Recognizing God’s Visitation

Sermon delivered on Palm Sunday C, April 10 , 2022 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. Luke 22.14-23.56.

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. 

The story of Christ’s Passion is straightforward enough and because it is the word of God, I trust its power to speak to you in ways God intends without further exposition from me. Neither do I want to spend much time looking at why the crowds turned on Christ that week. Instead I want us to look at what St. Luke wants us to focus on as we reflect on his Passion narrative. Clearly, St. Luke, with the rest of the evangelists, sees Christ’s Passion and Death as the turning point in history. As we saw last year on Passion Sunday, like the other evangelists, St. Luke is also a sophisticated writer and we see it clearly in his Passion narrative. Where is that, you ask? I’m glad you did so I can proceed with my sermon! Inexplicably the RCL geniuses again omit a key passage from his Palm narrative that we read during the Liturgy of the Palms. St. Luke tells us that after all the acclamation from the crowds, as Christ neared Jerusalem he broke down and wept over her fate. She had failed to recognize that God had visited his people to heal and restore them, not from the hated Romans but from their slavery to the power of Sin and Death. Instead of coming to God’s people as a conquering hero as the crowds expected, the Son of God came to them riding humbly on a donkey and advocating a radical new obedience to God through self-giving love. This explains in part why the crowds turned so viciously on Christ. Whenever deeply-held expectations are violated, we humans tend to react violently and Christ clearly violated their expectations. Here was the Son of God, God-become-human, coming to his stubborn and rebellious people in humility and weakness, at least as the world defines weakness, ready to die for his stubborn and rebellious people so that they could be reconciled to God their Father and made whole again. St. Paul tells us essentially the same thing in his letter to the Romans when he writes that at just the right time, Christ came to die for us sinners to rescue us from God’s just condemnation for our sins, not because God is an angry tyrant, eager to punish us at every turn, but to deal with the problem of Sin and the alienation and death it causes. If God cannot tolerate any form of evil, how can we sinners ever hope to live with him forever? And so God came to us to die for us while we were still his enemies so that we could be reconciled to him forever (Rm 5.6-10). Until Sin’s power was broken, until our sins have been dealt with adequately, we had no hope for living in this mortal life, let alone enjoying eternal life in God’s new world. Here we see St. Luke tell us the same thing in story rather than exposition. Here is God, coming to his people to set them free, and they failed to recognize his coming. We can almost hear him ask, Reader, what in your life prevents you from recognizing God’s visitation to you and yours? This is more than an interesting question. It is a life-or-death question we all must answer and why we know St. Luke saw Christ’s saving Death as the turning point in history. Before his visitation, we were dead people walking and without hope because of our slavery to Sin’s power. But now we are set free from its power over us if only we have the eyes to see God’s coming to us in Christ, i.e., if only we have the eyes of faith to see God in our crucified and risen Savior and Lord. 

St. Luke reinforces this notion of Christ’s Death as the turning point in history in his story of Christ’s arrest. In dark Gethsemane, Christ rebukes his disciples as they prepare to fight to prevent his arrest. He also rebukes his captors for coming for him as they would a common criminal. Why did he do this? Because this was the dark powers’ hour, along with their human minions. Christ had to submit to their evil and perversity in order to break their death-dealing grip on us. Here St. Luke is reminding us that there is more going on than meets our human senses; there is more at stake than the forgiveness of our sins and reconciling us to God our Father, massively important as that is. St. Luke is reminding us that Christ is engaged in a cosmic battle to defeat the invisible forces of Evil that were unleashed when our first human ancestors sinned in the garden. Why God allows evil forces to exert control over us is beyond our knowing and we should leave those questions alone. Instead, in telling the Passion narrative, St. Luke is inviting us to peer into the darkness as best we can with God’s help and see our rescue being accomplished by none other than God himself. Until the powers of Evil are defeated, we have no hope of ever being freed from our slavery to their control. The cross, St. Luke is telling us, is how God set us free from from Evil, Sin, and Death, how God is dealing with all the evil in our lives and his world, how God has changed the course of history. This knowledge is also vitally important to us because when we do not have this knowledge or believe it to be real and true, the dark powers conspire with our hard hearts to prevent us from seeing God’s visitation in the person of Christ; and without recognizing that visitation and giving our lives to Christ, we are without hope and as good as dead. Our freedom from the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death is the result of Christ’s Passion, my beloved, along with being reconciled with God our Father, the only Source of life, and this is why we must focus on the events of this coming Holy Week, reflecting on Christ’s great love for us and our response to that great love.

Many of don’t want to do this, however. The cross is still scandalous to us, an affront to our pride and desire to be our own boss. We don’t want to believe we are helpless to fix our sin-sickness. Others of us don’t want to have to do the hard work of finding our primary identity in Christ necessary to follow him, a process that involves putting to death our evil desires and old ways of thinking, and by following the way of the cross with its call to deny self and follow him in self-giving love so that we can rise with Christ and live with him forever in God’s new world. This, BTW, is how we should talk to those who struggle with their identities and seek to find themselves in death-dealing ways. None of these false ideologies will do because only in Christ do we find health, healing, and life. But we can’t help others find their identity in Christ if we haven’t learned it first for ourselves. Holy Week is a perfect time to start or continue in this process and if your schedule permits it, I exhort you to make Christ’s Death your own this week by attending the full slate of services we offer.

Start by reading and meditating on the Passion narratives on your own this week and then 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 and looking into the face of the Devil while you do! 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 and the renewal of our baptismal vows where we are reminded that we are yoked to Christ in his dying and rising and will therefore share in his suffering and glory. It simply won’t do to observe any of this from afar. It’s as unedifying as listening to one of Father Sang’s or Father Wylie’s sermons. Everything has changed because of Christ crucified and raised from the dead. That’s why we call it the Good News of Jesus Christ! We are no longer dead people walking, but rather Christ’s own forever, sealed with his precious blood and confirmed every time we come to the Table to feed on his body and blood. 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. And on an even more somber note, if you are unwilling to give Christ your all as you are able, especially this week, you are likely living a lie and a delusion regarding your relationship with Christ and you probably need to take it up with him in prayer. So let none of us be too hasty to celebrate the Pascha next Sunday without first pondering and agonizing and reflecting on the great and astonishing love of God that flows from God’s very heart, a heart that was pierced by a Roman soldier’s spear, a heart through which a saving love was 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 Christ this Holy Week it will change you in ways you cannot imagine or envision, and for the good. It will help you recognize God’s visitation to you in Christ and it will change you because it is the Good News of our salvation. May we all observe a blessed Holy Week together as the family of God’s people in Christ here 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.