Sermon delivered on Passion (Palm) Sunday A, April 13, 2014 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH
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Lectionary texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 21.1-11.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The passion narrative we just read is clear enough, straightforward enough, and rich enough to speak for itself and so I will not comment further on it other than to encourage you to muse on Christ’s passion frequently this week and to make yourself part of the narrative for reasons we will soon see. Instead, I want us to look very briefly at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the so-called Triumphal Entry, that we read in Matthew’s gospel during the liturgy of the palms this morning because doing so will help us grapple with the very heart and nature of God.
What do you think? Did Jesus know that he was God’s Messiah, or was he just basically swept along by the events of his day so that he became the victim of a story that started out well but ended very badly, a rebel without a clue, so to speak? Believe it or not, there are some who argue that Jesus had no self-consciousness about his mission or that he really was the Messiah. To have such an opinion is to either be badly misinformed or to have read and understood the gospel narratives badly because clearly Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem gives us every indication that Jesus knew what his role was and what he must do once he arrived at the city that all Jews believed was God’s dwelling place on earth.
But before we go there, we must ask what the title, Messiah (or its Greek equivalent, Christ), means and what people expected the Messiah to do once he arrived. Messiah comes from the Hebrew term that means “anointed one.” From the very beginning Israel’s kings were anointed with oil as a sign that God had called them to be Israel’s king on God’s behalf. The Messiah was generally seen as God’s ultimate king who would come from king David’s line to do two things. First he would liberate Israel from all its oppressors, which in Jesus’ day meant the Romans, and establish God’s righteous rule. Second, he would cleanse the Temple. Both these actions imply that many in Israel were looking for a military hero in the manner of David whom God would use to finally bring an end to Israel’s long exile and this surely would have been the prayer of many of Jesus’ contemporaries. They were looking for God to make good on his promise to return to his Temple and people to finally liberate them and live with them forever.
And based on what Matthew tells us in our first gospel lesson, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people with him clearly saw Jesus as their Messiah. But how do we know that? Tom Wright, the former Anglican bishop of Durham England and prolific scholar and writer, tells the story of Sir Walter Raleigh allegedly throwing his cloak over a puddle of muddy water so that Queen Elizabeth I of England would not have to walk in it. While no one can prove this actually happened, Wright’s point is that if it did, such an action would be an act of extraordinary devotion which stated in a powerful and symbolic way the high esteem we hold a person. How many of you have ever heard of this being done for a head of state or foreign dignitary in our day? I have not and I certainly know that none of you throw down your cloak in front of me when you see me approaching, which is baffling and more than mildly irritating considering what a big shot you all hold me to be, and that is Wright’s point. Here we have the followers of Jesus literally giving him the shirt off their back, the only one they probably owned, to honor Jesus as Messiah.
Not only that, they took palm branches, an ancient symbol with royal implications, and cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Hosanna means save and Son of David had definite political and Messianic overtones. If you wanted to wave a red flag in front of the bull that was Rome, you couldn’t do a better job than the crowds did that day. No wonder all of Jerusalem was in an uproar when Jesus hit town. And here it is crucial to our understanding of this story that we see exactly what is going on here in terms of the people’s perspective. They were hoping that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah so that their prayers for liberation, cleansing, and an end to their long national exile would finally be answered. In other words, they wanted Jesus to address their immediate perceived needs. Sound familiar?
But this is not the kind of Messiah Jesus intended to be and we must also understand this clearly if we are to understand what Matthew is trying to tell us. First, Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, not a warhorse. As Matthew reminds us, this naturally brought to mind passages like Zechariah 9.9 that talked of Israel’s king returning in great humility to usher in God’s kingdom. This powerful symbolic act of humility is also consistent with what Jesus had tried to tell his disciples earlier when he warned them three times of his impending death and resurrection (Matthew 16.21-13, 17.22-23, 20.17-19). These things show us clearly that Jesus thought himself to be God’s Messiah and what kind of Messiah Jesus intended to be.
Jesus would indeed come to rescue his people from their exile, but not in the manner they expected or even wanted. He would not usher in God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven as a mighty warrior who defeated all of Israel’s enemies by the sword. No, he would usher in the kingdom and end his people’s exile through his suffering and death on the cross. The end of exile Jesus had in mind was our exile from God that our sin has caused and our restoration as God’s true children in Jesus the Messiah (cf. Colossians 1.19-22; John 1.12-13). In other words, Jesus would indeed answer his people’s prayers but at a level far deeper and more profound than they were hoping for or wanted. By going to the cross and bearing God’s wrath poured out on the sins of all people, Jesus would release us from the grasp of Satan, our real enemy, and all the sin and evil that clings to us so tightly and dehumanizes us. Jesus would do so, not in power and vainglory as the world prizes, but in suffering and humility. This is what both Isaiah and Paul are telling us in our OT and epistle lessons respectively. Jesus’ great act of humility started when as God he took on our flesh to die for us so that we will not ultimately have to die. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed, how could Jesus save us if he were not fully human? How could Jesus save us if he were not fully God? Here is food for thought worth our best devotional musing.
This is what Matthew wants us to see and grapple with because like the people of Jesus’ day, we too would prefer Jesus to come in great power and glory, all guns blazing so to speak, to strike down all the bad guys and then let us join with him to rule over everything in pomp and circumstance. We’re all about that, baby! But that is not how God has shown us the kingdom comes. It comes through the cross of Christ and in Jesus’ call to us to be like him by taking up our own cross in suffering and humble love. We are not so eager to take that path!
That is why Holy Week matters. We dare not rush to celebrate Easter without first musing on Jesus’ passion and death. Yes, Easter is God the Father’s mighty vindication of Jesus the Son. It is also the preview and promise of our future as citizens in God’s new creation. But we get there through the cross and by imitating Jesus’ suffering love in our own life and that is never easy. Simply put, without the cross we are dead people walking who have no hope. But we do have the cross, thanks be to God, so that those of us who believe can live as people with real hope.
So this week, before you hurry to see the empty tomb, take time on Thursday evening to sit with Jesus as he initiates the Lord’s Supper and explains to us in it the meaning of his death. Then afterwards stay to begin the vigil of our Lord’s passion and death, and remember he died for you so that you might live, starting right now. On Friday, participate in the stations of the cross and the Good Friday liturgy as you reflect on the terrible price God paid for our sins so that we might find peace and reconciliation with God, and with it our ultimate healing as human beings. Then on Saturday evening, come and hear the story of salvation as we await our Lord’s mighty resurrection at the Easter Vigil. Doing all this will help make you ready to celebrate the great Easter Feast on Sunday because you will have contemplated what it cost God to bring his kingdom on earth as in heaven, to win your release from the power of evil, sin, and death, and what kind of people we are called to be in our Suffering Messiah. Remember too that this same Messiah who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey is available to you right now in the power of the Spirit to answer your prayers and heal you beyond your wildest hopes and dreams so that you will be able to live your life with joy and meaning in any and all circumstances. You can do so because you know that you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.