Costly Obedience: The Strange World of Shouting Rocks and Unexpected Kings

Sermon delivered on Palm (Passion) Sunday C, March 20, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Luke 19.28-40. Passion gospel: Luke 22.14-23.56.

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, even though Luke never explicitly describes Jesus’ entry into the holy city nor does he mention the crowd’s use of palms. What Luke does tell us is that the crowd proclaimed Jesus as king, a detail neither Matthew or Mark mentions. But as all our lessons remind us in one way or another, this is a king who is going to suffer great affliction. So what’s really going on here? After all, kings don’t usually suffer; if anything, they usually cause suffering! What we are looking at in the texts is the theme of obedience to God about which Paul speaks in our epistle lesson being played out dramatically and paradoxically in the last week of our Lord’s earthly life, and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

That Luke believes Jesus is Israel’s long-expected king returning to his people is evident in how he tells the story. In addition to reporting that the people proclaim him to be king (not that the kingdom of God has come with Jesus), he 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). Moreover, in telling us that people spread their garments on the road for Jesus, Luke is probably alluding to 2 Kings 9.13 where the people spread their garments on the road when they acknowledged Jehu as king. Clearly Luke is giving us all kinds of hints that this is no ordinary event we are witnessing. We are seeing the return of God to his people as their king in the person of Jesus.

And of course, most folks in Jesus’ day believed that this king would also be God’s appointed Messiah or anointed one. 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, as made clear by his mode of entry, 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, 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. Second, most first-century Jews expected the Messiah to cleanse the Temple and reestablish right religious order in the land. And while Jesus would cleanse the Temple and pronounce judgment on it, Luke makes clear that he had come to repudiate popular notions of what God’s Messiah would look like and do. In choosing to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus was demonstrating that his notion of Messiah was more aligned with that of the Suffering Servant about which Isaiah speaks, a man who would speak God’s truth about God’s kingdom to God’s people and who would suffer because of it. As Luke has emphasized since late in chapter 9 of his gospel, Jesus was coming to Jerusalem at Passover to bring about a great exodus from humankind’s slavery to sin and death just as the Lord had brought about his people’s exodus from their slavery in Egypt at the first Passover. The crowd unwittingly acknowledged this when they proclaimed “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” There would indeed be peace in heaven, peace between God and his sin-sick and rebellious human creatures, paralleling what the angels proclaimed in Luke’s Christmas narrative (Luke 2.14).

But Jesus would not accomplish this peace by conventional power wielded by earthly kings. He would accomplish it obediently through his suffering and death, by his blood shed for us, as prophesied in Isaiah 52.13-53.12. Here we see God himself returning to his wayward people to rescue us from evil, sin, and death. As Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, our Lord followed the path of obedience even to the point of suffering death on a cross. And as we heard in the Passion gospel, that obedience was terribly costly to our Lord. See him now in the garden, on the verge of having to bear the God-awful punishment for the sins of the entire world, for your sins and mine. Listen to him plead with the Father to spare him from the cup of God’s wrath against our sins that he must drink. Watch as our Lord literally sweats blood in agonized anticipation of facing God’s terrible but just judgment, a judgment that is rightly ours, to set things right again. Listen to his prayers as he faces the powers of evil that have assembled to do their worst to him. But he had to be obedient to his Father’s good will. Only he, the sinless one, could become sin for us so that we could live. Only God himself could break the power of evil that has held this world in its grips ever since our first ancestors’ sin unleashed its terrible presence in the world. As our own St. Augustine observed in his Confessions, “Proud man would have died had not a lowly God found him.” To be sure, there is much we do not understand about our Lord’s passion on the cross. But God help us if we ever stop believing in its power to heal and save us from the ravages of evil and our slavery to sin and death.

As we watch our Lord struggle with his mission, we are struck with the realization that here is a God who really cares about us. He is not solving the problem of evil and sin at arm’s length, passing it off for someone else to fix. No, here is God become man, Jesus the Messiah, entering the bloody pit to suffer and die for us so that we might live. It was only through the cross that the power of evil could be broken and we could be delivered from our slavery to freedom. This is the cost of obedience. This is the power of love made known to us in the shedding of Christ’s blood and the breaking of his body as he would tell his disciples at the Last Supper. If you want to know what the heart of God the Father looks like, look no further than Gethsemane and Calvary. See God the Son struggle with the horror of his mission for our sake. Can you love a God like this? Can you likewise obey him so that you too can follow his path to glory?

This is the challenge for each one of us today. We must either declare Jesus to be Lord and Messiah as Paul did or we will deny that he is and reject the costly path of obedience, of denying ourselves, taking up our cross each day, and following Jesus in his path of suffering for the sake of the world. But even if we deny our Lord, it will not change the fact that he is Lord and Messiah, whom every tongue will proclaim one day and to whom every knee will bend. As Jesus would tell his opponents that fateful day, creation itself will proclaim him Messiah and Lord, precisely because he is.

People today are just as divided over Jesus as they were in his day. Those who deny him today still try to silence those of us who proclaim him Messiah, just as Jesus’ opponents did in his day. But Luke tells us that if we listen to creation itself, the very handiwork of God, we will know who is on the side of right and truth. But we must do more than pay lip service to Jesus. We must proclaim Jesus is Lord by our obedience to him. We must continue to develop the mind of Christ by our love for him and each other. We must show his mercy, compassion, love, and selflessness. And yes, we must learn to suffer for his sake when he calls us to do so, confident that God will vindicate us just as he did Jesus. This is not for the faint of heart, my beloved, but it is the only path to real life and rediscovering our real humanity.

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 yet 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. Keep watch with Peter as our Lord is arrested and darkness descends on God’s world. Come to the Stations of the Cross before the Good Friday liturgy and relive our Lord’s passion and suffering. Then afterwards, look with sorrow on the cross of Calvary, 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, the turning point of all history, 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.