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A WORD FOR TODAY, March 29, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for April 2, 2023, The Sunday of the Passion, Palm Sunday: John 12:12-19; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:1-27:66
“Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:5-8, WEB
The lectionary Gospel texts take us through the entire experience: the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the prediction of Peter’s denial, prayer at Gethsemane, the betrayal, the arrest, standing before the Sanhedrin, Peter disowning Jesus, Judas’ suicide, the trial, mocking, crucifixion, death and burial. The amount of text for this week’s lectionary is daunting. How do you write a devotional for this Sunday in just a few thousand words?
Jesus had accomplished an incredible amount of work in the three years He did ministry. John even tells us, “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they would all be written, I suppose that even the world itself wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) The four Gospels are filled with so many stories of His love, His teaching, His mercy, His healing, His correction, and His grace. Last week we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus who was dead for four days, one of the many things He did that were impossible. He’d certainly had an impact on the world; many people were following Him because they saw how He had power and authority. His words rang true. His miracles were miraculous. His mercy was great.
He was greeted at the gates of Jerusalem with shouts of Alleluia and the waving of palm branches. The people had heard what He could do; the people saw in Him the hope for their future. They were ready to receive their King!
The city was filled with many extra people who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. They were there offering their lambs for sacrifice, receiving their forgiveness for another year. They were there to join in the celebration of the Seder dinner when all the Jews remembered the Exodus and thanked God for His promises. They looked forward to the day that the Messiah would finally come and set them free to live once again as a sovereign nation under God’s care.
It is no wonder that people looked to Jesus with hopeful expectation. After all, He was fulfilling the prophecies found in the scriptures in so many incredible ways. Who else can feed five thousand with just a few loaves and fish? Who else could set a man free from a legion of demons? Who else could make the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear? Who else could raise a dead man?
He was their King, but not in the way that they had anticipated. He would never sit on a throne. He would never deal with foreign leaders. He would never institute policies that would fill their needs. The man on the donkey hailed as King would be crowned on a cross in just a few days. It would not be very long before they rejected Him and cried for His crucifixion.
They honored Him on Palm Sunday with a parade and shouts of acclamation. Isn’t that what every person wants? Don’t we want to be raised onto a pedestal? Don’t we want people to crown us? Don’t we want to become the best, to reach higher than everyone else? Jesus should have appreciated their approval. However, Jesus was not looking to become an earthbound King. He had even more in heaven. He was there at the beginning of time and participated in the creation of the world. He had power. He had glory.
In Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord speaks with a voice of humility and sacrifice. Isaiah writes, “I gave my back to those who beat me, and my cheeks to those who plucked off the hair. I didn’t hide my face from shame and spitting.” These are not the words of a king, how could this possibly refer to a Messiah? Yet, as we read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, this is exactly the image of Christ that we must see and we are called to live in that same attitude, which is one of humility.
For many men today, whether or not to wear a beard is a matter of personal choice, but that is not always the case. Religious and secular law has controlled the wearing of facial hair. For some, a beard is expected: to shave the hair is actually an insult to the gods or rulers. For others, wearing facial hair is the insult. There are often rules about how the beard could be worn: long or short, cropped or covering the face. In Greek society, a beard was a sign of wisdom. Rulers often used the removal of a beard as a form of control. Beards were taxed by others. Along with a 100-ruble tax, Peter I of Russia made beard wearers also wear a medallion which had the words “beards are a ridiculous ornament.”
Depending on the society, beards were a sign of wealth or poverty, celibacy or manhood. Roman boys could not remove any facial hair until they reached adulthood. Amish men keep their faces clean until they are married. In some places, a man was not allowed to grow a beard until he had killed an enemy. The size of the beard was symbolic also. For those protesting, a long beard meant greater protest. A long beard meant greater wisdom. Alexander the Great insisted that his soldiers shave their beards because an enemy could grab a hold of the facial hair during battle and use it to his advantage. During World War I, it was discovered that facial hair affected the seal on the gas masks and so soldiers were very conscientious about keeping their faces shaved clean.
Since wearing a beard is so much a personal choice for many men, we don’t understand the imagery found in today’s lesson. Why would “pulling a beard” be considered so horrible? After all, we laugh when we see those pictures of children sitting on Santa’s knees, pulling at his beard to ensure that it is real. Even funnier are the pictures of the child who finds a Santa with a fake. Yet, to pull a beard was a great insult.
As a matter of fact, the suffering servant faces the most horrific interactions between people. He was willing to be beaten, the standard punishment for criminals. He was willing to give his cheek to the person wanting to show him disrespect and contempt. He willingly faced the hatred of mocking and the disgrace of someone’s spit. We see in these words the final hours of Jesus’ life, for He was the suffering servant to which Isaiah was pointing.
The servant does not see himself as greater than anyone. He says he given the tongue of one who is taught, rather than identifying himself as a teacher. The words are passed on, and he does teach, but he recognizes that he is not the teacher. He humbles himself before God’s word and is obedient. He faces the suffering knowing that it is both God’s will and that God will be with him through it. Though the beating, disrespect, contempt, hatred, and disgrace were humiliating, he knew no shame because God was near. His enemies were nothing because their condemnation was meaningless against God.
A story is told of a holy man who was sitting on the bank of a brook while meditating. He noticed a scorpion that was caught in a whirlpool in the brook. Every time the scorpion tried to climb on a rock, it slipped back into the water. The holy man took pity on the scorpion and tried to save it from certain death, but whenever the man reached out to the creature it struck at its hand. A friend passed by and told the man that his actions were futile because it is in the scorpion’s nature to strike. The man said, “Yet, but it is my nature to save and rescue. Why should I change my nature just because the scorpion doesn’t change his?”
Most of us are not so gracious. We are more like that friend, and at times we are perhaps even worse. While the friend may have just let nature take its course, we might even consider pushing the scorpion into a quicker death. We would justify our action, claiming at once that it would be better for the scorpion not to suffer and that it might save someone from being stung. There are certainly few of us who would take the time or the risk to save what is, in essence, an enemy.
Paul wrote, “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.”
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is thought to have been based on an early Christian hymn describing Jesus’ kenosis, which is from the Greek word meaning “emptiness.” This hymn tells how Jesus emptied Himself to become one of us, to take on our sin and face once and for all the wrath of God on the cross. God honored His humble obedience by exalting Him above all else. But it is in our nature to try to come out on top. We work hard for the promotion. We’ll do what it takes to the nicest car, the prettiest house, and the best lawn. We compete for the biggest trophies, the fastest times, and the best records. Our quest to be number one can easily become the sole focus of our life.
This isn’t true of everyone. I read a story in today’s newspaper about a pole vaulter. He held the record in his division and no matter how high they put the pole; he always cleared it by a foot. His peers said it was so amazing that they decided to test him. Instead of raising the bar an inch, they raised it six inches. He still cleared it by a foot. When they told him what they did, he walked away and never jumped again. He realized that however high he flew, someone would expect him to fly higher. He did not see how he could keep getting better. No matter how great you become, there is always room to do better.
Unfortunately, there comes a time when you can’t do better by your own power and then you face the real test. At some point everyone faces temptation to make poor decisions to be better. Athletes feel the need to use performance enhancing drugs to go one step further. In business, the temptation might be to steal a co-worker’s ideas or lie on a resume to appear more qualified for a job. In our relationships, we pretend to be someone we aren’t to win the prettiest girl or the richest boy.
Jesus was not trying to be the best. He did not humble Himself so that He would be exalted. He humbled Himself because it was in His nature to be a servant: it was the life to which God had called Him to live and die. He was with God: He emptied Himself and took on God’s will as His own. He calls us to do the same. We do not empty ourselves so that we might be exalted with Him, but because in Christ we have taken upon ourselves His nature. That nature is one that saves and rescues even when it puts our own life in jeopardy. We are not called to ride on the war horse or even the donkey, but to go with Him on a journey with the weak and vulnerable.
The whole story of the crucifixion doesn’t make sense to us. We want the happy ending. We want the coronation. We want the King to rule our world without changing anything; we like the status quo. Perhaps we want to think that we would have been with Jesus until the end, standing by Him even as He hung on the cross, ready to receive Him on Easter. We can say that today because we are Easter people; we know the rest of the story. But the reality is that we would have been in those crowds crying “Hallelujah” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify Him” on Good Friday. We would have fallen as fast as Peter, denying Jesus when He needed us most and run right alongside the rest of the disciples. We don’t understand why God would do things this way. Why would He choose to answer a plea for mercy with crucifixion?
Jesus is the perfect Lamb. During the Exodus story, the people were told to sacrifice a lamb, to roast it and to eat it in a certain way. The blood of the lamb was to be painted on the lintel of the house. That night, when the angel of death went over Egypt to take the firstborn, those with the painted lintels would be saved. This was the last straw; it was the final nail that made Pharaoh set the slaves free. The crowds were in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, joining together in feasts, celebrating their salvation as if it had just happened. They did not realize is that the blood of Jesus would be painted on the hearts of those who believe so that death would once again pass over them. Jesus’ death on the cross would defeat death forever. Our flesh will fail and our bodies will die, but through faith in the blood of Jesus we will live forever.
Passion week gives us the opportunity to experience the final moments of Jesus’ life. We wave palms on Palm Sunday. We eat the Seder on Maundy Thursday. We weep at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. We wait with the disciples through the vigil until Easter morning. It is important to hear these stories every year. We need to experience the Passion to understand Easter.
On Palm Sunday we see the community adoring Jesus Christ. They saw Him as the one who will fulfill the promises; they saw Him as the Messiah who will remove the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to the Golden days of Solomon. They saw Him as the King for whom they had been waiting for so long. Just days later at His trial, however, the references to His kingship are made with sarcasm and disdain.
In 27:11, Pilate calls Him “the king of the Jews,” a title that would insinuate that Jesus was usurping the throne of a puppet king. Herod had no real power. He did only what Rome allowed. If Jesus was to be king of the Jews, He would also have no power. He would be a puppet, at least from the point of view of Pilate. How could this weak and suffering man ever defeat the great Roman Empire? Jesus answered Pilate’s question with “Yes, it is as you say,” but Jesus was not talking about sitting on a puppet throne. His kingship was something greater, His kingdom reached beyond Israel.
In 27:29 the soldiers mocked Jesus. “Hail, king of the Jews,” they said, after they stripped Him of His clothes which they replaced with a scarlet cloak. They made a crown of thorns and placed it on His head, adding to the humiliation and pain that He was suffering. They did not really think Him to be a king; they did it to mock Him.
In 27:37, they made a sign that said, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” This was the publication of His crime. He was charged with the usurpation of the royal throne. They were still mocking Him, since this throne was not covered with velvet and jewels but was nothing more than a humble cross on which He would suffer and die. While He hung on that cross, the people came to the hillside to gawk and mock Him. In 27:42, the chief priests and elders challenged Him to save Himself. They wanted proof of His right to the throne. If only He would get down from the cross, they would believe.
They did not understand. Jesus did not come to be an earthly king or to lead His people in a revolt against the oppressive powers of this world. He came to save Israel from a greater oppressor: sin and death. As we heard in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Jesus emptied Himself. He came to do the will of God, which was to become one of us to die on a cross for the sake of all mankind. The leaders thought that they had defeated Jesus and kept Him from the throne, but they put Him on the very throne for which He was sent: the cross.
In the end, it was the centurion that pierced Him with a spear who identified Jesus for who He was. Since that man was the Roman in charge at the crucifixion, his declaration was vindication for Jesus. By his words Jesus was ruled innocent and righteous despite the horrific and unsettling end to His life. The centurion, probably without even understanding, proclaimed Jesus to be the King, not of Rome or even Israel, but over all of creation. For his obedience to the cross, God would, as Paul wrote, exalt Him above all else and give Him the name above all other names.
God highly exalted Him at the moment when He was most humiliated, when He was suffering a cruel and unwarranted death. It was on that cross that Jesus was glorified because it was there that He fulfilled God’s word and promise for the salvation of the world. It is on the cross where we find forgiveness and through the cross we are made free. It is there where Jesus Christ was crowned the King who would be glorified forever.
We find it hard to believe that Jesus could lose so many followers in such a short period of time. After all, they went from singing hosanna to murder in less than five days. We almost have to assign blame to someone in the crowd, an instigator who took advantage of the mob to turn people’s attitudes away from Jesus. However, as we look at the story between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we realize that there is far more there than a quick change of heart. Jesus spent those few days attacking the status quo. He went into the temple and taught, He overturned the tables of the money changers, He spoke in parables that painted the leaders in a less than positive light. He turned their world upside down: not just the leaders, but also the people. He assaulted everything they knew, and they did not know how to handle it.
Most especially, He rejected the expectation they had of Him. On Palm Sunday, they welcomed the king whom they thought was going to save them from the Romans. They were ready to make Him king of Israel so that He would lead them to freedom. They did not understand the kind of freedom Jesus promised.
They went from jubilant celebration on Sunday to His arrest on Thursday and His death on Friday. Even His closest followers ran away in the end. Judas betrayed Him and Peter denied Him. Where were the rest? They were hiding, afraid. They were confused and upset. They didn’t know what to do without Him. They believed in Him on Sunday, but their faith wavered. Wouldn’t yours? We can’t expect our ministry to continue if our leader is arrested, tried, and then crucified.
We begin the final days of Lent anxiously waiting for the plan of God to be fulfilled, knowing that we do not deserve what He is about to do.
We begin our worship this Sunday celebrating as we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but we know that it is a short-lived party. Those same people praising Him on the streets quickly turned from Him, falling for the lies of Jesus’ enemies. We don’t understand how they could turn so easily, but it doesn’t matter. This was all in the plan. No matter how the people reacted to Him, Jesus had to die. The religious leaders thought they won. The followers of Jesus thought they lost. In the end, however, Jesus accomplished the work He was born to do.
Jesus humbled Himself and was obedient. He did not turn from God, but faced the suffering knowing that it was God’s will. He trusted that God would be with him. Though the beating, disrespect, contempt, hatred, and disgrace were humiliating, He knew no shame because God was near. His enemies were nothing because their condemnation was meaningless against God’s mercy. It is hard for us to realize, but we were counted among His enemies, and only by God’s grace are we His disciples, emptied of our own desires to embrace His will for our lives.
Have you been emptied of your desire to be God?
One of the best experiences I ever had was at a church where we worshipped every day of Holy Week. The pastor preached about the activities of Jesus each day. It was like walking with Him, alongside the disciples. Between Palm Sunday and Easter, we worshipped together eleven times. It is not a practical choice for many congregations, but most churches will at least offer worship for the Triduum, the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil. Unfortunately, many people do not attend those services, but Passion Sunday gives us a taste of the story that we’ve heard over and over again.
The scriptures for this week are long and we could easily spend hours with the many details found in these texts. Yet, I wonder if we spend too much time trying to explain God and too little time lingering in His story getting to know Him. Attend as much worship as you are able during Holy Week and experience the Passion with your brothers and sisters in Christ, but also spend time reading the story not only in Matthew, but in all the Gospels. Lent might be almost over, but the walk with Jesus continues as we learn again what He did for our sake.
As we begin the final days of Lent and anxiously face the Passion, let us prayerfully consider what it all means for us. Jesus trusted God to the very end. Now He calls us to follow in His footsteps, to carry our own cross, to trust in God in humble obedience to His Will.
A WORD FOR TODAY is posted five days a week – Monday through Friday. The devotional on Wednesday takes a look at the scripture from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday. A WORD FOR TODAY is posted on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/A-Word-for-Today-Devotional/339428839418276. Like the page to receive the devotion through Facebook. For information and to access our archives, visit http://www.awordfortoday.org