Recognizing Our Visitation

Sermon delivered on Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) C, April 14, 2019 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: Luke 19.28-40; Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29; Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31. 9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Luke 22.14-23.56.

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

Today is the Sunday of the Passion, better known as Palm Sunday. For those of you who love to come to church to worship (and who doesn’t?), this is your day because you get two services for the price of one, and all under two hours. For newcomers to the Christian faith—and even for mature Christians like many of you are—today’s liturgy comes as a shock because we start out on a celebratory note with the liturgy of the Palms where we commemorate our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem as Israel’s Messiah with all its anticipation and hope, but we end with his passion and death. Hope and the utter death of hope, all within a breathtakingly short span of less than a week. Can you relate? What are we to make of this? This is what I want us to look at this morning. 

Now if you are wondering whether I am going to preach the equivalent of two sermons  since there are effectively two liturgies, you can relax. While there is much to plumb in our lessons, time does not permit me to give them the full attention they deserve. If I did, you would likely run out of patience and I would likely run out of stamina, despite the fact that I love hearing myself talk. My brilliant preaching would also overshadow Father Sang’s and Father Bowser’s mediocre and lackluster sermons on Holy Thursday and Good Friday respectively and steal their thunder, and I certainly don’t need them being all pouty and whiny with me this week, so we will only focus on a few key points in our lessons on which to reflect as we enter Holy Week. On a more serious note, I am aware of my sacred obligation to preach God’s word faithfully this morning because as Isaiah reminds us in our OT lesson, faithful preaching of God’s word sustains the weary, you and me.

To understand the dramatic turn of events from the hope and promise of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the desolation of his passion, we need to read what St. Luke tells us immediately after reporting Christ’s coming to Jerusalem. Hear the evangelist now:

But as [Jesus] came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes…because you did not recognize it when God visited you” (Luke 19.41-42, 44).

Did you catch the last sentence? You did not recognize it when God visited you. Our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem clearly signaled his intention to announce that he was (and is) Israel’s Messiah and ours. Acting out the prophecy contained in Zechariah 9.9 that spoke of the Messiah coming to Jerusalem on a donkey, the animal of choice for Israel’s kings, and choosing Passover, the time of God’s liberation of his people, to come to Jerusalem riding on a donkey, Jesus signaled that he believed himself to be the long-awaited Messiah. That in itself is not problematic and many people might have recognized the symbolism of Christ’s actions. So why did our Lord lament that his people did not recognize his coming? Because almost nobody expected the Messiah to be God himself. Rather, they expected the promised Messiah to be a human king and a conquering warrior who would drive out the hated goyim from their land, cleanse the Temple, and establish God’s rule. Jesus certainly did cleanse the Temple and pronounce God’s judgment on it, but he emphatically did not enter Jerusalem as a warrior to establish God’s kingdom. Instead, he was faithful to Zechariah’s prophecy, “Look, your king is coming to you…triumphant and victorious…yet he is humble, riding on a donkey…” (Zechariah 9.9b-emphasis added). Conquering heroes are rarely humble and war is rarely the way to peace. Our Lord indeed came to conquer and establish peace, but the enemy was not who his people expected and the way he would conquer his enemies was certainly not expected or even wanted. Even today, many of us who call ourselves Christian fail to recognize how God does business.

Like our Lord’s contemporaries, we want God to conquer by shock and awe, or to use biblical language, we want God to conquer with a mighty arm and outstretched hand to obliterate his enemies, who usually just happen to be our own enemies. After all, if God really is omnipotent, why mess around with evil in the world? If God really is all powerful, why not just wipe out the enemy and rule justly with an iron fist? Let’s face it, we like our mighty warriors and conquering heroes and not many of us count a crucified Messiah as one of those persons. In fact, we think quite the opposite. That is why St. Paul and the other NT writers speak about the cross as being a scandal and off-putting to people. In other words, we don’t recognize when God visits us because we are looking for the wrong things. Is it not ironic that Jesus pronounced creation’s recognition of him as Christ in the stones crying out but that God’s image-bearers couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize our only hope for peace and the good life? The disciples didn’t recognize God’s coming to them in weakness and humility as they argued who was the greatest on the very night Christ gave them and us the Holy Eucharist to explain his impending suffering and death. St. Peter didn’t recognize God’s coming to him when he boasted arrogantly that he would never deny his Lord, only to do so three times and weeping bitterly afterwards at his own failure. Judas failed to recognize God’s coming to him when he betrayed our Lord for a pittance of money. Neither did the Jewish religious leaders or Pilate or Herod recognize God’s presence in their midst when they mocked, humiliated, spat on, beat, and scourged our Lord. Neither did the crowds recognize God’s coming to them when they called for Pilate to condemn Jesus while insisting that he release a known murderer and terrorist. 

Nor do we recognize God’s coming to us when we buy into the alternative stories that our culture insists make for peace, or when we lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, pursue our own selfish interests, overlook (or ignore) injustices of all kinds, speak evilly of our neighbors and friends, not to mention our enemies, gossip and backbite, betray the confidence and trust of our brothers and sisters to pursue our own agendas, refuse to forgive those who wrong us, or ever admit we are wrong, all the while calling ourselves Christian and claiming to pick up our cross. We especially fail to recognize God’s coming among us when we arrogantly try to make ourselves equal with God by refusing to submit to his ways and will, instead pursuing vigorously our own will and fallen desires, and by minimizing the gravity of sin, excusing all kinds of bizarre and immoral behaviors in the name of tolerance and love and trying in vain to justify our own ungodly and immoral behaviors because deep down we believe that in the final analysis it really doesn’t matter to God and/or that God will forgive us because, well, we’re good people—unlike those who are truly evil—and God has to forgive us. Doing so denigrates what God has done for us in Christ and effectively calls God a liar. The creature pronounces judgment on the Creator. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we set ourselves up as self-righteous judges over others or that we shouldn’t be gracious to those who pursue false lifestyles, or that we should not forgive those who truly wrong us, whether or not they repent of their sin against us. We must do so because that is what God has done for us in Christ. What I am suggesting is that if we are to recognize God’s presence among us, we must see God for who God has revealed himself to be in the Old and New Testaments. 

And who is that God? He is an all-powerful God to be sure. Just ask the Egyptians who followed God’s people into the Red Sea at the Exodus (Exodus 14) or just look at the starry host and be amazed at the incomprehensible size, beauty, and power of the universe that God created out of nothing. Just ask the first disciples who encountered the risen Christ that first Easter Sunday. Nothing is too hard or impossible for God (Jeremiah 32.17; Romans 4.17). But as all our lessons this morning proclaim, God often shows his power in weakness and humility and here we must keep in mind the overarching story of Scripture. That story is about how a good God is going about restoring his good creation and creatures from the ravages of Sin and Evil. We’re all familiar with this story because we are confronted with the consequences of Sin and Evil, both ours and others, every day; and in dealing with the darkness of Sin and Evil we often fail to recognize God’s presence among us because we look for strength, not weakness. We see loved ones suffer and die. We deal with all kinds of hurt and heartache. We see the world in which we live becoming increasingly chaotic and we wonder why God has failed to act or where God is in it all. 

What we fail to account for, however, is God’s word that reveals at least a partial answer to our “why” questions. Before we look at this, however, let us acknowledge that some of our most profound “why” questions do not have answers this side of the grave. Perhaps they never will. We aren’t told, for example, why a good and loving God allows the power of Evil to operate in his world and that can be extremely disconcerting to those of us afflicted by Evil. What Scripture reveals to us, especially in the NT, is what God is doing about Evil. The short answer, as both Isaiah and St. Paul proclaim in our lessons, is that God has chosen to defeat the dark powers of Evil and Sin and to conquer death in and through human weakness and utter humility.The gospels tell us this in story and the epistle writers of the NT interpret that story for us, as, e.g., St. Paul does when he tells us that God became human so God could condemn our sin in the flesh and free us from its tyranny (Romans 8.1-4). We struggle to believe this story and the NT’s interpretation of it because life is not always so cut and dried. We are promised that on the cross Sin and Evil have been conquered, but we see both running rampant in the world and often in our own lives. Like the cynical criminal on the cross, we are tempted to chide Christ and berate him for not saving us when he already has. St. Luke tells us as much when he tells us the curtain in the Temple that separated the holy of holies—God’s space from the rest of the Temple space that none but the high priest could enter and then only once a year because of the corrupting presence of human sin—was torn in two. In telling us this, St. Luke is telling us that Christ’s death opened the way for us to live in God’s holy presence forever. You want peace with God? Christ’s death is the only way you’ll ever have it. But we don’t believe this. We focus on all that’s wrong with the world and us and conclude God hasn’t addressed the problem of Evil or is indifferent to our suffering. We fail to see Jesus, God become human, weeping over the sins of his people, as he rides into Jerusalem and sees that his people (us included) have failed to recognize that he has come there to die for their sins (and ours), just as the Scriptures said he would, so that we all will be free from Sin’s enslaving tyranny and God’s terrible condemnation of our sins that results in our death (Romans 8.1). We fail to recognize God’s healing presence among us in the person and power of the Holy Spirit, a presence that is only made possible by the sacrificial and atoning death of Jesus Christ. We want to discount all this, in part, because we delude ourselves into thinking that we can make ourselves right by following the rules so that we don’t need Christ’s blood shed for us. We couldn’t be more wrong because we are utterly sin-infested and without the ability to heal ourselves. Without Christ’s blood shed for us, we all remain under the terrible judgment of God with no hope of reprieve. When we fail to see God’s presence among us: naked, utterly scourged and humiliated, dying on a cross, bearing God’s just wrath on our sins so that we could live, we have rejected God’s gift to us—and God’s way of saving us.

But for those of us who by the grace of God, and only by the grace of God, recognize the power of the cross to save and heal and forgive and make life possible, no matter how imperfect our recognition, no matter how wicked and voluminous our sins, we have a real hope and promise, just like the dying thief who did recognize God’s presence in his midst, and therefore we have a real future, no matter how dark our present or imperfect our lives. We also find real peace because our alienation from God is ended forever. We have this hope, this peace, and this future not because of who we are but because who God is. This is the power of Holy Week’s story. It is the power and wisdom of God.

Whether you are someone who clearly recognizes the presence of God among us or struggles to believe the promise or even wants to believe, even though you currently don’t, that God has visited us in Christ to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and make us his own, then Holy Week is for you because when you immerse yourself in the story and become part of it, you will find the Lord’s blessing in it and the path to true freedom and real transformation, however imperfectly that might look to you and others. Come therefore 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! With that in mind, come and venerate the cross on Good Friday as you ponder and contemplate the presence of God among us in the death of his Son for your sake and the sake of the world. Such contemplation demands silence, desolation, humility, and honest confession that your sins and mine are also responsible for the godforsaken death of our Lord. Was there ever any suffering like our Lord’s (and if you answer yes 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. Madanu’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 Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil services? You will rob Easter Sunday of its great power and joy if you fail to participate in these saving events. So let none of us be too hasty to celebrate the great Paschal Feast next Sunday 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, a saving love poured out for you and your salvation. To be sure, this isn’t a pretty or fun thing to do or contemplate. 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 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.