Passion Sunday: A Most Unusual Day in the Life of a Most Unusual King

Sermon delivered on the Sunday of the Passion of our Lord (Palm Sunday), year B, 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; Mark 11.1-11, 14.1-15.47.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What are we to make of a celebration like Palm Sunday? It starts in triumph and ends in tragedy. And what does this tell us about Jesus, our Lord and King? Who and what exactly are we celebrating today, and why? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

Palm Sunday is a strange day, is it not? We start in a festive and celebratory mood with palm branches and processions and shouts of God saves (hosannas) and all that. But we end the day in catastrophe, with a crucifixion. We’re all for the first part but not so keen on the second. Given our propensity to focus on the positive and expunge the negative by denying it in our lives, most of us would be perfectly happy to go straight to Easter from the first half of our liturgy this morning. But the ancient liturgical wisdom of the Church won’t let us do that. While most of us call today Palm Sunday, the actual liturgical title for today is The Sunday of the Passion, and with the reading of the full Passion narrative of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are reminded in a painful and compelling way that we don’t get to Easter without first going to Calvary. There can be no Easter without Good Friday and the reading of our Passion narrative provides an in-your-face reminder that our Lord Jesus, the Son of God, God become human, was betrayed, abandoned, condemned, and put to death in the most demeaning and degrading manner ever invented by humans. So what are we to make of all that?

Well, first, there can be no doubt that St. Mark wants us to see that Jesus understood himself to be Israel’s long-promised Messiah, or God’s anointed one. But clearly our Lord saw the role of Messiah differently from that of most of his contemporaries, his chosen twelve included. Most Israelites of Jesus’ day expected the Messiah to do three things when he came. First, the Messiah would free God’s people Israel from their oppression to foreign dominance, in this case the Romans. Second, the Messiah would cleanse the Temple and restore right religious activity there; and third, the Messiah would establish God’s kingdom on earth by ruling as God’s king. And while almost every one of Jesus’ contemporaries expected God to return to his people as God promised, almost no one expected God to do so in the person of the Messiah.

Consistent with God’s promise to return to God’s people to rescue them from their oppression, Jesus chose to act out the prophecy of Zechariah 9.9, entering Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a warhorse. Jesus would indeed come to free God’s people, but not by military force because the Romans weren’t the real enemy. Sin and Evil were (and are). And so Jesus would free us by shedding his blood for us. In other words, as both our OT and epistle lessons make clear, Jesus would free us from our slavery to Sin by his suffering and humble obedience to the will of God. This completely violates our expectations of how an all-powerful God would act on our behalf. Everybody knows that “might makes right” and if God were going to break the power of Sin over us and destroy the forces of evil and their human minions, God would do so by a mighty act of power, just like God did when freeing his people from their slavery in Egypt. This very nature of Jesus’ kingly rule is the first way our expectations about him are violated. We never expected to see God coming to us riding on a donkey or later being nailed to a tree, and St. Mark hints darkly that we are not alone in our violated expectations by suggesting that the rulers and people of Jerusalem were not there to greet Jesus on his arrival to Jerusalem. Instead of cheering crowds, Jesus entered the Temple alone and looked around at everything before he retired to Bethany for the night. There were no crowds, no praise, no enthusiasm for Jesus in Jerusalem, only silence—the silence of the anger we often feel when our deeply-held expectations are violated. Not even the Son of God is off limits to this kind of anger, especially from his contemporaries.

This understanding of the true nature of Jesus’ kingship prepares us to examine St. Mark’s Passion narrative to see how God intends to rescue us from our real enemies, the enemies of Sin and Death, that have enslaved us all. Like all the gospel writers, St. Mark wants us to consider the truth about Jesus and what happened on the cross by telling us his story. Consequently, almost 20 percent of Mark’s gospel (119 out of 678 total verses) is dedicated to the Passion narrative that we just read. We’d better pay attention to that. While we don’t have time to explore all that the evangelist wants to tell us, one thing we can see is that St. Mark invites us to follow Jesus to the foot of his cross, carrying with us all our hurts and fears and anxieties and brokenness and violated expectations about God and God’s will for us, not to mention God’s character and heart. There we will see, perhaps surprisingly and in further violation of our expectations, how God the Father has chosen, with the full agreement and cooperation of God the Son, to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and Death. How so, you ask? I’m glad you do. It will allow me to finish this sermon in a timely manner.

St. Mark (not to mention Isaiah and St. Paul) is inviting us to see and contemplate the love and justice of God being poured out on the cross for us. When we kneel at the foot of the cross, we are reminded of how terribly costly is God’s love for us. The cross did not cost us a thing; it cost God everything. Here we see how a good and loving God chooses to deal the powers of Sin and Evil without destroying us in the process. As we saw two weeks ago, God cannot possibly be a loving and good God if he turns a blind eye to all that is evil and wrong in God’s world. Sin and Evil, along with those who commit them, must be judged and God’s justice must be served. But how can God do that without condemning us for all eternity, given that we are all thoroughly sin-stained with no hope of fixing ourselves? St. Mark gives us the answer in his Passion narrative. The Son of God, God become human, willingly took on the collective weight of our sins and bore them in his body on the tree. As St. Paul tells us in Romans 8.3-4, on the cross, God condemned our sin in the flesh so as to spare us from his just and terrible condemnation. Jesus, in a moment of human weakness, asked to be spared this terrible task, but willingly and obediently took it on out of his great love for us. On the cross we see the Son of God dying a godforsaken and degrading death, naked, exposed, and nailed to a cross to die. We hear his terrible Cry of Dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and our very hearts are pierced with shame and sorrow knowing that we are watching our Savior die on account of our sins and the evil we commit. As we watch, we are shocked that we are seeing God’s justice being executed in the pierced and bloodied body of our Lord, that God himself is bearing his justice to spare us from having to suffer it. This too is completely unexpected.

So where does this leave us? What does Jesus’ Passion have to offer those of us who live today in an increasingly unhinged world? First, we are invited to see that in Jesus’ death, we are witnessing the turning point in history, even if it is riddled with enigmas, uncertainties, and questions. Note carefully that Jesus asked his Father to take the cup of God’s wrath from him but that his prayers were not answered. Jesus had to go to the cross if we were to be saved. We’ve just looked at why that was necessary but we should consider that this also represents our reality living in a broken and fallen world with all its enigma, uncertainties, and darkness. For example, we see all kinds of violence and injustice and hurt and suffering. We pray for help or relief but no answer comes, at least in the form we desire, and we don’t know what to make of it. We wonder if God really doesn’t care or has abandoned us. Yet the NT is adamant in its insistence that on the cross God defeated the powers of Evil and the power of sin was broken (cf. Colossians 2.15ff). Isn’t St. Mark telling us that Jesus experienced exactly this contradiction in his Passion? Salvation was achieved in the midst of his Cry of Dereliction! There is much we don’t know and much we do not see in God’s good purposes for us. So like Jesus, St. Mark invites us to be obedient to our Lord’s will and to imitate Jesus in his humility, even though we will certainly suffer for doing so, even though there are times in our lives that make us cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Life and our life of faith is anything but cut and dried, but we are rescued nevertheless. Are you ready to follow your Lord Jesus in humble obedience to his good and perfect will for you, even in the face of suffering, death, and uncertainty?

The NT encourages us to answer that question with a resounding yes! Hang on, its writers tell us. Don’t abandon your faith, even in the face of all life’s uncertainties and darkness, even in the midst of your own doubts, sorrows, and fears, because Easter is coming, where we catch a glimpse of the power of death being destroyed forever. But without Good Friday, Easter loses its power because without Good Friday the powers of Sin and Evil remain undefeated. Good Friday needs Easter and Easter needs Good Friday. We will never be able to fully plumb the depths of the meaning of our Lord’s crucifixion, but we are given enough to let us see the love of God poured out for us and to remind us that on the cross, especially in the Cry of Dereliction, we are witnessing the deepest identification of God the Son with our darkest and most profound sorrows and suffering. This is a God worth loving and obeying, my beloved.

All this is why I exhort you to make the story of Holy Week your story first-hand. Come with our Lord to the Upper Room Thursday night where he will give his disciples a meal as the means to help them understand what his impending passion and death is all about. Watch with him in the garden as he struggles and shrinks from the gigantic task of allowing the powers of Evil to do their worst to him, and the prospect of having to bear the judgment of God for the sins of the entire world, your sins and mine. Our own personal sins can be a terrible burden to us. Try to imagine having to bear the sins of the entire world. Come, therefore, and venerate the cross on Good Friday as you ponder and contemplate the death of the Son of God for your sake and the sake of the world. Such contemplation demands silence, desolation, and humility. Was there ever any suffering like our Lord’s (and if you answer no to this question, there’s a good chance you don’t really understand the magnitude of what happened on Good Friday)? Grieve with his first followers as they laid his crucified and dead body in the tomb with no expectation of Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday is the time to do just that, culminating with the Easter Vigil and the reading of the story of God’s salvation on Saturday evening. It simply won’t do to observe any of this from afar. It’s as unedifying as listening to one of Fr. Bowser’s sermons. No, if you really love your Lord and have even an inkling as to what great love has effected your salvation and changed the course of history forever, how can you possibly stay away from our Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil services? Easter Sunday will come with its great joy. But let none of us be too hasty to celebrate the great Paschal Feast without first pondering and agonizing and reflecting on the great and astonishing love of God that flows from God’s very heart as it was pierced by a Roman soldier’s spear. To be sure, it isn’t a pretty or fun thing to do. But if you commit yourself to walking with Jesus this Holy Week it will change you in ways you cannot imagine or envision, and for the good. It will change you because it is the Good News of our salvation, now and for all eternity. May we all observe a holy and blessed Holy Week together as God’s people at St. Augustine’s. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.