Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday
But I trust in you, Yahweh. I said, ĎYou are my God.í
The lectionary Gospel texts take us through the entire experience: the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the prediction of Peterís denial, prayer at Gethsemane, the betrayal, the arrest, standing before the Sanhedrin, Peter disowning Jesus, Judasí suicide, the trial, mocking, crucifixion, death and burial. The amount of text for this weekís lectionary is daunting.
It is even harder for preachers to find a direction for their sermons. Besides the limited time, how do you expound upon the story of Jesusí passion? I saw a satirical article entitled, ďPastor Expertly Distills Two Bible Verses Down To Just 67 Sermon Points.Ē In the article, the fictional pastor said, ďMost laypeople canít hang in there for a long, drawn-out theological argument, and thatís why Iím always careful to structure my exposition around just the sixty or seventy most relevant points.Ē If two verses can be drawn out to sixty-seven ideas, how much more can we glean out of two whole chapters of a Gospel lesson?
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. Heíd 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!
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.
They honored Him on Palm Sunday with a parade and shouts of acclamation. Isnít that what every person wants? Donít we want to be raised onto a pedestal? Donít we want people to crown us? Donít we want to become the best, to reach higher than everyone else? Jesus should have appreciated their approval. However, Jesus was not looking to become an earthbound King. He had even more in heaven. He was there at the beginning of time and participated in the creation of the world. He had power. He had glory.
In Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord speaks with a voice of humility and sacrifice. Isaiah writes, ďI 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.Ē These are not the words of a king, how could this possibly refer to a Messiah? Yet, as we read in Paulís letter to the Philippians, this is exactly the image of Christ that we must see and we are called to live in that same attitude, which is one of humility.
Paul writes, ďHave this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didnít consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.Ē
The passage from Paulís letter to the Philippians is thought to have been based on an early Christian hymn describing Jesusí kenosis, which is from the Greek word meaning ďemptiness.Ē 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. But, it is in our nature to try to come out on top. We work hard for the promotion. Weíll 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 best records. Our quest to be number one can easily become the sole focus of our life.
Unfortunately, there comes a time when we canít do better by our own power and then we face the real test. At some point everyone is tempted to do whatever it takes to win: the athlete that feels the need to use performance enhancing drugs to go one step further is just one example. In business, the temptation might be to steal a co-workerís ideas or lie on a resume to appear more qualified for a job. In our relationships, we pretend to be someone we arenít to win the one we desire.
Jesus did not humble 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 became one with God: He emptied Himself and took on Godís 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. That nature is one that saves and rescues even when it puts our own life in jeopardy. We are not called to ride on the war horse or even the donkey, but to go with Him on a journey with the weak and vulnerable.
The week began on a donkey and many hoped that He would get on the back of a warhorse to save Israel from the Romans. For one day Jesus received the cheers and the shouts from the crowds. It would have been tempting to use His power to fulfill their wishes. Satan tried that once, but how do you say ďNoĒ to a crowd of screaming fans?
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?
Not everyone appreciated Jesus. There were those who refused to believe. He had debated with them and won. He had refuted their teaching. He had warned people to beware, because the religious leaders put forth doctrine that was self-righteous, and even worse, it was entirely self-beneficial. They did not care about God or His Word; instead they interpreted it to suit their power and position. Jesus was a threat that had to be stopped.
Unfortunately for them, He was a threat that was impossible to stop. How could they turn the people away from Him? How could they convince the crowds that were in Jerusalem that He was not what they needed?
It is easy for us to see what was happening because we have the reports from after the fact. On this Sunday of Holy Week, this Palm Sunday, Jesus entered into Jerusalem, set apart by the crowds by their praise and adulation. While the perfect lambs were being chosen for the celebration of the Passover later this week, the crowds were cheering the Passover Lamb that would be sacrificed for the sake of the whole world. This Lamb would not bleed for a yearly reprieve, but would be the final sacrifice. His death would bring forgiveness to all who believe; His death would set us free to be Godís holy people.
Jesus knew Godís way was the better way. The servant does not see himself as greater than anyone. He says he was given the tongue of one who is taught, rather than identifying himself as a teacher. The words are passed on, and he does teach, but he recognizes that he is not the teacher. He humbled Himself before Godís word and was obedient. He did not turn from God, but faced the suffering knowing that it was Godís will. He trusted that God would be with him. Though the beating, disrespect, contempt, hatred and disgrace were humiliating, He knew no shame because God was near. His enemies were nothing because their condemnation was meaningless against Godís mercy.
God highly exalted Him at the moment when He was most humiliated, when He was suffering and cruel and unwarranted death. It was on that cross that Jesus was glorified because it was there that He fulfilled Godís 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 Christ is glorified.
We find it hard to believe that Jesus could lose so many followers in such a short period of time. After all, they went from singing hosanna to murder in less than five days. We almost have to assign blame to someone in the crowd, an instigator who took advantage of the mob to turn peopleís attitudes away from Jesus. However, as we look at the story between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we realize that there is far more there than a quick change of heart. Jesus spent those few days attacking the status quo. He went into the temple and taught, He overturned the tables of the money changers, He spoke in parables that painted the leaders in a less than positive light. He turned their world upside down: not just the leaders, but also the people. He assaulted everything they knew and they did not know how to handle it.
Most especially, He rejected the expectation they had of Him. On Palm Sunday, they welcomed the king whom they thought was going to save them from the Romans. They were ready to make Him king of Israel so that He would lead them to freedom. They did not understand the kind of freedom Jesus came to give.
They went from jubilant celebration on Sunday to His arrest on Thursday and His death on Friday. How can anyone lose so much support in a matter of days? Even His closest followers ran away in the end. Judas betrayed Him and Peter denied Him. Where were the rest? They were hiding, afraid. They were confused and upset. They didnít know what to do without Him. They believed in Him on Sunday, but their faith wavered in the end. Wouldnít yours? We canít expect our ministry to continue if our leader is arrested, tried and then crucified.
But it was all according to plan. This is what Jesus was born to do. He was born to die. We know that we will die in the end, but we canít imagine how our death will ever serve a purpose. Though some deaths do have an impact on the world, like those of the martyrs, even their deaths are not the intent of God. See, God didnít want any of us to die. When we were created, He intended that we would live with Him in paradise for eternity. Sadly, Adam and Eve ate from the wrong tree; they fell for the temptation to be like God and the learned what it means to mortal. We suffer the same limitations because we were born with the sinful desire to be like God.
In the context of the Passover Feast, Jesus is the perfect Lamb. During the Exodus story, the people were told to sacrifice a lamb, to roast it and to eat it in a certain way. The blood of the lamb was to be painted on the lintel of the house. That night, when the angel of death went over Egypt to take the firstborn, those with the painted lintels would be saved. This was the last straw; it was the final nail that made Pharaoh set the slaves free. Those who were in Jerusalem would join together in feasts, celebrating their salvation so long ago. What they did not realize is that the blood of Jesus would be painted on the hearts of those who believe so that death would once again pass over them. Jesusí death on the cross would defeat death forever. Our flesh will fail and our bodies will die, but through faith in the blood of Jesus we will live forever.
As we begin the final days of Lent and anxiously face the Passion, let us prayerfully consider what this means to us. Isaiah writes, ďBut I trust in you, Yahweh. I said, ĎYou are my God.íĒ Jesus lived this to the very end. Now He calls us to follow in His footsteps, to carry our own cross, to trust in God in humble obedience to His Will.
We can celebrate as Jesus enters Jerusalem, but we know that it is a short lived party. Those same people will quickly turn from Him, hearing the words of Jesusí enemies and falling for the lies. We donít understand how they could turn so easily, but it doesnít matter. This was all in the plan. No matter how the people reacted to Him, Jesus had to die. The religious leaders thought they won. The followers of Jesus thought they lost. In the end, however, Jesus accomplished the work He was born to do, and He did it according to Godís good and perfect will.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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