Sermon: Palm Sunday

How many times, on a Palm Sunday, have you sat in a Church pew and listened to the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the donkey’s colt or on the donkey or on the donkey with the colt walking next to her – to not say straddling the 2 donkeys?

Every year, since I started attending Balboa Union Church, we have started the Palm Sunday service singing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” as the children of our church proudly, and chaotically, walk down the aisle waving palm branches.  Every Palm Sunday, our Call to Worship and responses and prayers have been based on Psalm 118, and, more often than not, we have sung “This is the Day”!

Every year, we torture you with the task of trying to bend a palm frond like origami to create the perfect cross that you could actually hang up in your home until Easter, instead of throwing it in the back seat and then trash when you clean out your car next week.  And you’re possibly secretly relieved, that at least in this church we fold the palm frond into a cross, which you can stick in your purse or your Bible, rather than leaving you uncomfortably holding a palm frond, or worse yet the palm branch, in your hand for the entire service, unsure what you are supposed to do with it and yet reluctant to put it down.

And when we got to the gospel reading this morning, we read, once again, the description, this year by the disciple Matthew, of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, knowing full well that next week’s reading will be his death and resurrection…  But, every Palm Sunday, we read the same story, some years from Luke, others from Mark or John, and then every third year, like this year, from Matthew.  Because, as you may have noticed, every gospel contains the story of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem…


Tradition. Is it an essential part of the Christian faith? Why do we attend a church based on Christian traditions such as Liturgy, The Church Calendar, Corporate Written Prayers, Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday followed by a potluck and the Easter Egg Hunt for the kids, Christmas Eve service and the plethora of other traditions that have become an essential part of the Christian faith?  The traditions of our faith, such as the church calendar and the revised common lectionary which we share, should cause us to contemplate, reflect, and journey deeper into our faith day by day and year by year.

Now, some might object that “tradition” is merely dead orthodoxy: a Spirit-quenching fire extinguisher.  Some go as far as to say that tradition is simply shorthand for “having the form of religion but denying the power thereof.” Historian Jaroslav Pelikan quipped that “tradition is the living faith of the dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” This evangelical suspicion of tradition and a yearning to live “simply by the Bible” go back as far as the Reformation.

When scriptural passages become overly familiar, matters of rote, memorised prayers instead of living words, religion is paralysed and loses it capacity for transformation.”  [Matthew Fox, Foreword, Prayers of the Cosmos, HarperCollins 1990].

Yet, on the other hand, there is a mystic wonder of being connected and unified with millions of Christians around the world who are celebrating the same feast as us at the same time, praying the same or very similar prayers, reading the same Bible readings, and practicing the same practices. Tradition is a way to unite people to the past and future.  It not only enriches our corporate worship experience, but also deeply enhances our spiritual life and connectedness, if we let it.

The same way our daily habits do in our personal life: The good ones that build you up.  And the not so good habits, that tear you down.

Like tradition, the term “habit” refers to a settled or regular tendency or practice. A habit is something you do daily without thinking much about it.

More than 40 percent of the actions you perform each day aren’t actual decisions, but habits.  When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.

It can be used in a negative way in reference to bad habits, such as “he has the bad habit of never following through”; in more Biblical terms, the habit of being “unfaithful.” But the term “habit” can also be used in a positive way, in reference to good exercise habits or good eating habits. Habits can be extremely useful and it would be impossible to run our lives without them. They automate many of the routine activities in our lives and free up our minds so that we are capable of concentrating on higher level activities.

The automatization of your actions free up energy that can be used focus to other tasks. If we had to consciously think about basic functions like walking or chewing our food or talking, we would have no mental ability available to perform other functions. “Walking by automatic processes allows us to be able to think about where we are going! This can work to your advantage!

You probably have a habit of waking at a certain time, brushing your teeth a certain way, and driving to work by the same route every day. Habits become such a part of your routine that they become who you are.

Do you want to be a different person? Just start a new habit!

For bad habits, you need to interrupt it and “install” a new one.  If you want to unlearn a bad habit, you need to make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar, familiar.  You need to develop a new “normal”.  If you want to stop using processed sugar, you might decide to replace it with honey or stevia or an artificial sweetener.  Or you might simply choose no sugar or sweetener at all in your morning cup of coffee.  The first week, it tastes terrible: you may feel like gagging or spitting it out; the second week it becomes passable and within 3 months it becomes “normal”.  You’ve made the unfamiliar, familiar.

If you have a life goal, it isn’t the goal itself that will help you reach your dreams, it is the habits that you form and follow while you are trying to get there.  It’s the habits of how you manage your money that will lead you to financial freedom, not how much money you earn.  Obviously, the more money you earn, the more money you will have to save and invest.  But if your habits are simply to spend everything you earn, the more you earn, the more you will spend.  It’s not until you change your money management habits that you will start to see a change in your financial situation, even if you are still earning the same amount of money.

So, what are your habits with respect to God and practicing God’s presence in your life? What are your habits for contemplating, reflecting and journeying deeper into your faith day by day and year by year?

Matthew 1:23 tells us:

“…and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”

God has promised you His constant presence (Hebrews 13:5), but are you conscious of His presence every day? Do you practice his presence regularly?  A friend of mine suggested to me years ago that every morning when I arrived at the office, I should pause, and allow God to walk before me!  It was a game changer for me!

Psalm 118, which we read earlier in the service reminds us:

118 O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever.
Let Israel now say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
24 This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.
28 Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, I will exalt thee.
29 O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

How many times have you read or heard those words of Psalm 118, and let them fall on deaf ears? How many times have you sung “This is the Day” without letting the words reach your heart? How many times have they just been part of the tradition of Palm Sunday, rather than living words that draw you in to contemplate and reflect?  When have you allowed those words to take you into the presence of God, journeying deeper into your faith?

I want to invite you to make, actively go out and make this week different! They say the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result.  So today, I’m asking you to leave this service and respond differently.  I want you to choose to practice God’s presence, at least 5 times a day (yes, like the Muslims do – 5 times a day!):  when you wake up, at breakfast, at lunch, at dinner and just before you go to bed.  There are some of you who might say, well, I don’t know how to practice God’s presence or I don’t know how to meditate.

Let me ask you this:

  • Do you know how to worry?

“When you think about a problem over and over in your mind, that’s called worrying – or maybe you could call it meditating on the wrong thing! When you think about a word (like love or peace) or a phrase (like “I am loved”) or a verse, over and over in your mind, that’s called meditation. So, if you know how to worry, you know how to meditate! (Taken from a quote by Rick Warren)

All I’m asking you to do is switch your attention from mulling over a particular problem that you have, and instead focus on this one little line from Psalm 118:

This is the day which the Lord hath made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.

You could choose any verse, but I want you to choose this one:  It’s easy, I’m sure you know it, and it reminds you to be thankful and joyful.  And until Easter Sunday, I want you to practice the new habit of the presence of God in your life:  5 times a day, with this short line from a special traditional reading on Palm Sunday:

This is the day which the Lord hath made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.

And repeat this short verse 3 times, 5 times a day.  That’s 15 times a day total.  Let’s practice saying this 3 times, so you can see exactly how many seconds this is going to take.

This is the day which the Lord hath made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.
This is the day which the Lord hath made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.
This is the day which the Lord hath made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.

And maybe this will be the year, that the traditional readings lead you to contemplate, reflect, and journey deeper into your faith day by day.

Sermon: Dry Bones


Image result for images valley of bones

So, this morning we’ve heard the reading from Ezekiel: the Valley of Bones, and we’ve also heard the story of the raising of Lazarus.  Given that they were long readings, my sermon this morning is going to be adequately short, because I know we don’t want a repeat of last week’s service where we kept you here for an extra half hour!

I am going to have a quick look at the Valley of Bones, which we are presented with in Ezekiel.  Now, when you read Ezekiel, you don’t so much read it, as you do see it, it’s filled with imagery, like the song: “Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the air”?  You know – that’s where the UFO people get their Biblical foundation for UFO’: the wheel in Ezekiel is said to be a UFO.

That aside, God was always telling Ezekiel to do really bizarre things, and the valley of the bones is one of those cases.

So, many sermons have been written the Valley of the Bones, using it to talk about Church revival, vision, purpose and passion ; and many more sermons regarding broken dreams, promises, relationships and reviving those broken parts of our lives!  But this morning, I don’t want to illustrate or tell you which one to apply it to.  I only want to give you some very basic lessons in how to apply it:

  • First and foremost:  It all starts with God, not us.

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.”

While I realise that the analogy is often made about our lives or our Church being a valley full of dry bones, there are special moments when God takes us to have a look at this and wants us to see if as such.  And there’s a moment for God to act upon it, and if we try to do this in our own time and by our own strength, it’s very unlikely to work.

There’s an importance to listening and being open to the timing and vision that God has, not our own desperation of wanting to make things change. Are you open to God’s time and being where God wants you to be?

  • Secondly: God gives Ezekiel a promise to believe in:

Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.

Have you had a promise from God in your life that you haven’t seen happen yet?  Has God given you a vision of what God plans to do, that you’ve been waiting to see come into fruition and maybe you are tired of waiting?  This is not a culture and a world where we understand “wait” very well. We want it, and we want it now, no matter what piece of our life it is. For us to be able to hang onto a promise of God in the tough times takes trust, or faith if you prefer. There are many promises and declarations throughout the Bible that we don’t even have to wait for new ones.

  • Thirdly, there’s opening our mouths and declaring what we’ve been promised – the same way there is obedience in doing:

So I prophesied as I had been commanded…”

It’s no good to just keep silent: how many of you have seen the studies with water or plants and the experiments with the power of words? What are you saying in your life?

  • Then, we start to see results, but sometimes it’s not a full result, and there’s still more to be done – we can’t stop half way through.

“… and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them, but there was no breath in them.”

So, I had this promise from God, and I started declaring it as I believed I was supposed to, and God raised an army from a valley of dried bones, but there’s no life in it… Maybe the jobs not done yet!

  • So, Ezekiel looks back to God, and God gives him new instructions:

Then He said to me, “Prophesy…”

Do it again, but differently this time!

We live in a society where we are used to quick results, where satisfaction is immediate – where the internet should be at least 6 GB otherwise we have to wait more than 1 second for the browser to open and that’s just too long!  But many times, in life, finding your passion or your vision – re-finding your passion when you’ve lost your way, when you’re burnt out and lackluster, takes much longer than just a moment!  Often, there are many steps in the process.

  • And remember to breathe!

“Prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

Most of you know, that the Hebrew word “rauch” refers to the “breath”, but also refers to “wind” and is another word for “spirit”.  This one word has all these beautiful meanings that are all one and the same:  It was the ruach of God that hovered over the waters at creation. It was the ruach of God that came into Adam and gave that clay life. It was the ruachof God that blew like a mighty wind at Pentecost. And it’s the ruach of God that Ezekiel asks to come and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.

When you breathe, remember you are breathing in the breath of God, his life-giving breath.  The breeze that comes through these church windows: that’s the Spirit of God reaching out to touch you. That as you take a breath and you see wind, or you sense the Spirit within you, it’s all the same thing. How different our lives might be if we were conscious of breathing God in and out when we were outside.

For existence to become life, we need the breath of life – the Spirit to fill us.  It’s not enough for us to have bones, or to build a skeleton from those bones.  It’s not enough to cover those bones with sinew and muscles and skin!  We need the breath of God that animates us, that causes us to truly live, and not just to be connected bones.

If we are not a Spirit-filled church, it’s not enough to have a clear vision, purpose and passion.  We can have a structured leadership and a great organization, we can have ministries and teams that are all pulling together and working perfectly – but without the breath of God, we still won’t be able to get anything done.




I want to leave you with this final thought regarding the breath of life (it’s from a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor):

If you have studied earth science, then you know that our gorgeous blue-green planet is wrapped in a protective veil that we call the atmosphere, which separates the air we breathe from the cold vacuum of outer space. Beneath this veil is all the air that ever was. No cosmic planet-cleaning company comes along every hundred years or so to suck out all the old air and pump in some new. The same ancient air just keeps recirculating. Which means that every time any of us breathes, we breathe stardust left over from the creation of the earth. We breathe brontosaurus breath and pterodactyl breath. We breathe air that has circulated through the rain forests of Kenya, and air that has turned yellow with sulphur over Mexico City. We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo, not to mention Hitler [or Stalin or Mao]. Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last. We take it in, we use it to live, and when we breathe out it carries some of us with it into the next person or tree or blue-tailed skink who uses it to live.”