Sermon delivered on Passion (Palm) Sunday B, March 29, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Mark 11.1-11, 14.1-15.47.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. It was (and remains) a bittersweet moment for him and us. On the one hand, we see Jesus’ followers proclaiming him as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. On the other hand, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem marks the beginning of his last week on earth. Some in the crowds who had proclaimed him as Messiah would be calling for his death a mere five days later. How could this happen and what does it have to do with us some 2000 years later? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
There can be little doubt about Jesus’ intentions as he entered Jerusalem that Sunday. In typical fashion, he acted out his understanding of what kind of Messiah God had called him to be for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Mark tells us that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey that had never before been ridden, thus acting out the prophecy found in Zechariah 9.9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The fact that the donkey had never been ridden is significant because such animals were always reserved for someone who held a special place of honor, usually kings. Indeed, Solomon had ridden his father David’s mule into Jerusalem as he was proclaimed king (1 Kings 1.32-48). And Mark invites us to see that the crowd also perceived that Jesus was entering Jerusalem as Messiah or God’s special and anointed leader. He reports that people cut palm branches, presumably to wave, and placed their cloaks in the road, something they would only have done to welcome a king. Not only this, in their shouts of acclamation they made reference to the kingdom of David, from whose lineage the Messiah would come. These actions suggest that the crowd following Jesus saw him as the promised Messiah as he rode into Jerusalem.
But what kind of Messiah? Here things get tricky because what the crowds expected of God’s Messiah and how Jesus saw his role as Messiah were not necessarily the same thing. While there was no uniform conception of what God’s Messiah (or Christ) would do and be when he came, most Jews of Jesus’ day believed that the Messiah would do at least two things. First, many believed (or at least hoped) that Messiah would come as a military hero to expel the hated Romans and reestablish their independence. This is what most Jews had in mind when they talked about God’s salvation, thus their use of the term hosanna, which means to save. Second, most first-century Jews expected the Messiah to cleanse the Temple and reestablish right religious order in the land.
But this is not how Jesus conceived his Messiahship as evidenced by his actions that day and later in the week. While he would indeed cleanse the Temple, the fact that he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in the manner of Zechariah’s prophecy suggests that Jesus in no way intended to be a conquering military hero. Rather, it suggests that Jesus had in mind the role of the humble and obedient Suffering Servant about whom we read in our OT lesson this morning. Jesus had come to Jerusalem, not to conquer and expel the Romans by military force, but to suffer and die for the sake of his people and the world, Romans included! He would free us from the ravages of evil, sin, and death by taking the weight of our collective sin on himself, thereby reconciling us to God. If you want to know definitively what God’s justice looks like, look no further than the cross. Jesus would defeat the power of evil by allowing the dark powers to gather and do their worst to him. Their wicked and evil fury would become dreadfully apparent as he hung naked and pierced on a cross, condemned as a false king and mocked by the very people he had come to save. We need to pay careful attention to this because in Jesus’ death we are given a glimpse of the very heart of God and his intentions for us as his people.
As Paul would tell us in his great hymn about Christ that we read in our epistle lesson this morning, Jesus did not consider his equality with God as a thing to be exploited. This was in stark contrast with Adam and Eve and the rest of us since, who try to become like God by attaining a knowledge of good and evil and acting like we know better than God in matters of life and how to live as fully human beings. How many of us desire to do God’s will at every turn, even when it becomes quite distasteful, even when it requires us to suffer actively and sometimes to give our lives for his sake? Not me and and I suspect not many of you. No, we want to be God’s equals and exploit that equality so that we will have an upper hand in all that we do and over those with whom we must interact. And we all know how that has turned out. War and terrorism rage on unabated and innocent people continue to be killed and murdered. We love to hate our enemies and wish them harm. Look at the various social media. We refuse to forgive those who wrong us, typically out of some sense of self-righteous indignation. We insist on our own way and seek to demonize those who oppose us. We look the other way at injustice, especially when we benefit from it. We are indignant when we cannot figure out the mysterious ways of God, especially when it involves human suffering, to name just a few.
But this is not the path our Lord took. This is not the kind of Messiah he would be. This is not the way of humble obedience, the way of the cross. Jesus chose this route because this was the only way the Father could rescue us from evil, sin, and death without destroying us in the process. Jesus had to bear our sins on the tree so that we could live. Jesus had to allow the powers and principalities to do their worst to him so that they could be defeated instead of defeating and destroying us. He had bigger fish to fry than just expelling Rome from Israel. Jesus had a world to rescue so that God’s good creation would ultimately be healed and restored, and the only way to accomplish that was to go to the cross and die for us.
This meant that Jesus had to humble himself and obey his Father’s will as we read in our passion narrative and as Paul observes. The means of our rescue is humble obedience, even to the point of death. It is evident in everything that Jesus did during Holy Week, especially at the Last Supper, timed to coincide with the great Jewish celebration of the Exodus that commemorated God’s dramatic rescue of his people from their slavery in Egypt. Jesus would explain the meaning of his death by giving them a meal and by his death and resurrection he would accomplish the ultimate rescue of rescues, the ultimate Passover of Passovers.
And in Gethsemane we see Jesus shrink from the fearsome task that God called him to do by asking that the cup be taken from him. But if God took the cup from Jesus, if God refused to take the sins of the world on himself, your sins and mine, we would still be dead in our sins and without hope. And then of course we hear the terrible cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”, and we see the appalling cost of actually bearing our sins. God help us if we ever become so familiar with this story of God’s rescue that we become complacent when hearing it. God help us. Had Jesus counted his equality with God as something he should exploit, if he had refused to humble himself and obey the Father’s will to bring healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace with the Father by dying for the world, for you and me, we would now be lost. As our own Augustine observed in his Confessions, “Proud humans would have died had not a lowly (humble) God found them.” This is the kind of king who entered Jerusalem on Passion Sunday all those years ago. Are we ready to follow?
Maybe. Maybe not. Let us be honest and acknowledge this humble obedience thingy gets very tricky for us when it comes to following Jesus because we generally want no part of it. Neither did the crowds of Jerusalem that week. They thought their idea of salvation was better than God’s. They wanted a conquering hero who was in line with their proud grasping to be equal with God. They couldn’t conceive of a suffering Messiah, let alone a crucified one, even though they had the basis for such a Messiah in the Servant passages in Isaiah and elsewhere.
And not much has changed since then because most of us usually don’t want to humble ourselves and obey God’s will in our lives, especially when we might have to suffer in doing so. Want proof? How do we treat our enemies? We send in the tanks with the intention to destroy them. On a more mundane level we curse our personal enemies and try to destroy them with ad hominem attacks. We work to accumulate all kinds of wealth while turning a blind eye to the poor and needy. Oh sure. We give some of our money to charities, but not to the point where we might have to do without. We are too busy beyond window dressing to really be bothered by those who have all kinds of emotional or physical baggage. When our marriages our in trouble, we are as quick to walk away as to really do the hard (and usually humble) work needed to repair them. In sum, we look to the ways of the world to fix our problems and ourselves, rather than looking to God because deep down, most of us really do think we know better than God. We are all about grasping equality with God.
But this is not the way of the cross. This is not having the mind of Christ. This is not denying ourselves and taking up our cross for the sake of others as well as ourselves. I’m not talking about being an emotional doormat or physical punching bag. I am talking about the willingness to humble ourselves and imitate our Lord Jesus in every aspect of our daily living. But we typically shrink from this because we are too pride-infected and influenced by our culture’s values and mores. Yet it is the consistent witness of Scripture, starting with our lessons today, that having the wisdom and humility to obey God is the only way to go. It is only when we are willing to live out the seeming paradox of emptying ourselves of any notion of false glory that we are somehow God’s equals rather than his image-bearing creatures, that God’s power can work in and through us.
We see our aversion to humbly obeying God illustrated in Scripture and in our own lives. We don’t see Jesus’ disciples going home after his crucifixion and partying like it was the eschaton. They didn’t thank God for his self-giving love made known on the cross. They didn’t understand that in Jesus’ death God had brought about their salvation. That would come later and only in light of the resurrection and 20-20 hindsight. Of course, it is easy for us to see good coming out of Jesus’ death because we still have that 20-20 hindsight as well as the God-given faith to believe our story, thanks be to God! But what about those things in our life for which we do not have 20-20 hindsight? Then what? Are we willing to obey our Lord’s command to us to humble ourselves and follow him? Here are some questions to help us with the answer. Do we really believe that our prayers are efficacious and that we must be at prayer in places where our world is in pain? For example, do we pray regularly for peace in the Ukraine and for an end to persecution of Christians by ISIS et al.? Do we persevere even when our prayers don’t seem to make a bit of difference as we read of new atrocities each day? Are we willing to seek peace with our personal enemies, even when it is costly and distasteful to us, even when they are overtly hostile to us, or do we dismiss such efforts as foolishness and a waste of time (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.18-25)? And what about suffering? As we work through our own suffering or the suffering of our loved ones, are we willing to acknowledge that while we cannot see why God allows suffering to continue in his world that maybe, just maybe, there are purposes beyond our ability to understand and that God is good to his promise to redeem all suffering? This is a massive challenge to our faith, but it gets to the very heart of humble obedience and this is extremely hard for us to accept. We would much rather blame God or dismiss him as being uncaring or irrelevant instead of acknowledging our limited ability to think and know and see as our Creator thinks and knows and sees (cf. Isaiah 55.6-11). How we answer these questions will give us an honest assessment of our readiness to be faithful imitators of our Lord. And if we bristle at any of this, it is a sure indication that we are not yet ready to put aside our desire to be equal with God.
But this is the path we are called to reject because our Lord Jesus rejected it and we are called to follow him by imitating (obeying) him. When we are willing to put aside our desire to be God’s equals and imitate Jesus’ humility in obeying the Father’s will, the same will God has for you and me when he calls us to be his kingdom workers, we will discover to our astonishment a new kind of power at our disposal. It is not the kind of power that will guarantee our selfish agendas will be fulfilled or that promises us health, wealth, and happiness. It is a power that will allow God to use us to build on the foundation of Jesus’ death and resurrection to bring about the birth of his promised new creation. It is the power of love, mercy, healing, and forgiveness. It is a power given us by the Holy Spirit who lives in us and who shapes us to be truly human beings because we belong to Jesus.
This is the king we are called to follow and this is what Holy Week and Easter call us to ponder. That is why it is so important for us to participate in this week’s events so that we can become part of that story and find fresh grace, strength, and hope as we continue to grow in our discipleship. So come and participate in the terrible and wonderful events of this week. Resolve to have the mind of Christ and let Holy Week and Easter remind you of the great love of God and the hope he has in store for us as his people. Come to Maundy Thursday and see Jesus’ humility being symbolized and imitated in foot washing. Give thanks that in the sacraments Jesus is really and powerfully present to you, regardless of who you are or what you might have done, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving. Look with sorrow on the cross of Calvary on Good Friday, but also with hope. Hear the culminating story of God’s great redemption of the world and you. See the love and justice of God poured out for you that you might have life and have it abundantly, and then come and venerate the cross. On Holy Saturday as we await our Lord’s resurrection, pause and reflect on the costly love of God and be reminded that our present perspective on the grand scheme of God’s rescue plan for us is necessarily limited by our finiteness and mortality. Come to the Easter Vigil that evening and hear the entire story of God’s redemption for his hurting and sin-sick world and its people. Give thanks that we worship a God who loves us and wants us to live with him forever, even when we do not or cannot see that love playing out in every aspect of our life. Then come on Easter Sunday to celebrate our Lord’s mighty resurrection and rejoice that God has counted you worthy to be part of his promised new world and called you to live and work to bring his healing love to those around you, terribly difficult and costly as that can be. Only when we learn how to be both cross-bearing and resurrection people will we learn that we have Good News, now and for all eternity. May you have a blessed and life-changing Holy Week and Easter this year. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.