Monday, April 14, 2014

Worship the King! A Palm Sunday/ Passion Sunday Sermon

(A sermon preached at Saint Paul's Episcopal Church in Oaks, Pa.)

On July 22, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and his wife Kate, had a baby boy--George--and it seemed like everywhere you went people were talking about it. I was doing clinical hours as a chaplain at a nursing home at the time and every room I visited had the television tuned to the news.

Why is it that even in the United States with our proud independence from royal rule, we continue to be fascinated by royalty? Derek Rishmaway has written a fascinating blog post on “How the Royal Baby Fever points us to a Royal longing.” Allow me to quote from that article because I think what he says is pretty insightful,

We love the idea of a true king who will come, take things firmly in hand, reign with righteousness, and bring the shalom of a kingdom at peace. This is why everything in us clapped for joy when we read Aragorn finally crowned king in The Lord of the Rings. It’s also why some of us found ourselves uncomfortably agreeing with Loki in The Avengers film as he lectured the masses on their innate desire to be ruled: “You were made to be ruled …In the end, you will always kneel.” There was something true about it, and yet that truth felt like a dangerous lie coming from Loki’s mouth. Indeed, it’s telling that the film didn’t directly reject the notion, but had the brave old German man say, “Not to men like you.” The implication of course, is that for the right man, we would gladly kneel.

 Perhaps nowhere is the age-old longing for a righteous king more clearly expressed than in the Jewish hope and expectation of a coming Messiah. God promised King David that he would raise up a descendent from his line whose kingdom would endure forever. When the people fell into oppression and exile, that hope became a longing for a savior.
In the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were groaning under foreign occupation and a corrupt religious and political establishment. They clung to God’s promise to redeem them and place over them a prince, a good shepherd, who would rule with righteousness and restore their fortunes. It is in this context that Zechariah proclaimed these words of hope,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
 (Zechariah 9:9 ESV)

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus very self-consciously evokes this prophecy through his actions. We get a glimpse into Jesus’ own self-understanding. In and through him God was returning to his people to set them free. He himself is the righteous king, the messiah, the Son of David spoken of by the prophets.
Earlier, Jesus gave instructions to his disciples to find a donkey and a colt tied with her. It might seem odd that Jesus should be so specific in his directions to his disciples, but his entrance was a carefully calculated message. For Jesus to come riding on a donkey was a symbolic gesture loaded with meaning. He is the coming king that Zechariah foretold! The allusion was not lost on the people either. The crowd spread their cloaks in the road before him and waved branches shouting,

 “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9 ESV)

The one they have been waiting for has finally arrived and their salvation is at hand, but things are not going to happen as they expect them to. Jesus is not the king they want, but he is the king they need. 

When Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey there is no doubt that the crowd was reminded not only of Zechariah’s famous prophecy, but of the celebrated rebel Judas Maccabaeus who, 200 years before, was hailed in Jerusalem in a similar fashion after defeating Israel’s pagan oppressors and cleansing the temple. The crowds expected Jesus to be a great warrior like Maccabaeus who would drive out the pagan oppressors with violence.

They failed to note the surprising irony of Zechariah’s prophecy. The mighty king comes not on a magnificent white horse but humble and riding on a donkey.  Jesus will turn upside down every expectation the people have not only of what a king looks like, but of what true power and victory look like.  The enemy that Jesus is coming to defeat is larger than even the mighty Roman Empire and the salvation he comes to bring is deeper and more universal than national liberation.  Jesus is coming to rescue not only the nation of Israel, but all humanity from the power of sin and death and to reconcile them to God.  Mysteriously, the means of this victory will not be through the violent death of Israel’s enemies, but his own bloody crucifixion.

 As we know, the joy of Palm Sunday will soon turn to the betrayal of Thursday and the horror of Friday. Once the crowd realizes that Jesus has no intention of being the king they want, their cries of “Hosanna” will be changed to cries of “Crucify Him!” The crowd will choose Jesus Barabbas over Jesus Christ. When presented with their one true king, the king that every human heart yearns to know, they will cry, “We have no king but Caesar!”

In the events of Holy Week we see represented for us the perennial tendency of the human heart—originating with our parents in the garden—to trade the truth of God for a lie, God’s way for our way, freedom for slavery, the gospel for law, and life for death. We reject God as our king and instead give ourselves over to the tyranny of idols who enslave and oppress us.

The good news is that our sinfulness and rejection of God’s Kingdom aren’t the only things represented in the events of Holy Week. We also see represented the radical and transforming, one-way-love of God in sending Jesus Christ to rescue us from sin and death.  As the scriptures teach us in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

Even in the face of our rebellion God gives us his son Jesus Christ to be our king. The account of Jesus’ passion over and over again points us to the startling fact that God declared the very one who was rejected and crucified to be the king of glory! Jesus was crowned with thorns, wrapped in a scarlet robe, and given a hollow reed as a royal scepter. His persecutors mockingly bowed before him and paid him homage.

 In the ancient Roman ritual of coronation, Caesar was similarly garbed, acclaimed by his guard as Lord, and led through the streets to a high hill followed by a sacrificial bull. Jesus too was led through the streets to a high hill. He could not carry his own cross so it was given to Simon of Cyrene who carried it for him. Jesus followed behind in the place of the sacrifice. Despite the protest of the religious leaders, even the sign nailed above him on the cross read “King of the Jews.” An early Christian commentator named Chromatius writes, “These things were done to mock Jesus. But now we know these things happened through a heavenly mystery.”  The events of Jesus’ passion are a kind of ironic coronation. Jesus is the king enthroned upon the cross!

This is what true kingship looks like. There are many pretenders to the throne who rule with violence and oppression. The scriptures denounce these imposters as wicked shepherds.  The Good shepherd—the true righteous king—they say, lays down his life for his sheep.
Jesus Christ is indeed the King that the human heart longs for, who gives his life for 
the sins of the world, but we in our blindness and sin reject him. 
Even though I confess him with my lips, I bow my knee to a thousand lesser sovereigns.
 Even the worship I give him falls so far below his worthiness that it is merely a crown 
of thorns and a hollow reed. 

What thou, my Lord, has suffered 
was all for sinners' gain;
mine, mine was the transgression,
but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
'Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor,
vouchsafe to me thy grace.
The surprising grace of the gospel is that what human beings intended for evil, God intended for good.  Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more! Christ has taken our rejection of him and made it the very means of our redemption. Christ has already overcome the most insurmountable obstacle to peace and healed the greatest hurt, our sinful enmity with God and estrangement from him. What struggle is there in your life that is too great for him? What sin so grievous that his grace is not sufficient? Brothers and sisters, cling to the Gospel, live with faith and courage.
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Worship the King!