Palm Sunday Sermon: Matthew 27:11-54
16 Mar 08 at St Paul's Lutheran Church, Sugar City, CO

Palm/Passion Sunday 

The whole reason for Lent has been to get somewhere.  The last few weeks we have brought out our best stories.  Stories with happy endings.  Jesus in the wilderness is victorious over the power of Satan. At the well he changes a woman's life by his willingness to allow her to minister to him. A man born blind is made well and whole.  And last Sunday ended beside a tomb as Lazarus responds to the command of Jesus to come out.

These stories have brought us to today, Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter where we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  When Jesus entered the city, people laid palm branches on the road before him and greeted him as the long-awaited Messiah, shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Their celebrating didn’t last long.  As they heard his teachings and saw his behavior, both religious leaders and people in the city turned against Jesus. By Good Friday, the adoring crowds were shouting, “Crucify him!”

But today is also Passion Sunday. In fact, I believe that it is more important to call this Passion Sunday than Palm Sunday.  Thist is the first day of Passion Week that is eight days long, from Sunday to Sunday. 

So the focus for today is not going to be on the palm parade, but on the passion of Christ.  In fact, if I were to give today’s sermon a title, it would simply be one word from the Bible, Passion.

When you think of the word, passion, what do you think of? When you hear the word, what do you see in your mind?  What memories are associated with the word, passion? 

One thing I think of is young love.  When I was a young man in high school; I thought I was madly in love with my girlfriend. In fact, at the time, I felt I was passionately in love with her, and that she was passionately in love with me.  Our emotions were young, strong and intense.

Then I think of my wife of over 28 years, and though our passion has changed and matured since our younger years, it is as strong as ever.

Or, when I think of the word, passionate, I think of James Bond and all those James Bond movies. James Bond has so many love scenes with so many women and they are all beautiful women.  In those movies, there is always a passionate embrace, a passionate kiss. 

Or, when I think of passion and passionate, I think of a passionate orator. Think of the great speeches of Martin Luther King, Junior, and his speech in Washington, D.C, there in the Washington Mall with the Washington Monument at one end and the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the other end, and King gave one of the most passionate speeches in American history, “I have a dream….” And when he said, “I have a dream,” many of us remember those words, those inflections, the rising and falling of his cadence. He was truly passionate.  If you see film clips of that speech, you remember again what you may have forgotten; how passionate the man was. 

So when I think of the word, passion, I think of young love or James Bond or Martin Luther King, Junior, and my wife.  I think of an intense, vibrant emotion.

But, when the Bible uses the word, passion, this isn’t what it means at all. The Latin word comes from “passio” or “passum” and it means to suffer; to endure suffering and pain. This is the first day of Passion Week, and today we hear the Passion story, and this Sunday we remember the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

The first point I want to make today is this:  that our God, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, the God who created the oceans the plains and the mountains, the God who flowered the lilies and daisies, the God who created your life and mine, our God, is a God who suffers and cries and dies. 

The suffering of our God is not imaginary or fictitious or make believe. God’s suffering, pain and tears are as real as yours and mine.

Sometimes, when you see a film on television or a movie, there is a scene where somebody has been hurt, and the producers spray fake blood across their face. There is fake blood coming out of their mouths; fake blood running down their neck. You and I know that it’s fake; it’s phony; it’s make believe. But then you watch a news program on television, and you see suffering and violence, it’s not make believe. 

Many years ago some of you may have seen a man by the name of Jim Brady lying on a sidewalk, shot by an assassin’s bullet. He was the press agent of President Ronald Regan. There were some gruesome pictures of Jim Brady, with blood coming down his face and coming out of his mouth. It was not pretend; it was not fake; it was not make believe. Because it was so real, we wanted to turn off our television sets.  We were repulsed by it because it was so awful.

Our God suffers like that. The crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ was of the same nature. The suffering is so real and violent that you want to turn it off.  The nails were long and real.  The wounds on his body were real. The thorns in his head were sharp and real. The one hundred lashes across his body were painfully real. 

Passion Sunday tells us that our God, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, the God who created the oceans the plains and the mountains, the God who flowered the lilies and daisies, our God, is a God who suffers and cries and dies. 

The cross cries out its message of pain.
We heard the words at Lazarus’ death:  “He wept.” 
Our God suffers and cries and dies, like we do.

We are the only religion in the world whose God gets hurt, whose God gets stabbed, who writhes in pain on the cross, who gets whipped, who has wounds in his body, and who shouts his pain in the midst of his suffering on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? ”

What other religion is there where a cross becomes a throne?  His suffering was not imaginary, it was not make believe, it was not fake. The cross tells us that.  Passion Sunday tells us that.

For some people, their image of God is “Our Father who art in heaven” and that it where Jesus lives, safely up there in heaven, where there is no divorce, no cancer, no accidents, no bullets, no bombs, no wars, no assassinations.  In our minds, God is like we are:  we move away from our violent neighborhoods on earth and we move to the suburbs and God has moved to the suburb in the sky.  That is where God lives, up there, up where it is safe, up there, removed from it all.  No.  It is just the opposite. Our God left the safety and sanity of heaven and came down to this violent neighborhood called Earth. God became a real human being, and therefore he suffered and died, like the rest of us do. That’s what Passion Sunday is all about: passion. Our God suffers and cries and dies. 

When one of God’s children is hurt on this earth, God himself is hurt.  Let me explain by means of an analogy.  Many of us have used a hammer, and many of us have hit one of our fingers when we have used a hammer.  I know that when I have hit one of my fingers, it hurts.  But it is not only my finger that hurts, so does my brain.  The brain is the pain center of the body. It is not only my finger that is hurting; my brain is also hurting because it is the pain center.

Christ is the pain center of the body.  Christ is the head of the body, of the church, and when any part of the body of Christ is hurt, the pain center is also feeling the pain. The pain in the body goes directly and immediately to the pain center in the brain, and Christ is the brain of the church, the head of the church.  Any time a part of God’s body is hurt, God hurts.  God experiences the pain when any part of the body is hurting. 

God’s pain is real pain.  For example, my wife’s mother passed away about 2 years ago.  We were all hurting; my wife’s father, my wife and children, her family and friends, and myself.  All of us were hurt so deeply by her death.  Her pain was our pain.  But the pain did not stop with her husband or family or friends, but went straight to the heart and mind of Christ, who is the pain center of the church.  Our pain gets into the mind and pain of Christ.

Let me try to explain with another analogy.  Several years ago my daughter, Bethany, was holding a ladder for me as I was coming off of the roof of our house.  I didn’t see her hand holding the step on the ladder and stepped on it, breaking one of her fingers.  The pain was such that she fainted, and we rushed her to the hospital emergency room.  We were upset, and her pain was my pain.  Her trauma was my trauma. 

And I felt terrible for being the cause of the pain.  I didn’t want to stay in the safety of my house.  I didn’t want to retreat to my office at work. I didn’t want to run away from her.  When she was suffering the most, I wanted to be with her, in that emergency room, holding her, and you would do the same.

And so it is with God.  When you and I are injured, when we are hurting or bleeding, God is with us, with us so very close.  That is the very nature of our God.  Passionate.  God is filled with passion and compassion. Our God is a God who suffers and cries and dies.  Our God, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, our God who created the oceans the plains and the mountains, our God who flowered the lilies and daisies, our God who created your life and mine.  God experiences fully our pain and sorrow and tears and death.

Our God is passionate.  Jesus is passionate, and Jesus is the same nature as the Father. Both are passionate, and passionate means suffering.  So Passion Week means suffering week.  The passion story means the story of Jesus’ suffering for us.

But there is a second part of the sermon for today. Our God is a God who loves his children so much that God is willing to die in their behalf.  Our passionate God suffers, cries and dies for us, in our behalf. 

I need to tell you a story that gets at this wonderful but bewildering truth.  It is a famous story, made into a movie, and is called,  “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.” You may have seen the movie, starring Alec Guinness. There is one scene from this book that I particularly remember. It is the story of some English prisoners of war who are in prison camp in Thailand. The POWs are working in the jungles of Thailand and are building bridges and roads. There are enemy guards who are guarding these POWs.  These English soldiers and prisoners go out every day with their shovels and they dig the roads by hand, and also build the bridges. The prisoners come back to the camp by about seven or eight o’clock at night; they put their shovels against the guardhouse and they then go into their barracks to eat and sleep for the night. On one particular night, this group of ten prisoners of war put their shovels by the guardhouse; they leaned their shovels against the wall of the guardhouse. The POWs lined up for inspection. The guard counted the shovels and one shovel was missing. There were only nine shovels.
The guard became furious and yelled at them, “Where is the extra shovel?  Who sold it to some Thais in the jungle in order to get some extra money for contraband?  Who stole the shovel?”  All the men stood erect and silent.  The guard became increasingly hostile and fanatical, swearing at them and demanding, “Who took the shovel?”  None of the ten men moved. The guard then took his rifle, put the barrel against the forehead of the man who was first in line. He spoke more calmly, “I am going to pull the trigger and blow this man’s brains out unless one of you tells me who took the shovel. I want to know who did it.”  A long pause.  A very long pause.  And then a man in the middle of the line stepped forward. He was a young Scottish solder. He didn’t say a word, just stood there in silence, stiff as stiff could be. The guard took his gun and in a violent rage, he took the butt end of his gun and smashed the face of the man, knocking him to the ground. He used his gun like a baseball bat and smashed the man’s body into the mud. The other soldiers didn’t move but stood at fixed attention. The guard stepped back, barked an order, and the nine soldiers picked up their fallen comrade and carried him to their barracks. The guard, still furious, went back to his guardhouse and recounted the shovels.  There were ten.  He had miscounted. One Scottish soldier stepped forward and died, so that one of his friends would not have to.  That is passion.

Passion is the gospel.  Passion Sunday is the Sunday in which we tell the world that there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth, who stepped forward from the line, and died so his friends would not have to die. Why?  Because he taught us these famous words that described his life:

No greater love has a person than this, that he is willing to lay down his life for his friends.  That’s what passion is. 

Today is Passion Sunday, and we hear the story of the passion of Jesus.  Jesus, like God, is passionate.  Ours is the only religion in the world whose God steps forward and dies in behalf of his friends, so that they wouldn’t have to.

Passion.  One small but beautiful word that unlocks the meaning and uniqueness of the Christian faith. 

I used to think that passion had to do with young love, and growing up and being so passionately in love.  I used to think that passion had to do with James Bond movies and all those passionate love scenes. I used to think that passion had to do with listening to Martin Luther King, Junior preach.   I used to think that passion was one of the words used to describe my relationship with my wife.

But I later discovered that passion had to do with something else, with suffering. That our God, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, our God who created the oceans the plains and the mountains, our God who flowered the lilies and daisies, our God who created your life and mine, that our God suffers and cries with us and ultimately dies for us, in behalf of us. 

One small word describes and reveals our God:  Passion.