March 24: Blessed is the One

March 24: Blessed is the One

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Audio of Scripture readings and sermon only

March 24 – Palm/Passion Sunday

Other sermons in this 2024 Lentent series
“Depths of Love”

Scriptures: John 12:12-16; Mark 15:1-5, 25-39

Today is a day of contradictions. Not unlike the occasional Sunday when we mourn the death of a beloved church member and also celebrate the birth of a baby. Or a funeral, when we both grieve our own loss and rejoice in the fact that our loved one is no longer suffering. We know what it is to hold contradictory realities in tension with each other. We know what it is to experience joy in the midst of sorrow. Today is one of those days.

Worship begins with a celebration. In remembrance of Jesus’ so-called ‘triumphal entry’ into Jerusalem, we wave our palms and shout Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. “Hosanna” is a statement of celebration, a shout of joy and welcome. A modern parallel might be “Hurray!” or “Three Cheers!” But originally it meant “Save us.” In days of old, crowds would shout “Save us” at the king, the one who was supposed to look out for the safety and well-being of his people. So, in essence, what we remember and celebrate every Palm Sunday is the ancient festivity of welcoming a king back after saving his people by being triumphant on the battlefield.

But then the mood of worship shifts to something less celebratory. A lot less. Our collective cry changes from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!” From “save us” to “he saved others, but he can’t save himself.” The parade which begins at one of the gates into the City of God leads straight to Calvary and ends at the cross. By all appearances, triumph is turned into defeat. The victory is really a failure. And the victor becomes the victim.

Today is Palm/Passion Sunday. It’s a both-and Sunday, a day when joy quickly gives way to sorrow. It’s an important tension to hold in place because it reflects the human condition, one which we know all too well, don’t we? Effectively living in this world entails figuring out how to lean into and, to some degree, embrace that tension. Because there’s no escaping it; it’s our reality. The ups and downs go hand-in-hand.

By all appearances, triumph is turned into defeat. The victory is really a failure. And the victor becomes the victim.

At the same time, it’s also important that we maintain a proper perspective on this dichotomy. Because for the Christ-follower, Good Friday isn’t the last word. It’s an important word for sure, but it’s not the final word. Resurrection is the final word! But remember, there is no Resurrection without Crucifixion. There is no Easter without Good Friday. The passion of Jesus, as distressing to us as it was and still is, was unequivocally necessary. It’s this particular truth that’s important to keep in mind as we lean into the painful events of Holy Week. And doing so provides the necessary perspective on the whole matter.

A moment ago, I said that it can easily seem as though, in the days following his royal welcoming, Jesus got the royal shaft. According to the police report, the tide seemed to turn on him that week and things quickly got out of control. Some would say Jesus was thrown under the bus by the very people who hailed his coming. In their eyes he went from being a king in the likes of King David to being an imposter worthy of execution. In fact, given the choice between crucifying Jesus or Barabbas, a convicted murderer, they chose Jesus. In their eyes he was worse than a murderer! And so, they quickly rounded him up, put him on trial, found him guilty, and handed him over to Pontius Pilate who had the authority to execute him.

The events of Good Friday unfolded in a matter of hours. That’s why it has the appearance of being something that happened to Jesus. Something that was forced upon him. Thus, the perception that Jesus was a victim of an unjust system of justice.

But is that true? Was it in fact such that Jesus didn’t have to go through what he went through, and that he was a hapless victim of the powers that be?

The answer is no, that’s not true. Jesus was not a victim. In fact, Jesus was very much in control of the situation. On the surface, it didn’t seem that way. But the truth was, nothing took place that he didn’t already know about and, more importantly, willingly submit himself. Let me say that again. Jesus willingly and intentionally chose the way of the cross and all that went with it—a betrayal, a trial, a questioning by Pilate, torture, mockery, abandonment, and death. To the casual observer, all those things were thrust upon him. But in reality, he chose it and leaned into it.

Jesus’ betrayal and arrest

Let’s take a quick look at the evidence for this idea. At Jesus’ arrest, when one of the disciples tried to defend him with a sword, Jesus command him to put it away, saying, “Do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away? But if I did that, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen?” (Matthew 26:53-54). In v. 56, he doubles down on this point, informing them that everything “has happened so that what the prophets said in the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” In other words, it was all part of God’s plan, and Jesus was willing to go through with it even though he knew he had the power to get out of it.

Pilate questioning Jesus

In his Gospel, John records a conversation between Jesus and Pilate not found in the other three Gospels. Something Jesus tells Pilate makes the point we’re talking about, though it’s kind of subtle. Pilate’s confused by the fact that Jesus isn’t defending himself. So, he asks, “Don’t you know that I have authority to release you and also to crucify you?” To which Jesus replied, “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above” (John 19:10-11). The fact was, God was in full control of the situation. So, for all intents and purposes, Pilate was doing God’s bidding, though he was unaware of it.

One final bit of Scriptural support of the idea that Jesus wasn’t a victim is found in John 10, where he compares himself to a shepherd who’s willing to sacrifice his own well-being for the sake of the flock. He says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I give up my life for the sheep. This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to” (see John 10:11-18). No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to.

Jesus on the cross overwritten with "I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. John 10:17-18"

As you prepare for the observances of Holy Week, I encourage you to remain mindful of this important truth about the death of Jesus. And I do so for two reasons. First, it fervently speaks to the inconceivable depth of God’s love for each and every one of us. Intentionally laying down one’s life for another is the ultimate act of love, especially if they do so fully aware of the suffering they’ll endure. It wasn’t an afterthought on God’s part. He didn’t lose a bet. He didn’t draw the shortest straw. No, he went to the cross on purpose in order to bear the unfathomable weight of the guilt of every human being’s sin.

And second, it’s the truth, and the truth is what leads to wholeness and freedom and away from harm and injustice. There’s a lot in the news these days about the rise in antisemitism taking place world-wide these days. Time Magazine recently devoted an issue to this problem, as did a recent Christian publication called Christianity Today. I was struck by this statement in a CT article which describes the ideology that drives Hamas. The author, Mike Cosper, a Christian, writes this:

“For centuries, Christians were the primary proponents of antisemitic hate. We blamed Jews for all manner of social ills, including the Plague, and spun conspiracy theories involving the sacrifice of children. Christians blamed Jews for the murder of Jesus, since Jewish religious authorities arranged his arrest and demanded his execution. This notion of Jews as ‘God-killers’ became the motivation behind all manner of disgusting and violent actions. It’s a lousy claim to make against anyone.  Jesus himself exonerated those who participated in his arrest and condemnation. ‘No one can take my life from me,’ he said. ‘I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again’” (John 10:18).

It’s a painful truth that because of an unwillingness to live in and speak the truth about Jesus’ death, generations of our Lord’s direct descendants have unjustly suffered because of the very people who claimed to be followers of the Prince of Peace.

If anyone’s to blame for Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s on all of us. Every single person who’s ever been born into this world. Jesus chose the cross because of the sin which separated each of us from God apart from our own doing. He chose the cross out of his love for us so that we could be made right with God. That is the truth, thanks be to God. Let’s pray.

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