It is in this Passion of our Lord that Christ Jesus becomes king, shows the depth of divine royalty, reveals the shape of God’s plan to regain rule over this disobedient planet: God, and so also we, will enter into the depths of evil to redeem it from within.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, the Sunday of the Passion, year A; texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 26:14 – 27:66
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
You want to know what we’ve been missing about today, and this whole week? This is not a day that begins in triumph and ends in tragedy, it is a day that from beginning to end is about seeing the kingdom of God come to be. The cross isn’t a setback; it’s the whole plan. It’s where Jesus acts as the true king.
Matthew, along with Luke and John, reminds us that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem this week was the coming of a king. Riding on a donkey, with palms and shouts, this evoked the prophet’s promise that this is how the king would arrive. So there’s nothing humble about Jesus’ actions on this Sunday, at least not in the sense of the symbolism of his ride into town. He was declaring himself king.
But we also just heard Matthew tell us that on Friday of this week the soldiers also hailed Jesus as king, and gave him royal appointments and clothes, and the religious leaders also called him king, on the cross. At the same time, the Gospels all agree that over Jesus’ head at his death was a sign – the same sign all criminals received over their crosses, the sign announcing their name and their crime – and that on Jesus’ sign it declared him a king, the King of the Jews. Now, Pilate likely intended that as mocking – his crime was his kingship – and the religious leaders certainly read it as such. And the soldiers and religious leaders also were mocking when they named this of Jesus. But actually, they all, unknowingly, were proclaiming God’s truth, that here, on this cross, the King was beginning his rule. And the Gospel writers all understand this.
Jesus becomes king on the cross, that’s what the Gospels say. The reason for our walking through the events of this week every year, as we’ve done for 2,000 years, is that we more and more understand what happened and why and what it means for us. But we seemed to have missed this point.
There is a disconnect in our thinking between Jesus’ ministry before this week and the week itself and that has misled us.
We’ve always considered Jesus’ teachings and miracles and ministry as good and worthy of consideration, the start of a great story. And then we come to this week and we think that it all ends badly.
We blame Judas for his betrayal, the disciples for their fear, the Jewish authorities for their blindness and jealousy, the crowds for their fickleness, or the Roman governor for his cowardice. If only people would have seen the truth about Jesus, we think, none of this would have happened. This week is a tragic mistake, an accident.
Or sometimes we see the events of this week as a divine court judgment where the Son of God is tortured and punished because of our sin. Sometimes it almost sounds like we think almighty God has a blood lust that has to be satisfied, and since our sins are deserving of death, if we’re to avoid that, someone needs to die, someone’s blood needs to be shed. So in comes Jesus.
But in fact, the Gospels tell us from the beginning that Jesus, the Son of God, will bring in God’s kingdom, will inaugurate the rule of the Triune God, in losing and dying, in entering evil and suffering personally in order to overturn it.
From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus says “the kingdom of God is near, is at hand.” And he says that in that kingdom, the blessed ones are the meek, the sufferers, the peacemakers. He says he will rule as king, but that he didn’t come to be served, but to serve.
He declares that in him God has come to be with the broken, the weak, the sad, the dispossessed, and will take on all of that with them, and so bring them to life. He says that in the kingdom, you lose your life instead of trying to save it, and that you pray for your enemies, love your enemies, even.
How could anyone have expected anything other than the cross from someone who talks like this?
We talk a lot about how the people of Jesus’ day had expectations of Messiah that Jesus didn’t fulfill, that he’d be a political leader, and we smugly note how misguided they were. We ignore that we have the same expectations post-Easter. We expect now that he’s risen, now God ought to clean house, rule with power, take care of all this evil, these problems.
We pray as if God’s whole role is to remove suffering from our lives and our world by magic or miracle. And we act in the world like people always have acted, seeking our own way, using power whenever we can to make happen what we think needs to happen.
And we expect that is how God is supposed to work in the world. But that’s because we haven’t seen that the cross was the beginning of Jesus’ rule. We’ve learned nothing from the mistakes of 2,000 years ago.
The Hebrew prophets actually saw the truth coming. We heard today the first part of the servant songs of Isaiah which speak of God’s anointed servant offering his life for the people, and not just for Israel, but to bless the whole world. That it would come by God’s anointed taking on suffering and pain, undeservedly, in order to transform it. Why else do you think the Evangelists persist in saying that all this was told in the Scriptures already?
If this week’s events are a tragic mistake, or Judas’ (or anyone’s) fault, how do you make sense of the prophets, of Jesus’ teaching? If this week’s events are God’s need for blood and punishment of someone, and Jesus is going to get it instead of us, how do you make sense of the prophets, of Jesus’ teaching?
So this is what we know from Scripture: Pilate’s sign is the hidden truth of God. This is the way God will rule in the world, not through power and might and destruction of evil. We just heard Matthew tell us Jesus had 72,000 angels to command should he have wanted a way of power and dominance. He could have avoided the cross. That he did not needs to teach us something.
By entering into evil and losing all power to it, by offering himself to restore all things, the Son of God begins God’s rule. The cross isn’t the Father’s bloodlust being answered by the Son’s death, because in the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit are offering God’s own life for the sake of the world.
The cross isn’t a tragic mistake, or the blame of any ancient or modern sinners, but God’s ultimate and final way to deal not just with my sin or yours, but the sinful disobedience of this entire world.
God rules by losing, at the cross, and still today. That’s what this week needs to teach us.
So this is why we do what we do today, and for the next seven days.
We face this week as a solemn contemplation, not as our seeking maudlin pantomime, trying to re-create emotions from 2,000 years ago. We contemplate the events of today, and each day, that we might learn the truth about God’s rule in the world, a truth we’ve lost by not seeing this week as God would have us see it. We walk this path each year because we need to take evil as seriously as God does, and because only by regular contemplation can we begin to learn what God is doing.
If we avoid such contemplation, we take great risks.
We risk missing the whole point about God and evil even for today, how God is actually working, not how we want God to work. Knowing that this is how God did and does deal with it is critical to our understanding of how God acts in the suffering of the world today.
We also risk missing the whole point about how we are to engage the world and evil, how this completely sets aside any question of power/over and dominance for us as well. Isaiah’s servant songs are famously ambiguous: you can’t tell by reading if it’s God’s anointed, one person, who enters suffering to redeem all, or if it’s God’s anointed, the whole people of God, who do. I think the answer is both. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, this path of loss and sacrifice, of entering evil and suffering, is not just Jesus’ chosen path. It’s our called path.
The Son of God says that suffering is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen, that by sharing the suffering of others we redeem it, that by offering ourselves to stand against evil, though it will cost us, we take the path by which all will be restored. This is not what the world thinks. And we can’t know this, believe this, live this, if we don’t take seriously our contemplation of God’s work in this week every year.
This is the truth about this week: we see how God is truly King over all things.
We just sang, “Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine; never was love, dear King! That is the truth: there is nothing more divine, nothing more loving, nothing more kingly, than this story, this truth, this week. This is the true love of the true King and God of the universe. This passion and death are the point of how God will be in the world.
That’s why we “stay and sing.” So we can learn this. Trust this. Begin to understand this. And so we are ready to follow in the same path when our King calls to us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen