On your way home from Church today you are down on the New England Highway, and suddenly you become aware that all of the traffic that normally flows all day and night there has stopped. You wonder why. Then you see them coming, quite a large number of people, most of them walking, with one or two riding bicycles. They look as if they’ve been travelling for some time. As they come closer you can see that they are a group of latter-day protesters: eco-warriors, planet-savers, environmental protesters.
You have heard about them in the newspapers and on the television news, rumours about them have reached you from numerous sources and now they are on the same road as you, and they are getting nearer. You know all about Swampy and his mates. They dug underground tunnels to prevent the building of freeways; they built tree fortifications on the route of new roads that would be cutting across places of outstanding natural beauty; and protest tunnels to stop mining somewhere miles away.
Over the years they have criss-crossed across Australia trying to save us from our own destructive developments, and now they are on the New England Highway, heading for Newcastle to stop the coal trains, and the coal-seam gas trials; and the sound of them coming fills the air and brings you to a halt on the pavement. Once they were just an item on the news, but now they are in our neighbourhood, confronting our issues, bringing their message that if we want our world to survive, we have to change our lifestyles. We have to do away with certain things – our polluting technology – and we have to adopt different values and behaviours, showing more concern for our environment. They carry placards that encapsulate their message; they chant as they move down the Highway towards you.
So what do you make of them as they approach you? Do you cheer and clap and say “thank goodness at last somebody is willing to speak out,” and join with the protesters? Or are you more hostile, and of the view that these folk are homeless, nomadic, probably on benefits, and simply travelling from place to place stirring up trouble. Do you stand on the pavement and shout instead, “Get yourself a haircut,” or “get yourself a job and stop bothering decent hard-working people like us?” Or are you rather confused, caught up with the buzz of excitement that something big is about to happen, but not quite sure that you want it to happen here?
The scenario that I am painting before you is not quite the same as the context in which the dialogue in our Gospel reading at this Eucharist takes place, but it is not altogether different either. After all, this Church was not built to remember an eco-warrior, and Jesus and his followers were not heading to the City of Newcastle to deal with our environmental issues, but people in the crowds that that saw him and his followers as they journeyed towards Jerusalem must have shared some similar feelings to the ones that I have described.
Those of us who gathered here in Church on Monday evening to have what, for some of us, was a profound experience of hearing in one-sitting the Story of Jesus as it was told by Mark, were confronted by the fact that so much of his Gospel is caught up in giving an account of the final great journey of Jesus and his followers to confront the powers of the Temple and the Roman occupiers in Jerusalem. The whole story is heading in one direction: to Jerusalem and the final events that will be played out there.
Although we see Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when he was greeted by the crowds waving palms in expectation that they were finally seeing the messianic revolution that would overthrow the Romans and restore Jewish sovereignty, as the pinnacle of his journey – which we will remember together with our own palm branches in a few weekends time, we remember too, on this Second Weekend in Lent, that that journey did not simply begin on the outskirts of the city, it started much earlier as Jesus gathered together not only his close disciples, but also many other followers as they journeyed through Galilee on their way to the great final show down.
So what would it have been like to watch Jesus and his followers passing through our town, healing the sick, preaching a message that change was possible and drawing people into his movement to journey with him to Jerusalem?
I suspect that there would be those who were wanting to build a better world who would have been glad that here at last were some people who seemed to have a radical commitment to a very different kind of kingdom from the one that they were experiencing, and who would have been glad to join them on the road. There would have been a great many others who simply shrugged their shoulders and muttered about prophets of doom casting shadows over their comfortable lifestyles, and turned away indoors, carrying on with the business of their own lives. There would have been those, as well who, touched by the promise that something momentous was going on, would have followed out of curiosity just to see.
There are many Christians today who are not at all comfortable with the idea that Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem at the head of a popular demonstration. If we are honest, I suspect that many of us would be happier with the notion of something more akin to a sponsored walk, because the implications of a demonstration conjure up dissatisfaction, dissent, the threat of confrontation and the possibility of conflict.
Any of us who have been on a demonstration, or a march of protest will be able to especially imagine some of the excitement and passion, and also uncertainty and vulnerability of the slow journey of Jesus and his followers to Jerusalem, as the numbers and the momentum, and also the risk built along the way. Something incredible happens when a large number of people get together to agree that what is going on around them is wrong; when people get together in large numbers to agree that things have to change.
The region in which we live is not known for its robust protests, although there were members of our Parish community standing up to save our rail line in the last few days. When you live in a city like London, where I grew up, you simply get used to the fact that some roads in the Capital will be closed every day in order for people to vent their frustration about war or taxes, or government policy on a huge range of issues. A market seems to have developed for professional organisations to manage these events, it is becoming big business to promote demonstrations there. There is a marching culture in London which people are used to, and which is part of their democratic right. But demonstrations, whilst less common here, are not beyond our normal experience of life. The point is that sometimes we can fall into the temptation of so over-spiritualising Jesus’ life that we forget the political and social and economic consequences of what he did. Every week our Emergency Relief programme challenges the society and systems that we live in, in exactly the same way. It is a political and economic statement when we seek to put those who have been forgotten by others first, in the name of Jesus.
Jerusalem was a place of marching too, a place of uprising and potential insurrection, a city in which there were many messiahs leading many causes with many followers. Jesus was not on a spiritual pilgrimage, he and his followers were heading to Jerusalem to confront the powers there. Whilst the writers of the Gospel knew the end of the story before they started writing it down, it is important for us (who have also known the end of the story for as long as we have known the beginning of it) to remember that the people who journeyed with Jesus had no idea what was to happen next. We get a clear sense of that in the questions that are asked of him by those who are travelling with him, in our Gospel reading today.
If the New Testament in our Bibles had never been written, we would still know that Pontius Pilate was an unpleasant Governor of Judaea, an unpopular representative of the Roman occupiers of the time. The Jewish historian Josephus, for example, lists several things that upset and irritated the local Jewish population. Sometimes Pilate seemed to be deliberately trying to make them angry. Once he ordered his troops to enter Jerusalem with their military emblems depicting pagan symbols and gods. On other occasions he flouted Jewish laws and conventions. He took money from the Jewish Temple in order to build an aqueduct, and then brutally crushed the Jewish rebellion that followed. These incidents and others like them are recorded outside of the New Testament, and help us to understand what sort of ruler this Roman, Pontius Pilate was.
So it should be no surprise whatsoever that as they journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem, some of his followers are concerned about what Pilate might do to them when they arrive. In our Gospel reading they cite the example of when some Galileans (like them) went to Jerusalem to pray and offer sacrifice, and Pilate sent Roman troops into the Temple and killed them all, leaving their blood and the blood of the animals that they had sacrificed mingling in the Temple courtyard. An horrific event that would be akin to a government sending troops here on Easter Day and killing us all as we worshipped together. To put it another way, if we were planning to go as a Church community on a visit somewhere together, and we found out that the local leaders of that place were in the habit of torturing any Anglicans who went there, we would probably be quickly looking for an alternative destination.
That’s the question that is hanging in the air in the dialogue in our Gospel reading today, as Jesus and his disciples head for Jerusalem, without knowing what will happen next. Is this really something that Jesus is going to go through with? Is he really going to continue his journey to Jerusalem, regardless of the risks? In response to all of this Jesus tells another of his stories, parables, this time about a fig tree that has not had any fruit for three years. The owner wants it to be chopped down, but the gardener pleads for one more year for him to fertilise and tend to it. And so the tree is given one more chance to bear fruit or it will be destroyed. Just as it is with all of Jesus’ other parables, frustratingly we never find out what happens in the end… is there fruit or does the tree become furniture?
There are two ways of understanding the story, both of which lead to the same conclusion. On the one hand we could see Jesus himself as the vineyard owner, who has been calling people to bear the fruit of repentance for three years, but has received very little response. And this journey to Jerusalem, is going to be the last chance for people to heed his message. Or perhaps God is the vineyard owner who has been offering a new covenant relationship with his people that they have not heeded, and now Jesus as the gardener is giving them one more chance to respond. Either way the meaning is clear. Change is possible, through repentance and renewal. But the time available for that change to take place is limited. The time will run out. There will be a moment when it is too late. And it does not happen by chance: it requires a decision and an action.
Jesus and his disciples are heading to Jerusalem to give the people of that city one final opportunity to return to God. The invitation which Jesus will offer to them, is the same invitation that he offers to us. To be renewed this Lent on our journey with him, as part of his radical movement of loving and saving the world in order that we might share this way of living with others. Just like the people of Jerusalem, Jesus challenges us to respond, and there will be a time when it is too late.