Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday and Sunday of the Passion
John 12:12-19
Deuteronomy 32:36-39
Psalm 118:19-29
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:1-23:56

For Jehovah will judge his people, And repent himself for his servants; When he seeth that their power is gone, And there is none remaining, shut up or left at large.

I don't know how it is possible, but Lent is almost over. This Sunday, Palm Sunday, begins Holy Week. We have spent the last six weeks considering our own place in the Passion of Jesus Christ. Why did He have to do this? What have I done? We've tried to repent, to turn back to God. We've fasted and prayed. We have done our spiritual disciplines, read our devotionals and gone to church a little more than normal. We've walked with Jesus toward the cross.

What do we do now that He has made it to Jerusalem? Do we cheer Him with palms? Do we listen as He gives His final words of teaching and comfort and warning? Do we eat with Him at His table on Passover? Do we follow Him as He is tried and convicted of a crime that He didn't commit? Do we follow Him as He carries the cross to the hill? Do we stand with Him as He dies? It is easy to say "Yes!" because we have faith that everything that will happen during Holy Week was according to the plan of God.

And yet, during the week Jesus will be abandoned by just about everyone. First He loses the Jewish leadership, most of whom have been battling against Him anyway. Then He loses the crowd. Then He loses some disciples. He loses Judas, and Peter. He loses the rest of the twelve as they run to hide. The only ones standing with Him at the final moments of His life are His mother, the beloved disciple John and a few women, none of whom have any power or authority. In the end, it seems, even God abandons Him.

We might act as if we would never leave His side, but the reality is that we are more likely to be like Peter than John. At the Last Supper, Peter insisted that he would stand with Jesus even unto death, but it was Peter who denied Jesus three times. Peter eventually received forgiveness from Jesus, but he went into hiding during this terrible time just like the rest of them. We like to think that we wouldn't be like that, but how often do we deny Jesus in our everyday lives? How often do we continue to willfully sin when we know what we are doing is wrong? How often do we ignore the call of God's Spirit to go our own way and do our own thing? How often do we stay silent when we should be speaking the Gospel? We might think that we would have followed Him to the very end of this journey, but I don't think we can.

That's why Jesus had to do it in the first place.

See, we are sinful, imperfect, frail human beings. It is beyond our ability to be righteous, to be the people God has created us to be. We are fallen from the first man, and no matter how hard we try we will betray and deny our God in our thoughts, words and deeds. Oh, we can claim that we haven't been too bad; we can claim our neighbors are worse sinners than we. However, even the tiniest sin against our neighbors and God's amazing creation is a sin against God. No matter how we try, no matter how good we are, we are still sinners in need of a Savior.

That's why Jesus walked this journey that ends in a cross.

Deuteronomy 32 (beginning at 31:40) is called "The Song of Moses." It tells the story of the relationship between God and His people: God made a covenant with them, they failed to live according to that covenant, God reminds them of what it means to live within the covenant, they disobey, they are reminded of the consequences of their disobedience especially the ineffectiveness of the false gods to which they turn, and finally the LORD's judgment against His enemies.

We are His enemies. I know that sounds harsh, but our sinfulness is what makes us an enemy of God. We deserve the consequences of our failure to live according to God's covenant, our disobedience, our turning from Him to false gods. We deserve His judgment.

But here's why Jesus went to the cross: because God promised to have compassion on His people. The American Standard Version says, "...and repent himself for his servants…" God will not cast judgment on us; instead, He will cast judgment on Jesus. We are the ones who should have been abandoned, who should have carried that cross, who should have died on it. Instead, Jesus stood in our place.

He knows that we are unable to be completely righteous, so He sent His Son to be our righteousness. Even when God judges us, He has mercy. Even when He knows we have turned to false gods, He keeps His promises because He knows that those false gods cannot do for us what we think they can. He has compassion on us "when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none remaining, shut up or left at large." We will abandon Jesus at some point in our lives, probably many times. Every time we sin, knowingly and unknowingly, we are doing so. The disciples disappeared because they knew they had no power over what was happening to Jesus. They just didn't realize that Jesus had all the power.

God is in control. Always. Even when we think we have everything in our own hands. "See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand."

Thanks be to God that Jesus stood in our place.

We begin this week with the story of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. For three years, our Lord traveled the country, teaching about Kingdom of God and calling the people into a relationship with their Father. He has cast out demons, offered forgiveness, healed sickness. He mentored a group of men and women who would follow His leadership and ministry. He even raised people from the dead. The crowds rejoiced when they saw Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey because they thought He had finally accepted the inevitable: He would be their King.

The tide turned very quickly for Jesus. He didn't present Himself as the conquering hero they expected. He didn't call the troops to arms or confront the Roman leaders who were oppressing them. Instead He confronted the priests and religious practices, attacking the piece of their world they thought was right. They willingly supported Barabbas, a Jewish insurrectionist who was in Roman custody. Instead of choosing Jesus as their Messiah, they chose the man they thought would lead them to a victory against their oppressor. They didn’t understand that they were oppressed by something greater.

The Passion and Easter story is the most difficult thing about Christianity to believe and to accept. Why did Jesus have to die and how does that line up to the ideal of a loving and caring God? How does that help Jesus’ social ministry and seemingly political aspirations? It doesn’t make sense. It might seem like Jesus had no control, but the reality is that Jesus was in control of every moment. They could see after the fact how every step fulfilled the prophecies of the past. Every moment that followed the triumphant entry was planned and foreseen as God's plan for His Messiah for the salvation of His people. From the last supper to the prayer in the garden, the trial and journey to Golgotha, and then the nailing of His flesh to the cross, was purposeful. Jesus knew what He was doing and He did so for our sake. At the very moment of death Jesus commended Himself to the hands of God. The Father never abandoned His Son, but was there all along, watching as Jesus was obedient as we have never been able to be.

Paul writes, “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an 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 fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.”

We may experience persecution in our lives; we may even die for our faith. Peter, who was among those who abandoned Jesus during the trial by denying Him and running away, really did follow Jesus to the cross, having been crucified also by the Romans. His death did not accomplish what Jesus' death did, but his story gives us the courage to live our faith in this world despite the possibility of persecution. Death is inevitable for everyone, but we have hope beyond death because God has promised that He has already dealt with our offenses.

Paul is not calling us to follow Jesus to the cross; we are to follow Jesus wherever He leads us. We can't do what Jesus did; He already finished that work. But we have been saved for a purpose, to continue the work that Jesus began. Now that sin and death have been defeated, it is up to us to take God's promise of forgiveness, healing and restoration to the world. We can't do that if we are busy chasing after our self-created gods. We can't do that if we are focused on ourselves.

It won’t be easy. We will suffer persecution at the hands of those who would rather worship their own gods. Should we let it stop us? Jesus did not and Paul encourages us to have the same mind as Christ. After all, He left the glory of heaven to come to earth in flesh to reconcile us to God our Father. His nature is to love and save. He willingly suffered humiliation in life and death. We are called to do the same, not necessarily on a cross but in our everyday experiences.

The day will come when all will bow to our Lord Jesus Christ, but will they bow in thanksgiving or fear? We are sent into the world with an attitude like Jesus, trusting in God and following Him where He leads. We are sent to introduce the lost to the Lord Jesus so that they will be found, those in darkness so that they will see the light, the sick so that they will be healed, and those who are still dead in sin so that they will have eternal life.

We all deserve God's wrath, but Jesus took it for us. Shouldn't we try, as best we can, to make sure our neighbors know that Jesus died for them too? Until they recognize Jesus as Lord, they will remain enemies of God, chasing after their own gods and following their own way thinking they have all the power. We are not yet perfect, but we have something the world needs: the promise of salvation. We know that God recognizes that our power is gone and that the gods we rely upon can't help us and He has mercy. He repents for the sake of His people, no matter how much we fail. We deserve the consequences of our failure to live according to God's covenant, our disobedience, our turning from Him to false gods. We deserve His judgment, but Jesus Christ has made us children rather than enemies, and by His blood we are saved.

We were God's enemies, but thanks to Jesus Christ we have been saved from sin and death. God has opened the gates of heaven for us and we are invited into His Kingdom forever. The upcoming week will be filled with difficult stories. We don't like to see Jesus go from Triumphant Entry to the cross and grave. As a matter of fact, many people will skip over those middle parts. They'll attend Palm Sunday and Easter without experiencing the abandonment and brutality in between.

But it is good for us to see, to hear, the Passion again and again and again because it is there that we can truly see ourselves as we are. We are the leaders who battle against Jesus from the beginning. We are the crowd that slowly slips away because we can't quite handle everything He says. We are the disciples who decide that following Jesus is just too hard. We are Judas and Peter and the rest of the Twelve who make mistakes in their relationship with Jesus. We are even like Mary, John and the women who were invisible during the whole affair because they had no power or authority. Our own sinfulness puts us alongside all those who abandoned Jesus on that day. We deserved to be judged amongst His enemies.

But God did not abandon Jesus, and in the end we see His plan fulfilled. God took Jesus, whom we all rejected in our own way, and made Him the cornerstone of our life. We see how He had promised all along to make these things happen for our sakes. We see how we mistakenly expected God to do what we want rather than what He knows is best. With our hindsight, we know it was all for good. And that knowledge fills our hearts with joy and peace, and we can join in singing with the psalmist, "I will give thanks unto thee; for thou hast answered me, and art become my salvation." This is indeed God's work and it is marvelous. This is the day which God has made, not only the joyful day of Resurrection, but every day including the day Jesus died on the cross. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

*** I highly recommend that we all spend time this week reading and pondering the Passion story, especially if you are unable to attend any of the midweek worship that will be available. Many churches will read at least part of Luke chapters 22-23 during Sunday's worship, but it would be good to read it again. And again. And again. Listen to the story that saved your life and know how much God loves you so that you can rejoice and be glad.

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