Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 21:1-9, 26:1-27:66
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 17, 2011 (The Sixth Sunday in Lent, Series A)

Which are you? Of the two Gospel lessons we read today, the Palm Sunday story at the beginning of the service and the Passion account just now, which crowd do you find yourself in? The one crowd welcomed their heavenly King joyfully and shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The others shouted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Away with Him!” Which are you? I’m sure most of us would prefer to see ourselves as being part of that crowd on Palm Sunday rather than Good Friday. We would rather join the Palm Sunday crowd in singing the Sanctus as we do during the Communion liturgy, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” But I suspect that most of you found it a bit difficult to recite the part of the crowd just now in the passion account. When we did the same thing at my first parish in Minnesota, some of them told me exactly that. We don’t like to see ourselves in the place of those who demanded the death of Jesus Christ. We don’t like to see ourselves as wanting Him to be crucified.

But that is what happens. We were not only among those who were shouting Hosanna on Palm Sunday, we were also among those who were shouting Crucify on Good Friday. You see, Christ suffered and died on the cross to bear the punishment we deserved by our sins. It was our sins that nailed Him there. Every time we commit sin, it is as if we shout out again, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Away with Him!” Every time we commit sin we increase the pain and the suffering that Jesus bore on that cross. His death covers even the sins we will commit in the future, and so when we sin now, two thousand years later, it is as if we are still pounding nails into His hands and feet.

Today is kind of an interesting day in the Church Year. In ancient times this entire week was devoted to meditation on Jesus’ Passion. Historically the passion according to St. Matthew would be read today, that according to St. Mark on Tuesday, St. Luke on Wednesday, and St. John on Friday. This tradition was also followed by the Old Lutherans in Europe, with musical “passions” based on each of the four Gospels being performed on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday of Holy Week, with the pastor performing the part of Christ from the pulpit, and other parts being performed by soloists, the choir, and even the whole congregation. J. S. Bach’s famous Passions according to St. Matthew and St. John are only the most well-known examples of this musical tradition.

We are recovering part of this practice today, partially because too many Christians skip over Good Friday as “too depressing” and go right from Palm Sunday to Easter. This is not good, because Jesus’ suffering and death are of vital importance to our faith. The Palm Sunday celebration would historically have been a separate service that has its historical roots in an actual procession through the city of Jerusalem that the ancient church did every year, culminating in the arrival at the Church and the beginning of the Divine Service. And so we end up with these two very different Gospel lessons in two different parts of the service. When you first look at it, the whole service ends up seeming a little bit weird because of this. At first glance, Palm Sunday and Good Friday don’t seem to have all that much in common.
But in fact, there is actually a very close connection between what happened on Palm Sunday and what happened on Good Friday. The mood is different, but they are both part of the same event. You see, Good Friday is not some sort of a defeat for Christ, which is what we all too often end up thinking it is. Of course, it’s natural to think that way. Good Friday, on the surface, is a pretty gruesome and depressing thing. There are even some who call themselves Christians today which teach that the death of Jesus Christ was some sort of a mistake, that it wasn’t supposed to happen, and that the Church is sort of a stopgap solution that is holding the fort until Christ can come again and do what He really intended to do, namely to reign on earth for a thousand years. That’s not the true Biblical picture of Good Friday at all (aside from the fact that it’s not the Biblical picture of the end times, either). Yes, Christ suffered an extraordinary amount of pain and grief and sorrow because of our sins. Yes, He was in agony and temptation. Yes, He was abandoned by all of His loved ones in this world. Yes, He even experienced the hell of separation from His heavenly Father. But He did all of this willingly. It wasn’t a mistake or a defeat or a setback. It was all done according to His plan. This is what was supposed to happen. When He entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He entered to die. He entered the city on the day in which the lambs would be chosen for slaughter during the Passover Sacrifices. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was choosing to go and give Himself up for the sacrifice.

The King of the Jews was coming to claim His throne, but His throne was made of wood. It was a throne from which He would hang rather than being seated. He was coming to claim His crown, but that crown was made of thorns. The crowd on Good Friday were reacting to Christ out of the hate and anger that was in their sinful hearts—the same hate and anger toward God and toward authority that is in all of our sinful hearts—but they were asking for what Christ had come to do in the first place. They were asking for Jesus to be crucified, which is precisely what He had come to do. We might be horrified and sickened by the sight of Christ on the cross. And many Christians are made uncomfortable by the crucifix. Many times I have heard people saying that we Lutherans shouldn’t have crucifixes because we believe in a resurrected Christ (which is a little bit silly, because all that an empty cross means is that He was taken down and buried, not that He was resurrected) or because the crucifix is “too Catholic,” but that’s not really why people don’t like crucifixes. The crucifix reminds us that sin has consequences. It reminds us that the forgiveness of sin is not just a matter of saying, “Oh, God will forgive me because He’s just a nice God.” It reminds us that the forgiveness of sins is a matter of Jesus suffering and dying a horrid, bloody, painful execution in our place, which means that sin, including our sin, is serious, bloody, painful business. But He does it willingly. He does it out of love for His creatures. He does it because He is a God who is love, and that means that he will give Himself up to death so that we might have eternal life.

It is from this perspective that we can truly understand what the crowd was saying when they welcomed Jesus as their King that first Palm Sunday. That crowd probably didn’t understand fully what they were doing themselves. After all, they were probably expecting an earthly king. But they were correct in welcoming Jesus as their King, because that’s what He was. That’s what He is. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is God Himself, who reigns over us from the cross. He reigns over us by giving Himself up for our sakes so that we might have life. Just as the crowd did, we welcome His coming among us with His body crucified and His blood shed in the Communion liturgy with the very same words: “Hosanna! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” He rules over us in love, by giving us Himself, and by granting us eternal life and fellowship with Him forever in heaven. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

No comments:

Post a Comment