Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm/Passion Sunday
Palm Processional: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me.

There is no denying that Jesus knew long before He arrived in Jerusalem that it would be His last visit to the beloved city. He warned the disciples and the crowds that the Son of Man had to be lifted up, persecuted, killed. He told them that He had to go where they could not go. Last week Jesus said, “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.” While they may not have understood at that moment that Jesus was talking about His death, they knew later that He was. Jesus knew the time was coming when the world would turn away from Him.

I wonder how it felt, then, to arrive at Jerusalem to a screaming crowd. We often talk about Palm Sunday as being a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but did it feel like a triumph to Jesus? Did He enjoy the cries of the crowd? Did He embrace their shallow adoration? He knew that in just days that same crowd would be shouting for His crucifixion. Did it make Him happy to hear the shouts that day or sad knowing that they did not even understand what they were doing? Jesus is the divine Son of God, but He was human. He prayed very human prayers and experience very human emotions.

Jesus knew that this triumphant entry was part of the plan and He send disciples ahead to make plans. The leaders were already concerned about the way the people were responding to Jesus; the parade could not have made them feel any better. Though there were many reasons to get rid of Jesus, the triumphal entry must have frightened those leaders into much quicker action than they intended. Jesus could not be allowed to gain a foothold in Jerusalem. The people wanted a king, but a king would disrupt their world. They were happy with the status quo because it meant that they had the power.

Even though Jesus knew that this parade was part of the plan, it could not have been a happy moment. Jesus loved His people; He had compassion on them. He wanted the best for them, and even with His knowledge, it must have been hard to believe that the best thing for them was His death. There was more He could do. There were more sick people to be healed. There were more poor people who needed encouragement. There were more people who needed to hear the message of God’s Kingdom. Though He loved the disciples, they were still clueless. They still did not understand. That donkey ride was necessary, but must have seemed premature. How could He leave them now? They weren’t ready to go on their own.

His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is a very human prayer. He was distressed on the night He was betrayed. He was overwhelmed. I can imagine that He might have spoken the prayer in today’s Psalm, seeking God’s grace at this most horrific moment. “Take this cup” He said. And yet, after the plea for mercy, Jesus gives in to the reality: this is God’s plan. Despite His sorrow and the worries He had for His disciples and the people, Jesus obeyed. He trusted God and faced what He knew was inevitable: persecution and death. He faced the cross and allowed the world to lift Him on that pole. They thought they were ending His power, but He knew that they were doing exactly what God intended.

The psalmist says, “My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me.” This is what we expect from God. We expect that He’ll take us away, move us out of the way, send the bad guys running. And sometimes He does. But, as in the story of the snakes a few weeks ago, He doesn’t always take the danger away, He uses it for His glory. If Jesus prayed this prayer, He got an answer even though it isn’t what we might expect. Was He delivered from the hand of His enemies? Perhaps it would not seem so, since He died on the cross. How could death be the answer to that prayer?

The whole story of the crucifixion doesn’t make sense to us. We want the happy ending. We want to coronation. We want the King to rule our world without changing anything; we like the status quo. Perhaps we want to think that we would have been with Jesus until the end, standing by Him even as He hung on the cross, ready to receive Him on Easter. We can say that today because we are Easter people; we know the rest of the story. But the reality is that we would have been in those crowds crying “Hallelujah” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify Him” on Good Friday. We would have fallen as fast as Peter, denying Jesus when He needed us most and run right alongside the rest of the disciples. We don’t understand why God would do things this way. Why would He choose to answer a plea for mercy with crucifixion?

We don’t always know, or like, the way God will answer our prayers, but like Jesus, we can trust that God will be glorified by our obedience. God sent Jesus not to be a priest-king over Israel, but to be the Priest-King that would save the world. To follow any other path would have been to reject what matters. Are we so willing to follow God’s call and do what He intends? Or are we more likely to follow the cries of the crowd, singing “Hallelujah” when it seems like things are going our way but then shouting “Crucify Him” when He doesn’t do what we expect?

We know the story of the Gospel lesson very well. Jesus is tried, beaten and crucified. He died and is buried. I often wonder if the story still has an impact on the lives of those listening. Has it become too familiar that we listen with only half a mind? It doesn't help that we know the rest of the story. We know that Jesus lives! We know that Jesus is raised. This is just a brief moment of Jesus’ life and it doesn’t end. It is to the point that we have to read it on Palm Sunday because most Christians aren’t even willing to attend worship on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to hear the story.

We might be Easter people, given life because He was raised, but the Passion is too important to ignore. If we truly listen to the story, we see the incredible suffering and degradation that Jesus underwent for our sake. This will cut us to the heart, bring us to our knees and cause us to cry out for mercy and forgiveness. After all, we are as guilty as those who rejected Him two thousand years ago. We were there, not in flesh, but in the same nature of those who actually witnessed the events. We need to experience it, too, to truly understand our sinfulness and receive the grace of God’s answers to our prayers. He will deliver us from the hand of our enemies. He just might not do it the way we want Him to.

As we look back on the events of that horrific day, we might think that the suffering was at its greatest when the physical pain was the worst. But for Jesus the greatest suffering came at that moment when the weight of the world’s sin was on His shoulders; our sin made it impossible for God to look upon His beloved Son. Jesus cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” At that great moment of suffering we see His humanness again. He may have suffered the pain of all His wounds for hours, but it was that one moment when He was truly alone, if ever so briefly. That is when He suffered the most.

Yet, even then Jesus continued in the will of the Father, even though it seemed uncharacteristic, unmerciful, unloving. He did not save Himself even though the crowd shouted that He should. Instead, He gave a loud cry and died. He suffered the ultimate abandonment in the moment when He needed God the most, and He did it willingly. He was not willing to follow the cries of the crowd; they were fickle, following every wind. They did not know what they were doing. He had to die for God’s promises to be complete. His amazing grace was realized through the most incredible act of sacrifice: the beloved Son, the Priest-King, offered Himself as the Lamb of God for the forgiveness of all sin for all men in all time.

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. Jesus humbly accepted the Will of God and obediently suffered for our sake.

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. The answers to our prayers might include humiliation, persecution and suffering. It might even include death, but we willingly accept all these circumstances because 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.”

As we enter into Holy Week, realizing the final moments of our Lenten journey, let’s remember that Jesus was both divine and human. He was the Son of God, but He was also the Son of Man. He knew what was coming, but He knew what He had to leave behind. He knew what He had to do for the sake of His people, but He loved His people so much that He didn’t want to abandon them just as they needed Him most. It is easy for us to think of Jesus as perfect, but we’d rather ignore the reality of the Passion: that He was humiliated by the people He loved, even His closest friends. He faced the same temptations; He prayed the same prayers. He asked God to take the cup, a prayer we can all admit to praying. We like seeing Jesus as the Priest-King, but we are uncomfortable with the image of the sacrificial Lamb. Yet it is that Lamb that has fulfilled all God’s promises.

“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, let us do so in faith with the words of the psalmist on our lips. The answer might not be as we hope, but we can remember these words with the mind of Christ. Despite our fear and doubt and the temptations we face, may we always trust in God and know His deliverance is assured.

Jesus remained faithful. He did not fail when the world cried out for Him to take the throne or save Himself. He faced the suffering of the cross with boldness; He even faced the abandonment of His Father. He calls us to be faithful, humbly accepting the answers He gives to our prayers even when they don’t fit our expectations.

The story we hear on Palm/Passion Sunday might seem ridiculous to those who do not believe because it does not make sense to worship a God who would put His own Son through such a horrific experience. How can someone so good end up on the wrong side of the law in such an unjust manner? How can a man like Jesus Christ who spent His life serving others end up dying? It doesn’t make sense. And what happens to us if we find ourselves in a similar position? It is unlikely that we’ll end up on a cross, but we will face difficult times. We will experience times of suffering both from our own actions and from the actions of others. It doesn’t seem fair. But when we are overwhelmed by the world, let us remember the story of our Savior and all that He suffered for our sakes. No matter who or what is after us, whether we are paranoid or the threat is very real, we do not need to fear. As we live each day in faith and obedience, we will learn something new to help us along the way.

One day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Until then, we are called to have the same mind as Christ, putting God’s Will ahead of everything else. We are called to live as Christ, willingly giving ourselves for the sake of others. When we feel most abandoned—we might; we are only human, after all—we can go forth in faith knowing that we are not alone. Our Father will never leave us because of Jesus.

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