I was struck during the Palm Sunday readings this year at how the crowds in Jerusalem greeted Jesus with ecstatic praise on that day, and yet cried 'Crucify' only 5 day later. What a turnaround, in such a short space of time.
My mind went back 25 years to when I was working with heroin addicts in Hong Kong. I was helping in a Christian ministry founded by a remarkable lady called Jackie Pullinger, who arrived in Hong Kong armed with nothing more than a sense of God's calling.
Several years later she had a thriving ministry among Hong Kong's numerous drug addicts and Triad members, who came to her because they had heard that there was a God called 'Jesus' who helped heroin addicts.
The part of the ministry where I lived and worked was a First Stage House, where the addicts came to live, straight from the streets - to come off heroin, and begin their new life in Christ.
Every evening, we would spend a good hour in prayer and worship, and I was struck, right from the beginning by the exuberance and intensity with which they worshipped. Their hands raised, they would sing at the top of their voices, and would pray enthusiastic prayers of thanksgiving to Jesus for saving them. The atmosphere it created was often so intense that it felt just like Palm Sunday - that if they were silent, the very stones would sing!
But life wasn't like that all the time. Like drug addicts the world over, they were skilled manipulators, determined to get their own way - often challenging, occasionally intimidating or threatening, and almost always lazy when it came to doing any meaningful work!
After a while, I began to be less enthralled by their worship and praise in the evening. Other thoughts started to creep into my mind like "How can you be so wrapped up in praise after the way you behaved earlier" or "You can't fool God - I know what you were like this afternoon!"
After one particularly challenging day, I began to tell God not to be fooled, because I had seen what they were really like. I guess this was the last straw for God, so he spoke to me.
"You see the real them when they worship me," He said. "This is who they really are - not what you see during the day!"
I was more than a little taken aback. How could this be them being real? What about the rest of the time?
Then it occurred to me. God, of course, was right. When they came to him, called out to him, put their faith in him, God had done exactly what he promised. God had given them a new life, they had been 'born again' - born of the Spirit. Their true identity was now in Christ, not in the old habits and old ways that were passing away. I had got things completely upside-down.
And we fall into the same trap too. One minute we can be praising God, and the next, doing or thinking something far less godly. When are we being real? Is the real me the one who responds to God in praise and thanksgiving? Or is the real me the one who falls into sin again and again.
Sometimes we get too hung up on our failings, thinking that they show what we are really like, but in fact the reverse is true. The real me is not the one who falls into sin again, but the one who reaches out to God - not because I have done something special, but because of what God has done in me.
I don't know if the people who sang 'Hosanna!' on Palm Sunday, were the same crowd who shouted 'Crucify' on Good Friday, but I do know this. Even if it was, the betrayal of Good Friday could not undo the reality of Palm Sunday, and the resurrection proves it. In God's kingdom, life is victorious over death, and forgiveness triumphs over sin.
So the next time we feel burdened by the ways in which we have let God down, or we feel that we are hypocrites in church, remember this. The real you is the one who comes to God in praise and thanksgiving. The real you comes out when you open your heart to God in spite of the ways you have let God down. God wants to see the real you more and more - and the old you will slip away.
|Praise and Worship in the Walled City, Hong Kong|