Passion Sunday April 4, 2004.
Our journey to the cross and the empty tomb this week begins with images of servanthood. In Isaiah 50:4-9a we hear the third of four Servant Songs, which takes place in the last years of Israel's exile in Babylon. It is a time of persecution, suffering, and weariness, and the servant is able to sustain the weary because he himself has endured insult and spitting. More than that, however, God strengthens the servant in his suffering and has taught him as a teacher would instruct a student. Four times in this passage the servant names the Lord God who has given him "the tongue of a teacher," who opens his ear every morning to be taught how to serve others, who helps him in the presence of his enemies, and who will judge the servant's adversaries. In this passage we see several characteristics of servanthood: listening to God and learning from God's Word before serving others, obedience in the midst of persecution, patience in suffering, and a steadfast trust in God who will stand with the servant in the face of those who oppress him. Indeed, the life of the servant is full of hardship, but such a life can be endured with God awakening us morning by morning and promising to help us.
Paul describes Christ's servanthood in the beautiful hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus' servanthood is, in the first place, characterized by his taking on the form of a slave. This stands in sharp contrast to the description of Jesus in the preceding verse as being in the form of God. Yet Christ empties himself so as not to exploit his divinity. He knows that true servanthood is found in humbling oneself, in stooping to our human level, and in being obedient to the point of death. The death Jesus suffered was a death reserved for slaves, yet it was because of this death that God exalted Jesus. Because Jesus humbled himself and was obedient to death on a cross, God raised him up to the status of a master. Now Jesus' name is above all names, people will kneel at the utterance of his name, and all the people of the earth will confess Jesus as Lord. In this confession, God is glorified. As in Isaiah, true servanthood involves suffering and obedience, yet God's promise to redeem is always in front of us. "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus," Paul writes. As Christ knew, and as we have been instructed, suffering and glory go hand in hand in the life of the servant!
The long pericope from Luke covers the entire, sweeping history of Holy Week. Those who will not hear the narratives on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday will hear it all in one reading on Passion Sunday: the Passover meal, the arrest of Jesus, Peter's denial, and Jesus' trial, crucifixion, and burial.
The notion of servanthood surfaces in the disciples' dispute about greatness (22:24-30). After sharing the Passover with the One who declared the bread and wine to be his body and blood, the disciples argue over who is the greatest. Jesus tells them that the greatest are not the kings and those in authority but rather those who become like the youngest and the one who serves. Jesus is one who serves, as today's text dramatically illustrates. Like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, Jesus has been instructed by God in order to serve others and will be helped by God in the face of his adversaries. Jesus shares what he has learned with his disciples, who have stood by him in his trials (22:28), so that they will be strengthened in their various trials to come with the knowledge that God will give them a place at Jesus' table in his kingdom.
Our worship services on Passion Sunday likely will begin with a procession of palms accompanied by such a festive hymn as "All Glory, Laud, and Honor." Joy and excitement fill the air as young and old alike prepare to greet the king who rides into Jerusalem on an unlikely animal, a donkey. We hear Luke 19:28-40, the assigned text for the procession, and we join the crowd in saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" (19:38a) But soon enough we hear the Passion narrative as told by St. Luke, and the atmosphere changes. In my congregation, a festive banner is turned around to reveal a black side, torn through with a stripe of red. With two sets of readings, one set for the procession and the other for the Passion, inspiring two different moods, it is as if we are blending two worship services into one with a radically dissonant effect. The joy of "Palm Sunday" does not seem to fit with the somber feeling of "Passion Sunday." So why not separate the two?
"Palm Sunday" and "Passion Sunday" are inseparable. The topsy-turvy world of God's kingdom does not allow the glory of Jesus Christ to be separated from the suffering. The two go hand in hand, as we saw in the passage from Philippians. Concentrating solely on the fanfare of the day would deny the inevitable suffering into which Jesus is entering on the colt. Jumping too quickly into the Passion ignores the fact that Jesus is the king and that he is to be glorified, indeed. Jesus' death is all the more tragic when we realize that the same people who shout "Hosanna!" on Palm Sunday are the ones who shout "Crucify him!" on Good Friday. We need to hear the whole story on this day, and we need to feel the uncomfortable dissonance of a heralded king who is journeying toward his horrible death.
Preachers should resist letting the long Gospel narrative stand on its own without any remarks from the pulpit. Even if a well-planned Passion Sunday drama has the effect of bringing tears to the eyes of congregation members, who join in the shouts to crucify the Son of God, we have a responsibility as preachers to shed light on this somewhat confusing day. The text gives us myriad opportunities to preach on the dissonance of Jesus' last days, which will help listeners to understand the dissonance of their own lives. The institution of the Lord's Supper demonstrates that life comes out of a meal consisting of the body and blood of the crucified Christ. The dispute about greatness shows the irony that all of the Passion Sunday texts seek to illustrate: Those who serve are the greatest, not those who seek domination. And, of course, Jesus' death is the ultimate example of God's upside-down world: the one who endured the death of a slave would rise triumphantly on the third day. In this proclamation, we can anticipate the joy of Palm Sunday again, but that joy will multiply exponentially on Easter, with the knowledge that in death, Christ will destroy death forever.
This is immeasurably good news for those who are suffering, for those who are weak, and for those who face death themselves or in the waning lives of their loved ones. The dissonance of this day, suffering combined with joy, can bring comfort to those for whom Jesus entered into Jerusalem on that donkey. By humbling himself on the cross and by being exalted by God in the resurrection, Jesus Christ offers the promise of life, greatness, and joy to those who confess that he is Lord.
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2004|
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