Here is my Palm Sunday Sermon, even though we’re already two complete Lectionary readings beyond it. Things move pretty quickly during Holy Week. Anointing Jesus, Mark’s Passion… But here is what I had to say all the way back on Sunday:
We move from the triumphal entry, to the passion, all in one service. We skip all of Holy Week. Pastors have preached whole sermons on each phrase of our Gospel readings We have two and a half chapters to cover. That’s a lot of material for one service. Makes you wonder what they were thinking when they planned it.
The Triumphal entry is obvious – today is Palm Sunday. Adding the passion might seem a bit much. We will hear Mark’s account tomorrow at noon. Then John’s account on Friday. Why add Matthew’s Passion on top of the Triumphal entry? Today is the only chance we have to hear the account of the death of our Lord on the Lord’s Day. The rest of the church year has its own themes. And this week, we are focused on the death of Jesus all week long. So, Matthew’s account is heard. And remember, even when the Gospel reading isn’t the death of our Lord, “We preach Christ crucified.” It’s all we have. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the center and substance of our Life. Healing the lame, making the blind to see, the deaf to hear: Point to his death, where he takes our infirmity on himself. Preaching to the people? Jesus Explains the significance of his death, in which we find our life. Even Jesus birth is a foreshadowing of his death. The angels sing the song of praise to God who shows his mercy in the birth of His Son, because his son has come among us to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Even John the Baptist has the death of Jesus in the background: We are Baptized into His death, and now it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us.
We overload the themes today. Lots to do, lots to cover. And yet it is all focused, as it always is, on the work of our Lord Jesus Christ for us. The triumphal entry is leading to Passover and the death of Jesus. The passion is the center of our life. It’s all Jesus and his death, all the time. So any split in focus is really just us moving quickly around the death of our Lord, looking at it from many angles all in the same day, rather than the usual practice of looking at it from this angle this day, and a slightly different angle another day.
We never get over or move beyond the death of our Lord. It’s all we do. “We learned this last year”. We learn it again, because we never learn it well enough. That’s an important lesson for us to learn. Keep learning. Those who have been members for 90 years continue learning, just as those who have been members for 1 year. We can never learn well enough the love and mercy of God. It is without end. That means no matter how we study it, there is always more to study. No matter how we learn it, there is always more to learn. And it isn’t just academic book learning. We don’t learn the goodness of the Lord at a desk. We learn the goodness of the Lord each time we are fed in this world – he provides the daily bread. And we learn the goodness of the Lord each time we are absolved of our sins. He forgives you. And we learn and continue learning because God uses your life in this world to continue teaching you how gracious and merciful he is.
We heard about the death of our Lord. And we hear more about it throughout the week. But the triumphal entry only gets today. The people coming to Jesus and shouting “Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is what we sing at the Holy Communion. It’s the second half of the Sanctus. “Blessed is he. Blessed is he. Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest.” We sing this right before hearing the Words of Jesus himself, “This is my body, this is the blood of the new covenant.” Right before Jesus is present, distributed, and received by us in his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. The song that the people shouted at Jesus as he entered the city, we sing that. Why?
Because Jesus enters this place in the Sacrament of the Altar. He comes to us victorious – he has triumphed over death, but he comes humbly, under the bread and wine. It’s so simple it’s almost comic. If we didn’t have the express command of Jesus “This is my body, this is my blood”, who could believe it? There are many who do not believe it. Who doubt this is really the body and blood for Christians to eat and drink. They want to make the words symbolic, or spiritual. Because it’s not believable. It looks, tastes like bread and wine. Can it really be the body and blood of Jesus – the eternal Son of God? But we don’t need symbolic forgiveness, or spiritual forgiveness. We need real forgiveness for real sins we commit in our bodies in this world. And so Jesus comes into this world in his flesh and blood. And he sacrifices that flesh and blood on the cross. And he now gives the same flesh and blood at the altar for us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of our sins.
The leaders of the people had doubts on Palm Sunday – can THIS man be the eternal Son of God? Surrounded by all that rabble from Galilee? Sitting not on a mighty charger surrounded by legions of angels, but on a donkey of all things? Can he be God? Can God be contained in the flesh of such a common looking person? Can he really be the one who will upend our entire way of living and dying? Surely not. Their unbelief quickly becomes plotting to kill. “Look, we are gaining nothing the world has gone after him.” They say. The verses right before our Gospel reading say that the leaders decided to kill Jesus AND LAZARUS, because they people saw Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and so they were following Jesus.
You can imagine how popular someone would be who can undo death. Especially in our current climate you know how desperately people want assurance of life over death. Jesus has a walking talking witness to his power: He can raise people from the dead. Lazarus will describe for you in detail what Jesus did for him. How he died, how he was revived in his grave, and walked out and rejoined the living in this world. The leaders decide the proper response is to kill them both. Get rid of all evidence that God is visiting his people. Of course, they didn’t think about it in those terms. They never realized they were tools of Satan, that Satan had entered their hearts and hardened them so they could not believe.
And we are tempted to shout at them even across the centuries, “NO! Stop what you’re doing! Don’t you know who he is!” And yet, if we were to prevent the death of Jesus, we would be in league with Satan. Those who would prevent his scandalous death are as much tools of Satan as those who cause it.
There is no escape. Jesus must die for the sins of the world. We must watch again, in weeping and wailing. But it is the only way we can be saved. Today we have a moment of joy, and triumph. The people praise him. Hosanna! And we take up their song, because we know that we are joined to him and his death through the gift of his body and blood. Every time we prepare our hearts to approach the altar, we sing with them, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” And as surely as God is present before the people in the person of Jesus Christ, so also he comes even now in his body and blood wherever his words are spoken and whenever we take eat and drink according to his command.
This is the great gift of salvation he gives to his people. That we are a part of the everlasting feast of victory given to us so that we would receive healing for our infirmities, forgiveness for our sins, and life in place of death. So that, instead of going fearfully, or stoically into death, we go joyfully into death. Not because of how great death is, but because of how great the salvation from death is in Jesus Christ. Because of how great a resurrection we have been promised. Because of how strong this medicine of immortality is. How powerful this food is to sustain us in the true faith unto life everlasting. We have been given riches beyond any worldly imagining. And it is all given freely, to those who approach the altar in faith, and receive the body and blood in humility, not doubting that your sins are forgiven by this, but holding on to the word and promise and command of Jesus Christ. And in so doing, making the promise your own.
That’s what Jesus means by “in remembrance of me.” That we would remember and proclaim his death – not as a thought process in our brains. But that we would grab on to the salvation he promises in the supper, and hold God to that promise. That’s what he wants us to do. It is the true worship of God to hear his word and believe the promise and so receive the blessings contained in the promise.
Do not doubt the promise. Jesus is present here for you. And His gift of salvation is given freely to all who believe the promise. This is why we gather, and continue to gather. Because the promised salvation is given in this place. And Jesus is here for you. Not in spite of his brutal death on the cross. But because of it. This year we learn again, ever more deeply, of the sacrifice of the Son of God, the great love that drove him to it. The unbelievable salvation that he gives. And we pray that God would send his spirit to melt our hearts of stone so that we would not be faithless, but believe. That the Lord would overcome our unbelief, and that we, and all our loved ones, would receive the promised salvation.
In Jesus name.