most logical and extreme conclusion, totally entrusting Himself to God in life and in death. Even Jesus finds it difficult, and so it’s unlikely to be easy for us. And yet one way or another we will be united with Him in a death like His, and so in humility and in confidence we hope also to be united with Him in His Resurrection, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and unto ages of ages. Amen.