The Sunday of the Passion, Palm Sunday
Oh give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever.
The lectionary Gospel texts take us through the entire experience: the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the prediction of Peter’s denial, prayer at Gethsemane, the betrayal, the arrest, standing before the Sanhedrin, Peter disowning Jesus, Judas’ suicide, the trial, mocking, crucifixion, death and burial. The amount of text for this week’s lectionary is daunting. How do you write a devotional for this Sunday in just a few thousand words?
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?
He was their King, but not in the way that they had anticipated. He would never sit on a throne. He would never deal with foreign leaders. He would never institute policies that would fill their needs. The man on the donkey hailed as King would be crowned on a cross in just a few days. It would not be very long before they rejected Him and cried for His crucifixion.
Isaiah wrote, “I gave my back to those who beat me, and my cheeks to those who plucked off the hair. I didn’t hide my face from shame and spitting.” For many men today, whether or not to wear a beard is most often a personal choice, but that is not always been the case. Religious and secular law has long controlled the wearing of facial hair. For some, a beard is expected: to shave the hair is actually an insult to the gods or rulers. For others, wearing facial hair is the insult. There are often rules about how the beard could be worn: long or short, cropped or covering the face. In Greek society, a beard was a sign of wisdom. Rulers often used the removal of a beard as a form of control. Beards were taxed by others. Along with a 100 ruble tax, Peter I of Russia made beard wearers also wear a medallion which had the words “beards are a ridiculous ornament.”
Depending on the society, beards were a sign of wealth or poverty, celibacy or manhood. Roman boys could not remove any facial hair until they reached adulthood. Amish men keep their faces clean until they are married. In some places, a man was not allowed to grow a beard until he had killed an enemy. The size of the beard was symbolic also. For those protesting, a long beard meant greater protest. A long beard meant greater wisdom. Alexander the Great insisted that his soldiers shave their beards because an enemy could grab a hold of the facial hair during battle and use it to his advantage. During World War I, it was discovered that facial hair affected the seal on the gas masks and so soldiers were very conscientious about keeping their faces shaved clean.
Since wearing a beard is so much a personal choice for many men, we don’t understand the imagery found in today’s lesson. Why would “pulling a beard” be considered so horrible? After all, we laugh when we see those pictures of children sitting on Santa’s knees, pulling at his beard to ensure that it is real. Even funnier are the pictures of the child who finds a Santa with a fake. Yet, to pull a beard was a great insult.
As a matter of fact, the suffering servant faces the most horrific interactions between people. He was willing to be beaten, the standard punishment for criminals. He was willing to give his cheek to the person wanting to show him disrespect and contempt. He willingly faced the hatred of mocking and the disgrace of someone’s spit. These words describe the final moments of Jesus’ life, for He was the suffering servant to which Isaiah was pointing.
We normally lead busy lifestyles. There is little time left for quiet time after we deal with family, work, and household chores. We fill our schedules with lunch dates and volunteer activities. We work in our yards, spend time running errands, and do what we need to do to stay fit. We are exhausted by the end of the day. We all claim to spend time in prayer while we are driving our cars and doing the dishes, which is a good idea, but it isn’t enough. We need rest.
Rest is not only about sleep, it is about spending time when we truly rest in God’s presence. Unfortunately, when our schedules fill with activities that we both love and that are necessary for our life in this world, quietly sitting in communion with God seems like wasted time. After all, we can pray on the go, saying prayers as we drive and wash the dishes. Doesn’t Paul tell us to pray constantly? He doesn’t mean we should leave the world for monastery life, praying every hour of the day. He means that we should always keep God in our sight, constantly seeking His will for our lives. Yet, we need that rest, that time that is set aside to pray and to worship. It is our prayer life that suffers when our schedules become too busy.
It is so easy to say, “Well, God won’t mind if I miss one morning” as we are running out the door. Of course He does not mind, though He wants to spend time with you. Unfortunately, if we miss today, it is even easier to miss tomorrow and eventually we forget that we ever scheduled time alone with God. It is easy to miss Sunday worship one week for a soccer game or an outing with family, because God does not require us to gather together. But it becomes easier and easier each time we miss, becoming ever more comfortable in our absence.
Yet even in our comfort, we hunger for something and we aren’t fulfilled with our activities. So we begin to feel a sense of guilt about our lack of prayer time and the missed opportunities to worship God. We become agitated, fear and worry hinders our activities. We lose sight of God and get overwhelmed by the cares of the world. It is amazing how easily joy gets lost and positive attitudes turn over to negative thoughts.
Maybe that’s why the people turned from Jesus so quickly during Holy Week. After the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus attacked the very foundation of their faith. He overturned the tables in the Temple, disrupting their religious ritual and their time with God. However, Jesus was not condemning faith, He was condemning the way they were focused on the wrong things. They’d lost touch with God, had set aside prayer time for a busy schedule of activities that were based on rules rather than on the heart of God. The crowds became upset, and in their sin they turned from God. Their negative attitude built day by day until the time when Pilate asked the question of what to do with Jesus. By Good Friday, it was easy to say “Crucify Him.”
But we who live beyond the resurrection are restored to that relationship that is lost by our sinfulness. We are called by God’s grace to live joyfully, to live faithfully, to keep our hearts and minds on God. Perhaps that is the silver lining in our current circumstances. We are not so busy these days, and we have plenty of time to spend in prayer and communion with God. We are learning to give thanks to God even in the midst of difficulty. The psalmist was able to go to the temple to worship, but even though we are struggling with the temporary loss of the tangible connection with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are never far from the One who has saved us by His grace.
Perhaps there is the silver lining in our current circumstances. We are not so busy these days, and we have plenty of time to spend in prayer and communion with God. We are learning to give thanks to God even in the midst of difficulty. The psalmist was able to go to the temple to worship, but even though we are struggling with the temporary loss of the tangible connection with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are never far from the One who has saved us by His grace.
As we finish this season of Lent and when life gets back to normal in our world, it will be very easy to set aside the disciplines we have begun. However, it is vital that we continue in those things that have brought us closer to our God, because that is where we will find rest.
A story is told of a holy man who was sitting on the bank of a brook while meditating. 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?”
Most of us are not so gracious. We are more like that friend, and at times we are perhaps even worse. While the friend may have just let nature take its course, we might even consider pushing the scorpion into a quicker death. We would justify our action, claiming at once that it would be better for the scorpion not to suffer and that it might save someone from being stung. There are certainly few of us who would take the time or the risk to save what is, in essence, an enemy.
It is in our nature, it seems, a tendency to try to come out on top. We work hard for the promotion. We’ll do what it takes to the nicest car, the prettiest house and the best lawn. We compete for the biggest trophies, the fastest times and the sports records. Our quest to be number one can easily become the sole focus of our life, as is seen so clearly in the training of athletes, especially as the Olympics draw near.
This isn’t true of everyone. I once read a story about a pole vaulter. He held the record in his division and no matter how high they put the pole, he always cleared it by a foot. His peers said it was so amazing that they decided to test him. Instead of raising the bar an inch, they raised it six inches. He still cleared it by a foot. When they told him what they did, he walked away and never jumped again. He realized that however high he flew, someone would expect him to fly higher. He did not see how he could keep getting better. No matter how great you become, there is always room to do better.
Unfortunately, there comes a time when you can’t do better by your own power and then you face the real test. At some point everyone faces a temptation that is difficult to overcome like the athlete that feels the need to use performance enhancing drugs to go one step further. In business, the temptation might be to steal a co-worker’s ideas or lie on a resume to appear more qualified for a job. In our relationships, we pretend to be someone we aren’t to win the most popular date.
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.
It is easy to see this exaltation in the eyes of our human desires to be first and best. It is even possible for us to think that the way to get ahead in this world is to “be humble,” justifying this attitude as following the example of Christ in the quest to be greater than others. However, this passage does not tell us Jesus humbled 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 was 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 with Him, but because in Christ we have taken upon ourselves His nature, the nature that saves and rescues even when it puts our own life in jeopardy.
In a normal year, we are given opportunities to share in some of those final moments of Jesus’ life. We wave palms on Palm Sunday. We experience the Seder at Maundy Thursday. We weep at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. We wait with the disciples through the vigil until Easter morning. We won’t have those opportunities this year, although we may have more through the wonderful ministry that many pastors are doing online. Yet, even if we can’t attend services, we need to remember now more than ever that we cannot get to Easter without going through the cross. We will never understand Easter if we do not experience the Passion.
The community adored Jesus on Palm Sunday. It was a parade for a victorious Lord. They saw Him as the one who will fulfill the promises; they saw Him as the Messiah who would remove the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to the Golden days of Solomon. They saw Him as the King for whom they had been waiting for so long. Just days later at His trial, the references to His kingship are made with sarcasm and disdain.
In 27:11, Pilate called Him “the king of the Jews,” a title that would insinuate that Jesus was usurping the throne of a puppet king. Herod had no real power. He did only what Rome allowed. If Jesus was to be king of the Jews, He would also have no power. He would be a puppet, at least from the point of view of Pilate. How could this weak and suffering man ever defeat the great Roman Empire? Jesus answered Pilate’s question with “So you say.” But Jesus was not talking about usurping a puppet throne. His kingship is of something greater, a kingdom beyond Israel.
In 27:29 the soldiers mocked Jesus. “Hail, king of the Jews,” they said, after having stripped Him of His clothes and replaced them with a scarlet cloak. They made a crown of thorns and placed it on His head, adding to the humiliation and pain that He was suffering. They did not really think Him to be a king, but did it only to mock Him.
In 27:37, they made a sign that said, “THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Here we see the publication of His crime. He was charged with the usurpation of the royal throne. This was, in its own way, another mocking, as His throne was not covered with velvet and jewels but was nothing more than a humble cross on which He would suffer and die.
While He hung on that cross, the people came to the hillside to gawk and mock Him. In 27:42, the chief priests and elders said, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. If he is the King of Israel, let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.” They wanted proof of His right to the throne. If only He would get down from the cross, they would believe.”
The irony of the sarcasm and disdain is that Jesus never came to usurp the throne or save Israel from Rome. He came to save Israel from a greater oppressor: sin and death. As we heard in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Jesus emptied Himself. He did not come to be an earthly king or to lead His people in a revolt against the oppressive powers of this world. He came to do the will of God, which was to become one of us to die on a cross for the sake of mankind. The leaders thought that they had defeated Jesus and kept Him from the throne. However, they put Him on the very throne for which He was sent: the cross.
In the end, the only one who recognized Jesus was the centurion who pierced Him with a spear. Since that man was the Roman in charge at the crucifixion, his declaration was vindication for Jesus. Jesus was ruled innocent, righteous despite the horrific and unsettling end to His life. The centurion, probably without even understanding, proclaimed Jesus to be the King, not of Rome or even Israel, but over all of creation. For his obedience to the cross, God would, as Paul wrote, exalt Him above all else and give Him the name above all other names.
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 Jesus Christ was crowned the King, glorified forever.
We could easily spend hours with the many details found in these texts. Yet, I wonder if we do not spend too much time trying to explain God and too little time lingering within the story getting to know Him. Since we have so much time on our hands, perhaps now is better than ever to stop and listen to the story, to hear it as the storyteller speaks for Himself. Spend time reading the Passion, not only in Matthew, but in all the Gospel stories. Experience Passion Week over again in a new way this year. Walk with Jesus and learn what He did for you so that you remember to dwell in His presence when our current troubles pass.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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