Sermon delivered on Palm Sunday, Year A, April 5, 2020 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; St. Matthew 26.14-27.66.
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. Under normal circumstances I would begin this sermon by highlighting the paradoxical nature of this day, where we begin with the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem and end with his Godforsaken and utterly degrading death on the cross. These are not normal circumstances, however. Rather than getting together to rehearse and celebrate Christ’s triumphal entry, we are forced to remain physically separated from each other and consigned to waving our palm branches into a camera for others to see. Talk about absurd. No, today feels more like a Psalm 137 moment where God’s exiled people in Babylon lamented their condition. “Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem. [H]ow can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a pagan land?” (v.1,4), or a Lamentations moment as the prophet Jeremiah surveys the utter destruction of God’s holy city, Jerusalem: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger. For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage” (1.12,16). It is easy to see why we apply these verses to Christ during Holy Week. But here we are, nevertheless, gathered together as God’s holy people in Christ to celebrate Palm Sunday and lament over Christ’s Passion. It is anything but absurd, despite all that swirls around and within us telling us otherwise. So what does the Sunday of the Passion have to say to us in the midst of this awful plague that isolates us physically and makes us afraid? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
I could spend some time here talking about the symbolic significance of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the nature of his Messiahship according to St. Matthew, but that simply is more deflection and diversion. It keeps us occupied with interesting facts so that we do not have to cast our eyes on Mount Calvary. So let’s cut to the chase and get real here. How can Christ’s Passion help us navigate the awful situation in which we find ourselves? First, we have to find our place in the story of his Passion, and a good place to start is to ask the disciples’ question to Christ after he dropped the bombshell that one of them would betray him, “Is it I, Lord?” Much as we might like to think otherwise, our Lord would surely answer yes to our question because each of us has the capacity to betray our Lord in our thinking, speaking, and behaving. If you have no anxiety in asking Jesus this question or expect him to return a “no” to your question, you are to be pitied most of all because you are living in the dark land of denial and can never hope to peer into the enigmatic darkness of Calvary to find the only hope of your salvation. In telling us the story of Christ’s Passion, St. Matthew is telling us that Christ did indeed die for sinners whose representative sins are found the story: betrayal and denial (Judas and Peter), self-righteous justification of questionable thinking and morality (Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin), cowardly desertion of our Lord, failure to be there for a loved one during his darkest hour, failure to go to God in prayer for strength for the moment (various disciples), denying our role in his death (Pilate), actively calling for his crucifixion (crowds), mocking him as he hung naked and pierced on a cross (bystanders/criminals). In telling us these stories, St. Matthew is telling us the story of the human race and its rebellion against God with its death-dealing consequences. St. Matthew is telling us our story. No wonder so many of us avoid really reflecting on Christ’s sacred death. To do so requires us to get real with ourselves and admit that when it comes to the matters of real importance in this world (life and death), we are helpless to end our rebellion and alienation against God and stand under his just judgment. So the first thing we must do is to find our place in the story, whatever it may be, and confess it to the Lord in sorrow and repentance.
But second, we must also see God’s place in this story because in it is our healing and salvation. We must see that throughout the story, Jesus is ready and able to give his life so that we might live, to take upon himself the terrible wrath of God on all that despoils and corrupts and dehumanizes us to spare us from God’s righteous condemnation on our sins and the evil that afflicts us. Again, St. Matthew doesn’t tell us this in so many words, but in the story of Christ’s Passion: Christ tells his disciples that he is about to be given up into the hands of sinners. Pilate releases a terrorist and murderer (Barabbas) instead of Christ, so the truly innocent man dies for the guilty one. And then the terrible, haunting cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” In telling us these stories, St. Matthew invites us to see that Jesus Christ came to die for sinners, for Judas and Peter, for Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, for Pilate and Barabbas, for the Roman cohort who scourged Christ and took perverse pleasure in doing it, for the sleazy criminals crucified with Jesus and the other mockers, for you and me. Christ came to die for us so that we might live and be finally reconciled to God the Father by his grace alone, thanks be to God! Christ bore our shame and condemnation so that we no longer have to! It is an onerous (and impossible) task to contemplate how to make right our own sins. It is unimaginable having to contemplate making right for the sins of every living human being in the scope of history. No wonder Christ agonized in prayer in the garden before his arrest. No wonder he cried out in desolation as he felt separated from God for the first time in his life as he bore the sins of the world in his body. This is what St. Matthew wants us to learn and appropriate in our lives: The terrible justice and costly love of God the Father made known supremely to us in the death of God the Son, who willingly gave his life for ours. Christ died so that we could live, and live without fear. This is the other part of the story we must see, but it will never be ours if we don’t first see and acknowledge ourselves in that story.
But we want to object to this sacred Truth. If Jesus is God, how can God be against God? How can God be forsaken by God? How can God be a crucified God? Absurd! Who can understand it? But this is just more deflection and dishonesty on our part. These objections manifest human sophistry and intellectual pride and a breathtaking denial of our real precarious state and standing before a good and holy God without God’s help and intervention on our behalf. We engage in these activities because we equate ourselves with God as well as to deflect our utter terror at the thought that we really aren’t in control of very many things in our life, let alone our mortality and death. None of us want to think about falling into the hands of a holy God without the cross of Jesus Christ. It is just too terrifying and painful, much like the situation in which we find ourselves these days. The story St. Matthew and the other evangelists tell us is too humbling, too awful for us to consider because it knocks us off our proud and self-made pedestal and reminds us the cost of our sin and the evil we commit in the living of our days. This too we must acknowledge if we are to make Christ’s Passion our own story.
Human objections notwithstanding, however, the story of Christ’s Passion remains true in its proclamation of God’s victory over Sin and Death. It is to the glory of God that he still loves us and wants us to be his despite our human condition. And so St. Matthew invites us to peer into the darkness of that threefold hour on Calvary and to contemplate Christ’s cry of dereliction with the opposing feelings of sorrow and joy with thanksgiving for the love of God being poured out for us. St. Matthew is reminding us in his story that there is something in it that transcends us and will always be beyond our full understanding, much as we try to tame it and change the nature and meaning of the story. Here we see God himself suffering on our behalf, taking on our sorrow and sin and brokenness and fear so as to heal and transform it and us. How God did this on the cross we are not told (wisely) because it is not ours to fully know. Instead we are asked to contemplate and reflect on the story, trusting the veracity of God and his great love demonstrated for us. We can’t and won’t do that listening to snippets of the Bible read on Sunday mornings or listening to preachers blather on about it. We have to enter the story ourselves by an informed faith with thanksgiving and that requires the regular and hard work of prayer, Bible study, fellowship, and worship. That’s the only way we can ponder and appropriate together the love and justice of God made known to us in Christ.
And now we are ready to consider what Passion Sunday has to say to us during the midst of this pandemic. First, as we have seen, we must be circumspect in assigning motives to God. Is this God’s active doing? Is God punishing us? We had better take our cue from St. Matthew and the rest of the biblical writers. They don’t offer answers to these kinds of questions. Where the Bible speaks of God sending plagues, there is always a specific context/reason and the writers name the reason. God sent plagues on Egypt, e.g., to demonstrate to the Egyptians and God’s people Israel that there is only one God in this world and he has no equal. That is not the context for today’s plague.
Instead, a better Christian response would be for us to enter into the story of Christ’s Passion with the same opposing emotions of sorrow and joy we saw above to see what it tells us. There we see our Savior struggle with God in prayer but ultimately live out the prayer he gave us with all its mystery and enigma. He asked his disciples to do likewise; instead, they slept. The result? They deserted him to save their own skin. He succeeded by going to his death while they failed in avoiding theirs. They needed the power of prayer in their darkest hour and refused to avail themselves of it. What are we to learn from this? We also see our Savior crying out in desolation on the cross as he takes on our sins and sorrows and brokenness and messy lives to heal and redeem us, i.e., we see the very heart of God breaking for and with his people. What do these stories reveal about God’s character and justice and love and mercy, specifically in times of darkness? Wrestle with these questions together, my beloved. In doing so with the help of the Spirit we will find our salvation.
Second, St. Matthew’s Passion story calls for lament. With our Lord, who in his cry of dereliction quoted the psalmist, we can and should cry out in complaint, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned [us]?” (Ps 22.1). But here’s the key difference between lamenting and complaining. When we lament, we do so in faith that God is good and merciful and loving, and because of that we believe God will act on our behalf at just the right time, much as we might want him to act immediately. So, e.g., when we ask Christ, “Is it I, Lord?” we do so in the light of our faith in his cross with its bold declaration that for those who put their trust in Christ and live accordingly, there is no longer any condemnation (Romans 8.1). In other words, we lament with the sure and certain expectation that God is for us and not against us, despite circumstances to the contrary. We have seen him crucified and heard his cry of dereliction, and we therefore have seen God’s broken heart for his people in the midst of our despair and fear. We therefore expect God to act in his good time to answer on our behalf. Christ died for us in accordance with the Father’s loving will for us. Why would he not rescue us from this virus? Complaining, on the other hand, is simply that. We complain because we basically are challenging God to prove he is for us, not agin us. Complaint is not based on faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. It does not recognize the comprehensive saving power of the cross. And so we lament rather than complain because we know we are dealing with a reality that is far beyond our ability to understand and fully control, even when, God willing, a vaccine is eventually developed. Is not God in the vaccine development?
Last, the Passion of Christ would be irrelevant without his Resurrection. The Resurrection made it possible for the first disciples of Christ to reflect on the story of his Passion and make sense of it, at least as much as humanly possible. Christ’s Resurrection reminds us that because of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, our future is life, not death. I’ll have more to say about that next Sunday, but for now it reminds us that come what may for us as Christ’s followers—even if, God forbid, the virus claims some of us—death is only for a season, that one day we will live in a world devoid of viruses and cruelty and selfishness and every other form of evil. We have this hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come—because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and so we really have nothing to fear during this pandemic. I do not suggest being unafraid is easy. It isn’t. Scripture tells us more than anything else not to be afraid, which suggests there’s plenty that makes us afraid. But we have each other with God’s Spirit living in us to strengthen and encourage and lament and weep together, and where we are together Christ promises to be there with us. Let us take advantage of his offer, especially because he has been there before us. He knows how this goes; just look at his agony in Gethsemane. Let us remind ourselves and each other of this reality and let God use our weakness to make known his power at work within us. There is surely much sorrow in the midst of this virus. But there is greater reason to rejoice. We are resurrection peeps!
In closing, I don’t claim in this meditation to offer you a comprehensive and exhaustive description of how the Sunday of the Passion can speak to us, but it is a start and so this is my appeal to you. It’s an appeal based on the assumption that you know and have made (or are working at making) Christ’s Passion your own. Come with us this week and commit yourself to following Christ on his path to Calvary. It is not pleasant or easy for reasons we have seen, but it is critically necessary for us to do if we hope to mature in our faith so that we have strength and power for these days. Come with our Lord to the Upper Room on Thursday where he explains his impending death by giving his disciples a meal. Follow him in his arrest, trial, condemnation, and crucifixion. Witness the ungodly spectacle of humans judging God, and doing it with zeal, and see how God unexpectedly turns our wickedness into goodness and life. Come and mourn with our Lord’s followers as they put his crucified body in a tomb and despaired over broken hopes and dreams like we do, and then listen to the story of God’s salvation for you so that you might have real strength and hope. This year especially you really have no good excuse not to make this commitment to Christ. It’s not like you have family events or social or business obligations this week. There’s nothing to prevent you from attending our services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. So make the effort to witness and appropriate the love God has for you made known in Christ’s death and resurrection. Consider the costliness of this love along with the enigmatic manifestation of God’s power. If you make this commitment, my beloved, I promise that you will be blessed and find new hope, strength, comfort, and power to cope with the chaos. You will enjoy this blessing because it is based on God’s power, not yours, and as the empty tomb revealed that first Easter morning, nothing in this world can defeat the love God has for you or his power to save, not even your mortal death. Is this not worth your time and greatest loyalty? To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.