Palm Sunday

Readings: Zechariah 9:9–12 | Philippians 2:5–11 | Matthew 26:1-27:66

Text: John 12:12-19

Among the four Gospels, St. John’s provides a unique perspective.  Matthew (Matt. 21:1-9), Mark (Mark 11:1-11), and Luke (Luke 19:28-40) all contribute to the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  Yet, the Holy Spirit inspired John with additional commentary on events in the Lord’s ministry. We’ll consider three of those today.

16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

First, the disciples that day, who witnessed these things first-hand, did not understand their full import.  We often think that if we were there in person, we would have a better time believing, and the Church would have a better time convincing people of the truth of the Gospel.  But it’s not true.  Even the disciples, who were with Him day after day did not understand.  At times, it even says they didn’t understand “because it was hidden from them” (Luke 18:34, also Matt. 11:25)

Now, why would God do this, if He indeed desires not the death of the sinner, and for all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth? [Ezek. 18:23; 1 Timothy 2:3-4]  It’s because we are not gods; we are mortals, finite, time-bound creatures of God.  It was kept from them that day because it wasn’t time for them to understand yet.  That time did come, and they did reflect on it.  Despite what the Internet would promise us, we will not have all the answers at our fingertips.  With the things of God, we must wait on Him.

Our Lord taught this to Nicodemus, who was convinced that he had discovered by his own wisdom that Jesus was a teacher come from God.  Jesus took that boast right out of him by saying, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)  This is what happens in every Christian’s growth as God’s child.  The adult convert often looks back on their past and says, “Why didn’t I get it sooner?  Why did I squander so many years in sin and rebellion?”  Any Christian who has prayed for a wayward child or friend has been mystified why the Spirit doesn’t move sooner in someone’s life.  But this waiting teaches us to rely completely on God to move and work in our hearts.  We cannot take any credit for it; we can only reflect on it in hindsight and give God the glory!

The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness.

The next thing the Evangelist John points out is the witness of the crowd.  Even though the disciples could not yet connect the dots, the crowds did not hesitate to share what they had seen.  A man who had died, and was four days in the tomb, was now alive and walking around again.  Certainly, they couldn’t explain the fine points of doctrine, or argue against heresy in a systematic way.  But, it’s like the man born blind, whom Jesus healed, in John 9, who said, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25)  This man bore simple witness to who Jesus was and what He had done.

We are far too preoccupied with convincing others by human reason.  I suppose this is because so many persuaders are around us: advertisers convincing us that we need this or that, the desire to live up to peer or family expectations, the flexing of persuasive muscles on social media by who has the most viral meme.

But when it comes to sharing the good news of Jesus, success does not hinge on our eloquence, but on God’s work.  From the noble St. Paul who was an unskilled speaker (1 Cor. 2:1-5; 2 Cor. 11:6), to Moses who stuttered (Exod. 4:10-16), and Jeremiah who was a youth (Jer. 1:6-7).  But also consider the witness of Rahab in Jericho (Josh. 2:8-14), Ruth in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:6-14, 4:13-17), and the slave girl whose words led to Naaman’s salvation (2 Kings 5:1-3).  Whoever says that Christian witness is an elaborate program of training and traveling long distances is trying to sell you something.  God uses the witness of lowly people like you and I where we already are, who have this treasure in jars of clay [2 Cor. 4:7].  The convincing and persuading belong to Him, the timing of events and saving of lives is His.

19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

Human power seems mighty.  The devil is a strong foe.  Our sinful nature is pervasive.

We Christians today would say that the world is going against Christ and toward antichrist.  The church after Covid seems all too content to “attend” through a screen.  Membership in many places continues to decline, as people find purpose and community elsewhere  Content creation has given rise to YouTube stars who—for better or worse—are able to contribute their opinions and delivery into the salad bar of bespoke (that is, self-chosen, tailor made) Bible study.

Children are indoctrinated with new racism, misandry (the hatred of men), and socialism at schools and by popular media.  Public policy is directed by a godless, materialistic worldview.  That worldview touts an ability to save our planet from forecasted man-made catastrophe and to upend natural law by redefining gender identity.  This is not about right versus left, but light versus darkness.

Isn’t it interesting that both the enemies of God and His followers today believe they are on the losing side of the battle?  But it is God’s will that is done, and we, as His children, do well to remember that.

Our Father is He who said even to the ocean, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (Job 38:11)  It is not an arm-wrestling match between equal forces of good and evil.  Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem, His innocent suffering and death, crying out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) changed everything.  It didn’t just turn the tables; it chained the devil [Rev. 20:2] and broke his teeth, as the Church prays in Psalm 3: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.”

Beware of those who would drive you to fear the encroaching darkness of the world, as if it had power greater than your God.  “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16) And it will shine, because the darkness cannot overcome it [John 1:6]!  Remember the lessons of our forefathers: the Israelites under mighty Pharaoh, God’s people in Exile in Babylon, the Christians of the first few centuries who lived in a similar godless world.  The Lord prevailed and preserved His people then, and today is no different.

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Palm Sunday

Readings: Zechariah 9:9–12 | Philippians 2:5–11 | Mark 14-15

Text: Mark 14-15

The Passion of our Lord is stark and cruel.  There’s no painting it with a nice gloss to make it more attractive.  It forces us to gaze deeply and uncomfortably at something grotesque: an innocent Man arrested and falsely accused, with no one to come to His aid either in heaven or on earth, who had nothing but love for all people beaten and mocked and killed.

As we have just faced this again, it is helpful for us to deeply examine what is happening as the Lord Jesus gives up His life.  Words are important, but often we use them carelessly and without thinking very deeply about what they mean.  Here are a few examples:

Godforsaken, as in, “Who would want to live in this godforsaken place?”  We call something godforsaken when it’s desolate and undesirable.  But has God in fact forsaken a place because its condition is adverse?  Has God forsaken you because your days are unpleasant toil, your marriage is a painful mess, or you can’t seem to catch a break no matter how hard you pray?

If you want to see what godforsaken looks like, look to Jesus, who is betrayed by His friends.  He is said to be God’s Son, yet God does not come to His aid.  He is falsely accused in the name of God, and yet nothing silences those mouths.  He is innocent, and yet injustice prevails, the Roman judge saves his own hide and releases a murder.

With His dying breaths, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34) because He truly was forsaken, despised and rejected, cut off from His people.  The answer to His cry, “Why have you forsaken me?” is so that no other believing child of God would ever have to wonder—He hasn’t!  And you can be sure of this because God has set His seal on His beloved, Jesus. That way, we can confidently believe what He says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5 citing Joshua 1:5)

Damn – “Damn it, them, those…”  Oh how we love to fix our problems in the utmost!  Yes, we might try to soften it and supposedly make it kid-safe with darn or dang, but the force is the same: We want whatever it is gone from our life (and the earth for that matter)—the group we see as harmful, the implement that doesn’t work right, the person who’s hurt and angered us.  But we don’t have that kind of authority, to go condemning him or her or this or that.  Only God does.

And what is God doing, He who does indeed have that power and authority?  He doesn’t condemn the sinner; He damns His Son. He condemns Him as the singular worst sinner.  For all the lies, cheating, murders, fornication, slander, idolatry—Jesus is damned.  It was so that He would not damn you who believe.  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21) 

“Why won’t God answer me?!”  When you pray and pray, and the answer doesn’t seem to come, you might ask this.  And while those who mock God and put Him to the test shouldn’t think they’ll have an answer, the Passion points us to our Lord Jesus’ experience.  Throughout His passion in Mark, heaven is silent.  “He said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”  But there is no answer; only the snores of His disciples.  He faced abuse before the Council, and when He declared Himself to be the Christ, the Son of the Blessed who will come on the clouds of heaven (Mk. 14:62), God allowed Him to be abused.  As He hung between heaven and earth, with passersby wagging their head and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself,” there was only darkness.  All on earth appeared to abandon Him, and heaven seemed not to care.

But when He uttered a loud cry and breathed His last, heaven declared with certainty that His suffering and the despair He endured were not in vain: “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”  God spoke with actions that the sacrifice of His Son was acceptable in His sight, now more than all whole burnt offerings and incense.  Heaven may have been silent during that hour, but the Father and His holy angels were keeping eager watch, to give the pronouncement that access to God is opened by Christ—“God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:4-6) In the Passion, behold what God has done for each one of us.  Repent of your blasphemous thoughts of God’s way toward you, and see in His Son delivered up that He will never leave or forsake you, that you who believe have passed out of judgment, and that He now delights to hear you call Him Father in prayer.  Amen.

Palm Sunday (Passion According to St. Matthew)

Matthew 26:1-35

Jesus is surrounded by failures. The woman who anoints him does a beautiful work, Judas who betrays him, the eleven other disciples who claim to be faithful but later abandon him.

And this is nothing unique to this moment in time. Among people, we are a mixed bag. We have good intentions at times, evil at others. We do some good things, but other times we’d rather just look out for ourselves. We show good judgment and self-control, but we also can be incredibly stupid. If we’re judging the success of Jesus’ passion, it best not be by looking at those around Him.

The one constant in all of this is where this mixed bag of men and women have hope, where the Church in every age is built on the rock. It’s on Jesus and the covenant He makes: “Take eat; this is My Body” “Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The covenant is the unbreakable promise of God to men with all of our failures. Jesus’ Body broken on your behalf; Jesus blood poured out for the remission of sins.

With the rabble around Jesus in His Passion, He is one constant. When we thrive in the Holy Spirit or foolishly yield to our flesh, Jesus is our one constant. It is to Him that we return, and in Him we are saved. Amen.

Matthew 26:36-56

In a script for a play, everything is determined. The actors follow the stage directions, they say the lines assigned to them, they react the way they are supposed to. This is a bit like how it was with the Scriptures.

Jesus, the Son of Man, knew the part that He had to play. It was laid out before Him, and everything had been going according to the prescribed events. He had taught the people what He needed to teach, performed the great signs which signaled the Messiah’s arrival. Now was the most difficult part—that of the “Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief…one from whom men hid their faces, despised, and rejected.” (Isa 53:3). He pleaded with the Author that, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” But He was willing to play His part: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus submitted Himself to the definite plan of God, the Script-ures.

The others played their part, too. The disciples grew sleepy keeping watch because of the weakness of their flesh. Judas and his crew came out to arrest Jesus with a kiss. Peter, thinking he would creatively turn the tide, attacked the servant of the high priest. But no matter what the desire of sinful actors, whether it be to seemingly save Jesus or have Him destroyed, the Scriptures of the prophets must be fulfilled.

And even though the Scripture prescribed that He would be betrayed and rejected, they also announce that, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:4-6) Amen.

Matthew 26:57-75

There are some times when telling the truth will get you into more trouble. Other times, you might tell a white lie and think it will save you from worse consequences. From experience, we know that it’s right to tell the truth, if nothing else than the quote attributed to Mark Twain: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” But we inevitably make things complicated by lying or telling a selective truth. Many broken marriages and conscience-stricken addicts can show the foreboding consequences of lying.

Here we see both. Telling the unedited truth winds up getting Jesus the sentence of death, while Peter weasels his way out of trouble with a thrice-told bald-faced lie. And what does Peter’s false testimony gain him, but a selfish benefit of being spared ridicule. Trying to save his own hide, he does nothing. But it was right that Jesus told the truth, because that telling of the truth, though it cost Him His life, was the very testimony that must be said. In His confession, He received the just consequences for us, for the Psalmist says with alarm, “all mankind are liars” (Ps. 116:11).

His testimony also gained for us what no mere man’s truth could. In confessing that He was the Christ, the Son of Man, His Word was that of the “mediator of a new covenant…the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:24) It is now His testimony that He gives before the Father, where He speaks on our behalf and we are declared innocent and righteous. Amen.

Matthew 27:1-31

The last words that Jesus spoke before being nailed to the cross were, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (26:64) There was no more for Him to say, because He had preached the Kingdom of God, He had confirmed it with signs. Now it was left to others how they would respond and what they would do.

Judas said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” but without faith, he carried out sentence on himself. Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and marveled at how Jesus made no answer to defend himself. The crowds cried for Barabbas instead of Jesus, cried out for His death, so confident of their rejection of this King that they said, “His blood be on us and on our children.” The soldiers dressed Jesus up in mock royal robes and said, “Hail, King of the Jews” as they abused Him. This is how they all responded—Jew and Gentile—to the Word of the Lord and His Christ.

This was all as it had to be, for God to save sinful man. In order to save those who rejected the Lord, the Lord’s Servant had to be rejected. Even though Jesus was silent then, He had been spoken of before, “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth…Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief…the will of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.” (Isa. 53:7, 10) This is how God saved them because that was is His gracious will—to save His enemies and account them righteous. This is God’s will: to save you. Amen.

Palm Sunday (Philippians 2:5-11)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Palm Sunday + March 25, 2018
Text: Philippians 2:5-11

Everyone admires a humble, loving person.  Nobody would argue these qualities are a bad thing.  Jesus is one of those people who exemplify humility and love.  Many people admire Him as one of history’s greats.  Jesus is up there with people we aspire to be more like, like Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela.
 
Jesus truly walked the walk.  He preached, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[1]  This He did without fault, at all times—even when He was betrayed, falsely accused, condemned, mocked, and crucified.  He prayed even for the very people who drove the nails and mocked Him as He died.
 
If only we could be more like Jesus!  But, how often we fall short of His example!  But is imitating Him all there is to it?  Is the answer for humanity really just master imitating Jesus?
 
The Greatest Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and the second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” are actually very serious.  Being like Jesus is not just a noble goal for a person to choose.  God actually demands that every one of us be like Jesus.  God demands that we worship and serve Him only.  He demands that we be humble and love our fellow man.  Loving your neighbor the way Jesus did is the standard by which every person is to be judged—“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matt. 25:35-36)
 
The punishment if we don’t is death and hell.
 
The way to view the Passion of our Lord is not just a tragic story about a good man being condemned.  It’s the Law of God in action—both in the example of Jesus’s humility and love, and in the punishment for everyone who breaks the holy commands and sins against God and neighbor.  Your heart and mine have turned aside from God, yet Jesus was forsaken.  Our love has grown cold toward our family and friends, and we have closed our heart to those who are poor and needy around us, yet it was Christ who was flogged, bled, and died.
 
Without Jesus’ Passion, there is no peace with God for those who break the Law of God.  No amount of imitation can suffice.
 
But what does it mean that Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form a servant”?  This shows us that Jesus is much more than an example for us to emulate; He is the pattern for your life as a child of God.  Though Christ’s Passion, God took away the sting and curse of the Law,[2] but now that we are children of God, He has begun His renewing work in us by His Holy Spirit.  That’s where the Law becomes for us a guide for how God wants us to live.  We are to daily grow in love toward God—hearing His Word, receiving His spiritual gifts, and forsaking trust in all other things.  We are also to grow daily in love toward our neighbor–showing Christ-like love to our families, friends, coworkers, strangers, and even those who hate us.
 
Jesus wasn’t talking to other people when He gave instruction in the Sermon on the Mount; He was talking to you and me: 38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38–39)
 
People notice that Christians are different.  This is more than an accident or a conscious decision to emulate the teacher Jesus.  This is God’s work within each believer, to change them into a different person with a different mind and a changed heart.  As we follow Jesus, we are far from perfect and we stumble often, but with God at work, we strive to do better.  God has promised His continual help and the strength of His Holy Spirit to everyone baptized into Christ.  Amen.
[1] Matthew 22:36-40
[2] 1 Corinthians 15:56; Galatians 3:13

Palm Sunday(Matthew 27:11-66)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Palm Sunday + April 9, 2017
Text: Matthew 27:11-66

In the Middle Ages, a new form of theater developed called the Passion Play.  It’s performed in many different ways and in different venues.  The point is that what started in the Church became a whole genre of performing art.
 
When we hear the Passion today, we might sit back as idle observers—as theater-goers.  We might want to say “Boo!” when the Pharisees come on, hiss at the Roman soldiers who mocked Jesus, and weep when Jesus is lashed and carries His cross to Golgotha.
 
But the Passion is not meant to be idly observed; it is meant to be participated in through faith.  This is your Lord’s passion, not a fictional character and not a stranger.  We are not just audience members, but actors in the drama.
 
When Pilate’s misunderstands and is mired in unbelief at the plain words of Jesus, that is us.  When he perceives that Jesus was delivered up on fake charges, sits on a judgment throne, and yet refuses to do justice, we do the same.  Pilate washes his hands in response to the pangs of guilt, hoping to silence the nagging voice of conscience but refusing to repent, and we’ve been there too.
 
In the Judgment Hall, the crowd thirsts for Jesus’ death.  They used their vote to free a murderer and condemn of the Giver of life, just as we have used our freedom to turn away and reject God’s ways.  Like the crowd, we would rather be God’s people without Him telling us what that means.
 
When Jesus is taken out by the soldiers, we are there too.  They proudly mock this suffering man, alienating themselves both from His cause and His agony.  Not only do they revel in the fact that they seem to be better off, but they rub that fact in and belittle Jesus.  If He’s supposed to be some kind of Savior, He must be useless because all this is happening to Him and He does nothing to stop it.  Like them, we would rather have glory, power, and visible success, rather than rejection, weakness, and suffering.
 
Then, there’s Simon of Cyrene, who was compelled to carry His cross.  Now it can’t be avoided. Jesus’ passion is not something to be spectated, but we are part of it.  St. Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”[1]  We are marked with the cross in Baptism, and He calls us daily to take up our cross and follow Him.[2]
 
Truly, His cross was the greatest, for by it He saved the world.  But we should not be surprised when this world and this life of sin compels us to carry the cross.  Why can’t life be easier, people like us, justice be done?  These are the wrong questions to ask.  Rather, by faith we see what God is at work doing the suffering and death of Christ.  It is His Passion to save us.
 
So when we bear our own small crosses, trust that God will be glorified through this burden, agony, betrayal, or loss.  Mind you, how this will be is rarely apparent from under the cross.  “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”[3]  Jesus’ disciples couldn’t see what God was doing until Easter and Pentecost. So don’t try to look for a reason right away—it may well be hidden from you.  Instead, trust the good and gracious will of God for you: “For those who love God, [He works] all things together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”[4]  Believe in the God who saved you through death and resurrection, and know that in His love, He will also save you from every evil, that you might glorify Him.
 
This Holy Week, as we walk with Jesus to the cross, find comfort in what He has done, because it isn’t just a story to be read.  It’s a story to be lived, for by it you have life.  Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
[1] Romans 6:3
[2] Matthew 16:24
[3] Hebrews 12:11
[4] Romans 8:28