Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Palm Sunday — Passion Sunday 2008

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Everything was going as planned.  Jesus of Nazareth had performed many signs as Messiah, from the changing of water into wine at Cana to the healing of the man born blind.  And now, rumor had it, that he had even raised the dead man Lazarus.  Nothing could stop what was now in motion.  Jesus was coming to the holy city, God's own city, to deliver God's holy people.  No more oppression!  No more slavery!  No more suffering under the foot of foreign enemies who had made life pure misery for the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The wheels were beginning to turn as Jesus of Nazareth approached Jerusalem in grand style, with his disciples cheering, with the children of Jerusalem singing, with the crowds making a royal highway with their cloaks and palm branches.  Soon it would be the time for battle as God's people followed the Messiah in rising up to defeat the foe who had their foot on Israel's neck.
"Hosanna!" they shouted. "Lord, save us!"  Save us from our political enemies.  Rid this land from the stench of the Romans that we might be free to live as we wish, worship as we want, believe as we desire to believe.
On that first Palm Sunday, Jerusalem was on edge.  The Jewish religious leaders were anxious and the Romans were tense with anticipation.  The crowds could feel it in the air.  The time was ripe for battle and rebellion and insurrection.  The normal population of the holy city and the outlying suburbs had grown from about 20,000 to 60 or 80,000.  And everyone knew more than a few Jews on that Palm Sunday were armed with more than a palm branch just in case the fighting broke out that afternoon.  "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Bring it on, Jesus!" they cried.  "Now save us!"  Begin in ernest what we've wanted you to do since the beginning of your public ministry!  Put us back in power.  Restore the glory we once enjoyed as a people in the days of Solomon and in the days of Solomon's Temple.  Bring it on.  We're ready to follow you into battle!"
That Palm Sunday everything was going as planned.  God had finally sent the One to overturn the tables and bring the good life back to the children of Israel.  Jesus would make the Romans respect the power of the Lord and his chosen people.  No more suffering.  No more doubt.  No more sadness and disappointment and uncertainty.  And it all would begin with this triumphal entry by the anointed Son of David.
But the royal steed on which the conquer rode ... .  Couldn't have his disciples found something a little more impressive?  A young donkey that seemed to be noticeable uncomfortable with this small stature of a man upon his back?  A young donkey that still needed to have its mother lead the way?  A much too common-looking beast of burden for the conqueror's procession?  How was that going to put fear into the Romans and instill the desire for battle in the hearts and minds of the Jewish population?  A poor, miserable donkey?
But, everything was going according to plan.  For, you see, although there was no one in and around Jerusalem that Palm Sunday that had a clue what this triumphal entry really meant, everything was going according to plan.  God has sent his beloved, his one and only Son from heaven, for just this day and just this entry on just this kind of animal. 
There had been no last-minute mix-up.  The Anointed One, the Christ, the Son of David and David's Lord, processes into the City of David, Mount Zion, to take it by storm: mounted on a donkey.
Not many years after Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, Roman soldiers mocked Christians as they were led into the Coliseum to be torn apart by bears and lions.  They mocked them in hurling insults at them, and they mocked them by drawing graffiti of their Savior: Jesus of Nazareth, ridiculed by being depicted as a donkey crucified upon a cross.
A donkey king?  How is it that for two thousand years the Christian Church has seen fit to glory in a donkey king?  
That's what the last six weeks and the next seven days are all about.  For even today, everyone sees the signs Jesus revealed, but no one sees where those signs actually point.
The crowds that met Jesus that day were caught up in the ecstasy of a Messiah that could heal and raise the dead and provide wine for celebration.  The crowds that waved palm branches and shouted "Hosanna!" were caught up in a Jesus of their own making, a glory of their own making, a deliverance of their own making, and not much has changed — even in our day.
Do we really know what Jesus comes to accomplish for us and for all who would, in faith, follow him?  Do we really know what enemy Jesus has come to defeat?  Do we really grasp the real glory and power and might of the Anointed One sent from heaven?
For anyone here this morning who will listen, the animal upon which Jesus rides is a key into the hidden meaning of this day, the true meaning of Christ and his salvation and our spiritual condition and the world's refusal — our old nature's refusal — to have anything to do with any of it. 
Jesus comes to his own, to you and me, on a borrowed beast of burden, as he bears the burden of sins not his own.  His entry is not only a humble entry, it is the first step in his great humiliation in delivering us from what really oppresses and strangles us. 
This is the way our enemies will be defeated.  This is the way we will be released from all that oppresses and binds and smothers and suffocates us.  This is the way God promised to save the likes of Adam and Eve and all their poor, miserable, helpless and rebellious children: through the poor, miserable, innocent suffering and death of the One who could change water into wine, heal the blind, cure the lame, and even raise the dead, but could not, would not save himself from the unspeakable horrors of suffering under the burden of our sin.
Everything was going as planned, just as it had the first time Jesus had rode on a donkey: as his mother Mary took the hard road from Nazareth to Bethlehem only to give birth to her firstborn son in a stable cave, among the most unlikely of witnesses: the lowliest beasts of burden, animals fitted with reigns and yokes and saddles, the marks of bondage and hard labor.
We cried out for a glorious Savior, and God sent his King upon a donkey.  We clamored for a powerful Deliverer, and heaven sent the most common-looking of men who could do unimaginable miracles and signs, who exhibited unlimited power to restore health and life, but, strangely, refused to out-smart the betrayer's plot, refused to release himself from the bonds of those who arrested and abused him, refused to stand up and defend himself before Caiaphas or Herod or Pilate, refused to even find a horse upon which to ride into Jerusalem. All for your redemption.
"And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it."
Jesus placed all things into the gracious hands of his heavenly Father, and, according to his Father's will, laid aside his glory and the honor due his name, to come to us and do everything in our place, as our substitute.  
Jesus was born in your cave.  Jesus was born in the chill of your fallen-ness and the poverty of your sin.  Jesus lived — to die under the crushing burden we rightly were called by the Law to bear.  And he rode into Jerusalem as the donkey king to be fitted with a crown made from the thorny fruit of Adam's betrayal to take his seat on a throne of mercy and forgiveness and nothing-withheld loving-kindness for you and for an entire undeserving world.
God will indeed save his people from their enemies: sin, death and the power of the devil, but he will not deliver them with a war horse and the sword.  He will break the oppressor's rod with the blood of his precious Son; he will defeat the captive's chains as his one and only freely offers up his life as the one, eternal sacrifice for sin.
This hour, the King of Israel comes to you.  He comes not to shame you or strike a bargain with you or force you into submission.  He comes humble and hidden to all but the eyes of faith, in, with and under the most common of means: bread and wine. In his very body and blood, given up for you, offered for you, sacrificed for you upon the Cross, for the forgiveness of all your sins.
Hail, to the Lord's Anointed! Lord, save us!