Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion
John 12:12-19
Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 118:19-29
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47

And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.

The Gospel lesson from Mark for the Sunday of the Passion is lengthy. It covers two complete chapters and we see the story go from the threat of the plot to kill Jesus to the fulfillment of that threat. We hear the entire of the Passion from Mark’s point of view. Beginning at the first verse we see that the plot thickens as the chief priests and scribes try to find a way to kill Jesus. They needed to be sneaky, however, because they knew that the crowds would be upset by the arrest. They said, “Not during the feast, because there might be a riot of the people.”

Hindsight is twenty-twenty vision, so we know the whole story. We know what happens at the end. We know that even as Jesus died on the cross, He lives and in Him we have life. However, sometimes it is good for us to walk the journey completely, waiting and watching as if we are ignorant of the future. Sometimes it is good to put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived it. They didn’t know what would happen on Easter. They didn’t even know at this point in the story what would happen on Good Friday.

Whispers of real danger were beginning to run through the people who were witnessing the actions of Jesus. He had done amazing things, including the impossible raising of Lazarus. The leaders were nervous because the people were crying out for a savior. They wanted a king that would save them from the Romans and make the nation great again. This kind of talk threatened the lives and lifestyles of those in control. It was not just selfishness and greed that made them hostile to Jesus; they knew a revolution would be dangerous to the people.

They may have been afraid that they would lose their own power and authority, but they also perceived the danger Jesus posed to the nation of Israel and he wanted the council to consider everything. What they didn’t consider is that the path they were taking was exactly according to God’s plan. They thought that killing Jesus would end the danger. Killing Jesus would do something more extraordinary.

Jesus didn’t help the situation. Instead of quietly slipping into Jerusalem for the Passover feast, Jesus came in a very public and extraordinary way. He fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament by arriving as a triumphant King, filling the people with such hope. But He wasn’t the kind of king that they expected. He is the King willing to spill His own blood to set us free from the real oppressor: sin and death. This is reason for us to rejoice. Unfortunately, those who were there on the first Palm Sunday did not really understand the meaning of this promise. They rejoiced as Jesus went into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, righteous and humble, because they thought that Jesus would deliver them from the Romans. The cheered as He entered the city, threw down palms and their cloaks along His path. Even His disciples did not understand until after the Resurrection.

He could have done everything they wanted. He could have called down legions of angels to defeat the Romans. He could have pushed Herod off the throne; He could have even defeated Tiberius and toppled the entire Roman Empire. But that was not His purpose. He humbled Himself even unto death, giving up the glory of heaven for the torture of the cross to serve you and me. We did not deserve His love and grace; we will never deserve His love and grace. He did not do it to reward us for our goodness. He did it because our Father the Creator made us good and though we were the ones who were unfaithful, He desired restoration. God sent Jesus so that we could be saved from ourselves, forgiven for our sins and set free from sin and death to live in His Kingdom forever.

The leaders were worried on that first Palm Sunday because it seemed as though the world was willing to follow Jesus. The people cried out in celebration as He entered the city, praising God for finally sending the Messiah. The jubilation did not last very long, however, which we see in the story of Jesus’ Passion. They were easily turned by rumors and lies. They were shocked by the words and actions of Jesus who did not act like one who was determined to take the throne. He acted like One who set His feet on a path that led nowhere except death. Wisdom incarnate was foolish in their minds and they looked for another who would do what they wanted and expected the Messiah to do.

My mom always said, “If you don’t give me flowers when I am alive, don’t bother to send any to my funeral.” She insisted that she’d rather enjoy the flowers while she is alive. “I can’t enjoy them after I’m dead!” She had plenty of flowers at her funeral, given by friends and loved ones, yet her request always made me wonder why we do so. Others must do so, also, because there are often requests for donations to be made to favorite charities in lieu of flowers.

There are several reasons why flowers are sent to funerals. First of all, in days long gone, the flowers helped to mask the smell of the decomposing body. Most bodies are now embalmed, so it isn’t as important, but we continue the practice because flowers also are a visual expression of love, sympathy, and respect. They are means of lending support and sharing the burden of grief. Some people have begun sending flowers or plants to the family rather than the funeral home so that they can be enjoyed.

Another reason for sending flowers is the image it conveys. One of the most beloved hymns for use in funerals is “In the Garden.” The flowers give a visual and olfactory impression of being there in the Garden, walking with the Lord as we wish our loved one a final farewell. An article I read said, “Flowers create a background of warmth and beauty which adds to the dignity and consolation of the funeral service. Those who have attended services where there were no flowers have expressed the feelings that something was missing... that the funeral was depressing.” Funerals are a time of sadness, but for those who are Christian it is also a time of joy. Flowers add to the celebration of life and remind us in the midst of our grief of the promise of new life.

We get the same impression on Easter Sunday morning when our sanctuaries are filled with pots of lilies. Our visual and olfactory senses are heightened and we experience the joy of new life that is promised in the empty tomb. The scent also brings to mind a story found in today’s Gospel reading.

The chapter continues with a gathering of Jesus’ disciples and a gracious act by one of the women. She had pure nard which she poured over his head. Anointing a body at death was a loving, intimate and respectful ritual. As soon as a person was dead, they closed the eyes, gave their loved one a kiss and washed the body. They often used perfume like nard, myrrh or aloe. The woman chose to do this before He was dead and Jesus honored her sacrifice. I suppose, like my mom, He preferred to experience the love when He was alive rather than later when He would not experience it at all.

Some of the disciples were upset by the waste, but Jesus used the experience as another opportunity to talk about His death. Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want to, you can do them good; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body beforehand for the burying. Most certainly I tell you, wherever this Good News may be preached throughout the whole world, that which this woman has done will also be spoken of for a memorial of her.”

It was difficult for Jesus to accept the acclamation of the crowds on that first Palm Sunday. He knew what they didn't know. He knew that His purpose was not as they expected. He knew that within days those screaming fans would be persecuting Him. We are different because we understand that they are celebrating for all the wrong reasons. They think they’ve found a king; we know that we’ve been sent the King. They think that they’ve found a savior; we know that He gave up everything to be our Savior. They thought that they found someone who would honor their wishes; we know that He obeyed only God. We see the parade through the eyes of the Resurrection. We also know the only way to get there is through the cross.

There are so many important and intimate moments in the two chapters of the Passion story in Mark that it is hard to mention them all in this devotion. We see Jesus sharing the Passover with His disciples, Judas betraying Jesus, Jesus’ prayers, His arrest, Peter’s denial. We see Jesus delivered to the authorities and tried, mocked, crucified and buried. It is a heartbreaking story, perhaps even more so after the six weeks of Lent. We have been reminded that we are sinners and that this Passion was not just for our sake. It was our fault. Jesus might have been put to death by the hands of the Jewish and Roman leaders, but we are just as guilty as they. He died because we are sinners.

I try to imagine how Jesus felt during those final days. He may have received their praise and worship on Palm Sunday, but He knew it would not last. Beneath the confident façade was a man who knew that His true purpose was just days away. I don't think we can even imagine the pain He was experiencing deep in His heart. He loved every one of those people who were crying out and throwing palms. He loved every one even though He knew that they would all abandon Him in just a few days. He loved them so much, and us too, that He carried each of our burdens with Him to the cross.

Things were quite chaotic in Jesus’ day. The Jews thought they understood what God expected and how they should live. They had interpreted and reinterpreted the Law to the point that it was so burdensome that most people could not live according to it, but they used that unrighteousness as an excuse for the oppression of the Jews. They thought that surely if the people had been living up to God’s Law, then they would not be living under the rule of a foreign power. If the people repented, God would send a Messiah to defeat the Romans and restore Israel. They were looking for a powerful, military solution to their problem. Many came forward as false Messiahs, promising peace through war.

However, they missed the prophecy that described the Messiah as a suffering servant, as a humble and peacekeeping king. They expected battles, so when Christ came in peace bringing grace, forgiveness and healing, they did not recognize Him. They wanted a king to ride in on chariots with an army.

Jesus did not come into the world ranting and raving about sin. He did not come with swords and chariots to drive the unrighteous out of Jerusalem to make room for a new king. He did not even come to make changes to the earthbound control of His people. He came to show them the kingdom of God. He did this by quietly calling people into His presence, by speaking stories about faith and by touching the lives of those who crossed His path. He did not force people to follow, but rather drew them into His heart and called them to follow.

Is the world peaceful? No, there is war in many countries. There is even war and chaos to be found in our homes, neighborhoods and cities. We are human and we react in human ways against the difficulties caused by the human condition. However, there is a peace in this world that is not seen in the news headlines. It is seen in the hearts of men who believe in Jesus Christ. It is a peace that comes from the hope we have in Christ through His blood. The prophecy in Zechariah was fulfilled on Palm Sunday. After this fulfillment, Jesus suffered the greatest violence man can do against man. He was crucified despite His innocence. But in His death and resurrection, we find true peace. It is a lasting peace because it takes us into eternal life. We may never see even a day without some war in our world, but we can rest assured that the peace of Christ which passes all human understanding will last forever.

Paul tells us, “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus...” We are to have the same humility in our own lives, taking on the nature of a servant. We cannot follow Jesus to the cross, but we can humble ourselves and become obedient to God’s Will for each of us. The answers to our prayers might include humiliation, persecution and suffering. It might even include death, but we willingly accept all these circumstances because Jesus did it first for our sake. Now we can see Him exalted, as was written in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

As we look at the time between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we realize that far more happened than a quick change of heart. Jesus spent those 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 a king, 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.

The psalmist writes, “Open to me the gates of righteousness. I will enter into them. I will give thanks to Yah. This is the gate of Yahweh; the righteous will enter into it.” Who are the righteous? In the days of Jesus, the righteous were the ones who had the power, who had the appearance of righteousness. They knew the scriptures and they knew Law. Yet they did not know God. They did not recognize Him in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. They rejected Jesus; they cast Him away to the cross.

We are Easter people, given life because He was raised, but the Passion is too important to ignore. If we truly listen to the story, we 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. We were there, not in flesh, but in the same nature of those who actually witnessed the events. We need to experience it, too, to truly understand our sinfulness and receive the grace of God’s answers to our prayers. He will deliver us from the hand of our enemies. He just might not do it the way we want Him to.

During the reading of the Passion story we look back on the events of that horrific week. We might think that the Jesus suffered most when He experienced the physical pain of the cross and death. But the greatest suffering came at that moment when the weight of the world’s sin was on His shoulders which made it impossible for God to look upon His beloved Son. Jesus cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At that moment we see His humanness. He may have suffered the pain of all His wounds for hours, but it was that one moment when He was truly alone. That was when He suffered the most.

Jesus continued in the will of the Father, even though it seemed uncharacteristic, unmerciful, unloving. He did not save Himself even though the crowd shouted that He should. Instead, 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. He was not willing to follow the cries of the crowd; they were fickle, following every wind. They did not know what they were doing. He had to die for God’s promises to be complete. His amazing grace was realized through the most incredible act of sacrifice: the beloved Son, the Priest-King, offered Himself as the Lamb of God for the forgiveness of all sin for all men in all time. Everything Jesus went through was nothing compared to the promise of God’s unfailing love for His people. Jesus humbly accepted the Will of God and obediently suffered for our sake.

We are about to enter into Holy Week having reached the end of our Lenten journey. The Passion story reminds us that Jesus was both divine and human. He was the Son of God, but He was also the Son of Man. He enjoyed being loved by those He loved. He knew what He had to do for the sake of the world, but He loved His disciples so much that He didn’t want to abandon them just as they needed Him most. We would rather ignore the reality of the Passion. He was humiliated by the people He loved, even His closest friends. He faced the temptations we face. He prayed the same prayers; He asked God to take the cup, a prayer we can all admit to praying. We like seeing Jesus as the Priest-King, but we are uncomfortable with the image of the sacrificial Lamb. Yet it is that Lamb that has fulfilled all God’s promises.

Take time to read the Passion story according to Mark over the next week or so. Reread it. Reflect on it. Hear God’s grace in the midst of the horror. Consider what it would be like to be the woman with the perfume, to be Judas or the priests, to be Peter in the courtyard. Experience important and intimate moments of the Passion along with the disciples. Feel the pain that Jesus felt both in His body and in His spirit. Walk with Him, remembering that Jesus did it all for you and me.

The disciples, crowds and leaders did not know how the story would end, but even though we have twenty-twenty vision, we must see the sacrifice of Jesus with the same eyes as those two thousand years ago to appreciate that we, too, were among the crowds who honored Him one day and rejected Him the next. Even His closest friends did not know how to deal with the reality of Jesus’ life and death. How can we expect to understand our own place in this story if we do not experience it as they did? So, let us walk with our Lord and see it through His eyes, to know it through His heart, to experience it in His presence as if we were there. Then we will see as they did, and remember when He is resurrected what He truly did for us all.

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