Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday, Series B

Sermon on Mark 14:1 – 15:47
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 1, 2012 (Palm Sunday, Series B)

People are fickle.  Fashions which are all the rage one year are seen as completely out of touch the next year.  The government swings from Democrats to Republicans, depending upon which party is seen as the lesser of two evils by the people that year.  Musical groups can be wildly popular one day and completely hated the next, especially if the group is one whose appeal is to teenagers.  Some people even change their friends, or even worse their husbands or wives, as quickly and easily as they change clothing styles or hairstyles.  Even some churches have gotten into this habit of constant change, striving continuously to keep up with whatever musical style is popular at the time.  Unfortunately what often happens is that the church can’t quite keep up fast enough, and sooner or later the crowds who were attracted to that church by its popular style will move on, and the church will be left with nothing.  It has been said that the church which marries itself to the spirit of the age will be a widow in the age to come.  And the reason is that people can often be downright fickle.

The liturgy today contained two different Gospel lessons, and in them we get two very different pictures of the people who were in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.  In the reading at the beginning of the service, which is also the text for this sermon, the crowd sang His praises, singing, “Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  They waved palm branches and laid them at His feet along with their cloaks to cushion His way.  In the passion history which was read just a few moments ago, there was a very different kind of crowd there, a crowd which wanted Jesus’ blood and which would stop at nothing to see Him dead.  Of course, these were two different crowds of people; many of the people who had welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem were probably cowering in fear during His trial, like the disciples were, and not thirsting for His blood.  But there were probably some of the same people too, people who thought that Jesus’ kingdom was an earthly kingdom which would overthrow the Roman governor and restore Israel to its rightful position as a major world power, and who were disappointed when Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world.  In any case, the contrast between Palm Sunday and Good Friday shows us how quickly a person’s fortunes can change when he becomes a public figure and his welfare is connected to popular opinion.

But unlike the latest popular music group or the latest fashion or the latest popular TV sitcom, Jesus’ mission isn’t affected by what people think of Him.  He didn’t come to be a popular earthly ruler.  He didn’t come to be popular at all.  To be sure, it was good and right for the crowd to welcome Him to Jerusalem.  After all, it is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to Him, because He has redeemed us and overcome sin, death, and the devil for us.  The crowd on Palm Sunday were simply doing what we do every Sunday when we welcome Him as He comes to us in His body and blood.  But Jesus’ mission doesn’t depend upon His popularity.  In fact, the crowd which wanted His death, which cried, “Crucify Him, crucify Him,” on Good Friday, was asking for the very thing Jesus had come to do.  He had come to be crucified.  Of course, the crowd on Good Friday had the wrong motivation; they were filled with hate and anger at Jesus for disrupting their religious lives, just as many people are filled with hate and anger today when their complacent and comfortable religious lives are disrupted by the preaching of the Law.  In fact, that is the reaction of all of us by nature to God’s Law.  But what these people wanted when they asked for Jesus’ death was according to God’s plan, just as even today God uses the worst and most hateful actions of sinners against His Church for His own good purposes.

You see, even though the crowd on Palm Sunday which sang His praises didn’t realize it, Jesus Christ came to Jerusalem for the very purpose of dying on the cross.  They knew that He had come to be their Messiah, but they didn’t know fully what that meant.  Even the disciples were frightened and hurt by what happened to Jesus on Good Friday.  When the crowds put their cloaks down to cushion His path and waved palm branches to shade His way, they really were welcoming the Messiah who was about to come into His glory.  Everything was going according to plan.  The celebration on Palm Sunday really was for the true King of Israel.  He was about to be enthroned during the course of that week.  But what nobody knew, what nobody could know until afterward, was that the throne upon which King Jesus Christ was to be seated appeared in this world as a cross, an instrument of torture and execution.  They could not know that the crown with which He was to be decorated had thorns in it.  They had no way of knowing that the way in which He would become our Lord and King was through His own suffering and death.

What they did know, however, was that He had come to Jerusalem to be their Savior, their Messiah.  Even though they didn’t know fully what that meant, they got that part of it right.  When they sang, “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” they joined the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who laud and magnify His glorious name.  As our text says, after Jesus had risen from the dead the disciples remembered that they had done these things for Him.  They realized that despite the horrifying events of Good Friday they had done the right thing on Palm Sunday.  They realized that Jesus was entering Jerusalem to fulfill His purpose, to die for us.  He didn’t fail, and His death was not a mistake.  The sacrificial Lamb was approaching the altar where He would give His life for the sins of the whole world.

I suspect that when John mentions that the disciples later remembered Palm Sunday and what they had done for him there, he is hinting at why these words have become part of our liturgy.  John wrote his gospel probably between 30 and 60 years after these events happened, and by that time some of the basic features of the liturgy we now use were already in place, including the canticle we know as the Sanctus.  Just as the crowd of disciples in Jerusalem welcomed their Savior with these words, so also we welcome Him who comes to us in His body and blood in exactly the same words.  He came to Jerusalem to give Himself up for the sins of the whole world; and He comes to us now to give us Himself, so that we too can receive the benefit of His great sacrifice.  The apostles probably started including these words in their liturgy precisely because they realized what they had done for Him on Palm Sunday was in fact good, right, and salutary.

And we still sing these words, because Christ still comes to us in His Word and His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  Over against the world which is always fickle, always moving from one style to another, from one fashion to another, the Church has sung this song for centuries.  Our needs have not really changed, even during this modern era when it seems everything changes too rapidly to follow.  We still need a Savior from our sins.  And that Savior still comes to us to give us forgiveness and salvation.  These things have not changed, and so we the Church have not changed what we sing to welcome Him who comes to us in the name of the Lord.  Even as the apostles did, and the Church throughout the ages has done, we still sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest!”  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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