Palms to Passion. Shouts of Hosanna! to cries of Crucify Him! It’s all there in one Sunday – Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday.
Some might ask why. Why do it this way? Why not break it up into more digestible bits? We will. This is the start of Holy Week. But today we take in the big picture all at once. The Passion of our Lord to save you from your sins. The Passion of our Lord to rescue you from death. This is the fulfillment of His mission. This is why He was conceived and born of a Virgin. This is why He became flesh and dwelt among us.
A verse from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians summarizes the day: And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
When the crowds greeted Jesus with palm branches shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were treating Jesus as the messiah-king. They remembered the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” They remembered Psalm 118 and the victorious king riding into Jerusalem. “Hosanna, O Lord, save us. Grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
They were expecting the revolt to begin. King Jesus had come to His city, and now it was time for holy war. You can imagine there likely were swords and other weapons in that crowd in addition to palm branches. The air was thick with anticipation, crackling with danger. The religious leaders noticed. So did the Roman government. God was finally going to vindicate His people, liberate them from Roman rule, establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.
No one could have anticipated how this holy war was going to play out that week. No one could have guessed how this messiah-king would win salvation. Betrayed, tried, convicted, beaten, crucified. This is not the world’s idea of a messianic holy war. Nor ours. But that’s exactly what the Passion of our Lord is – a holy war against sin, death, devil, the Law the convicts and kills. And only God in the flesh can fight it.
When we walk along a stretch of beach and see the vastness of the ocean, we tend to feel small. When we look at those marvelous pictures from space and consider the vastness of the heavens, we feel insignificant. But these are nothing compared with the height and depth and breadth of the passion of Jesus the Christ to save the cosmos. And you.
A woman anoints Jesus with the costliest gift she has, a jar of perfume worth a year’s wages. Her devotion raises eyebrows and draws criticism. The money could have gone to feed the poor. But worship is never practical, always priceless. This was preparation for Jesus’ death and burial, an act of devotion that would never be forgotten.
Judas betrays Jesus. That act would never be forgotten either. In later centuries enemies of Christ would try to salvage Judas, as the gnostic “Gospel of Judas” attests, but the first century eyewitness narrative tells the sordid truth. A disciple from the inner ranks betrays His master for the paltry price of a slave. It would have been better had he not been born. And the Lord permits it, all for your sake, all to save you.
Jesus celebrates the Passover together, one last time with His Israel, His Twelve. He gives what had never been given before at a Passover table – His Body, the broken Bread; His Blood, the cup of wine poured out. Even before the Sacrifice, they get to share in the blessing, because this Sacrifice reaches back to the beginning and forward to the end. One time for all time. One death for all, and for you.
Jesus goes to the Garden to pray. Heavy with sorrow, burdened by your sin, He falls to the ground praying for another way. But there is no other way. He is the chosen Lamb, the unblemished Sacrifice. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
He is betrayed with a kiss, and arrested by an armed crowd. He is tried by the religious high court, and is pronounced worthy of death. Peter, His leading disciple, the one who said he would rather die than fall away, denies even knowing Jesus three times.
Jesus stands before Pilate, Caesar’s man. The King of kings before a minor Roman official. Pilate tries to negotiate his way out, but there is no way out. He offers a terrorist – Barabbas. But the crowd calls for Jesus. The terrorist goes free; the innocent, unblemished Lamb goes to His death.
They clothe Him in royal purple and press a crown of thorns on His head. Thorns were the sign of God’s wrath, the curse on the earth. He is cursed for us. They beat Him and spit on Him and mock Him, just as He is mocked in our day. And He takes it, because He is the world’s Savior. The world cannot save itself.
A passer-by, Simon from Cyrene, is grabbed and forced to help Jesus carry His cross. He is a picture of you and your salvation; you have been crucified with Christ. Joined to Jesus in His death. At nine o’clock in the morning, the third hour, they crucified Him. The hour is important, as is the place. This is history, not myth or legend. History has time and place.
Between him are two insurrectionists. James and John wanted to be on Jesus’ right and left when He came into His kingdom. Here, in His hour of glory, when He comes into His kingdom, there are two thieves flanking Him. James and John had no idea that this was what they were asking for. Behold your King.
Everything that is said of this crucified Jesus is true, even in mockery. He is “the King of the Jews.” He is the Christ. He is the King of Israel. At his death, the centurion in charge says, “He is the Son of God.” That is the greatest truth of all. Dead on the cross, Jesus is most King, most Christ, most Son of God for you.
From noon to three it was dark as though it were night. This is the Day of the Lord. In the darkness, Jesus, the Light of the world, prays Psalm 22, the prayer of the God-forsaken King. That’s what you and I deserve – to be forsaken by God. God would be justified in turning His back on us, but instead He turns His back on His only-begotten Son.
He drinks the bitter cup, the sour wine of our sin and His Father’s wrath, and utters one last loud cry with His last breath. An echo of the exorcisms Jesus performed. In this death, the devil is undone. The temple curtain that closed off the Holy of Holies is torn in to from top to bottom, as the heavens were torn open at Jesus’ Baptism. God and man are reconciled. Your sins are forgiven. Heaven stands open to you through the doorway of cross-shaped wood stained with the blood of the Lamb.
All of this here for you in your Baptism, in the word of Absolution, in the Body and Blood of His Supper.
This is the Passion of our Lord to save you.
In the Name of Jesus,