Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday
Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew [26:14-27:10] 27:11-54 [55-66]

Truly this was the Son of God.

The long Gospel assignment takes us through the entire experience—His betrayal, the Last Supper, the prediction of Peter’s denial, prayer at Gethsemane, the arrest, standing before the Sanhedrine, Peter disowning Jesus, Judas’ suicide, the trial, mocking, crucifixion, death and burial. For many church goers, some of those stories will be heard at worship services during the week. Maundy Thursday focuses on the Last Supper. On Good Friday we hear the story of the Crucifixion. We hear the entire story of the Passion on the Sunday before Easter because many people are not able to attend those midweek services. To understand Easter, we have to get through the Passion. This Sunday is also Palm Sunday, with many churches having a Processional Gospel reading, reliving the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The amount of text for this week’s lectionary is daunting. I imagine that many churches will not even read the Old Testament or Epistle texts, and they will probably use the briefer, yet still quite long Gospel reading for the Passion. Attention span is an unfortunate, but important consideration when planning our worship. Some pastors will choose to do the Gospel reading in the form of a drama, which will hopefully keep the attention of the congregation through the story so that they might hear what a marvelous thing God has done for us.

I say this every year, but I, for one, would rather Palm Sunday be just Palm Sunday. However, I recognize that many people would never hear the rest of the story if we did not read the Passion. Attendance at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services are a fraction of what we will see both Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Those who only attend on those days would only hear praise, worship, and excitement. They would only see the joy and jubilation of Christ the King, without ever experiencing the cross. The Palm Sunday text shows a triumphant Jesus, as does the Easter story. Yet, without the Passion, both these triumphs are meaningless without the cross. We read the Passion story so that we see Christ as the real King, not the king that the people wanted Him to be.

On Palm Sunday we see the community adoring Jesus Christ. They see Him as the one who will fulfill the promises; they see Him as the Messiah who will remove the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to the Golden days of Solomon. They see 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 calls 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 every defeat the great Roman Empire? Jesus answers Pilate’s question with “Yes, it is as you say,” but Jesus is 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 is not covered with velvet and jewels but is 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; himself he cannot save. He is the King of Israel; let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe on 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.

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.

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 temptation that is difficult to overcome: the chance 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-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 prettiest girl or the richest boy.

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. 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 became one with God because 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.

We like to hear the story of Palm Sunday and the story of Easter: the stories of Triumph. Yet, if we only hear those two stories, we come to know a false Jesus and worship a false Messiah. This is the image of Christ that many of the mega churches give; it leads to this idea that Christian faith is about the triumphs and that Christ rose so that we would be blessed. It is no different than the expectations of those first followers: the Messiah came to restore the people to a golden era, to make them a prosperous nation. The cross is still offensive, and is not found in the worship halls of those mega churches for whom Jesus is little more than a benevolent king who grants the wishes of ‘believers.’

In the Passion, we see the image of the servant who suffers everything that was promised in today’s Old Testament lesson. 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. We see in these words the final hours of Jesus’ life, for He was the suffering servant to which Isaiah was pointing.

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 humbles himself before God’s word and is obedient. He faces the suffering knowing that it is both God’s will and that God will be with him through it. 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 God.

It must have been difficult to face his enemies. Would you have listened and done all that was necessary to do the task to which you were called? Or would you have run in the other direction? Could you live in the midst of your enemies and share the love and forgiveness of God with them? Jesus was surrounded by his enemies, trying to share God’s grace but they were at first unwilling to accept the Word God sent to them through him. He remained faithful in the midst of his suffering so that his enemies—we—would receive through the grace of God His mercy and forgiveness. Like the psalmist, He trusted that God would keep him safe.

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. In the end, 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. The cross is the actual place of triumph, where Christ is crowned as King for all eternity. Without it, the Hallelujahs would mean nothing.

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. It might seem easier to read the short text and then give a sermon explaining what happened during that Passion week, and that might be the only way most people will see the difference between the Christ of the Cross and the Christ of Glory that so many want to worship. As for me, I think maybe it is time to use fewer words of my own and listen to the story: to let the storyteller speak for Himself.

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