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Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

Processional: John 12:12-19

12The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 15“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 16His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. 17The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12

9Rejoice 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. 10I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. 12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

Psalm 118:19-29

19Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord. 20“This is the gate of the Lord; he who is righteous may enter.” 21I will give thanks to you, for you answered me and have become my salvation. 22The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. 24On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. 25Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! Lord, send us now success. 26Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the house of the Lord. 27God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar. 28“You are my God, and I will thank you; you are my God, and I will exalt you.” 29Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.


Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


Gospel                                                            John 12:20-32

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. 27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.



This isn’t What You Expected

Jim and a friend stopped one evening for dinner at a Chinese restaurant.  The meal was delicious, and Jim asked the waiter if he could have the recipe.  The waiter was quick to oblige.  A few minutes later, he returned from the kitchen with a piece of paper.  All parties, it seemed, were satisfied; that is until Jim unfolded the paper.  The recipe was written in Chinese.  This wasn’t what Jim expected.

How often do our expectations and our experiences conflict?  Some will listen to prosperity preaches who promise that God’s only goal is to make us rich, to keep all harm and danger far from us, and that sickness and death won’t touch us.  Yet what we experience, in our day-to-day lives, is something opposite.  You and I know the truth.  God’s wisdom isn’t our wisdom, and God’s way isn’t the world’s way.  The truth is, we have a God who does things quite differently from what we would expect Him to do.  This is what Martin Luther called the Theology of the Cross.  Palm/Passion Sunday especially illustrates this view of God.

Along with our Bible lessons, the theme of this Sunday gives a powerful witness, and some solace, when we suffer or experience despair.  We have a God who uses death to give life, who uses despair and disappointment to give hope (Deuteronomy 32:39).  I imagine Jesus’ disciples felt that way all the time.  Jesus, it seems, was always full of surprises.  Take last week’s gospel lesson as an example (Mark 10:35-40).

Two of the disciples ask Jesus to grant that they may sit at His right and left hand for self-elevation.  His response?  To be a disciple meant one must become a servant.  Every time the disciples thought they had Jesus figured out, He would do or say something unpredictable that would send their expectations into a tailspin.  Again, we don’t have to look any further than our readings for today.  Our lesson from St. John’s gospel takes the disciples from the highest of highs to the utter confusion of trying to deal with Jesus’ Passion.  Our Gospel readings are ones we revisit every year.

Jesus sends two disciples into the city to find a colt for Him to ride into Jerusalem.  You and I know that Jesus was riding into the hornet’s nest, but, despite the fact that Jesus was open about His future, all the disciples saw was Jesus riding into Jerusalem in the way of king David.  Even though Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem in the way of peace, in the mind of the disciples, Jesus was riding in to set them free from Roman oppression.  The scene is set in verse 17 of our gospel reading: “The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness.”  It’s another miracle we know well.

Just one chapter earlier, we find another apparent opposite.  Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha fell sick and died.  The sisters send for Jesus, but He waits until Lazarus has been in the tomb for 4 days.  When Jesus arrived, we have those wonderful words of faith exchanged between Jesus and Martha: “Jesus said to [Martha], “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”  Jesus knew what awaited Him in Jerusalem, but all the disciples could see, at the time, was their promised Messiah riding in to overthrow the Romans and reestablish the glory days of Israel.  The people expected one thing, what they got a few days later was something totally different.

When Jesus entered the great city of Jerusalem, the townspeople came out to cheer for Him.  They threw palm branches–the symbol of victory–in His path.  Jesus would have garnered a great score on public opinion polls, if such a thing had existed in His day.  What did His disciples think of all the hoopla?  They probably thought something along these lines: “Hey, this is great!  We’re finally getting some respect around here.  All our hard work and sacrifice are finally paying off.  People are finally coming around to Jesus’ view of things.

It’s time to begin campaigning for that new kingdom the Master has been talking about.  Now is the time to get our candidate’s message out there.  And what better place to do it than Jerusalem, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the region?  Jesus sure is savvy.  He knows exactly how to work a crowd.  This must have been His plan all along.”  In the mind of the disciples, this was the hour of victory–the day they’d been waiting for.  And their expectations were only heightened when they heard the Master say: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  As far as the disciples were concerned, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a mic drop moment.  In their minds, they felt that they were finally all on the same page.  But what they would come to realize was that this was just another unexpected event.

Jesus once again tries to pull them back to reality: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  What’s that?  If it falls?  If it dies?  What’s He talking about now?  But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Once again, the disciples are sent reeling.  A ride into Jerusalem, the cheering of the crowd, and now all this talk about dying.  You can almost feel the disciples’ mood come crashing down.

Why does Jesus have to make everything so hard?  Why can’t He just relax and enjoy the moment?  He’s never been more powerful or more popular than He is right now.  Why can’t He just leave well enough alone?  Can’t He just gather a rebel army, take over the throne, and name Himself king?  This is the man who walks on water, drives out demons, heals lepers, opens the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf.  And to top all that off, just a few days earlier He raised the dead!  Why won’t He use all that power for His own ends?

But before the disciples can distance themselves from Jesus’ words, He confronts them again, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”  Now the disciples are really starting to sweat.  And those of us sitting here this morning, if we’re really listened to Jesus’ words, should be sweating too.  “Whoever serves me must follow me . . .”  Truth be told, there are far too many people sitting in congregations today listening to Jesus’ promises of eternal life and unimaginable glory and saying, “Sure, Lord, I’ll follow you there.”  But when we face Jesus’ command to serve the poor and needy, to go into all the world to spread His message, to take up our cross and die to our own self–suddenly they aren’t so sure.

In one installment of the comic strip Hagar the Horrible, Hagar confronts his not-so-bright sidekick, Lucky Eddie.  “I need a second-in-command,” Hagar bellows. “Can you say yes or no with authority?”  Lucky Eddie shouts back, “Yes or No with authority!”  Hagar says to himself, “I think I’m going to be sick!”  The best thing we can say about Lucky Eddie is that he’s eager to please.  But Jesus requires more from His followers than being eager to please.  Jesus needs people who can say “Yes” with authority.

Yes, I’m willing to put you first in my life.  Yes, I’m willing to be bold in my proclamation.  Yes, I’m willing to die to my own self and my own agenda.  Yes, I’m willing to follow you, though it may cost me everything, even my life.  By now, Jesus’ followers know that they must decide.  You’ve heard me say this many times, salvation is free, but discipleship comes at a very high price.  The disciples are beginning to see that they expected one thing, but what they were getting was something entirely different.  On a practical level, I’ve seen examples of this expect one thing and get another in the past.

Friends of mine retired from the military, as soon as they could, expecting to ride the gravy train.  Then the economy tanked, and they regretted getting out because they were faced with finding work in the service industry just to make ends meet.  I’ve seen too many young people jump into marriage expecting a lifetime of marital bliss—then, after a few months, the reality of married life sinks in and they realize that being married is hard work and now they’re not sure if they’re willing to put in the effort required.  We’re all guilty of it, we get involved in something expecting one thing only to find something completely different.  As disciples of Jesus, what do we do?

First, we accept that God’s ways are not our ways.  Jesus says, be humble, place God first in your life, love your neighbor as yourself, don’t take advantage of others, honor and keep the Sabbath holy, sit in the lowest place at a banquet, be the servant of all.  What does the world teach?  Self-promote, be true to oneself, do unto others then split, go for the gusto, it’s you against the world, the world is your oyster, shmooze your way to the top, step on the weak, it’s good to be king.  God’s ways are not our ways, the theology of the Cross is foolishness to the world.

Second, take hold of God’s words and promises, follow His commands and statutes even in the face of difficult times.  It’s tempting to think that when life doesn’t work out like we planned to say, “What difference does it make what I do with my life?  It’s no one’s business but my own.”  We, of course, know better; we were created with a purpose and God has a plan for each of us.  God’s words, promises, commands and statutes contained in the Bible, have been, and will continue to be, a reliable guide to living a fulfilling life pleasing to God.

We can’t think that Jesus was unsympathetic to His disciples’ fears, or to ours.  In verse 27, he says, “Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say–“˜Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”  These words of Jesus should shake us to our core, “Now my soul is troubled”?  Jesus wasn’t easy on His disciples because He wasn’t easy on Himself.  The human part of Jesus wanted to be saved from completing His task, no doubt.   Thankfully, He didn’t take the easy way out.  As He told His disciples, “. . . it’s for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”

I like what author Ray Pritchard writes about the difficult nature of following God’s will: “Many times we start a new project believing that what we’re doing is the will of God, and yet very often things do not work out as we planned.  You took the new job, and it didn’t work out . . . Trouble doesn’t necessarily mean you are out of God’s will.  It might mean that you’re doing exactly what God wants you to do . . . No one was ever more in God’s will than Jesus, but He was murdered by His enemies.  The fact that your life hasn’t worked out exactly like you planned doesn’t necessarily mean your decisions were wrong.  Sometimes there are other factors at work.”

It’s like an event that startled many first-world Christians a few years back.  Five dedicated missionaries were martyred while seeking to make contact with the Auca Indians in Ecuador.  A reporter was granted an interview with the widowed wives of those missionaries.  He asked a question that was on many minds, “Why would God permit this to happen?  After all, these men were on an errand of mercy.”  One of the wives, turning to the reporter quietly replied: “Sir, God delivered my husband from the possibility of disobedience.”

There was no question, even in that hard hour, about her faith and about her trusting in God’s promises.  Her willingness to trust in God, that He was in control, gave her strength, and they gave her hope.  When life turns out differently than we expect, hold on to God’s promises and be obedient to God’s commands and statutes.  God works in ways that are foreign to the world’s way of thinking.

Thind, we need to do things to deepen our faith.  This next passage is one of the more fascinating mini-passages in the Bible.  After Jesus declares, “Father, glorify Your name,” we read these words: “Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’”  Then notice these intriguing words: “The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder.  Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’”  I find this interesting.  Some people were ready to hear God’s word.  Others heard only thunder.  Which would you have heard?

It’s like the parable of the Sower.  Some of the seeds fall on fertile ground.  Other seeds fell among weeds that choked them out.  And some fell on barren ground and never sprouted at all.  When life hasn’t turned out the way we expected, we need to do those things that will strengthen our faith: spend more time among God’s people, read God’s word faithfully and spend more time in prayer.  Pray that God will give you new insights into His will for your life.  If we do these things, we’ll hear more than thunder when God speaks.  Accept that God’s ways are not our ways.  Take hold of God’s promises, keep His commands and statutes, and do things to strengthen your faith.  Finally, look for a victory.

Too often what we see in life is what we’re looking for.  If you’re looking only for defeat, you’ll see defeat all around you.  However, if you look for victory, good chances are victory is what you’re likely to find.  “Now is the judgment of this world,” says Jesus to His disciples, “now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Jesus wasn’t just going to declare Himself King over Jerusalem, or over the Jews, or over the Roman empire.  He had bigger plans.  By His death, Jesus bridged the gap sin created between humanity and God.  By His death, He would draw all peoples to Himself.  But it was only through His resurrection that Jesus could offer us eternal life.  No matter how badly life seems to be going, God can still bring a victory.

In 1995, Vietnamese evangelist To Dihn Trung was arrested and beaten by the police and thrown in jail.  His crime?  Preaching the Gospel of Christ.  While in jail, Trung began preaching to the other inmates.  Finally, after six months, outside pressure from Christians around the world forced the Vietnamese government to release Trung.  To the surprise of many, he refused his release.  So many men in the prison were coming to Christ that Trung decided to stay there and serve out his full sentence.  He said, “I don’t care about my own life.  The most important thing is that I complete my mission, the work that the Lord Jesus gave me–to tell people the good news about God’s grace.”

Trung never expected to find himself in prison for sharing his faith, but even in prison he witnessed God’s amazing work.  Too often when we look at our lives, we expect one thing, but we get something else.  That doesn’t mean that we’re not in the center of God’s will.  It just means that our ways are not God’s ways.

Ancient records tell us that all but one of Jesus’ apostles were persecuted and killed for their faith.  And it’s from their sacrifices that the early church was formed.  Two thousand years later, people are still gathering every week in churches all over the world to celebrate the message that they first told.  What do we do when life doesn’t turn out as we might expect?  Accept that God’s ways are not our ways.  Hold on to God’s promises and obey His commands and statutes.  Go deeper into your faith and look for God’s victory.  In closing I want to leave you with one final example of God’s way isn’t our way, from our gospel and epistle readings for today.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippian church, outlines how the Divine Son of God, though in the form of God, emptied Himself to take the form of a servant (v.7).  And then Paul adds, citing a Christ hymn, no doubt sung in the early Church: He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross (v.8).  It’s evident that God works through vehicles that are apparently contrary to His aims.  Through such unexpected means, God achieves just the opposite, exalting Christ.  Again, we see this just under the surface of our readings.

In St. John’s gospel, v. 32 Jesus tells the disciples, “And when I am lifted up from the earth”, and then in Philippians 2:9, St. Paul writes, “Therefore God has highly exalted Him”.  When you look at the Greek words used for both “lifted up” and “highly exulted” you find the same Greek root, hoop-so-O.  This root word not only means to lift up and to exult, but it also means to set on high.  When we look at the cruelty of the cross, we don’t always see the glory of the cross, we see the pain, suffering and death.  It isn’t until we see the empty cross and the empty tomb that we finally recognize the power and majesty of God.  Jesus was lifted up for all the world to see.  For the religious leaders, it was meant to be a humiliating spectacle.  But God meant it for the exact opposite.  Jesus was elevated to save and to, once for all, destroy sin and death for you and for me.


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