In 166 BC Judah Maccabee led an army of Jewish dissidents to victory over the occupying Greek army who had invaded the Holy Land. He did this by waging an affective guerrilla war. The term Maccabees, as used to describe the Jewish army, is taken from the Hebrew word for “hammer”. Judah Maccabee was “The Hammer of the Greeks”. After victory, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem in triumph in 164 BC and ritually cleansed the Temple, reestablishing traditional Jewish worship there. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple. However Jewish independence did not last long for within a few decades the Romans arrived and established Israel as a protectorate of the Roman Empire, which they proceeded to rule with a rod of iron. It was into this world Jesus came as Messiah.
The Jews that had swarmed into Jerusalem for Passover sometime early in the third decade of the 1st Century were looking for a new Judah Maccabee to rescue them from the Romans. They wanted history to repeat itself. Jesus was the latest in a long line of hopefuls in the estimation of the crowd as they welcomed him with palms and hosannas. Their forbears had welcomed the Maccabean army by waving palms and psalm singing. The crowd dropped a large hint to Jesus as to their expectations – a hint He must have got but one He refused to rise to. He was here to do His Father’s will, not to bow to the whim of an emotionally volatile crowd who had an agenda of their own based on self-interest.
Straight after His arrival in the city Jesus dropped a couple of rather large hints of His own. The first hint involved the symbolism of the donkey He chose as His mode of transport. In some Eastern traditions a donkey was seen as an animal of peace, whereas a horse was seen as an animal of war. It followed that when a king came to a city riding on a horse, he was bent on war but if he rode on a donkey then he wanted to point out that he was coming in peace. The second, less than subtle, hint involved Him going into the temple and throwing out the money changers and those who were using this holy place for their own commercial ends. Jesus’ version of cleansing the temple. “My Father’s House is to be a house of prayer; you have made it a den of Robbers”. It would appear that He was more interested in cleaning up His own people’s act rather than getting rid of the hated Romans. No doubt people in the crowd were scratching their heads and wondering what on earth He was about. Expectations can be easily railroaded when someone will not dance to the tune the band plays.
Perhaps as a congregation we would do well to remember the significance of these events which happened during the first Holy Week. Starting today our community faces a time of change and no doubt expectations will abound. Let me quote to you the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German Martyr, who life and death were celebrated yesterday: “The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realised by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, his own law, and judges the brethren and himself accordingly. He acts as if he is the creator of community, as if it is his dream which holds the community together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So, he becomes first an accuser of his brethren, then God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.” Jesus came to Jerusalem with a vision but it was not His own bright idea – it was God’s vision: God’s idea of a new future. It was a future that actually included the Romans, for many of them would be drawn into a community of love and mutual respect as part of the infant church rather than being annihilated by a community driven by self-interest, hate and violence.
When a community which wants to call itself “church” faces uncertainty it needs to make sure that it does so according to the will of God and not according to some or a few of its member’s presuppositions about how things ought to be. Often people used to talk to me in my role as a vicar in terms of “your church”; I baulk at this. It is not my church, it is Christ’s church, it is our church as a community together, with Christ at its head. The most important question we all need to ask is what sort of body does Christ want it to be? After we have acknowledged this, we must ask ourselves how can we ensure that we are following Christ’s demands and desires for us? How can we be in tune with God’s will and able to see where He might be leading us? Allow me to quote Bonhoeffer again – “The renewal of the church will come from a new type of monasticism, which had only in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time men and women banded together to do this.”
If this community is to be truly church this place, it must principally be a house of prayer. It may fulfil other functions which are good, charitable, creative and so on but everything must be approached prayerfully. We are to seek to know and do the will of God not inflict our ideas on Him and expect Him, everybody else and ourselves to come up trumps. Submission to the will of Christ begins when we seriously seek to live according to His teaching and as a response to acknowledging Him as our Lord and Saviour, the rest will follow.