Sunday, April 5, 2009

Palm/Passion Sunday
Palm Sunday Processional: 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]

Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…

Where do you begin with the lessons on a day when many churches will not even present a sermon? The story itself is the centerpiece of our worship this week, as it probably should be. Our focus now, and until Easter, is on the work of Christ, the purpose of His coming. He didn’t come to feed the poor or heal the sick. He came to die. This is a shocking revelation to us, even now, two thousand years later. Imagine how it must have been for those who faced those amazing, but horrifying days.

The week begins with a grand event: a parade for a king. The people were ready to receive Jesus as their leader. They were ready to greet Him with acclaim. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem was full of symbolism, symbols that the people would have recognized and understood. On that first day of the final days of His life, Jesus gave the people what they wanted. The people were in Jerusalem for the Passover, and they expected their savior to appear at Passover. The donkey was symbolic of royal power and position. The donkey had never been ridden, which is proper for religious events. The people spread branches and cloaks in His path, to honor the One who had come to save them. Jesus was the King-Priest messiah for whom they were waiting and they were ready to celebrate.

The people threw down branches and sang “Hosanna.” They cried out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” This was an exciting day. Jesus was doing exactly what they wanted Him to do. He was entering the city like a king: they expected him to restore the nation of Israel. How easy it would have been to wallow in the accolades, to accept the opinion of the crowds. It would have been very easy to get caught up in the excitement of the day.

Just a few days later Jesus was being ridiculed. How could this be? Jesus did not fulfill their expectations. In the next few days, He cleansed the temple and made fools of the temple leaders. He gave their expectations a crushing blow with His words and His actions. By the middle of the week, most of the people who’d shouted hosannas on Sunday were gone. He was left with only His closest friends. Even they were uncertain about what Jesus was going to do.

Jesus knew that the triumphal entry into Jerusalem was not about becoming the new David, a priest-king to serve the nation of Israel. Jesus came to be so much more. He came to be the Priest-King who would save the world. The people recognized the symbolism, but did not understand it. They saw the fulfillment of God’s promises, but did not recognize that Jesus was much more than they ever expected. When He did not do what they thought He was meant to do—to make Israel a strong and independent nation as it was in the Golden Age of David—they turned from Him and left Him to die. What they did not know is that the week, and Jesus’ life, ended as it was meant to end, on a cross instead of a throne.

The Passion story in our lectionary from Mark’s Gospel begins in Bethany, as Jesus is anointed at the home of Simon the leper. At the same time, the chief priests and teachers of the law were scheming about how to destroy Jesus’ ministry. They knew it was important to stop Jesus, but also that they do it in a way that would not set the crowds against them. The people were beginning to see Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior of the nation of Israel, and the leaders were concerned that the people would rebel is they did not act with caution. Mark’s version of this story has fewer details than the other Gospel writers, but we know that she had pure nard which she poured over his head. Some of the disciples were upset by the waste, but Jesus used the experience as another opportunity to talk about His death. We know that Judas, from the other stories, was one of those upset about the cost of the perfume. He slipped out to betray Jesus.

We next hear the story of the Lord’s Supper. It was the day when the Passover lamb was slaughtered, a very special meal for the Jews. In this story we can see how Jesus and His disciples were wanderers with no place of their own or family with which to celebrate. The disciples asked where He wanted to hold the dinner. Jesus had already planned for the meal, preparing a place for them to gather. The disciples found everything as Jesus had said. At the dinner, Jesus revealed that one of them would betray Him and one would deny Him. They couldn’t believe it, each denying that they would be the one. Despite the betrayal and denial, Jesus ate this special meal with the Twelve and the others present that day, sharing with them the hope of His presence in their lives, establishing the covenant of forgiveness and grace we still celebrate today with bread and wine. Despite their commitment to Jesus, He tells them that they will all fall away. Peter denies it, insisting that he would follow Jesus into death.

After the dinner, Jesus and His disciples went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. In this story we see Jesus wrangling between His human desire for life and His divine calling to die. He is obedient, but in this passage we see how closely Jesus identifies with us. The disciples are facing a battle of their own against the effects of a huge dinner and the peace of a cool evening in the garden. They keep falling asleep even though Jesus needs them to be strong for Him in this difficult time. The third time He finds them asleep, we see Judas returning with the crowds of soldiers.

In the following passages Jesus is arrested and tried. Peter denies Jesus, just as Jesus said he would. Jesus faces the Sanhedrin and Pilate, the first unable to put Him to death, the second unwilling to do so. In the end, Pilate has no choice but to do what is meant to be done, so Jesus is sent to the cross. Those last few steps were probably the most difficult of Jesus’ life. He was beaten and mocked, forced to carry His cross until He was unable to do so. On Golgotha, Jesus was nailed to a cross and raised for all to see. Even then, in those horrific moments, the people continued their cruelty. The soldiers cast lots for His clothes. The chief priests and teachers of the law insulted Him, told Him to prove He was the Messiah by saving Himself.

His death came quickly. Mark gives us a few final words from Jesus. He cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which Mark translates to me, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” The people gathered at the base of the cross misinterpreted His cry, thinking that He was calling for Elijah to save Him. He was, more likely, remembering Psalm 22, part of which we heard a few weeks ago. In that psalm, David cries out as a godly sufferer, and by turning to those words Jesus identifies with the pain of David and all the people who suffer. It is a psalm of comfort, which gives hope to the sufferer in the midst of their trial by remembering the promises of God.

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed His last breath. We see some amazing things in this part of the story. The curtain in the Temple is ripped from top to bottom, as God is no longer kept hidden away in the Holy of Holies. A Roman centurion who witnessed the death confessed that what they had witnessed was more than they realized by saying, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” The women followers of Jesus refused to leave Him alone even as His disciples went into hiding. They showed the strength to persevere as only a woman—a mother, sister, and friend—can show.

Finally, we see that because it was an important day in the Jewish calendar the people had to quickly put Jesus’ body into a tomb. Joseph of Arimathea, an important member of the Sanhedrin, approaches Pilate for the body. This is a surprise, considering the Sanhedrin were so intent on seeing Jesus humiliated and killed. However, we learn from this story that not all the leaders were in agreement with the verdict. Some believed in Jesus. In the end, Joseph was willing to risk his power and position for the sake of justice. They quickly wrapped Jesus in a cloth and placed him in a tomb. The women watched where He was laid so that they could return after the holy day and take care of Jesus’ body.

We could study the details of these passages, and we should so that we truly understand what is happening to Jesus, to the disciples, and to the world in which they lived. We might better understand the meal, the trial and the crucifixion if we look at it from a historical, devotional or literary point of view. This is a lot of story to read. It has been presented in many ways, by many people, with their own vision of those events. Perhaps the most famous right now is the movie “The Passion of the Christ” that was created by Mel Gibson. It is hard to watch a movie that shows so much pain and suffering of the One we love, and yet it is a powerful film to reminds us what Jesus really went through for our sakes. What do you hear and see when you read the story? What moments stand out for you? If you were to make a film, what form would it take? Which characters do you identify with? Where is the triumph? Where is the defeat? Who is in control? What promises do we see fulfilled? Where is the grace?

This text is far too long for a devotional, so we’ll leave those details and that study for another time. I often wonder if it isn’t a relief for pastors to reach Palm/Passion Sunday. Though there is still much to prepare, having that extra long scripture reading does make for one less sermon to write. After the period of Lent and with Holy Week coming up, one less sermon is probably a good thing. It’s probably a good thing for the congregation, too, who’ve come to hear all those extra sermons. It is nice to have a ‘break’ from learning something new, isn’t it?

I am being slightly facetious, but at the same time our human nature is agreeing with the statement. We’ve heard the story a million times. We’ve studied it. We know this story. It is written on our hearts. What new thing can we get out of it today? Our problem with learning new things is that we think we know enough. Some of us think we know everything. We don’t pursue intellectual interests because there is nothing left for us to learn that will make a difference. They say that everything you need to know you learned in Kindergarten. I suppose in some ways that is true. Everything we need to know about Jesus’ Passion we’ve learned since Sunday School.

The lectionary does come with some other scripture passages, which usually go unnoticed on Palm/Passion Sunday. We hear the same texts each year, from Isaiah, Philippians and the Psalm. So, what do they have to do with the Passion?

The Old Testament passage for today from Isaiah is one of the three Servant songs, all of which refer to Jesus Christ as the Servant. In this one we see that the Servant continues to learn even when the Servant is a teacher. God has given the Servant the knowledge necessary and continues to give the knowledge the Servant needs to do the work He is called to do. It seems to me that Jesus Christ knew everything He needed to know, and yet we hear in this passage that He continued to be taught. Every day He faced new situations; every day He had to make decisions about how to respond to the needs of the world. And every day He listened to the voice of God so that He would do what God wanted Him to do. In this passage we see that He kept His eyes on God even when men were treating Him poorly. It did not matter that they were insulting Him or striking Him. He stood firm, listening to the teaching of the One who opened His ears. He rests in the knowledge that God is with Him, and no matter what happens to Him, God will stay with Him. He has learned that He has nothing to fear.

In the introduction for the psalm in my NIV Study Bible, the writer states, “[This psalm is] A prayer for deliverance when confronted by a conspiracy so powerful and open that all David’s friends abandoned him.” In this psalm, David tells his troubles: sorrow and weakness; he’s forgotten, like a dead man and broken vessel. He’s been defamed and threatened. He sounds paranoid, but as they say, “Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not after you.” Perhaps David was just paranoid, but we know from the stories of his life and his rule over Israel that there was always someone who wanted to see him dethroned or dead. It is enough to make someone live in fear constantly.

David did not live in fear. He lived in trust and faith. He believed that God would deliver him from his enemies and that he would be vindicated. It never got easier for David, or for David’s offspring. There was always some threat looming around the corner. However, God was faithful to His promises, giving the world the only One son of David who could face the fear and defeat it forever. Jesus must have felt similar things when He was journeying toward the cross. The conspiracy against Him was not kept quiet. The leaders wanted Him dead. They schemed and planned, even reaching into Jesus’ inner circle to find the one person who would willingly give Him up to them for money. Jesus was abandoned by almost everyone in the end. As He hung on the cross only one disciple and a few women came to mourn over His life and death.

Paul writes, “Have this mind in you.” Jesus Christ did not come to be God in this world. He was God, but gave up equality with God to become man and to live with us in this world. He experienced what we experienced. He was tempted as we are tempted. He experienced hunger, thirst, pain and heartache. His feet surely got tired and He must have used a toilet. His humility is what saved us; His obedience is not only an example for us to imitate but is the very foundation of the salvation that God has promised to all who believe. We are to have the same mind. We are called to be humble, to be a servant for God, to glorify Him in our lives so that the world will see Him and believe.

The Passion story is frightening. 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—I haven’t heard of any crucifixions recently. 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 seen fair. But it is when we get to that point that it is most important for us to remember the story of our Savior and all that He suffered for our sakes, having the same mind of humble obedience and knowing that God will never leave us. No matter who, or what, is after us, whether we are paranoid or the threat is very real, we do not need to fear. And each day, through each new lesson we learn something new to help us along the way, constantly being taught by the only Teacher who can really change our lives.

Though we are left on this Sunday in sadness for the loss of one so great, we also know the rest of the story. In the midst of despair, there is hope. Where there seems to be failure, there is victory. Glory is not always found on the winner’s podium. In this story, the glory is found on the cross, in the humble obedience of the only one who could be the Priest-King and Savior of the world.

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