March 29, 2015 Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday: The Hoax
Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 24, Philippians 2:5-11, St. Matthew 27:1-54
Things are not as they seem. A line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth comes to mind: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Palm Sunday was a hoax. Look at them lining the roadway, waiting like groupies for the star to round the bend and loom before them so they can grovel and swoon. Is “Jesus Christ Superstar” playing Jerusalem this week?
They scatter their palm fronds, spread out their clothing. They shout, “Hosanna, hosanna in the highest!” This is their conceit: They think they can exalt Him. And for whose glory? Their own, of course. If they can lift Him to the heights He will relieve them of their mundane burden, the Roman boot on their necks.
Astraddle His donkey, He plods along, inching His way toward His cross. His prize is not exaltation but humiliation.
Good Friday was another hoax. There they are again, only days later, but their praises have curdled on their lips. This time, they sing out, “Crucify! Crucify!” This is their conceit: They think they can humiliate Him. Did they not hear Him say:
"Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:17-18)?
Here begins Holy Week, our celebration of the marriage of humiliation and exaltation, intertwined like strands of a rope. The danger lies in separating them or setting them in opposition. Such was the error of those who sang out “Hosanna!” and then “Crucify!” like a demented, hellish chorus.
They would not enter the mystery in which humility is the handmaiden of exaltation . . . in which Jesus turned His cross into a catapult to His throne. And without mystery – the finite mind’s confession of its limitations – faith is a fraud.
Our gospel lesson walked us from the governor’s palace where our Lord appeared on the morning of His crucifixion all the way down the Via Dolorosa to the cross . . . but it ended on a triumphant note, the Roman centurion’s confession, “Surely this was the Son of God.”
A mystery, yes, but not so elusive as some today make it out. Charles Colson wandered in, looked around and summed things up rather neatly.
Colson, who had served as President Nixon’s lawyer, went to prison in the wake of the Watergate scandal, came to saving faith behind bars and after his release founded Prison Fellowship, which today ministers to thousands of inmates around the world. He wrote in “Loving God”:
“The real legacy of my life was my biggest failure – that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation – being sent to prison – was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one experience in which I could not glory for His glory.”
In the end, Colson chose to follow the One who came to redeem us . . . but came for another reason as well. In our Collect of the Day we praised God for sending His Son “to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility . . .”
He is our model as well as our Savior, and that is precisely the point Paul is pressing upon his readers in our lesson from Philippians 2: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . .”
The tense of the verb tells us Paul is exhorting the Philippians – and us – not to a single act but to an ongoing renewing of the mind.
The lectionary will not let us forget that the same Jesus who appears today in what has long been called the triumphal entry will hang on the cross, crumpled and broken, ere week’s end.
In the passage immediately preceding the one before us, Paul has pleaded with the Philippians to put away bickering and division:
“Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy,” – he might as well say, “If you are truly Christians” – “fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:1-4).
And now he proceeds to set out the imitation of Christ as the way of reconciliation. The language is so lofty, the Christology so pure, that some scholars refuse to take the passage as Pauline.
They insist the apostle latched onto an old hymn and dropped it into his letter. We may leave that little brouhaha to them.
For us, it is enough to know that he who has the mind of Christ – Christ who was humble to the point of death, even the death of the cross -- will not indulge in selfish ambition or conceit, will not promote his own interests to the exclusion of the welfare of others, will not foment division in the body of Christ.
Our Lord chose obedience knowing obedience leads to death. Jesus, one commentator noted, is a “downwardly mobile savior.”
He emptied Himself. Unlike those Greek gods who became men without surrendering their divine prerogatives, Jesus felt the passion and the pain all humans endure. Yet He did not cease to be God, as He had been since time immemorial.
Paul switches abruptly at verse 9 from what the Son has done to what the Father has done in response: “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name . . .”
What is that name? It appears to be “Lord.” This is the first creed of the church: Jesus Christ is Lord. As Abram became Abraham, as Jacob became Israel, Jesus won from God the title/name kurios, Lord.
The word had meant “master” or “owner” and then became the title of Roman emperors and of heathen gods. It is used for “Jehovah” by those who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Because of Jesus’ surpassing humility, His Father has exalted Him to the position of Lord of all.
But for whose glory? Why will “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”? “To the glory of God the Father.” When Christ removes His throne from heaven to earth He will turn the creation over to His Father and rule forever beside Him – at His right hand, a place of honor, to be sure, but not of highest honor.
In His humiliation He was exalted; in His exaltation He will be humbled.
When we hold the two in tension we live in the dual reality of the Christian life. If we overdo the humility of obedience we may come to believe our suffering justifies us. It does not. Only the blood of the Lamb can wash away our stain of sin.
If we overemphasize the joy of being lifted up with our Lord we can veer off into arrogance.
The principles are not troublesome to the mind . . . but living them out in the flesh, aye, there’s the rub. The issue is where we train our gaze. Those Israelites of old, embarking on their flight from Egypt, looked down at their feet and stumbled immediately into sin.
Had they kept their eyes fixed on the Promised Land just beyond the horizon they would have remained sure-footed as they made their way through the wilderness.
For us, the cross of Christ is the bright beacon. We will not keep it in view if we fall in with a culture drunk on a fiction of rights. Only half-a-century ago a U.S. president declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
The thunderous applause had scarcely died when politicians of both parties began telling citizens of rights they never knew they had and how by voting the right way they would fix all their wrongs. It was not always thus.
In a less sensitive age, some let their feelings be known even when one of high rank was involved. One such was General McClellan. President Lincoln paid a call at McClellan’s home to consult him on a military matter.
The general was away at a reception. Lincoln waited some considerable time. When McClellan at last returned he was informed immediately that the president was waiting to see him. And he proceeded down the hall and up the stairs to his chamber and sent word to Lincoln, waiting in the parlor, that the general had gone to bed.
Lincoln never mentioned the insult but word of it leaked out. The president did not call on McClellan again until September 1862. General Lee had dealt the Union Army a stinging defeat at the second Battle of Bull Run.
The president visited McClellan this time to ask him to take charge of the dispirited and disorganized Army of the Potomac. Lincoln’s friends did ask why he would visit, to say nothing of promote, a man who had offended him so grievously.
“Why,” said Lincoln, “I would be willing to hold McClellan’s horse if only he will give victory to our army.”
Many more Union troops might have perished if the president had stood on his honor. Instead, he kept his eye on the prize, honor be damned. Something like Christ.
For my part, I thank Jesus for neglecting – no, forfeiting -- His rights. If Jesus had demanded His due He would have steered a course far wide of the cross, He would have paid no price for sin. If Jesus had kept score . . . I would be beyond hope, irretrievably lost.
But Jesus abandoned His rights and paid for my wrongs. He gave up the glory of His Father’s presence, His place in the very throne room of God, to descend to earth and accept my punishment. He emptied Himself that I might be filled. And I am filled and I will be filled.
Beloved, we can live in the dual reality of this Christian life. Our Lord was in the form of God, a perfect representation of the Father. We are made in the image of God, an image at first uncorrupted but then contaminated by sin.
If we let this mind be in us which was also in Christ Jesus . . . Let us not count equality with Christ a thing to be grasped. Let us not consider it robbery to be equal with Christ. Let us make ourselves of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant.
And then let us be exalted with Him in our baptism . . . but exalted not for our own glory but for the glory of our Lord. We are His witnesses, washed clean to know Him and love Him and serve Him.
Our struggle to make sense of the pain and affliction in us and around us resolves itself at His cross. As good conquers evil through submission to the divine plan, crucifixion augurs resurrection and death’s decay surrenders to life’s eternal radiance.
Our suffering leads in due time to death . . . and death leads to newness of life.
And now as we approach His table we enter again and anew into the duality of life in Christ. The loaf is the broken body . . . yet the bread of life. The cup is the spilt blood . . . yet the elixir of salvation. Our victory is in Jesus, who hung on a cross; all glory be to Him. Amen.