Monday, April 14, 2014

Sermon on Isaiah 50:4-9 and Matthew 27:38-54, for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion, "Death with Dignity"

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The heart and center of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is the Passion of Jesus Christ. His trial, suffering, death, and resurrection. Yet each Gospel also sees the cross of Jesus from a slightly different camera angle, if you will. A unique perspective. At the cross, Matthew only records one of the seven last “words” or phrases that Jesus spoke: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” The rest of the account focuses largely on His silence and the actions of those around the cross. But the attention of the crowd is continually riveted on Jesus and the strangest way in which He dies.
It wasn’t the type of death itself that was strange. Crucifixion was common, in a horrible sort of way, and nothing new to the Jewish crowds or Roman soldiers. But what was so remarkable was the manner in which Jesus died, and the events that surrounded His death. Crucifixion was the most notorious way to die, and was carefully planned to steal every shred of human dignity, and to leave a person utterly disgraced, humiliated, and dishonored. And the enemies of Jesus clamored for this. His enemies saw Him as a pretender to the title of Messiah. While some had hoped that He was the “Son of David” and promised King, when He rode into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday, most apparently had abandoned these hopes by the time of Jesus’ trial and death.
But for all the contempt, for all the physical abuse and shame, for all the indignities and pain that were heaped upon Jesus, they were unable to destroy His inner dignity and peace. “Death with dignity” is a buzzword today in the media, and evokes emotional images of how we die, and debates about end of life care and assisted suicide. The idea seems to be that in order to have a “dignified death”—we have to take control of the dying process (assuming that we can), to avoid any number of ways in which we might be robbed of our dignity. While it’s certainly a worthy discussion to have about the ethics of living and dying, and the sanctity of life, my point is not to enter into that—but rather to point out that Jesus was able to transcend all the assaults on His body, His name and reputation, and in a very real sense die with His dignity intact. In an astonishing way, every attempt to rob Him of His dignity failed. And instead of disgracing Jesus, His righteousness, His unwillingness to fight back or to curse, and His love shone out so powerfully, that even a hardened criminal next to Him, a centurion, and many in the crowd finally confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.
The famous poem Invictus by William Henley, provides an interesting comparison and contrast to Jesus’ death on the cross. The poem describes a person facing the brutality of existence with nothing but himself and his defiance and fearlessness in view. The poet skeptically thanks “whatever gods there may be for my unconquerable soul” and then after describing the crushing difficulty his life faces, ends with these famous lines, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” The poem reflects the determination to face death with head held high; but the poem has no hope in view, no help in view. Simply self-reliance until the bleak end of the grave—with the sole reward of having died proudly.
Jesus’ death showed a courage and unconquerable spirit of a different sort. What gave Jesus the quiet determination and inner strength to face the brutality of His existence? How was He able to hold His tongue, while at the same time face no inner rebellion or animosity? Matthew’s Gospel gives us a limited window into Jesus’ inner experience of the cross, as He largely remains silent, except for those few words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 50:4-9, gives an interior window. Isaiah is prophesying about Jesus’ death, and says,
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. 7 But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. 8 He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. 9 Behold, the Lord God helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.

Jesus faced His death with firm resolve, and didn’t turn away from the disgrace and spitting. And by the Lord God’s help He was not disgraced. It’s a striking phrase, “I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” It pictures Jesus setting His face for the blows that He is about to receive.
But there’s big differences from Invictus; Jesus looks to the Lord God for help, and He has confidence of vindication. In other words, He knows that whatever He may face, God will declare Him innocent. And this is only possible because Jesus is the only begotten, sinless Son of God. And so in death, He was not disgraced, He was not put to shame. Despite overwhelming attempts to assault His dignity, His peace, His honor, Jesus’ love and righteousness shone out radiantly. Even through the bleeding and dying. We can see this clearly both through His forgiving love till the very end, and especially also through His rising from the dead in victory. For to say that Jesus died with dignity—is not just to praise the manner of His death in the same way that anyone else could die with stoic resolve and strength. Because the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is not a celebration of a brave death, but it is the proclamation of Jesus’ victory over death, by His death and resurrection.
The victory and the dignity belongs to life. To Jesus’ unparalleled life. A life not lived merely for Himself, but a life lived for others, and so a death died for others. The dignity of the manner of Jesus’ death was that it was not in any way self-centered, but in every way self-giving. He poured out His life for the life of the world. The irony of the mockers who laughed at Jesus for saving others, but not saving Himself, was that by the very act of staying there on the cross for us, He was saving others.
And the great cost and pain of that self-giving and self-sacrifice is brought home to us in those dying words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the last hour of abandonment by all, in the darkest moments of feeling the full burden of the sin of mankind hiding God’s face from Him, His eyes were still turned to God. My God. In death there was none other to look to. None other to help, but the One who vindicates—the Lord God. And with a great cry, Jesus gave up His spirit. Silence. The breath of life was gone.
And then a terrible tumult and chaos as the earth began to rock and tremble, as the impossible and unthinkable had happened—God’s Son was dead. An innocent death. Creation groaned and trembled, rocks split in two, tombs were opened, and in the Most Holy Place of the Temple, where only the Great High Priest could enter God’s presence to make sacrifice, the Temple Curtain was torn in two. Great and terrible signs with an unmistakable message—something truly supernatural had just taken place. Fear was upon the people, and even the pagan centurion cried out with new found faith, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
No ordinary man dies this way. Not like Jesus died, and certainly not with the accompanying signs and miracles. And while it was an astonishing and incredible weekend for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, we can look back with faith and the testimony of the Bible, and read the evidence to see that God was at work for our salvation at the cross. Jesus’ death accomplished much, and God did vindicate Him, declaring Jesus innocent by raising Him from the dead. And the torn curtain in the Temple marked the entry of Jesus Christ into the Holy Places of God by means of His own blood, as our Great High Priest. Jesus had interceded with God once and for all for our sins, by His death on the cross. And now life has the victory through Him.

Jesus bore all our disgrace, yet was not disgraced by it; He bore our guilt and yet was vindicated; He dies and yet He lives. And all of this He does for you. He does it so that you might share in His honor, in His innocence, in His life; His victory. This is the way the True Servant King dies—in lowly dignity, but with all the power to rise from His grave and give His people deliverance from all the powers that assaulted Him in futility, and could not keep Him in His grave. Our cries of “Hosanna! Save us!” are not in vain—for He is the King. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      The mockery of the crowds is filled with such blindness and incomprehension of Jesus, His words, and His actions. How had they misunderstood what Jesus said about “this Temple” and raising it in three days? Matthew 26:61 What had Jesus meant? John 2:18-22
2.      Whose words were they echoing when they said in Matthew 27:40, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross”? Matthew 4:3, 6.
3.      What was the irony about mocking Jesus for saving others and then challenging Jesus to save Himself by coming off the cross? What was Jesus doing by staying there on the cross?
4.      How do the words of their mockery in 27:34 echo Psalm 22(:8!), the prophecy about the crucifixion? What other significant predictions and descriptions were fulfilled from this Psalm? Matthew 27:46 is Jesus’ quotation of the first line of the Psalm, in Aramaic, but the rest of the Psalm so clearly points to Him and His suffering, but also His eventual exaltation and deliverance.
5.      See Psalm 69:21 for the prophecy about Jesus’ thirst and drink. What other elements of Jesus’ life and crucifixion are predicted in this Psalm?
6.      Crucifixion was aimed at the total humiliation of an individual, to remove any shred of human dignity. How did Jesus endure such suffering and contempt, without losing His own internal dignity and without being disgraced? Isaiah 50:4-9. What motivated Jesus to “despise the shame” of the cross, and be humble and obedient to the point of death? Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 12:1-4.
7.      What miraculous events in Matthew 27:51-54 declared that something truly supernatural was taking place? What message did it send to the observers, and those who at first had not believed?

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