Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

Text: Philippians 2:7-8
Of his own free will
he (Jesus) gave up all he had,
and took the nature of a servant….
He was humble and walked the path of obedience
all the way to death— his death on the cross." (Phil 2:6-8).

He gave it all up for us.

I know that this isn’t the first time you have heard the story of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. When we hear it so many times we’re inclined to think of the injustice and the tragedy of an innocent man dying, but overlook the violence that lies behind the Gospel accounts. Jesus was killed in a particularly cruel, painful and violent way.
Jesus was beaten to a pulp with the cruel whip with balls of lead or pieces of bone on each strand of the whip,
was spat on,
a crown of thorns pressed on his head,
stripped naked,
nails driven through his hands and feet,
his bleeding and raw back pressed against the roughness of the wood,
and hung up to bleed and suffocate in utter agony. The violence of the cross wasn’t something short and swift, it went on for hours.

Today and on Good Friday when we hear the gospel account of the suffering of Jesus, how do we react? Is this something like reality TV programs where we are entertained by the pain and hurt of others but by and large we are untouched by their pain? We can watch the suffering from the comfort of our lounges and then walk away as if nothing happened. Because crosses are made of smooth polished wood these days, or are a piece of jewellery rather than rough wood soaked in blood, have we missed the violence that the cross represents? Have we missed the point that the cross represents not only violence toward a human being but against God himself?

We started today’s service with the account of Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. There is nothing here about the violence that is about to happen. He is riding on a humble donkey into the city of Jerusalem while palm branches are spread on the street in front of him. Those along the road shouted "Hosanna, Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord".

These were festival days. Jerusalem was crowded. During the Passover the population of Jerusalem swelled with pilgrims and worshippers. But in spite of the general buzz of excitement in the city, it was clear that something special was happening on one of the roads into Jerusalem.

Someone special was entering their city. And so they shouted "Hosanna". Amid all the happiness, cheering, and waving of palm branches there was only one who knew that this week would end in violence. The one who rode the donkey was fully aware that "… the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him … and kill him …". In just a few days, he would experience the pain and cruelty reserved only for the worst and most hardened criminals.

As he stood before the Jewish Council, was beaten, whipped, spat on and mocked by the soldiers, and then nailed to a rough wooden cross outside Jerusalem, one could hardly imagine that this bleeding and forsaken man is truly God, the King of kings, Lord of lords, Wonderful Counsellor, Prince of Peace.
As they drove the nails in his hands and feet and his blood soaked the wooden beam of the cross, one could hardly believe that they were shedding the blood of God himself.
As they laughed at him, mocked his cries of agony, and then watch with delight as his life slowly drained away, one could hardly believe that here was God's love going to the utmost extreme for them and for every person.
He was dying to save all those who throughout time have in some way contributed to the sin and evil in this world.
This man on the cross did not look like God. His bleeding, suffering, anguished cries and dying was anything but God-like. He appeared to be just another victim of an unjust legal system and corrupt religious leadership.

But the Bible has no hesitation in telling us that in spite of what it seemed, he is God who has come in the flesh for a very specific reason. We heard the apostle Paul sum up God's plan to save all people in the reading from Philippians. He says,
"He (Jesus Christ) always had the nature of God,
but he did not think that by force
he should try to remain equal with God.
Instead of this, of his own free will
he gave up all he had,
and took the nature of a servant.
He became a human being
and appeared in human likeness.
He was humble and walked the path of obedience
all the way to death— his death on the cross." (Phil 2:6-8).

We might summarise what Paul is saying with these 2 sentences. He had it all. He gave it all up. And what is more, he gave it all up for us. God became human and died on a cruel cross for us and because of us. We put those scars in his hands, his feet, his side.

When the great artist Rembrandt came to paint the scene of the crucifixion, he painted his own face on one of those people in mob. He knew that it was for his sins that Jesus was nailed to the tree. It can be easily said that Rembrandt could have painted every one of our faces in the crowd that day as they called for Jesus death, not just any death, but the worst kind of death imaginable. There was nothing sweet and gentle about the crowd that called for Jesus’ death – they called for the violent and excruciating death on a cross.

A youth group presented a dramatisation of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. The youth director played the role of Christ, the young people the jeering mob. "Crucify him! Crucify him!" they shouted, and then they dragged the youth director into the back yard of the church and hung him up on an improvised cross.

The youth were hushed now, as "Christ" hung there and spoke these words to the audience: "Even though you are doing this to me, I still love you."

There was a young teenage girl standing in the front, fascinated by the scene. Tears were streaming down her face. For most of the audience that was a performance. For her, it was the real thing. She was there. She had been transported back to Calvary and it was if she was there when the Saviour of the world hung there, suffering and dying for her sin, and said to her, "Father, forgive her".

He says those same words across the centuries to us today, "Father, forgive them". When we look at the figure stretched out on the cross, or read the story of Jesus death in the Gospel accounts God wants us all to see that it is our sin that is being paid for.
Through the violence, the suffering and death of Jesus our peace was being made with God.
On the cross we are able to see what lengths God had to go to get rid of the punishment we deserve and to restore our friendship with him again.
He wants us to see that what Jesus did, he did it for us.

The Son of God, Lord of all lords, the creator and ruler of the universe, had it all, and he gave it all up just for us. He became a human like us. He endured so much violence just for us. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, he died on our account. What humility! What love! And, oh, what he accomplished there.

I’d guess that’s why the Gospel writers don’t give us a lot of detail about the violence that happened that day.
They don’t want us to get sidetracked from the real issue.
They want us to focus on the reason for all the pain and suffering.
They want us to see that it was for us that he died.
They want us to realise that this death has brought about reconciliation between God and us.

In 1927 a man named Asibi, a West African native, was stricken with the deadly disease, yellow fever. Not many people survived this dreaded disease. However, Asibi lived. It seems that his body had conquered the disease. Asibi's blood contained the antibodies from which to begin to develop a successful vaccine.

Today doctors and drug companies have developed an efficient vaccine against yellow fever, and the lives of untold numbers of people around the world have been saved. Each dose of vaccine, though, can be traced back to one original blood sample - that of Asibi. You might say that one man's blood saved the lives of millions of people.

You can see how this relates to Jesus. The blood of this one man has saved us and million upon millions of others. In a mysterious way, we have been saved by the death of Jesus.

As we enter Holy Week once again and recall again the love, the suffering, the dying and the rising of our Saviour, let us do so first of all with humility. It is our sin that put Jesus on the cross. It is our sin that compelled God in his love for us to go to such lengths to rescue us from death and to ensure that we are his forever.

And secondly, let us enter Holy Week with a repentant heart, aware of our sin, ready to turn away from the sin in our lives that grieve God and those around us. Let us take the time to reflect on what kind of relationship we really have with God. Let us recommit ourselves to following Jesus more closely in everything we say and do, to showing others the same kind of dedication and commitment that God has shown to us.

And thirdly, as we enter Holy Week, we do so with an attitude of praise and thanksgiving for this act of God. Because of the cross and the resurrection, God has given us the assurance that God is on our side in every circumstance of life. If God can suffer on a cross for us then there is no reason to doubt that God will be there for us in every difficult time during our journey in this life.

God bless us all as we reflect on and celebrate the passion of our Lord.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
20th March, 2005

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