A Hopeless or Hope-filled Story?
April 14, 2019
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott AZ
Text: Matthew 27:1-54
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Last week we mentioned in passing that scripture, while being the word of God, contains many forms of literature. These genres include – epistolary, proverbs, poetry, and even prophetic. The Gospels generally fit into a form of “biographical” literature. Of course, we would like to know what Christ did from birth to age 12 and again from 12 to 30, but the writers of the gospel accounts are uninterested in that, they want us to know who Christ is, what He taught us, and what He did for us.
The liturgy this morning morning is designed to call to mind this life of Christ and how quickly things shifted – as we read St. Matthews words for our Gospel reading we feel the starkness of the situation. This man whom not a week before was being praised and welcomed into Jerusalem as king is being sent to his death and mocked. A man who so many laid their hope on was being to delivered to his death, to be tortured, crucified and then – he died. On the surface of this – what we experience is the most hopeless story ever told. Upon Christ the people had laid their hope – but it was not the hope which they should have laid.
Instead of looking for eternity – they hoped that he would deliver them from their earthly trials. They hoped that he would kick the Romans out and establish an earthly kingdom but there he was being mocked on the cross. Another failed leader, left to die, and be forgotten.
Many commentaries caution against comparing the crowd who sang “hosanna in the highest” at Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem and those who gathered and yelled “crucify him, crucify him” less than a week later. And this is a good warning, for the festival would have drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the city.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to imagine that there is some overlap between the two groups. I suspect like all great events, those who had made their way to the city would be excited to see everything they could and being swept up in the events of the week would have run to see the great teacher entering into the city, and then to see the scandal of the fall of that teacher a few days later. And we do the same thing today – don’t we? We need only look at how news is reported, and see the giddiness of people when someone great is being metaphorically eaten alive for the public to feel better about themselves. So, knowing human nature – it is easy to image that many in the crowd were the same people, but with all that being said – we want to be careful not to draw too many major theological conclusions from this.
For us, in our liturgy, to celebrate Christ’s triumphal entry into the city and then turn around and yell crucify Him, acts as a poignant reminder of the fickleness of our hearts. Even if we stand as committed Christians, even if we know all the reasons that we should believe in God and trust in Christ as our savior because of the temptations of the flesh and the devil we can go from praising God one moment to, and then through our sinful actions, yelling crucify Him! In our hearts. The Palm Sunday liturgy acts to remind us of that fact, acts to remind us of our profound fickleness, and our need to grow in resting in Christ.
But let us back up, for as we are starting to see, we are not that different from the crowd. But we have privilege of knowing the end of the story. In our confession that Christ is Lord – that Christ is the second person of the Trinity, that He is God made man to dwell among us. Suddenly, we get a perspective that is even more profound and we see the darkness of that day.
Christ was the one and only perfect man – he had no sin, he had in heaven a place that was rightfully His, and yet he humbled himself, he came down from heaven and dwelt among us – this is an amazing thing. Today – when we see Him die, shamed, spat upon, cursed – we realize this was the greatest injustice that ever happened. It was in this injustice – this awful moment that God poured upon Christ the pain of our sin. Not only that – but in the crucifixion Christ bore our sins for us. It was in this awful moment that man was made free from the first curse of Adam and not only the first curse, that is the seed of original sin that dwells within all – but in the crucifixion Christ covered the sin which we commit and struggle with day in and day out.
So, when we read about Him on the cross our sin that nailed upon that tree. There is something that is profound about reading this section of the Gospel how we did today – where each of us have a part and each of us cry out “crucify him, crucify Him,” for it was in our sin that we partake in Christ’s crucifixion – it is our sin that gets nailed to the cross on that day. Christ’s death satisfies the need for justice against the sins of all those in the world who will turn and trust in Him.
We have seen this be missed by some throughout Church history, as those in the crowd yelling out for Christ’s life to be taken become an excuse towards anti-semitism. This is not what is going on here. There is, of course, a historical element – where the Jewish people and the Roman soldiers banded together to crucify the person of Jesus, but if that is where we stop in our understanding of that dark day – we miss the tragedy and the glory of the moment. We miss how we partake in that crucifixion. Our reading today helps us to call to mind that even though we often praise Jesus – we hail Him our king – that when we sin we find ourselves crucifying him in our heart.
This isn’t a call to self-righteousness or works righteousness but a call to have a deeper and deeper dependency upon Him. It is a call to prefer personal Holiness over works righteousness or sin. It is a call to pursue Christ with all that we have and to make Him the king of our lives. It is a call to obedience. This call is, after all, what St. Paul is getting at when he writes the Philippians.
But just as in that historical moment the the crowds in Jerusalem and the Roman soldiers banded together to commit this great injustice, and just as, we know on the spiritual level Christ is being crucified for our sins. We must also remember the sovereignty of God, even in this. For ultimately, it is God the Father who crucifies His son. From the fall of man, God knew this moment would come, and though Christ feared and trembled in the garden, he was the perfect sheep prepared for all time to give His life for mankind.
As we think on Christ being crucified – we might be tempted to wonder with the crowd: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” And throughout history we have seen those in the world think this, without the full understanding of what is going on.
The Jehovah Witnesses believe that this moment was a divine gamble – satisfying God’s frustration with the devil. Christ goes therefore, not to set us free, but to finally put down the devil’s taunt of God. This is not the full picture – God the Son willfully goes to His death, willfully takes upon Himself our sins, to both set us free, and to draw us back to a right relationship with God. It is not a wager between a greater and lesser god – but a providentially arranged moment that changes all of history.
Muslims too believe in Christ and they honor Him as a great prophet, but they are appalled to think a prophet could die as Christ died. For they forget the fate of so many prophets, and they lack the understanding of who Christ is. For the prophets that came before Christ were mocked, and their lives were in constant danger. So it is no surprise then when Christ is led to His death.
Yet, the Muslims do not understand this – instead they believe that it was not Christ on the cross, but that some how Judas took Jesus’ place. Of course we recognize the ridiculousness of this proposal and reject it. For, if Christ did not die on the cross, we cannot have life in Him. If Christ did not die, the Holy of Holies would not have been opened, so that all who believed could experience God. If Christ did not die, we would still be slaves to our sins. Christ’s actions, invite us in to knowing God, not just with our minds, not just knowing about God – but also knowing God with our hearts – knowing Him as a friend and king.
Similarly, modern atheistic philosophers raise surprisingly similar objections. The libertarian thinker Ayn Rand said once: Christ, in terms of the Christian philosophy, is the human ideal. He personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to the Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the nonideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the nonideal, or virtue to vice. And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used.
In some senses she gets the gospel better than many Christians. For she recognizes this dichotomy of ideal and nonideal. However, as Christians we confess that without Christ we cannot achieve the ideal. Yes, we may be capable of great things – bravery, kindness, ingenuity, but without Christ we are still dead in our sins. As Christians – we recognize, to steal Rand’s terminology, that we are nonideal and we give thanks to God that we do not have to depend upon ourselves, but instead depend fully upon Christ who died in our place, and look forward to the resurrection that we are promised in Him.
Our Jehovah Witness, Muslim and the Atheist friends remind us of the incredible scandal of Christ’s death. It is a mighty scandal – but it is the scandal that destroys the power of sin, that crushes the head of the serpent, and in it death has died. Death, no longer has power, death’s sting is gone.
T.S. Elliot laments the term of “Good Friday,” in his poem the Four Quartets. The scandal and horror of that day should give us pause. Yet – it was good, and it is good. For in it God showed for His love for all of humanity, that all that believed in Christ might be made free. For on the cross, Christ bore the punishment and pain for the sins of the world, and in that moment we are made free. In a week we will celebrate the resurrection – and it will call to mind the fact that we are not only made free from our sins but that we have the promise of life. The promise that the final death cannot keep us down, but rather when the New Heavens and the New Earth come we will dwell in the house hold of the Lord forever.
Let us, therefore, rejoice that we have been made alive in Christ, let us rejoice and with new fortitude cling fast to Him. If you’ve come here today – and you are weary and worn, take heart, Christ is with you, his yoke is light and good, if you’ve here today – and you have never heard this good news, take heart for Christ welcomes you and calls you and says come child, repent, trust, and sin no more. If you come here today with the weight of your sin on oppressing your heart – rejoice for it has been crucified with Christ and you are made free.
As we gather around the Lord’s table may our hearts and minds be held captive not by our sin, but by the greatest sacrifice ever made. Let our hearts and minds be given to the king of king who invites us in to worship, love and serve him both now and forever. Let us therefore be ever more devoted to live lives given to Christ.
In the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.