Sunday, April 1, 2007

Palm/Passion Sunday
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

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.

The sheer length of today’s Gospel lesson – even if only the shorter choice is used – makes it difficult for most congregations to fit a sermon in along with the reading. After all, too many congregations are limited in the time allotted for worship. Multiple services and Sunday school leave little room for extra time spent on God’s Word. So, many congregations choose to simply read the Gospel – not in itself a bad idea. After all, God’s story does not necessarily need to be expounded upon. Sometimes it is good to just listen.

But do we listen? Do we really listen to the story? After all, we’ve heard it at least as many times as years we have been a Christian. We hear a different version of the story each year, so we haven’t heard Luke for three years. 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 they are part of our own life.

I suppose this is true of the journey we’ve been taking through Lent, also. 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 without chocolate or coffee. We were really changed by that daily devotional and bible reading? Or, as we draw closer to Easter Sunday, are we excited about being able to splurge on sweets or set aside that Lenten book?

So, even though we may not preach on Palm Sunday, sharing our thoughts about all the texts for this day, I think it is good for us to think beyond the story. As we remind ourselves of what Christ was doing, and what we are called to do by our immersion into His Passion. The other texts for this day are important, and should not be ignored. 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.

I think what is most amazing about the Passion story is how Jesus seems to be so out of control. After all, if Jesus is the Messiah, shouldn’t He have the power and the authority to subdue any opposition to His plans? And when we think about our expectations for our leaders, we do not think that they plan to do anything so foolish as to get hung from 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? 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.

This seems especially true as we read the Gospel lesson for this week. As each day passes, the signs of the end become clearer. Jesus was ready to die and He was unable – or unwilling – to do anything to stop it. He could have pronounced Himself king on Palm Sunday, but that was not His purpose. He came to die, and as Max Lucado says, “He chose the nails.”

I use the American Standard Version of the Bible in this writing for copyright reasons, which is often uncomfortable for many readers. The old language is foreign to our ears, but it usually does not matter much in the understanding of the text. In other words, no matter what version is used, the passage says the same thing. There are times, however, that there are differences in the way the interpretation is written, making it valuable to read many different versions to get a consensus on the meaning, especially if there is no knowledge of the original languages.

Today is one of those days – there is a subtlety in the text that is missed in some of the translations, and today the American Standard Version is a good one to use. In verse four, Isaiah writes, “The Lord Jehovah hath given me the tongue of them that are taught.” In many versions it says, “…the tongue of a teacher.” If we think in terms of a modern classroom, there is a big difference between the tongue of the teacher and the tongue of the learner. Though a teacher can learn as much from a student, we identify this character differently depending on how he is described.

In this case, the tongue is that of one like a prophet – the words not his own, but that which has been taught 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. As we read these words we see Jesus. 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.

Though a Psalm of David, our passage for today is a prophetic witness of our Lord’s own suffering. It must have been very discouraging in those final days, during His passion, to face the truth of His purpose. He had so much more He could accomplish, so many more people who needed to be healed and who needed to hear God’s word of mercy and grace. Yet, Jesus Christ trusted in His Father, in God. Throughout this narrative we can hear Jesus praying, “My times are in thy hand.”

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?”

Human nature is not much different than a scorpion’s – we quickly strike out at anyone who wants to help. This is especially true of the Gospel message. It doesn’t make sense, it is impractical, it is foolish to think that one man had to die for all of humanity. The message of the cross turns the world upside down, going against our expectations and desires. Those who do not believe in the Christian story or message think Jesus was nothing more than a man who got stung by the scorpion and died.

Yet, through our baptism and the faith we receive, we are called to live in Christ and be of His mind in all we do. We live in a world where there are a great many people whose nature is like the scorpion’s – quickly striking at anyone who wants to help. Even when we share the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, those with such a nature will reject it and us. We suffer persecution at their hands, just as the holy man risked being stung by the scorpion. Do we let it stop us? Jesus did not. 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.

So, even though we may not preach on these texts this Sunday, lets remember as we minister to those around us that there is so much to be learned from the story of Jesus’ Passion. Remind the listeners to actually listen, to hear it as if it is the first time they have every heard it. Tell them to pay attention to the details because there is something new in the text for them today. Help the story to be as transforming on this Palm/Passion Sunday as it has ever been for them – even the person who has heard it a hundred times. For this story is the foundation of all that we are – born anew as we share in the suffering of Christ through our baptism. It is the most foolish of Christian stories, unbelievable and impractical for those who do not believe. But for us, children of the Living God, it is our life and our hope.

Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page