Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Strange Power of Jesus' Death

March 20, 2016 – The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19:28-40
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
When I moved to Montgomery as a newly ordained deacon, three different people pulled me aside to give me the same advice. In this church, they told me, don’t believe what you see: the men might seem to be in charge, but the women have all the power. Since that advice came from three different men and was also corroborated by several women and confirmed quickly in my own experience, I learned to trust that it was true. No one gave me that advice when I moved here, but I assume it’s because everyone knew that I had already figured it out. If you want to find the real power in a congregation, you usually have to look behind the scenes.

As we enter into Holy Week and celebrate the passion of our Lord, we find ourselves confronted by clear and diametrically opposed expressions of power. One is predictable—the kind of power that the world clamors to see. And the other is obscure—almost imperceptible unless you know where and how to look for it. I wonder in your heart and mind which kind of power will win out this year.

A crowd comes out to see Jesus enter the holy city of Jerusalem. Having witnessed his “deeds of power,” they hail him as their long-awaited king: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” But later that same week, unwilling to accept his topsy-turvy, countercultural threat to their traditions, they change their cry from shouts of praise to calls for his execution: “Crucify, crucify him!” At the Last Supper, the disciples argue over which one of them is the greatest, but Jesus challenges their presumptions, saying, “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” When the time comes for the disciples to stand up for Jesus as the arresting party seizes him, one of them strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear, but Jesus heals the wounded man and says, “No more of this!” Pilate and Herod both ask Jesus if he is the king-pretender whom the Jewish authorities have accused him of being, but Jesus refuses to answer them, standing silent and letting them come to their own conclusions. The crowd mocks him, and one of the crucified criminals joins in, saying, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us,” but Jesus won’t do it. He doesn’t fight back. Instead, he willingly yields his spirit over to death and chooses to breathe his last. And, then, of all people, the centurion, a symbol of Roman power, recognizes the truth of what has happened and declares, “Surely this man was innocent.”

Which expression of power will take hold in your heart and shape your life? Jesus’ death is full of power, but it’s not the kind of power to which we are accustomed. Yes, it does have the power to change us, but how? One option is to let it fill us with anger. We could look at the unjustified, undeserved, tragic death of God’s son and become enraged. We could lash out at those who stand in the way of God’s kingdom. We could focus our wrath on those who are opposed to the way of Jesus—those who disagree with everything we believe in. I hear from a lot of angry Christians these days, and we could make Holy Week an excuse to join their cause. But then we, too, would miss the true power of this moment.

To capitalize on Jesus’ death as the rallying point for our own cause is to fall victim to the same ungodly power that nailed him to the tree. Instead, we must let the sacrificial power of Jesus’ death become our understanding of power, too. We must let it transform us wholly for peace. We must walk the pilgrim way. We must journey on the road that leads to our own Calvary and there be crucified with Jesus. We must put to death any claim we have to our own interests. At the cross of Christ, we must yield every ounce of our own worldly power so that we might be filled with the sacrificial, self-emptying power of the cross. Then and only then will we be ready for Easter.

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