Monday, April 06, 2009

Sermon on Mark 15:1-47, for Palm Sunday. "Palms or Thorns for a King"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Palm Sunday or the Sunday of the Passion is a day of real contrasts. As the first day of Holy Week, the week of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and death, it starts the week on a joyful note of praises. But a week that quickly turned to great gloom and despair. It seems so disjointed, that Jesus’ week would start with such a joyful celebration and the triumphal procession for a King, but by the end of the week that the crowds would have turned so decisively against Him. They began the week with palms for their King, He ended it in thorns. The significant days of Holy Week are Palm Sunday, which we just celebrated with the Palm Processional into the sanctuary. Maundy Thursday, the night when Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples, instituted the Lord’s Supper, and was betrayed. Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial. On Holy Saturday, Jesus lay buried in the tomb. A week of contrasts, leading up to the unparalleled rejoicing of Easter morn, with the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

There’s a lot happening in all of the readings today, with the Palm Sunday processional, and the lengthy account of Jesus’ Passion. But the common thread I see running through it all is the Kingship of Jesus. Strange indeed that the Kingship of Jesus would center around His ignoble death on the cross. But His entrance into Jerusalem on the donkey was a certain sign of His kingship, as the prophecy from Zechariah said. “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” He was not a king bent on warfare or destruction, but He rode humbly to His death. He was not dressed in fine robes or fancy jewels. In lowly pomp He rode on to die. He rode on to the fiercest strife He would face. His battle was not with “flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

This is to say that it was a cosmic warfare that took place, and the stakes were far higher than any earthly conflict. It was not the lives of thousands or even millions that was at stake, nor the political boundary lines of nations, nor the possession of wealth and resources, strategic locations or sovereignty. This conflict had at stake the eternal destiny of untold billions of human lives, every man, woman, and child descended from Adam and Eve. Whether they’d be consigned to an eternal fate of destruction and separation from God because of their sin, or whether God would redeem those who trust in Him to once again be His sole possession. And with the fanfare of a crowd who grossly underestimated the glory of what He was about to achieve, Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem, hailed as king to the shouts of loud hosannas. “Save Us!” Hosanna means. But they had little idea how appropriate those words were.

Into this cosmic warfare for the fate of humanity, Jesus rode as a king to conquer and take all the spoils of the enemy. The spiritual forces of evil, Satan and his fallen angels, our own sinful flesh, and sin and death. Facing the darkest foes, He saw the prize. He saw us, the captives. He would speak peace to all the nations. But for this declaration of peace to occur, He first had to overthrow the spiritual forces of darkness. And as He pursued that road to Jerusalem, and to His cross, the many who cheered Him soon fell aside in betrayal, cowardice, fear and misunderstanding. By the end of that week, the words of the Pharisees—“You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him”—hardly seemed necessary. By the end of the week, who was left by His side?

But the theme of His kingship turned 180 degrees. He went from being praised and hailed as the King of Israel, to the cynical question of Pilate: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Truly it must have seemed bewildering to the Roman government, what fickle-minded people these were, to hold a triumphant parade for this man one day, and so soon afterward be arresting Him and handing Him over to Pilate for trial. Jesus answers Pilate simply: “You said it.” He acknowledged that it was true, that He was the King of the Jews, but making no attempt to defend His innocence against the accusations and slander of His enemies. This King, in this battle, could not resort to using the weapons of the enemy…hatred, malice, revenge, slander. These were part of the very evil He was to overthrow. He remained silent.

It almost seemed that Pilate was rubbing it in their faces, or teasing them when he asked them whether they wanted Barabbas, or the “King of the Jews.” Or was he convinced that he had found such a repulsive criminal in Barabbas…a murderer and a rebel…that they wouldn’t dare to choose him over their newly-spurned king? But they did the unbelievable. “A murderer they save; the Prince of Life they slay.” More evidence that what was at work in this battle against the King of the Jews was more than flesh and blood. A darker hatred and malice moved the people to despise such a King, who was unwilling even to silence their cries. Refusing to even name His crimes, the brazen cry of “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” rose up to the King. And as men will when they fear the people, Pilate catered to the crowd’s wishes, rather than standing on principle to see that the innocent did not die. He chose what was politically expedient and popular with the crowd, rather than do what was right. Moses had written God’s command in Exodus that: “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice” (Ex. 23:2). If justice is perverted, what protection do the innocent have? What of the innocent in our nation, who die because there is no justice?

The mockery of Jesus’ kingship accelerated with the sadistic glee of the soldiers, who robed Him in purple to “honor” His majesty. They crowned Him with thorns—a disgraceful crown to rule the Creation cursed with thorns. Adam’s labor was cursed with thorns and thistles, and this King came to break the curse. Made the object of humiliation, His temples were pierced with thorns, till His blood flowed for the healing of the nations. With a reed in His hand, a purple robe on His back, being spat upon and bowed to in mock homage, He was the image of a king of this cursed earth. With the curse of sin wrapped around His brow, and the jeering, spitting subjects, He seemed a weak and powerless king. He would not even struggle to defend Himself. His warfare was not yet ended, though His enemies pummeled Him with blows.

Finally the King was mounted on His throne, the cross. A jarring image of hate and torture, with hands and feet fixed to the beams. With the sign above His head, “King of the Jews,” who would worship this king? Who would see in this death, the cosmic victory that was swallowing up all this misery and hatred and sin and pain, into an unfathomable ocean of love? Who would see that as His life was poured out, that every mockery, accusation, and lie, every cruel word or action was being absorbed into a love so great, so cosmic, that even the devil was blind to it? By passively taking all the abuse and scorn, by becoming our sin, all evil was emptied against Jesus, the King of the Jews. But His love drowned it all. Yet for those dying moments when our sin wracked His body, when our guilt and shame caused His head to throb, He spoke the loneliest words that could ever be spoken.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God-forsaken. A word of emptiness and desolation. To be in a place where life is gone. Sorrow and loneliness are the only companions of the forsaken. And Jesus knew forsakenness as none other could—when God turned His face from the sin He bore in His body. Here the King was left with no companions, no fellows to fight with Him in this desolate battle. Unarmed and pinioned to the cross, He won this victory alone. And with a sharp cry, He exhaled His last breath, with death His victory was certain. Evil had spent it’s mighty force with unmatched fury against the King of the Jews, and it took it’s deadly toll. But by the power of His unconquerable life, He decisively dealt the death-blow to evil’s power over us. And from His cross, this King spoke peace to the nations.

And so it fell to a Roman centurion—a man familiar with warfare and undoubtedly witness to many such deaths by crucifixion—to proclaim the truly extraordinary character of this Jesus’ death. Perhaps the first hint that someone realized the cosmic significance of the battle that had taken place. So he preached, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” After three hours of unearthly darkness in the middle of the afternoon, during Jesus’ death—the light was starting to dawn on what had been done. Man was just beginning to perceive who had been crucified this day, and what power must be His. Three days would pass till this King would prove His power once and for all. Amen
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. How does the change in mood from Lent and Holy Week, all the way through Good Friday, prepare us for Easter?
2. What pointed to Jesus’ kingship in the Scriptures, on Palm Sunday? On Good Friday?
3. What was the scale of the conflict into which Jesus entered? What was the method of His battle? How did it seem to the people?
4. Why did Jesus remain silent to His accusers? Read Isaiah 53.
5. What warning is there in this about perverting justice? How are we (and our leaders) tempted to do this today? See Exodus 23.
6. How was the cross the place where Jesus gained His glory? How was His kingship made evident there? What was different about His kingship?
7. How does Jesus identify with the “God-forsaken?” Read Psalm 22. What did His unparalleled forsakenness accomplish for us?

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