Updated: Jan 30, 2021
Today is one of those days where the length of the readings, the audience participation, and the solemnity of the reading leaves everyone drained, emotionally spent.
The bishop tells priests this is the one day when a sermon is best not given.
Just let the people absorb the emotion of the reading.
However, there is a saying … a Ben Franklin proverb: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
It means, “It’s easier to stop something from happening in the first place than to repair the damage after it has happened.”
I believe that can aptly be applied in this case … where reading (basically) two chapters from the Gospel of Mark equates to a ton of prevention … such that a lifetime of cure can help everyone here (and at other Passion Play services around the world), if a sermon touches on understanding what we just read aloud.
We all know the cute analogy of how one spells “Assume,” so to assume that hearing today’s reading is all that is needed for understanding today’s reading might just fulfill that cute analogy of how one spells “Assume.”
Before I give my thoughts on today’s readings, let me just add that foregoing a sermon today would be good IF that meant that tomorrow everyone here today would show up for a full day of teaching and discussion of what everything read today means.
After all, the fourth Commandment does not say, “Thou must go to a church every once in a while, for only a couple of hours, so any time there is a lot read out loud, you can still go home at the normal time.”
To spend an hour more at church should be welcomed, because it says YOU truly want to be close to the LORD your God.
So, I will begin my sermon by addressing the title that today’s service is advertised under – Palm Sunday.
We get that header because of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem (for his final Passover Festival appearance), sitting on the back of a donkey colt, while the people covered the road with palm branches, singing, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Mark wrote, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches they had cut in the fields.” Matthew said (basically) the same thing.
But, we do not call today “Cloak Sunday” or “Branch Sunday.”
John actually identified those “leafy branches” as the “branches of palm trees.”
The optional reading from John today (12:12-16) also mentions the people singing the same Psalm 118:26 verse, as did Mark and Matthew; but John added, about Jesus riding a donkey colt, “it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”
Make sure low ride doesn’t knock your sandals off, scraping the ground.
That was from the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9).
John then added, “His disciples (i.e. Mark and Matthew) did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.”
“OH! So that was why Jesus sent two guys to get a donkey colt. Ahha! Now it makes sense.”
You see, sometimes living an experience … sitting in the emotion of a moment, absorbing everything … leaves one with very little understanding of what all was actually happening, as it was actually happening.
As such, the number one Psalm option for today is Psalm 118, where verses 25 and 26 sing, “Hosannah, LORD, hosannah! LORD, send us now success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the house of the LORD.”
While caught up in that moment, as the psalm was being read … how many of you remember the next verse saying, “God is the LORD; he has shined upon us; form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar”?
The horns of the altar in Jerusalem had provided a refuge for fugitives. Those who caught hold of the horns of the altar were granted asylum (1 Kings 1:50-53).
Did you hear that? “Form a procession with branches”?
“Branches.” “Palm branches.” “Palm Sunday”
I imagine the people in Jerusalem saw Jesus riding into town on a donkey colt, and knowing Jesus has recently raised Lazarus from the dead, they saw him as potentially the Messiah they awaited. That miracle excited many of them and caused them to break into a song of praise that addressed that … including “forming a procession with branches.”
Knowing the song, the people wanted to make it be true to the word.
But, is that all that means?
I say, “No.”
When the high priest was questioning Jesus after his arrest, he asked, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus responded by quoting a combination of Daniel prophecy (7:13-14) and Psalm 118:16 (or 110:1), saying, “you will see the Son of Man – seated at the right hand of the Power – and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
You see, if Jesus thought he were intended to be the physical king of a new Israel, physically required to ride a donkey colt, along a procession of people lining the road with dead branches, then he would not have answered the high priest’s question in spiritual terms.
This means that the spiritual terms of Psalm 118 must be seen in verse 27. There it says, “God is the LORD.” That means there is no other king of the Israelites … no “King of the Jews” … because ONLY the LORD is king.
The spirituality then continues, when Psalm 118 tells that the LORD [he] “has shined upon us.” This is not with the light of the Sun, but of the light coming from within the Son … the one who will physically ride on a donkey colt’s back … and not in a golden chariot, representing the wealth and power of a physical realm held by an earthly king.
God has shined a light for us, through a lowly form of man, albeit one with the highest form of commitment to the LORD.
Thus, spiritually we are to “form a procession,” which then means a lineage that models that light from the LORD that He sent in Jesus. That means Jesus’ path to kingship is paved “with living branches,” not dead clippings from the fields.
We are supposed to be the living branches!
We are supposed to be the branches of a living vine, producing good fruit for the LORD, grown from the seed planted by the LORD, which was Jesus Christ.
When you see that, you can then see that calling today “Palm Sunday” forces us to look only at the death of Jesus.
We become dead branches because Jesus was a human who became dead.
We become so dead, we cannot even bear the thought of discussing the meaning of that death.
The passion play is a necessary act of burying a seed, so that through death it can live. It can arise as a shoot of new growth. It can lead to the first fruits, which will also die but produce even more good fruit through its seeds.
Jesus was the same sacrificial lamb, blemish free, who faced death so that a people could be spared slavery … so those people could become the new growth that would save mankind.
Follow Jesus to the sacrificial altar and grab hold of the horns for asylum, while celebrating the offering of our Savior lamb to God. Jesus was the unblemished lamb burnt on the altar.
Therefore, we should call today “Living Branches Sunday,” as a Celebration of the blood of Christ saving us from the Angel of Death.
Think about that for a moment.
The only other thing I wish to point out today – although there is much worthy of deep reflection, study and discussion – focuses on the final hours of Jesus upon the cross.
Mark wrote, “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.”
During a total solar eclipse, the moon only makes it dark for about 7 1/2 minutes. Three hours is not a natural “cosmic” event.
When we say, “noon,” we see that as the time when the Sun is highest in the sky. It is when there is most light available to shine down upon us.
“Noon” is the antithesis of “Midnight.” But, at a time when the light should shine the brightest, “darkness came over the whole land.”
Without Jesus … with Jesus physically dying on a cross … the light had been put out.
From noon to “three in the afternoon,” or “three hours after noon,” the number “three” has to be seen as symbolically significant.
We recognize it as the number of the Trinity, such that God is three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But, three is the number of days Jesus would be dead.
Each hour is then representative of a day. It reflects the saying, “My hour has come,” with three being the holy number that seals death, as beyond natural boundaries of revival of a dead body.
Lazarus was revived four days after his death, which was the greatest miracle of Jesus’ ministry. That was beyond any natural (yet rare) resurrection.
Three hours reflected three days dead, so for Jesus to return the light to the land, after “three days (hours-time) of death,” that would also be an act of God.
Followers actually follow those who produce miracles, as able to have God act. People only gawk at tricks and slight of hand.
Then, when Mark wrote, “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the first line of Psalm 22.
In the first 22 verses of Psalm 22, one reads (in part):
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
5 To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
8 “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
11 Be not far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
17 I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
When you understand this song of praise, you see how the last words uttered by a dying Jesus were reminding those nearby, “It is just as David wrote it would be.”
Jesus was not questioning God or his death on a cross. He was fulfilling a prophecy of the LORD.
Finally, Mark wrote, “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”
“The curtain of the temple” was not your typical curtain.
It hung probably 60 feet, from top to bottom. It was specifically made, with instructions for it to be of heavy material, which was about 4-inches thick.
This curtain separated the temple from the Holy of Holies – the place where God’s presence resided. Only the high priest was allowed to go behind that curtain, into the presence of God – and only once per year.
It was said that the curtain was so strong that if each corner were tied to horses, the fabric could not be torn.
Thus, what Mark wrote can be seen as saying the hand of God tore the curtain; and just as the high priest tore his garments when Jesus quotes Scripture in response to his question, God tore his garment out of grief for His Son’s light having gone dark.
I imagine God stopped living at the temple, after the high priest had called His Son a blasphemer. He tore the curtain as he left the building.
I imagine the sound of that curtain being torn in two, from heaven to the earth – top to bottom – made a loud sound, so loud the Centurion was moved to say, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
I see a comparison-contrast in this scene to that when Jesus was in the Jordan River, being baptized by water by John, while “the heavens were opened to [Jesus], and [Jesus] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.” Jesus was anointed from top to bottom – from heaven to the earth.
Rather than the heavens being opened, when Jesus died, they closed. It became dark.
Rather than the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Jesus, the curtain of the temple was torn apart.
Rather than the voice of God saying, “I am well pleased,” God cried in anguish.
All of this story of the Passion of Christ can be summed up as was written by Job, who suffered mightily for his reward of Heaven. Job wrote a quote that is so often read at funerals: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.”
Jesus was given the Spirit of the LORD. When he died in the flesh it was taken away.
Christ has died.
The good thing about our perspective, 2000 years removed, is we also know the rest of the story:
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
Hosannah! … Our Savior!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Let us form a procession of living branches to the horns of the altar!