Sunday, April 14, 2019

Palm/Passion Sunday
Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

Behold, the Lord Yahweh will help me! Who is he who will condemn me?

The life and ministry of our Lord Jesus was filled with incredible signs, wonders and teachings. From the first miracle at Canaan when he changed water into wine, to the raising of Lazarus from the dead and everything in between, Jesus showed Himself to be different from anyone the world had ever seen. People were amazed at the Word He taught in the temple and on the hillsides because it became alive before them. He helped people understand that there was a better way of living and that there was a deeper meaning to the scriptures.

Jesus was controversial. Whenever he breezed through a town or village, many would follow and listen. However, there were those who did not believe Jesus came from God. His own village rejected Him. Many claimed He was of Satan. Some tried to stone Him for the things He said and did. The teachers in the temple and other religious leaders began to fear his power over the people.

The people saw Jesus as the answer to their prayers. They sought a Messiah, someone who would set them free from the oppression of the Roman invaders of their land. They wanted to be a free nation again and live as they did during the Golden Age of Solomon. As Jesus gained in fame and following, His disciples pleaded with Him to go to Jerusalem and claim His place. They knew that there were enough people to support Him, and that they would fight to give Him the throne they felt He had come to fill. However, Jesus did not go to Jerusalem until it was the right time.

As the Passover of His third year of ministry approached, Jesus knew the time had come for Him to fulfill the promise of His Father. It was time to go to Jerusalem. He was in control of every moment, of every detail of what was to come. A donkey was waiting, to carry Him into Jerusalem; it was a sign of His kingship. Yet, this gathering of praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy would not last very long. It seems impossible that the crowds who sang “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday would be screaming “Crucify Him” just a few days later. But this is how it was meant to be. We can read about the three years of ministry and be amazed at His wonders, impressed by His teaching and excited about His ministry to the poor and outcast. Yet, Jesus’ life was about much more than feeding the poor and healing the sick. The Passion was all part of God’s plan, a plan we do not fully understand, but one that brought salvation to the world.

Isaiah writes, “The Lord Yahweh has given me the tongue of those who are taught.” there is a big difference between the tongue of the teacher and the tongue of one who is taught. A teacher can learn as much from a student, but there is more to this description. The tongue in this text is that of one like a prophet; the words are not his own, but have been taught to him by God. In other words, the teacher himself is a learner, one who listens to God and then shares what has been given. The teacher has such a relationship with God that he is in communication on a daily basis; his teaching comes directly from the heart of God.

What is it that the teacher is teaching? “...that I may know how to sustain with words him who is weary.” The words of the teacher, the words from God’s heart, are words that will give strength to the weak and hope to the hopeless. The Word gives peace to those in turmoil. The teacher himself is one who is in turmoil: persecuted, humiliated, beaten, insulted and spit upon. Yet the teacher does not fall from grace. Instead, he has the assurance, through his daily communication with God, that he is not alone. Though the world seeks to accuse and convict the teacher, God will ensure his vindication.

Isaiah wrote them, but we see Jesus in these words. Jesus was indeed the teacher whose relationship with God was so close that His words were God’s Word. He was like one who was taught, even while being the Teacher. His word provided comfort to those who were weary; His message was grace to the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden, the oppressed and those lost in this world. He gave forgiveness for the soul and food for the body. He gave hope to the hopeless and faith to those who heard His words. Though we might expect such a teacher to be regarded with honor, Jesus was rejected, humiliated and beaten. He is the subject of this Servant Song, the One whom God helps. We see this in the Passion story; even as Jesus suffers, God is never far from Him.

The sheer length of today’s Gospel lesson makes it difficult for most of us to pay attention. Do we really listen to the story? After all, we hear it every year. Yet, we have heard it so many times that we stop listening. There is nothing new about the Holy Week events; we can recite what Jesus did as if his actions are part of our own lives. But this is a story we cannot hear enough. It is a good idea for each of us to read every word even though we are extremely familiar with this story. I suggest that you try to read it in an unfamiliar translation because when you do so, you’ll hear it with new ears. You may even hear something you have never heard before. It is also valuable to read it out loud, either to yourself or with a gathering of friends. This simple change can bring the text to life in a whole new way. There is something for us each time we truly listen as God’s word is read: a word of comfort, a word of hope, a word of peace. Maybe this time you will find a word of warning or admonition. When we stop listening because we assume that we know the story well enough we miss what God has to say to us today.

We could spend weeks studying this text, line by line trying to understand what was happening and what God would have us learn. Yet, there are times when we should just let the Word of God speak for itself, to listen to the story as it was given to us. There are so many subtleties that could be brought out, details that could be debated. There are so many verses that have both historical relevance as well as spiritual meaning. There are hundreds of questions to be asked, some of the answers are widely accepted and others are contested. Yet we find common ground in the belief that Jesus did for humankind what no other human being will ever be able to do: He died so that we might be reconciled to God. Whatever path His Passion took, our faith rests on that moment when Jesus hung on the cross, because without His death we would never know life as God intended.

We are nearing the end of our Lenten journey. How did it go? Were you able to continue your spiritual disciplines? Did you fast as you wanted? I confess that I did not do very well this year. I’ve managed to keep up fairly well with my reading, making up missed days quickly. I haven’t done as well in my studio, my art practice failed quickly. I learned some things, but I didn’t end up with the final product I had visualized in my head at the beginning. I didn’t really commit to any particular fasting; between visitors and illness, I probably would have failed it anyway. To be honest, my heart was not in it. We do it every year. We go through the motions of fasting, or prayer, of self examination, but do we really do all those things? After all, we’ve done it before; it is like an old habit. So, I wonder how many of us were really changed by our six weeks. Were we really changed by that daily devotional and bible reading?

It is never too late. Take time today to read this story. As a matter of fact, read and reread it several times before Good Friday. Make the reality of the Passion a part of your being. Don’t try to pick it apart to understand every detail. Simply listen to God’s story. Put yourself in the place of the characters - the crowds, the disciples, the Pharisees, Pilate. Experience it, not as a theologian trying to understand its meaning two thousand years later, but as a sinner who was there in Jerusalem during that unbelievable week. Feel the pain, the anger, the hatred, the guilt, and remember that Jesus experienced it all for you.

The most amazing aspect of the Passion story is how Jesus seems to be so out of control. After all, if Jesus is the Messiah, shouldn’t He have had the power and the authority to subdue any opposition to His plans? And when we think about our expectations, we do not think that anyone would plan to do anything so foolish as to get hung on a cross. The Passion and Easter story is the most difficult thing about Christianity to believe and to accept. Jesus had to die? How does that line up to the ideal of a loving and caring God? How does that help Jesus’ social ministry and seemingly political aspirations? How could this happen if Jesus was who He said He was? It doesn’t make sense.

Yet, even more amazing is how Jesus was in control of every moment. When it was time to ride into Jerusalem, Jesus knew where to send the disciples for a donkey. On Palm Sunday Jesus went victorious into Jerusalem on a donkey, greeted by crowds of people singing “Hosanna.” The Jewish leaders were already very nervous by the things Jesus said and the things Jesus did, and they were already conspiring against Him. Some of the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” because the crowds were singing praise to Him. Jesus answered, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” It seemed like all that was happening was beyond Jesus’ control.

If we followed Him day by day, we would see Him in prayer, teaching, casting the moneychangers out of the Temple and sharing those final moments with the people He loved. It didn’t take long for the crowds of Palm Sunday to turn into the mob of Good Friday. Jesus didn’t present Himself as the conquering hero they wanted. He didn’t call the troops to arms or confront the Roman leaders who were oppressing them. Instead He confronted the priests and religious practices, attacking the corner of their world they thought was right. They willingly supported Barabbas, a Jewish insurrectionist who was in Roman custody. Instead of choosing Jesus as their Messiah, they chose the man they thought would fulfill their expectations.

Those who believed in Jesus did not follow the crowd, but they did not help Jesus. Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied Jesus. The rest of the disciples went into hiding. The excitement of Palm Sunday quickly disappeared as their world began falling apart. Jesus was not what the crowds expected, so they turned to another. Jesus did not fight the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, so they were disappointed and confused. When He died, they didn’t know what to do. Where would they go? Who would they turn to? Jesus was everything. They didn’t believe what Jesus said about His passion and death and they were left uncertain about the future.

God does not allow us to wallow in the triumph of our expectations, because our expectations are all too often not His will for us in this world. The people in that crowd were worshipping a false Messiah. They were worshipping their idea of an earthly king not the Messiah Jesus came to be. We need to hear the whole story over and over again because this text helps us understand how much control Jesus had. He had the authority to preach and teach, to cast out the moneychangers and the merchants. He had the authority to lay down His own life. He even had the authority to forgive sins.

Paul writes, “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider 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 human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.” Jesus gave up the glory of heaven to live among His people. Though He had every right to the glory and honor due the Son of God, He humbled Himself to become like one of us and suffer for our sakes. He died on the cross to grant forgiveness.

His first words after being nailed to the cross were “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” He prayed their forgiveness even as they humiliated Him with their words and actions. They were not repentant. They did not seek His grace. He gave it to them, with as much authority as He had to do everything else we have seen Him do. The perfect Lamb of God without blemish or sin was the one dying for sin while the rest were filled with sin deserving death but acting as if they had the authority to take His life. They didn’t know what they were doing. They were blinded to the truth of Christ. They did not recognize Him because they saw only what they wanted to see.

There is a story about a holy man. He was sitting on the bank of a brook while meditating when he noticed a scorpion that was caught in a whirlpool in the brook. Every time the scorpion tried to climb on a rock, it slipped back into the water. The holy man took pity on the scorpion and tried to save it from certain death, but whenever the man reached out to the creature it struck at its hand. A friend passed by and told the man that his actions were futile because it is in the scorpion’s nature to strike. The man said, “Yet, but it is my nature to save and rescue. Why should I change my nature just because the scorpion doesn’t change his?”

Thank God that Jesus didn’t change His nature to fit our expectations.

Jesus did not let the world stop Him. After all, He left the glory of heaven to come to earth in flesh to reconcile us to God our Father. His nature is to love and save and He willingly suffered humiliation in life and death. We are called to do the same - not on a cross, but in our every day experiences so that others might know God’s love and mercy and grace. The day will come when all will bow to our Lord Jesus Christ, but will they bow in thanksgiving or fear? We are called to bring salvation to the world even when it strikes back so that all will bow by faith.

As we remind ourselves of what Christ was doing during Holy Week, we are called to consider our new life that comes from our immersion into His Passion. The texts show us how to follow the Jesus we do not expect or deserve, but receive freely by His grace. Isaiah’s servant song helps to remind us that Jesus was one with God, in mind and in purpose. The Psalm shows us the trust that Jesus had in God, as He put His life in God’s hands. The Epistle lesson shows us that despite our sinful human nature, we have been baptized into the life of Christ, putting ourselves into God’s hands. We are to be like Jesus, willingly obedient to God’s good and perfect will for our lives. It won’t be easy because the world will hate us just as they hated Jesus.

We live in the hope that just when we think our world is falling apart, God bursts through with new life. But that is a story for another day.

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