Sunday, April 13, 2003

Passion/Palm Sunday
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47 (Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]) 

But I trusted in thee, O Jehovah: I said, Thou art my God.  My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me.

When we lived in California, the pastor at our church did a most wonderful thing during Holy Week. We met daily to hear about the experiences of Jesus as He walked toward the cross. It was almost as if we were walking in His footprints, sharing in his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his suffering as He was rejected the crowds. It was great to be able to ponder the events of each day, to see how Jesus related to the crowds even as they turned from Him. Since most members are unable to attend church so much during a week, we generally listen to the entire passion story on the Sunday before Easter. This is Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday.

Though the readings for this week in most churches will include the entire 14th and 15th chapters of Mark, I am going to focus entirely on the shorter reading, to look at Jesus as the suffering servant who came to die for the sake of His people. We see this foretold in Isaiah and the Psalm and then Paul reminds of the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus in the passage from the letter to the Philippians. Here we see the culmination of all Jesus said and did, the final purpose of His life on earth being completed. We see that He did not come to save the Jews from the Romans, but rather to save all people from sin and death. It is a hard lesson to hear, because even those who believe in Jesus still have trouble with the idea that God suffered for our sake. What sort of God is it that we worship? The world looks at our faith as foolishness - this God who did not save His Son surely must be weak! It is ridiculous to see suffering as the only way for the people to be saved.

Yet, as we look back into the Old Testament lessons, we see that this is exactly how God promised it would be. The Messiah would not lead the people into a spectacular victory against their oppressors. The Messiah would accept the humiliation they cast His way. "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting." Jesus knew that God was near and that His accusers really have no charge against Him. They would not last; they would be defeated by the fulfillment of the promise.

It was not easy for Jesus to do this. He was tempted as all men; Satan tried to convince Him to take another road, to save the people in another way. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus cried out to have the cup taken. But He knew there was no other way. His work must be completed as it was planned. Death was the only way to bring life to the world.

The Psalmist understood this tug of war between desire and submission. "Have mercy upon me, O Jehovah, for I am in distress: Mine eye wasteth away with grief, yea, my soul and my body." Though he complained of his anguish and loneliness, he trusted in God. "But I trusted in thee, O Jehovah: I said, Thou art my God.  My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me.  Make thy face to shine upon thy servant: Save me in thy lovingkindness." Everything Jesus went through was nothing compared to the promise of God's unfailing love for His people.

The experiences of Jesus parallel the things that the Psalmist wrote. "For I have heard the defaming of many, Terror on every side: While they took counsel together against me, they devised to take away my life." After Jesus was arrested He was taken before Pilate. The chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate wondered why Jesus would not answer the accusation, but Jesus continued to remain silent. When Pilate asked the people which prisoner he should release, they shouted "Barabbas" who was a murderer. He was the kind of messiah they were looking for; after all he was fighting for their freedom unlike this foolish man who refused to even defend Himself. When asked about Jesus, the crowd cried, "Crucify Him!"

"Because of all mine adversaries I am become a reproach, Yea, unto my neighbors exceedingly, And a fear to mine acquaintance: They that did see me without fled from me." When Jesus was condemned, the soldiers continued the humiliation. They mocked Him, dressed Him as a king and ridiculed Him. They beat and spit on Him. Then they led Him to His death. By this time most of His followers had left Him. Peter had even denied knowing Him. All that was left were a few women and John. The soldiers tried to give Him poison to make death come more quickly, but He refused. They cast lots for His clothes. The people gawking at the scene cast more insults. The chief priests and teachers of the law also mocked Him, saying, "HHe saved others; himself he cannot save." Satan even used this last moment of life to try one last temptation through the Jews. "Let the Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him reproached him." At this last moment of life, they were still testing Him. Even the others who were being crucified hurled insults at Him.

Mark shows that at the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land for three hours. Then Jesus cried out, "'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'  The people misunderstood what He was saying. He was reaching into God's Word for comfort and peace in this most horrible of moments. They thought He was calling for Elijah. They stepped back and watched, waiting for some miraculous end to this event. After all Jesus did in His ministry, they thought there would be some wondrous sign. Rather than a spectacular escape, Jesus breathed His last.

At that instant, the curtain in the temple was ripped in half from top to bottom. This was no minor moment in this story. The curtain was thick - impossible for a man to rip in half. It signified the moment when God would no longer live in the Holy of Holies, a small room in the temple separated from man. He had lived among them in Jesus Christ and He would live among them as the Holy Spirit in the days to come. A centurion witnessed the death of Jesus and said, "Truly this man was the Son of God."

For those closest to Jesus, this was the darkest day of their life. They had so much hope and faith, but everything they expected had come to a bitter end. They did not know the glory that would come. They could not look at the crucifixion with hindsight as we do today, or even how Paul looked at it just a few years later. To them, everything was over. Thankfully we do not have to see the death of Christ before the resurrection, we can see it with the hope and faith that comes with understanding. We can see Jesus as Paul wrote about Him, "Who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross."

Paul tells us, "Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus."  We are to have the same humility in our own lives, taking on the nature of a servant. We cannot follow Jesus to the cross, but we can humble ourselves and become obedient to God's Will for each of us. We can take the humiliation cast at each of us because of our faith; accept the taunting of those who refuse to believe. Though it is unlikely in our day, we can willingly die for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We can do all these things because our Lord Jesus did it first for our sake. Now we can see Him exalted, as was promised in Isaiah, the Psalms and Paul's letter to the Philippians. "Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name; that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

In the midst of our remembrance of this event that changed the world, I think we sometimes forget how incredible it was for Jesus to do what He did. We know Him to be the Lord, the Son of the Living God and it is easy to see Him doing what is necessary for the salvation of His people. However, we forget how humiliated He was at the hands of the people He loved. We forget how He faced the same temptations we face and yet He never failed to trust His Father and His promises. We know that He was the suffering Servant, and even remember the things He suffered, but we forget how important this aspect of Jesus' submission is for our salvation. We look toward the glory of God in the Resurrection and look forward to that day when every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Yet, Christ gave all that up to become a servant and die for us. He fulfilled the greatest promise by reconciling us to God once and for all on the cross.

"But I trusted in thee, O Jehovah: I said, Thou art my God.  My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me."  No matter what we face in our lives of faith, I pray that each of us might remember these words and be as Christ - despite our fear and doubt and the temptation of taking another path, may we always trust in God and know His deliverance is assured. Thanks be to God. 

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