Sermon for 13 April, 2014 Palm Sunday: Passion
Welcome to Bipolar Sunday! Today is the day when we enter the church joyfully waving palms and singing one of our most beloved hymns – and about twenty minutes later we listen to the story of how Jesus was betrayed by his friends, suffered horrendous physical pain, and died for our sins. Talk about mood swings!
Perhaps that’s why it is also called “Passion Sunday.” It’s certainly true that the crowds that surrounded Jesus when he entered Jerusalem in triumph and those who encircled his cross as he died were both passionate – just in completely different ways. The people who greeted Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem had high expectations of him. They had heard about this “prophet” from Galilee who had performed miracle after miracle as he travelled from Nazareth toward Jerusalem. They knew that he had argued successfully with the religious elite. Most importantly, they believed that he could be the long-awaited, God-appointed Messiah who would bring peace, fulfillment of the law, and freedom from their captivity under Roman occupation. It is no wonder that when he rode into the city they carpeted his way with palms, which were a Greco-Roman symbol of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life.
And the crowds cried out to him as they waved their branches – Hosanna, Hosanna, Son of David, Hosanna in the highest! “Hosanna” is an ancient Hebrew word, taken from the Aramaic that means, “Save.” What the people were crying out to Jesus as he entered the city – what we ourselves sang [will sing] this morning- was, “Jesus, save us. Save us now.” This was not an exclamation of praise, or worship, or thanksgiving. It was a demand – and a very impatient one at that.
Which brings us to the other pole of emotion we are invited to experience today – the one characterized by anger, betrayal, pain, and sorrow. Because, as we know, Jesus did not deliver what those crowds hoped for – and they punished him for it. Expectations are dangerous things – and when they watched him brought low by the Roman authorities, fail to claim his kingship, and dash their hopes of salvation – when they saw that their expectations would not be met, they not only turned away from him; they turned against him. For them, he became just another miracle worker in an age of miracle workers, punished as a political zealot in the very common, very ignominious manner of crucifixion – and for these crowds, his demise proved that he was not and could not be God.
But that is not what Christians believe. Christians believe that it was his very willingness to die isolated, misunderstood and degraded, that demonstrated his oneness with a God who created and wanted to save us. Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled the characteristics of the Messiah in a different way than the Jewish people expected. We believe that he is the king not of this world but of another – that his life itself signals the fulfillment of all law, and that the peace he offers is present within us.
This belief is sometimes hard to explain. When Paul told the Philippians that someone who had the power of God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross,” they must have wondered why. Why, if you had the power of a God, would you do that? Why choose pain, sorrow, and unhappiness when you can have unlimited health, youth and prosperity?
Why indeed. I think it is because we are human beings – human beings that had strayed so far from God’s original creation that he had to find a new way to be with us. Jesus had to know us before he could save us. He had to allow himself to fully experience human nature in order to understand it, so that he could forgive it. And, more importantly, by his example Jesus provided us with the opportunity to know ourselves – to recognize the damage in our souls and to give us the chance to transcend it.
“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley is a dystopian fiction novel that takes place in an unidentified future time in which science and technology have conquered all the maladies of humanity. They are even able to manipulate in vitro brain development so that they have exactly the right number of people with the correct aptitude for every job in society. If you should ever become unhappy or dissatisfied with life, there are government-approved pharmaceuticals to get you over it quickly. Into this world comes John Savage, a young man who, through a series of mishaps, is inadvertently raised outside of society – with his primary companion being “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” Needless to say, conflict ensues.
Although the Savage is impressed with the beauty and safety of society, he is appalled by its shallowness. Where, he wants to know, is art? Where is love? Where is God?
Art, he is told, has been sacrificed for stability. Art breeds emotions – and love is the most destabilizing emotion of all. And God – “God is not compatible with universal happiness.” God is not compatible with perfectly safe, perfectly manufactured happiness – the happiness that they call “Christianity without tears.”
I wonder sometimes if that is what we have come to expect – Christianity without tears. Have we become like the crowds in Jerusalem – demanding help, demanding answers, demanding salvation? “Comfort us,” we pray. “Heal us,” we beg. “Keep us safe, take away our tears – save us” – we cry. But I have come to believe that there is no such thing as Christianity without tears – because tears are an inherent part of our humanity. And Jesus chose to live as a human being. He allowed himself to feel passion – to be passionate in all senses of that word – to be excited, to love – to suffer – and to be compassionate – to be with others in their passions. I believe that it was Jesus’ willingness to embrace his human passions that gave him the strength to allow himself to be crucified. It is why we call today “Passion Sunday.”
During this Holy Week we will have the opportunity to share Jesus’ passion – to walk alongside him on his path to the cross. It is not a safe path. It is a path that requires passion, just as Christianity requires passion. Christianity is not safe. Christianity requires darkness and mourning – and tears. As we prepare for the light and beauty and celebration of Easter, I encourage you to contemplate what it means to be Christian. Try praying for passion instead of protection. Instead of seeking comfort, invite God to visit you with hot, blinding revelation. Like the Savage, claim your tears. “I don’t want comfort,” he says, “I want God.” Invite God into your life. Embrace your share of Christ’s suffering. Welcome your tears. Because it is only through death that we find resurrection and it is only through Christ’s passion that we emerge into the light of Easter morning – and it is only in the Easter light that we also claim our portion of the peace and glory and joy of his eternal life. AMEN.
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