From palms to passion, shouts of Hosanna! to cries for crucifixion. Say what you will. Palm Sunday /Passion Sunday is a very complex day.
It is the beginning of Holy Week. Christians do not have obligatory pilgrimages. OT Israelites had to pack the kids and head off to Jerusalem three times a year for the major feasts. Passover was one of those times. It was very inconvenient, to say the least. Muslims worldwide make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims in the middle east make annual pilgrimages to various holy sites. But we Christians have no obligatory pilgrimages to make. Any trips we may make for religious reasons are purely personal. That doesn’t mean we aren’t inconvenienced by our faith, it simply means we don’t have to travel far from home for it. The true inconveniences of the faith are the struggle against sin in the flesh, not the struggle to make airport and train connections.
Holy Week is a kind of pilgrimage – a pilgrimage not out of commandment but out of custom. There is no commandment in the NT to celebrate Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, or even for that matter Easter Sunday. These are “symbols,” manmade ceremonies to help us remember, voluntary disciplines. The only recorded festival in the NT is the Lord’s Day – the first day of the week. Resurrection day. The other feasts and festivals came later, for various reasons, none of which are terribly important to discuss here. What matters is that Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification, and that baptized into Him we die and rise to new life. The Christian pilgrimage that counts is a journey from Baptism to the grave, sustained by the Supper, and on to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
Today is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. The timing is rather arbitrary. It happens to coincide this year to the Jewish Passover and the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Easter, and that’s rather nice. This is the week in which, by custom and tradition, we are inconvenienced a bit in our daily routines. We take a week out of our lives to remember, to pray, to receive, to reflect on what Jesus has done for us. Do we have to? No. We Lutherans are good at recognizing that. Too good, at times. But we are impoverished if we don’t avail ourselves of the gifts of Holy Week. I can look at pictures of a faraway place, and I can read books about it, but there’s nothing quite like being there. Holy Week is a kind of “being there,” walking the road of sorrows and shame that leads to the one death that conquers Death for us all.
The road begins with a triumphal entry – waving palm branches and shouts of Hosanna! (save us!). The King makes His grand entrance riding atop a borrowed donkey, and the people greet their messiah. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Luke even takes us back to Christmas and the song of the angels: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Where did people think this road was going? Certainly not to a cross and a grave! More likely to revolution, to jihad, to holy war. That was the messiah they were expecting, a Bin Laden, an activist, a military-political figure, a jihadist, but that was not the Messiah who came. He came to lay His life down, to die for others, to show the highest expression of God’s love for the world.
The road winds to the temple, the place of God’s presence. Jesus cleanses it as the prophets said He would. It is a house of prayer, not a den for terrorists. There is opposition and scheming in the temple corridors. The religious want to kill Him. There is betrayal. A disciple, an apostle, one whose office is the foundation of the holy ministry, agrees to betray his Master for 30 silver coins even as a poor widow puts her two pennies into the temple treasury. Faith and unbelief lie close together. Even among His own, His ministers, there are betrayers. Even today.
The road winds through the streets of Jerusalem, to a borrowed upper room prepared for visitors. The Passover, the sacrament of the Exodus. Jesus sits at table with His Twelve, His Israel. He takes the bread and gives it as it was never given before. “This is my body.” He takes the cup after supper, the cup of blessing, and gives it as it was never given before. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is being poured out for you.” The words “for you” requires all hearts to believe. Your hearts too. He commands them to continue this meal until He comes in glory: Do this for my remembrance. You are included; you are on this road.
The road leads out to a peaceful garden at the Mount of Olives, a quiet place of prayer. Jesus prays for another way, another road. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” He is the obedient Son for us all. He prays as He taught His disciples to pray: “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” He bears the sin of the world on His shoulders. Your sin and mine. The anguish is great. The road is stained with sweat and blood that falls from His brow.
The peaceful garden of prayer becomes the arena of betrayal and arrest. The betrayer kisses his Master. How often we have done that – kissed Jesus only to betray Him with our lips! Swords are drawn, the air is thick with hatred. Jesus reaches out and heals the servant who ear was cut off in His defense. He does not resist His enemies, those who would kill Him. “If your enemy forces you to walk one mile,” He once said, “walk two.” Jesus walks the whole way with His enemies, for His enemies.
The road goes straight to the governor’s house, to Pontius Pilate, Caesar’s man. There Peter, the lead disciple, the first to speak, the first to draw his sword, turn into a coward and a denier. Three times, “I do not know Him!” The eyes of the Lord look straight into his. Jesus knows our denying and cowardly hearts. He knows the truth about us; He knows our denials better than we do.
The road takes a detour to Herod’s palace. Herod who wanted to be King of the Jews at any cost including the lives of those around me. He wants to be entertained by Jesus, a miracle perhaps. There is that dead on line from Jesus Christ Superstar – “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.” Jesus as entertainer, religious freak show. How often have we come through the doors of this church to be entertained but leave unsatisfied with only the Word. They mock and ridicule Jesus and send Him back to Pilate dressed in royal robes of purple.
The road goes back to Pilate who alone has the authority to sentence Him. Instead of Roman rule there is mob justice. A terrorist named Barabbas is set free; Jesus goes to His death. The innocent dies, the guilty lives. That’s how it is for you. He was made your sin so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God. Pause at this place on the road and marvel at the happy exchange that brings you life.
The road goes down the way of sorrows, a pavement soaked in blood and tears and sweat. A traveler named Simon from Cyrene is commandeered to carry the cross for Jesus. “If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me.” For a brief moment, Simon bears the cross of Jesus, so that Jesus might bear the cross for him. The women on the road weep and wail, Rachel weeping yet again for her children. “If men do this when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” They will destroy Jerusalem and the temple. The inhumanity doesn’t end here but finds its redemption here. Make no mistake. The end of the weeping comes only at the Last Day and not one day sooner.
The road winds to a place called “The Skull” (Latin: Calvaria), where Jesus is crucified between two known terrorists. He absolves those whose work it is to drive the nails through His flesh and bone. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Is there anything or anyone He is not willing to forgive? The inscription above His head notes the charges: This is the King of the Jews. He is mocked in His agony, insulted, spit at, tormented. Even one of the terrorists crucified with Him mocks Him to his death. But the other rebukes his partner and makes the good confession: We are getting what we deserve, but this Man has done nothing wrong. And then a dying man’s prayer: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” He who dies thus, dies well. There is a promise from Jesus in his death: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
It is now 3 o’clock in the afternoon. A heavy darkness has loomed over the land for the last three hours. The temple curtain is torn from top to bottom, the old covenant fulfilled, the Holy of Holies stands open. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world breathes His dying breath and cries out in hidden victory. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
The road takes up the funeral cortege that goes from Calvary to the cemetery. A hasty burial in a borrowed tomb. Even in death, the Son of Man has no place to lay His head. It was the Sabbath, a day of rest. “For in six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” The seventh day, the Vigil of Easter, marks the end of Holy Week. In six days the Son of God accomplished the work of the world’s redemption, and on the seventh day He rested in the tomb. “It is finished.”
This is the Passion of our Lord to save you.
In the name of Jesus,