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Sermon for Sunday 28 March 2021

processional reading                                                     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.

The word of the Lord.            

Thanks be to God.

Psalm                                                      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                                                                                 Mark 15:1-39

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12 Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 14 Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. 16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18 And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20 After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. 21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22 Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. 25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.  29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.  33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 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?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he[j] breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Blessed is He who Comes in the Name of the Lord

           My how time flies.  Time flies when you’re having fun.  These or some similar statements seem to be ones we often use these days to indicate how we view the passage of time.  For most people, there never seems to be enough time in the day, and we appear to spend our lives moving from one place to the next, always in a hurry.  No sooner are we done celebrating Thanksgiving than Christmas is upon us.  And no sooner have the holiday decorations been put away, and Ash Wednesday is here.  And of course, now that Ash Wednesday has past, we now find ourselves in the midst of Holy Week. 

We often tell ourselves to slow down, to take time to smell the preverbal rose, so that the important events in life don’t completely pass us by.  Yet things seldom appear to change.  Oddly enough, I believe this isn’t something unique to our culture.  I’m convinced this phenomenon has been going on for centuries.  I say this because there seems to be some evidence to support this assertion in the gospel of Mark.

            As most are aware, the gospel of Mark is the shortest of the canonical gospels.  His story is best noted for how quickly he moves from event to event.  According to the Markian narrative, Jesus will at times pause to teach, but usually He’s presented as scurrying from one place to the next, healing, exorcising demons, raising the dead, and feeding the multitudes.  As I’ve pointed out before, Mark’s favorite adverb is “immediately.”  So much so, he used this word 41 times in his 16-chapter account.  Mark’s record paints a picture in such a way that it seems that Jesus never had enough time in the day.  But in today’s reading, we find that Mark slows the tempo of his narrative in order to record the events of Jesus’ passion.  This is an important time, it’s the climax of the drama, and a more deliberate pace is appropriate, even in this swiftly moving gospel.
            Martin Kahler, the 19th century German theologian, referred to the Gospels as “passion narratives, with extended introductions.”  For me, this assessment accurately underscores the prominence of the events that surround Jesus’ death.  And in our Gospel reading this morning, Mark devoted two chapters, a total of 119 verses, to the time from Jesus’ anointing at Bethany, to his burial in a rock hewn tomb.  These two chapters provide a strikingly detailed account, which covers a forty-eight to sixty hour period of Jesus’ life.  Compare this to the previous 13 chapters where Mark records the three years in which Jesus spent time preparing us for this event. 

            In the first 13 chapters, Mark documents Jesus’ travels throughout the region recording how Jesus has healed the sick, fed the crowd, challenged the religious establishment and on three separate occasions warned the disciples, of His passion, death and resurrection to come.  His goal was to usher in the Kingdom of God and prepare His followers for the final series of events.  And now that the hour has arrived, He begins to be blunt about what is to transpire. 

Instead of talking in general terms about His impending death, Jesus now adds additional details that one of His inner circle would betray Him.  What’s more, despite their contradictions and objections, Jesus tells His supper guests that all those gathered at this last meal would, in fact, desert Him.  Despite their pledges to stand side-by-side, before the night is over, Jesus would be left standing before the authorities without friend or representation.  Yet despite the frankness of His comments, Peter along with the remaining 10, still don’t seem to get what’s going on.  And in his usual rambunctious way, Peter denies the events that were to come. 
            But Peter’s not so different than you or I, is he?  At the beginning of the night when things seem to be going as expected, he speaks boldly when he “vehemently” states that “even though all become deserters, I will not” and “even though I must die with You, I will not deny You”.  And as the events begin to unfold, Peter seems to be good to his word. 

            While Mark isn’t specific about who it was that cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear, St. John is in his gospel narrative.  John identifies this person as Peter.  Peter, with a short sword strapped to his side, strikes out severing the ear of the servant.  But it doesn’t take long for this boldness to change.  Judas betrays his Master and everyone flees, just as Jesus foretold.  And Peter, instead of bearing witness to God, invokes God as a witness to his falsehood.  The irony is bitter indeed.  The cock’s second crow pierces his soul, and he disappears as a character in the story except for a brief reference in chapter 16 verse 7.  

All this leaves us with the temptation to vilify Peter, which admittedly is hard to resist, and the temptation is to ignore our own acts of betrayal.  Despite the enticement, we should refrain.  It’s easy to point fingers as an onlooker.  What’s hard is recognizing and admitting our part in this event.  As the evening progresses, Jesus is left alone to face the terrible events to come.  But what makes these next few hours even more intolerable, is that the very crowd that 5 days earlier gathered to sing hosannas to the King, who took off their coats and cut branches from the trees to spread in His path as He rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, are now the very same people who stand in the crowd and shout “crucify Him” as the trial progresses.  You see this is as much a story of the passion as it is about the nature of humankind. 

        Within this story we find a variety of characters, many different personalities, and various reactions.  The breadth of this story covers a mired of human responses from silence to boldness, greed to acts of charity and hatred to acts of love.  But there’s one thing in this account that becomes glaringly apparent; when it comes to facing the devil and sin, you and I are incapable of standing up to the challenge alone.  We, despite our objections to the contrary, are not so different from Jesus’ followers. 

No matter how good our intensions may be, in the face of evil, we are incapable of taking it on by ourselves.  We find the words Jesus spoke in the garden ringing in our ears; “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”.  This is why Jesus stood alone in the face of evil.  He is the only One capable of taking on the powers of this world, the only One able to defeat not only sin, but the results and penalty of sin, death.  Also embedded within this narrative is another event, another individual that is only mentioned here in Mark’s gospel. 

        Standing among the crowd that night was a young man who, without prior introduction, suddenly appears on the scene.  Many have speculated that this is John Mark, the author of our gospel for today.  It’s possible that he was the homeowner where the Passover feast was held, or he was simply someone who heard the commotion in the garden that night when the mob came to arrest Jesus.  Some have forwarded that perhaps soldiers had come to the house looking for Jesus, and this young man ran hurriedly in an attempt to warn Jesus before the soldiers reached him.  Many theories have been forwarded, but in the end, the young man is never identified. 

However, the one thing we can be certain of, is that this “certain young man” who followed the crowd out to the garden that night, must have been in a hurry; an all too familiar theme.  In his haste to see the events, he enters our story wearing nothing but a linen cloth.  In a society that abhors nakedness in public, this young man came to the events that night, despite his appearance.  Consider for a moment that this young man represents you and I, inserted into the story that evening.  We, for a variety of reasons, show up at the beginning of the passion story expecting somehow to participate in the events that evening.

        We are a witness to the events that night in Gethsemane, Judas had earned his 30 pieces of silver with a kiss, the crowd had Jesus under arrest, the high priest’s servant’s ear has been severed by Peter than healed by Jesus, and now, the disciples have fled.  We are still in the garden waiting for our chance to act, when suddenly someone grabs us.  At this point our mysterious bystander flees, leaving their only garment behind.  Our attempts to stand against the forces of this world alone, end in us being stripped, and running naked into the darkness.  The nakedness of the young man represents our motives, actions and desires now exposed, for all to see. 

      Hebrews 4:12-13 tells us, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”  But Mark’s gospel includes more than our Lord’s passion, it also includes the promises made before Jesus was sent. 

        God has been communicating His love and plan for us from the very beginning.  Because of our self-centeredness and selfish desires, we were condemned and unable to pay the price for our sin.  It’s for this reason that Jesus willingly stood alone to face the evil of this world; He willingly walked the road to Calvary.  He walked this path in order to carry our sin to the cross, defeating the prince of this world and reconciled us to the Father. 

        Without Jesus’ coming to this world and willingly giving Himself for all humankind, we wouldn’t be able to withstand the prince of this world.  But thanks be to God, Jesus did stand alone, falsely accused and according to Philippians 2, He willingly emptied “Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death—even death on the cross”.

        Each time we read these passages, we are reminded that you and I are part of this story.  It’s tempting to vilify the people who were involved in the events that night in the upper room and out in Gethsemane, but that would ignore our part in this story.  We are the ones with Him that night, we can see ourselves as one of the disciples who vowed to stand and die if necessary.  Maybe we’re the ones in the mob who came to arrest Jesus, or we’re the curious onlookers who simply stood by and watched the events unfold.  Whichever character we see as ourselves, in the end we are like the young man who came wearing only a linen cloth.  We are left running into the darkness naked, with our thoughts, words and deeds exposed.  Thankfully the story does not end here, all is not lost.  God’s plan was fulfilled and the forces of this world, to strong for us, were defeated and the sin that separates us from God was overcome.  Let me close with one final thought.  Mark also tells us that at Jesus’ death, the temple curtain was torn in two.  

Perhaps this signifies the judgment against the temple.  The one thing we are sure of, is that the tearing of the curtain from top to bottom was God’s work.  It was God removing the barrier and opening up to us access to His presence.  The need for priests and sacrifices are no longer necessary, we can now come boldly before God’s throne and make our petitions known.  It’s our sin that hangs a curtain between us, those around us and God.  And this is precisely why the Passion was necessary.  It’s God doing for us, what we cannot do for ourselves. 

At the moment of Jesus’ death, God tore apart the curtain of self-centeredness and sin that separates us from God and each other.  It is God’s means of reconciliation and restoration, and the reason our celebration on this Sunday is so appropriate.  Jesus has come in the name of the Father, giving us hope and opening for us the way of healing.  In His suffering and death, Christ has indeed made us whole.  It’s for this reason this morning that we can shout for joy, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9) Amen

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