Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday
John 12:12-19
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:1-27:66

For the Lord Jehovah will help me; therefore have I not been confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

Jesus had accomplished an incredible amount of work in the three years He did ministry. The four Gospels are filled with so many stories of His love, His teaching, His mercy, His healing, His correction and His grace. Last week we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus who was dead for four days, one of the many things He did that were impossible. He’d certainly had an impact on the world; many people were following Him because they saw how He had power and authority. His words rang true. His miracles were miraculous. His mercy was great.

It is no wonder that He was greeted at the gates of Jerusalem with shouts of Alleluia and the waving of palm branches. The people had heard what He could do; the people saw in Him the hope for their future. They were ready to receive their King!

The city was filled with many extra people who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. They were there offering their lambs for sacrifice, receiving their forgiveness for another year. They were there to join in the celebration of the Seder dinner when all the Jews remembered the Exodus and thanked God for His promises. They looked forward to the day that the Messiah would finally come and set them free to live once again as a sovereign nation under God’s care.

It is no wonder that people looked to Jesus with hopeful expectation. After all, He was fulfilling the prophecies found in the scriptures in so many incredible ways. Who else can feed five thousand with just a few loaves and fish? Who else could set a man free from a legion of demons? Who else could make the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear? Who else could raise a dead man?

Not everyone appreciated Jesus. There were those who refused to believe. He had debated with them and won. He had refuted their teaching. He had warned people to beware, because the religious leaders put forth doctrine that was self-righteous, and even worse, it was entirely self-beneficial. They did not care about God or His Word; instead they interpreted it to suit their power and position. Jesus was a threat that had to be stopped.

Unfortunately for them, He was a threat that was impossible to stop. How could they turn the people away from Him? How could they convince the crowds that were in Jerusalem that He was not what they needed?

It is easy for us to see what was happening because we have the reports from after the fact. On this Sunday of Holy Week, this Palm Sunday, Jesus entered into Jerusalem, set apart by the crowds by their praise and adulation. While the perfect lambs were being chosen for the celebration of the Passover later this week, the crowds were cheering the Passover Lamb that would be sacrificed for the sake of the whole world. This Lamb would not bleed for a yearly reprieve, but would be the final sacrifice. His death would bring forgiveness to all who believe; His death would set us free to be God’s holy people.

It was probably an amazing moment, with crowds lining the streets waving palms and shouting with joy. I can just see the pride in the disciples as they stood tall next to their master. Jesus was probably gracious as He rode on the donkey, receiving the praise, but with reserve. He was probably a little tired: it had been a long three years. He was probably a little sad, knowing that the people were shouting for all the wrong reasons. He was determined, and every moment of this Holy Week was in His hands. He picked the donkey. He timed the moments. As Max Lucado said, “He Chose the Nails.” He was finishing what was started at the manger, according to the will and purpose of His Father.

It is sometimes hard to understand how we can go from this jubilant celebration on Sunday to His arrest on Thursday and His death on Friday. How can anyone lose so much support in a matter of days? Even His closest followers ran away in the end. Judas betrayed Him and Peter denied Him. Where were the rest? They were hiding, afraid. They were confused and upset. They didn’t know what to do without Him. They believed in Him on Sunday, but their faith wavered in the end. Wouldn’t yours? We can’t expect our ministry to continue if our leader is arrested, tried and then crucified.

But it was all according to plan. This is what Jesus was born to do. He was born to die. We know that we will die in the end, but we can’t imagine how our death will ever serve a purpose. Though some deaths do have an impact on the world, like those of the martyrs, even their deaths are not the intent of God. See, God didn’t want any of us to die. When we were created, He intended that we would live with Him in paradise for eternity. Sadly, Adam and Eve ate from the wrong tree; they fell for the temptation to be like God and the learned what it means to mortal. We suffer the same limitations because we were born with the sinful desire to be like God.

The people sought forgiveness for this sinful nature by sacrificing animals in the Temple, and the sacrifices were good to a point. But the sacrifices were required every year, and no matter how many lambs or bulls or goats were killed, another needed to be sacrificed. The blood of lambs and bulls and goats would never accomplish the work of forgiveness; they would never bridge the gap between God and His people. Only the truly perfect sacrifice of God’s own Son could accomplish the forgiveness necessary to restore us to a right relationship with God.

In the context of the Passover Feast, Jesus is the perfect Lamb. During the Exodus story, the people were told to sacrifice a lamb, to roast it and to eat it in a certain way. The blood of the lamb was to be painted on the lintel of the house. That night, when the angel of death went over Egypt to take the firstborn, those with the painted lintels would be saved. This was the last straw; it was the final nail that made Pharaoh set the slaves free. Those who were in Jerusalem would join together in feasts, celebrating their salvation so long ago. What they did not realize is that the blood of Jesus would be painted on the hearts of those who believe so that death would once again pass over them. Jesus’ death on the cross would defeat death forever. Our flesh will fail and our bodies will die, but through faith in the blood of Jesus we will live forever.

We can celebrate as Jesus enters Jerusalem this day, but we know that it is a short lived party. Those same people will quickly turn from them, hearing the words of Jesus’ enemies and falling for the lies. We don’t understand how they could turn so easily, but it doesn’t matter. This was all in the plan. No matter how the people reacted to Him, Jesus had to die. The religious leaders thought they won. The followers of Jesus thought they lost. In the end, however, Jesus accomplished the work He was born to do, and He did it according to God’s good and perfect will.

The crowd yelled, “Hosanna” to the son of David they saw riding on the donkey. This was not a cry of victory, but it was a cry for help. The word “Hosanna” means “Save” or “Have mercy.” The people were looking to Jesus to be their savior. What we know from hindsight is that they were thinking in terms of the wrong Kingdom. They wanted Jesus to restore Israel, but Jesus was there to bring the Kingdom of Heaven. He came as a servant of God, willingly putting Himself in the most vulnerable position. He would be whipped and beaten, humiliated and killed. Most of us wouldn’t take it. We would fight back. We would rely on our own strength. We would fight with words and with weapons to stay on top.

Jesus never turned from God. Every word was God’s; every action was God’s. In the words of Isaiah, “The Lord Jehovah hath given me the tongue of them that are taught, that I may know how to sustain with words him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as they that are taught.” God gave Jesus the tongue of one who teaches and the ears of one who learns. And then Jesus walked into Jerusalem and accepted the wrath that He never deserved. He took our punishment so that we might be reconciled to God and be like Him.

The words from Isaiah are also a foretelling of the final moments of Jesus’ life. He was whipped and slapped. He was humiliated and shamed by the men in charge and the soldiers under their rule. And yet, Jesus did not feel shame. He kept His eyes on God knowing that the kingdom of this world would not ultimately win. He stood firm in His purpose even though it seemed like His ministry was a failure. These images make it seem like Jesus debased Himself allowing the world to beat and humiliate Him. Here’s the reality: He humbled Himself before God, fulfilling the prophecies that were made about Him throughout the ages by the forefathers, judges, kings and prophets. He did not turn from God, but faced the suffering knowing that it was God’s will. He trusted that God would be with him. Though the beating, disrespect, contempt, hatred and disgrace were humiliating, He knew no shame because God was near. His enemies were nothing because their condemnation was meaningless against God’s mercy.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is thought to have been based on an early Christian hymn describing Jesus’ kenosis, which is from the Greek word meaning “emptiness.” This hymn tells how Jesus emptied Himself to become one of us, to take on our sin and face once and for all the wrath of God on the cross. God honored His humble obedience by exalting Him above all else.

Jesus did not humble Himself so that He would be exalted. He humbled Himself because it was in His nature to be a servant—it was the life to which God had called Him to live and die. He became one with God: He emptied Himself and took on God’s will as His own. He calls us to do the same. We do not empty ourselves so that we might be exalted, but because in Christ we have taken upon ourselves His nature. That nature is one that saves and rescues even when it puts our own life in jeopardy. We are not called to ride on the war horse or even the donkey, but to go with Him on a journey with the weak and vulnerable.

Paul writes, “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.” Where did God exalt Jesus? Was it on that day when palm branches were spread before Him as He rode into town on a donkey? Was it on that day when He was found missing in the tomb?

No, God highly exalted Him at the moment when He was most humiliated, when He was suffering a cruel and unwarranted death. It was on that cross that Jesus was glorified because it was there that He fulfilled God’s word and promise for the salvation of you and I. It is on the cross where we find forgiveness and through the cross we are made free. It is there where Christ is glorified. This is made especially clear in Matthew 27:54, “Now the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.” It was not the raising that convinced the centurion that Jesus was the Son of God; it was His death that proved that He was the Messiah.

I have not focused very long on the lengthy Gospel reading for today, but we are reminded that it is in the passion we truly see Christ’s glory. I would encourage you to read Matthew 26 and 27 this week and ponder the incredible thing Jesus did for us. We can’t die for anyone’s sake, but after all He suffered for us, we can certainly live for His.

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