April 9, 2017

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 118:1-4, 19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a

“The Whole Story”

Over the last 40 years or so, Presbyterians, together with many of the other mainline Christian denominations, have begun to follow the “Church Year” in our worship and devotional life. Downstairs in our church library, there is a wonderful felt wall hanging that can be rolled down for a lesson on the “Church Year.” It’s got a big circle like a pie chart, and the pieces of the pie are different colours for the different seasons… blue for Advent, white for Christmas, green for ordinary time, purple for Lent, white for Easter, and a little sliver of red for Pentecost Sunday.

As we make our way through the church year, we remember the story of our faith, the events in the life of Jesus, and the experiences of the early Christian Churches. The readings from the Revised Common Lectionary guide us to follow Jesus from his birth, through his childhood, his baptism by John, and time in ministry as he travelled throughout Galilee.

But this week, Holy Week, is perhaps the most dramatic time of the year as we are invited to journey with Jesus through the final week of his life. Today, we remember his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And if we follow the daily lectionary readings through the week…

  • On Monday we hear about Mary of Bethany, anointing Jesus for his burial.
  • On Tuesday Jesus teaches his disciples that those who love their lives must lose them, and he tells them that when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself.
  • On Wednesday, Jesus tells his closest friends that one of them will betray him.
  • On Thursday, he washes the feet of his disciples, and gives them the new commandment to love one another as he has loved them.
  • Friday includes Peter’s denial, the other disciples running away, and Jesus on trial, followed by torture, execution, and death.
  • On Saturday we hear about Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus’ body down and placing it in a tomb. The tomb is sealed and guarded.
  • And finally on Sunday, the tomb is found empty. Jesus’ body is gone. In some accounts, Jesus appears to his friends, in others angels speak to them and tell them that he is raised.

Even if we don’t do the daily readings, we are invited in our worship to enter into and experience the different parts of the story… triumphal entry, foot washing and the Last Supper, death, burial, and resurrection. We pause at each event to dwell in that moment, with those feelings.

But it is a bit artificial… because we know the whole story already. When we join in the “Hosannas” of the crowds on Sunday, we already know that the voices will soon grow silent. When we gather on Good Friday to stand at the foot of the cross and mourn, we know that the darkness of that day is not the end of the story.

Earlier this week, I spent some time reading about today’s first two readings – the Gospel story from Matthew about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and the passage from Psalm 118 that is paired with it in the “Liturgy of the Palms.”

The first thing to note, of course, is the reason for the pairing. When the crowds call out “Hosanna!” to Jesus, and say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they are quoting from Psalm 118. They are taking lines from a familiar, Jewish, processional psalm. And by doing so, they are saying something significant about what they believe about this Jesus who is riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

You see, the psalm is a song of victory for a king. As the king rides back into the city after the battle, the people sing with joy and declare their allegiance to him, asking for his protection with their cries of “Hosanna! Lord, save us!” and giving him glory with their declaration that he is the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord. It seems that this warrior king was not expected to be victorious. He had previously been rejected, but because of his unpredicted success, the people praise him and place their trust in him.

One commentary helps us to make the connection between Jesus and the king for whom the psalm was originally composed. The author explains, “God worked in both situations to elevate and exalt the lowly to a place of prominence. Though in each case the lowly had to move through oppression and opposition, they were not overtaken by death, literal or otherwise.”

But the difference is, that for the ancient king, the oppression and opposition is in the past. He has won the victory, and the people are turning to him as their leader. For Jesus, Palm Sunday is just the beginning of a week that will be filled with betrayal, denial, abandonment, torture, and death. For Jesus, the rejection is yet to occur.

But, you know, when the author of Matthew’s Gospel told the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he knew the rest of the story too – just as we do. He wasn’t telling it like an eye-witness reporter, just writing down what he saw. He was telling it like a person who had taken time to reflect on what happened that day, and what happened that week, and to think about what it meant.  He was telling it like an evangelist who wanted to get a message across about Jesus’ identity… the very question that got the people of Jerusalem talking… “Who is this?”

The Gospel-writer wants to tell us what he and his early Christian community have come to believe with all their hearts – that Jesus is the King who comes in the name of the Lord, who was rejected but became victorious, who seemed to be defeated, but would triumph.

It makes me wonder about how much Jesus already knew as he rode into Jerusalem that day. Certainly, the Gospels have Jesus warning his closest disciples about his impending death. They don’t want to hear it, but he seems resigned to it. He’s going to die. It is inevitable. But on the third day, God will raise him up again. He predicts it again and again.

One of the readings for the “Liturgy of the Passion” today is part of the “Suffering Servant” tradition in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The prophet tells of a servant of God who suffers terribly at the hands of violent enemies, and he doesn’t fight back. In the text today, we hear how he puts up with their physical attacks, insults, and spitting without any kind of retaliation. And what seems to get the servant through the time of suffering is the assurance – the sure and certain hope – that God will help him. God is near, and God will declare him innocent, and God will save him.

Although in its original context, the suffering servant may have referred to the People of Israel or perhaps to the prophet Isaiah himself, when heard in Christian worship, the lines of this passage interpret for the church the life and death of Jesus. In the life of Jesus – especially during this Holy Week – we see Jesus as the suffering servant who, with determination, suffers bravely through it all, encouraged by the hope that at the end there will be vindication.

Knowing the whole story helps, I think. For Jesus, and perhaps for us as well, when there is struggle, or pain, or anguish, knowing that relief and joy and gladness will eventually follow makes a big difference.

Maybe it’s like child-birth… when the pain becomes manageable because of the long-awaited child that will ultimately be born.

Maybe it’s like coping through the pain of the first steps on a newly-replaced knee. It hurts like anything, but the steps are required in order for the knee to grow strong and support your weight for all the walking you long to do again.

Maybe it’s like a harsh treatment for an illness, like chemo for cancer. The terrible side effects can be accepted, terrible as they are, because of the hope and possibility of recovery.

Or maybe it’s just like when someone you love and rely on is away from you for a time. You miss them, and you long for them. But you’re okay for a while, because you know that they will return.

In contrast, suffering can be very difficult indeed when we don’t have an assurance for the future… when we don’t know if the child will be healthy, when we don’t know if the treatment will help, when we don’t know if we’ll be left alone forever.

Any time that the future seems to be in jeopardy, that’s when most of us are given to despair. We don’t know if we can heal that relationship. We don’t know if our adult child will find a good job. We don’t know if there will be any cure for our illness. We don’t know… We don’t know.

Unlike Jesus, at least the way the Gospel writers tell his story, we don’t know what’s next for us, or how things will turn out. And so, in the midst of our times of struggle, we can become disillusioned.

But as people of faith, we must remember that we do actually know the end of the story. No, we don’t know the details that come in between. And when we wish we knew, it can be really hard to live with all the question marks.

But we do know the end of the story. Because our story is intertwined with the story of Jesus, and his ultimate victory over sin, and death, and hatred, and evil is our victory as well. Because he was raised, we will be raised also. Because he is in heaven with God, he promises to prepare a place for us there as well.

No matter how difficult, or terrible, or troubling some events in our lives may be on a given day, we must remember that Jesus has experienced those struggles too. He knows and shares in our anguish. And in the midst of it, he places his trust in God who will help him, who will help us.

As we begin this Holy Week together, let us remember that we already know the whole story. At least, we already know how the story ends. And may that knowledge give us hope, and strength, and peace today and every day. Amen.