Sunday, April 9, 2006

Palm-Passion Sunday
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

…and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.

What matters? Is it the opinion of the crowd or the judgment of those that love you?

If we are honest with ourselves, I would bet that most of us would say that the opinion of the crowd is what really matters. After all, those that love us will continue to love us, but we feel as though we have to make the crowd love us. For some people the quest for being liked is an obsession. They will do anything, say anything, be anything just to be popular with the crowds. I suppose this is not true of everyone, but there is a measure of truth in it for most people. We like to be liked and want to be popular. It all comes down to the previous question, "What matters?" Are we seeking the approval of the crowds or are we acting with rightness and truth no matter the consequences?

The Palm Sunday text would seem to indicate that Jesus had been working throughout his ministry for approval of the crowds, because they certainly did receive Him with favor. They lined the lanes of Jerusalem to greet Him as He rode into town on the colt of a donkey which had never been ridden. The donkey was symbolic of royal power and position, and unused animals were appropriate to use for religious purposes. At the parade of palms, we see the coming of the King-Priest Messiah that was promised through the prophets. They were looking toward a return to the days of King David, the golden days of Israel.

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!" they yelled. 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.

Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus then went into the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers. Mark says that it was already late, so Jesus went to Bethany. If Mark's timetable is more accurate, then the people had a whole night to celebrate their expectations. Their excitement would have been magnified by the timing of Jesus' entry – it was expected that the Messiah would come at Passover. Imagine what it must have been like for the people that night. Though Passover is a somewhat solemn occasion, it is also a time of joy and worship. They rejoice in the ritual that remembers the exodus from Egypt and God's incredible mercy to His people. And now, they could see the deliverance to come from the promised Messiah – new reason to rejoice!

Yet, Jesus did not fulfill their expectations. In the next few days, He cleansed the temple and made fools of the temple leaders. He gives 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 the twelve and the other followers were unsure about Jesus, but they stayed with Him. In the few days since the triumphant entry, Jesus knew what matters. It was not even the love of the disciples. It was the love of God.

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.

Many pastors will most likely spend little time preaching this Sunday since the Passion Story is quite lengthy and it is a story with which we are very familiar. 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. It has become too familiar, so we listen with only half a mind and with our eyes on the clock grumbling about how the service is going to take more than an hour again. 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. But if we truly listen to the story, we will 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.

The shorter version of the Gospel lesson begins the morning following the Passover meal. The chief priests had Him bound and taken to Pilate. Pilate really did not care about the religious troubles of the Jews. His only concern was whether or not Jesus was the King of the Jews. Proclaiming Himself King would have gone against Roman law. The charges of blasphemy were meaningless to Pilate. The humiliation Jesus faced came at the hands of His own people who offered false witness and chose a false messiah over Him.

When Pilate offered to set one of their own free in celebration of Passover, they refused to receive Jesus. They cried for Barabbas instead. Barabbas was a murdered and insurgent, a criminal in the eyes of God and the world. And yet, the priests who were inciting the crowds and the crowds themselves chose Barabbas. Ironically, the name of Barabbas means "son of the father." Jesus, who had been called the "Son of God" throughout the book of Mark is now replaced with a false messiah by the crowds just days after they rejoiced over Jesus. Jesus is given over to death for the sins of all, while the sinner is set free.

Jesus' humiliation did not end at the trial. When Pilate agreed to the crucifixion, he handed Jesus over to the Roman guards who are known for their cruelty. The most shocking and difficult scenes to watch in the movie "The Passion of the Christ" were of the beating Jesus received at the hands of the Roman guards. They put a crown of thorns on His head and a purple robe on His back. They flogged Him and beat Him to the edge of death with reeds. The spit on Him and mockingly bowed down to Him. Then they took off the royal robes and led Him to the cross.

At Golgatha they offered Him wine to drink. This may have been a Jewish custom based on Proverbs 31:6 which says to give a dying man wine so that he might forget his pain. The myrrh may have been added to deaden the pain. Jesus refused the wine. He received the cross with a clear head and without masking the suffering. Would the cross have been any less effective if Jesus had accepted this help? Perhaps not, but from the beginning to the end, Jesus was in control. As Max Lucado says, "He chose the nails."

It was common practice to post the charge against the one crucified on the cross from which they were hung. Jesus' sign said, "The King of the Jews." It was the only charge against Jesus that would deserve a Roman crucifixion. So there, on that Roman cross, Jesus hung as the King of the Jews. Not exactly the kind of throne the people were expecting just a few days before. They wanted a king, but this king was useless.

On the hill were two other crosses. They held two bandits, one on His right and one on His left. His humiliation did not end, as the people gathered at the cross continued to hurl insults at Him. The guards cast lots for his clothes. The chief priests told Him to get down. "Ha! Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself, and come down from the cross." Even the criminals taunted Him.

After three hours of darkness, Jesus cried out, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" As we look back on the events of that horrific day, we might think that the suffering was at its greatest when the pain was the worst. However, for Jesus, the greatest suffering came at that moment when the entire weight of the world was on His shoulders, when all the sin of all men throughout all of time made it impossible for God to look upon Him. 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 brought Him the most pain. Yet, even then Jesus continued in the will of the Father. 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.

What mattered most was to do the will of God, even though it seemed uncharacteristic, unmerciful, unloving. The crowd cried out to Jesus to save Himself, and while it was done to humiliate Him, it was within His power. It was not in His will, however, to follow the cries of the crowd, for they did not know what they were doing. If they would know the Kingdom, if they would receive forgiveness, He had to die. Out of His amazing grace came the most incredible act of sacrifice that has ever been done. The Priest-King offered Himself as the Lamb of God for the forgiveness of all sin for all men in all time.

The women He loved – His mother Mary, Mary Magdalene and the other women who cared for Him in life – were standing nearby. Though His death brought them grief, it would bring them even greater joy. Perhaps for Jesus it was easy to ignore the cries of the crowds, for He was always one minded. How much harder must it have been to abandon those He loved? He had to, for their own sake. What mattered was not the opinion of the crowds or the love of those He loved. What mattered most was the love of God. And God's love required sacrifice.

It may have seemed to the world that Jesus was completely humiliated and abandoned, but even in the hours following the death of Jesus a few believers made themselves known. Joseph of Arimathea boldly revealed himself as a believer by asking Pilate for the body. Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene followed Joseph to the tomb so that they would know where the body had been lain so that they could return and anoint Him. We don't hear it in Mark, but the other Gospel writers tell us that the disciples went into hiding. Even the disciples did not know how to deal with the death of their Lord.

Is it possible to hear these words and not be cut to the heart? Lent is a time for reflecting on our sin and for looking to God for mercy. For the past few weeks many people have fasted in some way as a spiritual discipline to aid their spiritual undertaking. It has probably been a time of extra, and sincere, prayer. We gather together more often to hear God's word and to reflect on our nature. We have looked more deeply into the scriptures and perhaps even come to a better understanding of His Word as we have watched Him walk toward the cross. Yet, it was all meaningless if at the foot of the cross we do not recognize that we are as guilty as the crowds, the priests, Pilate, the guards, the criminals and the disciples. We might not have been there to taunt Him, to cry for His death, to beat Him or to abandon Him. However, we were there as our sin also burdened Him on the cross.

And like the crowds on Palm Sunday, perhaps we are most guilty of making Jesus to be the kind of Messiah we want Him to be, putting upon Him our own expectations. We sit in worship on Passion Sunday and only half listen to His story because we have trouble understanding a God that would require such a suffering sacrifice. We find it difficult to see anything good about the cross. We'd rather skip right to Easter.

Unfortunately, that's why so many pastors have to read the entire Passion Story on Palm Sunday. Churches with hundreds present on Sunday will only draw a few dozen on Good Friday. They want to celebrate, not grieve. They want the Resurrection without the cross. So, we read the Passion Story on Palm Sunday because we know it might be the only time they will hear it.

Yet, the Old Testament lessons show us that this is what God planned. Jesus was never to be a popular King set upon a throne in Jerusalem. He would suffer a humiliation beyond anything anyone else has ever borne. Isaiah writes, "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting." David sings in today's Psalm, "Because of all mine adversaries I am become a reproach, Yea, unto my neighbors exceedingly, And a fear to mine acquaintance: They that did see me without fled from me. I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind: I am like a broken vessel. For I have heard the defaming of many, Terror on every side: While they took counsel together against me, They devised to take away my life."

Through it all, Jesus remained faithful. He did the will of the Father even as the Father turned His back. He did not fall for the temptations offered in the cries of the crowd to take the throne or save Himself. He faced the suffering with boldness, rejecting that which might mask the pain. He even faced the abandonment of His Father, in love and out of love for both God and us.

He calls us to do the same. What really matters? What matters is what mattered to Jesus – the will of God. Paul writes to the Philippians, "Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." Jesus gave up heaven to become like one of us. He gave up they glory of His divine character to take on the flesh of men. And He gave up communion with His father and died for our sake. In doing this, Jesus became Lord of both heaven and earth. He rejected the cries of the crowd to do what matters most – be obedient to God's will. He may not have ever ruled an earthly nation, but He is King.

And soon every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. Until then, we are called to have the same mind as Christ – to put what matters most ahead of everything else. We are called to live as Christ, willingly giving ourselves for the sake of others. And when we feel most abandoned, we can go forth in faith knowing that we are not alone, for Jesus experienced it so that we would not have to. Thanks be to God.

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