Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion (A)
March 16, 2008
Text: John 12:12-19 and Matthew 26:1-27:66

This morning marks the beginning of the most holy week in the Christian calendar. It is the first day of an eight-day journey with Jesus to the cross on Good Friday, culminating in His resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday. As we set out on this journey, we must be clear about where we are going, for there are many forks in the road, deceiving forks, forks that are tempting because the alternative roads appear to be wide and easy. And the road we are on this week is narrow and hard. There is no getting around that. But the only road to the resurrection is the road through Good Friday and the cross. So we need a road map. That map is account of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is why the Gospel lesson is so long this morning, almost interminably long. It is hard to stand through. It is hard to pay attention through two chapters of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. “Could you not watch with me one hour? The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” We have better things to do, or so we think. Get on with it Pastor. Today’s sermon better be short. And anyway, you expect me to come to how many services this week after today’s long reading?! That’s too much for me! And so you see how easily we veer off in the wrong direction, on the wrong fork… how we prefer the wider, easier road. In fact, let’s just skip the Passion narrative altogether and go straight to Easter. Oops, remember, there is no way to Easter without the Passion, without Lent, without Good Friday.

As it happens, long readings and extra services are the least of our worries on this journey to the cross. The hardest part is that the cross is just so repulsive. It’s so offensive. The message of the cross is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23; ESV). It’s easy to shout our hosannas to the Son of David when we think our King is coming to give us immediate glory, health, wealth, and prosperity. Just watch a Benny Hinn program for a few minutes, or read a book by Joel Osteen! But when our King comes in humility, headed for the cross, headed for death, promising us suffering and the cross before glory if we follow Him, we prefer to join our shouts with those of the Good Friday crowd, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” We don’t want this Jesus. We want a Jesus who gives us glory, all sorts of earthly prosperity, and a guaranteed “get out of hell free card,” but we don’t want the Christ of the cross who brings His disciples to the Promised Land of heaven only through suffering, the cross, and death. That Jesus demands too much. Crucify that Jesus! Bring us another Messiah, One who is more user-friendly.

So it is that this Sunday is a day of marked contrasts. We begin the service with joyful adoration, palm branches, jubilant praises. But then, after a moment of silence to mark the change of mood, we turn our attention to the cross. And we hear ourselves in the crowd as they reject Jesus. “We have no king but Caesar. We thought this man would be our King. We thought He was Messiah, come to restore the Kingdom to Israel. But His road is too hard. We want to go down another road. We don’t like the doom and gloom of the cross, especially not when the crucified Son of God hangs on it. So away with this man. Let Him be crucified. Give us Barabbas.”

Time after time in the Gospel lesson this morning we hear of those who encounter Jesus veering off on the wrong path, veering away from the road to the cross. Of all people, the Jewish chief priests and elders should recognize the Messiah when they see Him. The whole Old Testament, which these teachers of the Law know so well, is about Jesus. But Jesus is a threat to their power and their comfortable lives. The road to the cross is too narrow and hard for them. They don’t want to bear a crucified God and His cross. Thus their hearts are hard.

Judas, too, should have recognized Jesus to be the Messiah. After all, he had been with Jesus for nearly three years. He had walked with Him and sat at His feet, hearing Jesus’ Word and teaching from the mouth of the Master Himself. He had been chosen personally by the Savior to be an apostle of the Gospel. But money was the wider path for Judas. For thirty pieces of silver he betrays Jesus with a kiss.

Then there is Pontius Pilate, who is confused by all of this. He doesn’t know the Old Testament Scriptures or the teaching of Jesus, nor does he particularly care. But there is something about Jesus he can’t quite get past. This is an innocent Man. Pilate wants to do the right thing, but the pressure is too great. The road is too hard for Pilate if he is to release Jesus. Easier to wash his hands and let a righteous Man die a criminal’s death than have a riot on his hands. And Pilate’s soldiers, just carrying out orders, but with such great zeal! They dress Jesus in scarlet, the color of royalty, place a woven crown of thorns upon His head and a reed scepter in His hand, fall down and worship Him in mockery. “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matt. 26:29), they say, as they bow before Him, and then spit on Him and beat Him with His scepter. How accurate is the Word of the Lord recorded by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson… It is Jesus who speaks through the Prophet: “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting” (Is. 50:6).

But dear brothers and sisters, these are the usual suspects. We expect the chief priests and Judas and Pilate and the soldiers to reject Jesus, to take the wrong road. But if we give an honest hearing to the whole Gospel lesson, as long as it is, we see that the disciples are not immune from taking wrong turns. We all know the story of Peter, who, in spite of his boast that he would suffer all, even death, rather than desert his Savior, denies Jesus three times before the cock crows twice. And when Jesus turns to look at him, Peter is cut to the quick, runs out and weeps bitterly. But so also, Peter and his fellow disciples, James and John, Jesus’ closest inner circle, choose the easier path of sleep rather than stay awake to watch and pray with Jesus. And under pressure, once again, it is Peter who chooses the way of violence against those who come to arrest Jesus, rather than go the way of the cross. He does not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. And when Jesus is arrested by those who come with the betrayer, all the disciples flee. The Shepherd is struck and the sheep are scattered.

Let us not pass over these verses, beloved, and not see ourselves within them, denying Jesus every time we sin, every time the road to the cross looks too hard and narrow and we would rather travel the glory road. Jesus speaks through the pen of His father, David, in the 31st Psalm, “Because of all my adversities I have become a reproach, especially to my neighbors, and an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me” (v. 11). He’s talking about His friends, His disciples. To quote the prophet Isaiah again, this time the 53rd chapter, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (vv. 2-3). Is the cross of Christ too gory for you to behold? Is it a scandal, a stumbling block for you? Or perhaps foolishness? Do you prefer the cross without the dead flesh of the Son of God? Repent. Because the only risen Lord Jesus in the house is the One who died on the cross for your sins. The only Lord Jesus who will be present here on Easter morning is the One present now, mortal wounds and all, on the cross this morning. And you have to get bloody if His death is to benefit you. The blood and water from His riven side must soak you.

And it does. It flows from His riven side into font and chalice to mold you into His holy Bride, the Church. For as many wrong turns as we take, the map of God’s Word and Sacraments is always true. It is what sustains us and calls us back to the right path, the path of faith, the path of the cross. Jesus knew what He was doing when He instituted the Holy Supper on Maundy Thursday. He was giving His disciples His last will and testament, the New Testament in His blood. He was speaking His Word into their ears and hearts, that they might come back to Him in repentance and faith and go the way of the cross with Him, even if it meant their death. And that is what calls you back to the way of the cross. That is what calls the women, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, to follow Jesus to the cross and watch where He is buried. That is what calls Joseph of Arimathea to lay Jesus in his own new tomb. That is what calls Peter to repentance and the disciples who were scattered back together as the Church of Christ. That is what sustains all of them through the confusion and dashed hopes of Good Friday to Easter Sunday and beyond as they encounter their risen Lord. And that is what sustains you. All the benefits of the cross are delivered to you in the Word of Jesus, and in His blessed Sacraments. He bore the cross, the mockery, the shame, the rejection, for you, in your place, for your forgiveness. So don’t turn away. Don’t follow the easier road. The map is ever true. Jesus has given it to us along with His Spirit to help us on the way. Remain in Jesus’ Word, the Word of the cross. Become a blood-soaked mess. Travel the hard road of Holy Week. And know that Easter is the final word. It is the final word because Jesus died. And you have been baptized into Him, into His death. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). So for you, death is not the final word, but life-everlasting in your crucified Savior. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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