Not to be served, but to serve

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This is a sermon I preached on 20th March 2016 – Palm Sunday.

In the 1980s TV show, The A-Team… are words which I doubt many sermons have ever started with. However, for those of you who don’t know the show, it centres around four former US commandos who were sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. They escaped and lived on the run as soldiers of fortune (yes, I am using quotes from the opening credits here). They would be hired by people living in towns or villages who were being victimised or oppressed by groups of bad guys. The bad guys would, eventually, capture the A-Team and lock them in some sort of warehouse whilst they carried out the final part of their evil plan. However, the A-Team always seemed to be locked up with enough equipment to create a high powered military vehicle. At the last possible moment they would burst through the doors of the warehouse in a tank created out of a Hillman Imp, some cans of hairspray and a hoard of guns which were also, conveniently, in the warehouse as well. A fight would ensue where, despite hundreds of rounds of ammo being fired, nobody would be shot, and the A-Team would win the day and rescue the little guys from their oppressors.
It sounds, well, not great, but 10 year old me loved this show. Especially that moment where they would burst onto the scene just in time to save the day. The ideas of these guys coming out of nowhere to rescue the oppressed people of the town with their military expertise was amazing in my eyes.
It’s pretty much what the people of Israel were expecting on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Here was a people living under Roman oppression, looking to scriptural prophecy which spoke of a saviour who would rescue them, the Messiah. Then, here is this man who is fulfilling these prophecies left right and centre, riding into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey, just as Zecharaiah had spoken about,
“See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The people of Jerusalem knew their king had come and treated him as such. Here was the man who would rescue them from Roman occupation. The A-Team had arrived to save them, just in the nick of time.
As Kurt Vonnegut said,
“Trust a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.”
I’ll be honest, I would have felt the same as those people spreading their coats and waving palm branches. This is the man who will lead us to a great victory – there have been many false dawns, but this is the time we throw out those who rule us and take back our land for ourselves.
But hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? We can look at this event now and know what it was really all about when we also look at the week which followed; the most momentous week in human history.
You see, this is a triumphant entry, but not of a military leader or earthly king, but of the servant king – a leader whose action are those of obedience to God and service to his people. He knows that he is riding into Jerusalem to die a most painful, humiliating death and he faces this with complete trust in his Father and with complete love for all of humanity.
What Jesus is showing here is how to approach servanthood, he is pointing the way, not to great power or status, but to putting your own will to one side in order to serve the interests of others. The author of the book “Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make”, Hans Finzel, wrote that,
“A leader takes people where they would never go on their own.”
And that is exactly what Jesus is doing here. He is showing us that serving others, laying aside our own ambitions, hopes and plans and following his example, is where true victory and triumph and glory comes from. And he is inviting us to follow him in doing this, knowing that we would never go there on our own.
Paul, when writing to the Philippians, summed up everything Christ did on that day, and in the week that followed, in the wonderful passage we heard earlier. He explains that Jesus,
“being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death –
        even death on a cross!”
We aren’t just talking about a man humbling himself, but God himself, as a man, becoming a servant and being obedient to his death on a cross. And if God himself is willing to do this for us, who are we to put ourselves first ahead of the needs of others? If the one who created everything and gave us all life does this, puts us before him, then we (who are nothing compared to him) have to do the same. Paul tells us the same at the start of this passage,
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”
The same mindset as Christ Jesus! We need to do this consciously, to make ourselves do it, to ask God for his help and strength in doing it and to make ourselves keep going even when it appears hopeless. Jesus himself was preparing himself to do all those things as he entered Jerusalem, we need to prepare ourselves in the same way.
And I’m not just talking about the big things, of missions to dangerous places, charities for the homeless, foodbanks for the hungry or all of those people who dedicate all of their time and effort to the care of others. These things are amazing and God blesses all of this work, knowing that it reflects his love for us.
I’m also talking about loving the difficult to love person in our workplace, family or, even, church.
I’m talking about being an ear for the person who just needs to talk.
I’m talking about welcoming the stranger in our midst, whoever they are and wherever they have come from.
I’m talking about befriending the lonely.
I’m talking about recognising the need that we all keep hidden and of doing something about that when we see it.
I’m talking about those small acts of kindness and love that can truly make a difference to someone’s day, or week, or life.
We are called to follow Jesus in the big and the small, to forget our own needs and to look outwards and to let our hearts be broken by the needs all around us, and for that heartbreak to spur us into action, whatever that action may be.
Paul wrote that, by lowering himself to the level of servant, Jesus was “exalted to the highest place”. He is calling us to that same glory today by following his example, not to be served, but to serve.
I want to finish with something I found online, which the author (who is unnamed) calls “A Servant’s Pledge”. I want to take these words as a prayer as we face the rest of the day, this Holy Week, and our lives to come.
Let us pray,
Heavenly and gracious Lord
May I become, at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those without shelter
And a servant to all in need
In the words, deeds and name of our saviour, Jesus Christ
Amen

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