From palms to passion, from shouts of Hosanna to cries for crucifixion. This Sunday has everything. It begins with the waving of palm branches in procession, it ends with the cross. We call it Passion Sunday, the older, more historic name for Palm Sunday. Palms are part of our Lord’s Passion, yes, but they are not the only thing. Palms without the cross are leaves and branches without the tree. The world isn’t saved from sin by a palm tree but by the tree of the cross, and the passion of our Lord who hung on it.
When we hear the word “passion” we think of intense love, fervent devotion, intense. The passion of lovers, or being passionate about something. But the older meaning is from the Latin passus, to suffer, as in the Apostles’ Creed: passus, mortus, et sepultus est. He suffered, died, and was buried. Out of His passion to save the world from sin and death, our Lord endured His passion.
The Gospel reading was lengthy this morning, and for good reason. God’s holy war against our sin and death and the Law that condemns us is no little border squirmish. The war was planned from all eternity. The Son is elect the warrior, chosen to do battle with the darkness and conquer by dying. The Gospel narratives spend more time in the final week of Jesus’ ministry, than they do the rest of His three years. It’s as though this week contains everything He came to do. It does. The Creed heads straight for it without detours: He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
Time permits but a few highlights. We will hear these things in greater depth and detail during the course of this week. On Thursday, we will rejoice in the upper room and the Supper of Jesus’ body and blood. On Friday, the cross and the Crucified One. On Saturday, His rest in the tomb and our Baptism into His death. And on Sunday, the open, empty tomb and the glory of Jesus’ resurrection. For today, just a few things.
He is welcomed as a king, riding a donkey in peace, palm branches waving. Shouts of “Hosanna. Hoshianna. Lord, save us!” That how you great the victorious king coming home from battle. But this King is headed toward His battle, into holy war with sin, death, and devil.
He is anointed at Bethany. A woman pours an expensive jar of scented oil on His head. Her entire savings used up in a single act of devotion. The disciples are indignant. The money could have been used for the poor. But Jesus will not have their care for the poor detract from her worship. The poor will always be around. But not Jesus. Not in this way. She has done a beautiful thing, an act of lavish devotion far beyond the disciples’ puny practicalities. Her devotion is off the budget and excessive. She has anointed Jesus for His burial.
The Good Shepherd who anoints His sheep with the oil of healing, has His own head anointed by one of His sheep. She gave all that she had to Jesus. In a few days, He would give Himself for her and for her salvation. This is His passion to save.
Two days later, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Passover. A borrowed, upper room is the setting. The Passover lamb is killed, bled to death at the temple. Roasted in the fire until well done. The four cups of wine are filled. The table is set with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. With sour bitterness on their tongues, the disciples hear Jesus speak of His betrayal. One of His own will do it. They are saddened. “Surely, not I,” each one says, though each in his own way does betray Him.
He takes the unleavened bread, the Bread of Affliction, gives thanks, breaks it into pieces, and gives a piece to each of the disciples. “Take it, this is my body.” He takes the third cup after the meal, gives thanks, and gives it to each of them. His cup is theirs to drink. “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for the many.” His body and His blood, soon to be offered on the altar of the cross, He gives here as food and drink. He is the Bread of Life, the Wine of heaven. He gives the very same Body and Blood to you here today – for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. This is His passion to save.
They head to the place called Gethsemane. He is deeply distressed and troubled. The sin of the world weighs heavy on Him. It drives Him to the ground in prayer. “Abba, Papa. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will but what you will.” He prays for us all, for everyone who has cried out in the silence in an hour of despair and death, and heard nothing return from the silence. He prays, “Thy will be done,” as He taught His disciples. And the will of His Father is that He should drink the bitter cup and die for the world. This is His passion to save.
He is betrayed with a kiss, a sign of friendship, and arrested like a criminal. They come with swords and clubs against this gentle Shepherd, who healed their sick and taught them and brought good news of the kingdom. A young man, wearing only a linen tunic, follows at a distance. Many think the young man was John Mark, the writer of this Gospel. The mob grabs him too, but he breaks free of his tunic and flees naked. You can’t follow Jesus from a distance in safety. Faith is not a specatator sport. Just as Mark.
Jesus is brought before the Sanhedrin, the religious high court. The priests, elders, and teacher of the Torah examine Him. “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” Every religion must ask this question, and hear the answer. Who is this Jesus? Is He the Messiah, the Son of God? “I am,” He says plainly, and adds a promise that they too will see Him coming in glory. He’s either a liar, a lunatic, or He is who He says He is. There is no other option. You can’t say, “He’s a great prophet, a great teacher, a great example, a great anything” unless you also say, “He is the Christ, the Lord, the Son of God.”
Religion renders its verdict. “He’s a blasphemer; He deserves to die.” God in the flesh is a blasphemy to man’s religion, which wants to keep God nicely in a box on a shelf somewhere in heaven. God in heaven is safe; God dwelling in the flesh among us is a threat to our religions, our attempts to be gods in place of God. Jesus endures it all silently. He offers to apologetic, no protest. It has to happen this way. His rejection is the world’s salvation. This is Jesus’ passion to save.
A trusted disciple disowns Jesus in His time of trial. “I don’t know the man.” Three times Peter denies knowing Jesus, even calling down a curse on his own head. We do too. We deny Him by the way we live, by the way we talk. Yet Jesus doesn’t deny Peter. The rooster’s crow testifies to the truth – the awful truth of Peter’s denial, the greater truth of Jesus’ mercy. Jesus goes to the cursed tree for Peter, for you, for all. He will not abandon you, for He cannot abandon Himself. That is His passion to save.
He is brought before Pilate, the representative of Caesar. He taught His disciples to render unto Caesar, now Caesar will render unto Him. To the heavy handed world of Politics, Jesus is threat to the peace, a usurper to the throne, a troublemaker, a subversive. King of kings and Lord of lords, yet His kingdom is not of this world. Pilate shakes with fear at the glimpse of an authority greater than His own. One day every knee will bow to this King. But not this day. He is silent and makes no defense.
Pilate tries to cut a compromise. Political correctness isn’t new to our day. He offers the people a way out, a choice – Barabas the murderer, or Jesus the messiah. Who would want the likes of Barabas loose on the streets? But Barabbas goes free, and Jesus goes to His death. The guilty one gets off, the Innocent One dies. He becomes our sin, we His righteousness. This too is His passion to save.
The soldiers take charge of Him. They crown Him with thorns, they dress Him in purple, the spit on Him, and beat Him. And then, at the third hour, at nine o’clock in the morning, they crucify Him. Jesus the Christ, Jesus the King, Jesus the Son of God. He is all these, and more, hanging there in the darkness, forsaken by His Father. This is His passion to save.
Faith is a passion for the Passion of Jesus. The bad news is that you and I have no credential to wave before the Lord. No perfect work that makes us pleasing to God. We cannot, must not, justify ourselves. That’s the bad news. The good news is you and I already have all that you need to stand before God on the day of judgment: the passion of Jesus – His suffering, death, and burial. Your Baptism declares it; the Supper confirms it. He is passionate to save you.