Sunday of Passion
Political speeches are usually staged events. Politicians choose to give speeches in settings that help to support or reinforce their point. They choose a location or have people on the stage with them that they hope will help drive home their message.
Of course, no politician has more resources for doing this than the President of the United States. And so it was that on May 1, 2003 that President George W. Bush used the Nimitz class aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln as the setting for his speech announcing that the invasion of Iraq to remove Sadaam Hussein had ended. The president made a grand entrance as he landed on the aircraft carrier in a jet. Then he made his speech there was a huge banner in the background on the aircraft carrier island that said, “Mission Accomplished.”
However, subsequent events contradicted the message of that day, and the “Mission Accomplished” banner became a powerful symbol for a broad range of miscalculations about Iraq. Instead of “Mission Accomplished” the situation in Iraq soon turned into one of an ongoing war as the U.S. fought against an insurgency campaign. In fact, the U.S. military would not leave Iraq until the end of 2011 after nearly five thousand service personnel had been killed in action.
Today we are observing Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion. The Divine Service began outside in the procession with palms as we recalled Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey. Our Old Testament reading from Zechariah this morning was fulfilled in this event. Matthew tells us, “This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
Matthew tells us that like the “Mission Accomplished” speech, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was staged. It was choreographed by Jesus in order to form a very clear impression for those observing the event. It was meant to say that Jesus was the Christ – the Messiah. And yet as we heard in the reading of the Passion of Our Lord this morning, by the end of the week events powerfully contradicted that message. The one heralded as the Davidic Messiah today would be mocked as the King of the Jews by the sign above his head and by those below on the ground as he died on a cross.
When we listen to the account of the events leading up to Jesus’ entrance on Palm Sunday, we find that Jesus was very specific about the way he was going to enter Jerusalem. After all, he could have walked into the city. No doubt he had done this many times before when he came to Jerusalem for the Passover and Jewish religious festivals.
But this time was different. This trip to Jerusalem was different. In the previous chapter Jesus took the twelve disciples aside and for the third time predicted his passion. He said, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
And so when they were about to enter the city Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” Our Lord specifically had them get a donkey for him to ride in upon.
This was very intentional. This was an animal that had messianic associations. It was the kind of animal that the king descended from David – the Messiah – rode. And indeed Matthew tells us that this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Zechariah about the Messiah. In a way that went beyond what the crowed understood, their words were exactly correct as they cried out: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Of course, in our Old Testament lesson, Zechariah goes on to say, “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” In our text the arrival of the Davidic Messiah is accompanied by God’s action to remove the implements of war and bring peace. And we learn that this Messiah rules as king from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
However, that’s not what happens in the Passion of Our Lord. Instead Jesus is arrested. He is handed over to the power of the Roman Empire at whose hands he is tortured, and mocked and crucified. Jesus doesn’t rule as king. Instead he is enthroned on a cross with the sign over his head, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” As I described in this month’s newsletter, the suffering, crucifixion and death of Jesus would have proved conclusively to first century Jews that Jesus was not the Messiah.
Jesus was on the cross because the Messiah was more than the Jews expected, by appearing to be less. He was not only the mighty conquering king. He was also the suffering Servant. And he was sent by God not simply for the sake of Israel. He was sent also for you. He was sent because you don’t fear, love and trust in God above all things. He was sent because you get angry with others and have hate in your heart. He was sent because as Jesus said, out of your heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander.
Jesus had said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Anointed by the Spirit at his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus went forth as the Messiah who was also the Servant sent to bear your sins. By his death he won forgiveness for you. He has removed the sin that incurred God’s wrath by receiving that wrath in your place. And because he has done this for you, through baptism and faith you are now righteous in God’s eyes – you are forgiven.
In our Old Testament lesson, Zechariah describes the Messiah as the One who rules everything. We don’t see that in the Passion of Our Lord. And of course, we know that this is not the whole story. Our reading of the Passion ended with Jesus dead and buried in a tomb. He didn’t stay there. On the third day he rose from the dead.
Yet that is the message for the morning of the first day of the week … next week. Today we behold the crucified Christ as we enter into Holy Week. Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah descended from David. He fulfills all that the Law and the Prophets have said. And because that is true, on Friday he will die on the cross. And on Saturday he will lie in a grave.