Saturday, April 12, 2014

Blessed is He Who Comes to Die

Sermon on Matthew 26 – 27
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 13, 2014 (Palm Sunday)

Did your part in the Passion reading make you uncomfortable?  Specifically the part where the congregation are the ones who read the words, “Let Him be crucified!”?  Was it difficult for you to play the part of the “bad guys” in the story?  Good.  That was the intention.  To put yourself into the place of those who were calling for our Lord’s death isn’t something we like to do.  We like to think that if we’d been there we wouldn’t have been doing that.  We’d like to think that we would have been with that other crowd, instead, the one that was calling out “Hosanna in the highest” back on Sunday.  We all fool ourselves into thinking we’re good people and that we know better than those who were calling for Jesus to be crucified.

The problem is, it isn’t true.  It was our sins that put him there.  It was our selfishness and meanness and lust and anger and envy and pride that nailed him to the cross.  Every time we put ourselves before others or God, we are, in effect, shouting out, “Let Him be crucified.”  Every time we covet what is not ours, we drive the nails in deeper.  Every time we put the worst construction on the words and actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we join the mob mocked and jeered Him as He hung up there dying.  The fact is, by our actions we do shout “Let Him be crucified” every day.  We just don’t like to admit it.  We don’t like to admit that we’re sinners, or that we make mistakes and judge our brothers and sisters poorly and say words which hurt others.  But we do.

Of course, that’s the whole point.  It’s because we’re sinful and corrupt, turned away from God and our neighbor towards ourselves, that Jesus came to earth in the first place.  That’s why he took on human flesh, and lived our life, suffered our pains and sorrows, and died our death.  Looked at from one direction, it was we who put Him into that position by our sin and selfishness.  But looked at from the other direction, it was a willing sacrifice He made for us and for our salvation.  He died to save us, and He did so willingly, out of love.  He didn’t think that being God was something to be bragged about, like the spoils taken after a battle, but made Himself nothing, and humbled Himself even to the point of death on the cross.

The crucifixion wasn’t a mistake or a defeat for Christ as some thought.  No, it was all according to His Father’s plan and will, and it was done out of His love for us sinners.  The guilt and the pain of the sins of everyone who had ever lived and ever would live was borne by Him so that He could pay the price for all of that sin.  He died so that we can live forever.  He suffered the pain and torment of separation from His Father so that we can be united with Him in eternity.  It was for us that He did all of this, and for our salvation.

And because He did this for you and me, it was precisely through all of this that He shows Himself to be our true King, our true Lord.  As the Catechism puts it, “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me.”  He is my Lord because He has redeemed me.  He is my king because He is the one who gained entrance for me into His kingdom through His suffering and death.  God’s true glory is found in showing mercy and pity, not in proud displays.  What we praise Him and thank Him for first and foremost is not the fact that He sits in the heavens surrounded by multitudes of angels who sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but in the fact that He showed Himself to be God by His humility.  God is the provider and giver.  Which means that it is His love for sinners that shows Him most clearly to be God.  It is His love for sinners, shown in the forgiveness of sins, that motivates us to go and discuss His salvation with our fellow sinners, not His high and mighty sovereignty over heaven and earth.  The mountaintop experience that drives us to go and tell the Good News, in other words, takes place on the mountain of Golgotha and nowhere else.

And so Good Friday is not the ignominious end of the movement that seemed so full of promise and hope the previous Sunday.  Instead, Good Friday is precisely where the King hailed the previous Sunday comes into His own.  He was doing precisely what He came to Jerusalem to do.  The King of the Jews had in fact claimed His throne, but His throne was made of wood, from which He hung rather than being seated on it.  He had claimed 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.  Good Friday 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.  It is a reminder to us that we all were among those who shouted, “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!” that first Good Friday, because it was our sin that put Him there.  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.  But His reign over us is precisely 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 to reign in triumph from the Tree, with the very same words in the Communion Liturgy as the crowd used that first Palm Sunday almost 2000 years ago: “Hosanna!  Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”  From the cross He comes to us and gives us His body and blood, so that, united with Him we may never be parted from Him either here or in eternity.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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