March 25, 2018 – The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
How quickly we turn against the one we love! On Palm Sunday, in the span of an hour and a half, we go all the way from Jesus’ triumphal entry to the foot of the cross. We begin with “Hosanna in the highest!” and end with “Crucify him!” How quickly things change! What is it about human nature that gives us the capacity to change our allegiance so completely and so quickly?
We aren’t the only ones whose loyalties crumble. Judas, of course, plotted ahead of time to betray his master, and his treachery tends to mask the collective failure of the other disciples. All of them, in one way or another, desert their teacher. At the Last Supper, Jesus warned Peter, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Peter vehemently rejected that accusation, saying, “Even if I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you.” He meant that. He really believed that, no matter what happened, he would remain faithful to Jesus. In Mark’s retelling of the story, there are two cock crows, perhaps so that we can join Peter in hearing the warning tone after the first denial and then feel the full weight of his guilt after he denies Jesus twice more. And Peter wasn’t the exception. After Jesus was arrested, all of his followers ran away. None of the twelve stood up for Jesus. None of them defended him publicly or attempted to rescue him. The crowds, which days before had heralded Jesus’ arrival in the holy city by proclaiming him as David’s heir, now mocked him as he hung upon the cross. Why is that? What makes that appalling transformation possible?
Each of us, when threatened, possesses a powerful instinct to protect ourselves. When mom walks in and sees the broken vase, we immediately point to our sibling and say, “He did it!” When the boss asks us why the report hasn’t been turned in yet, we tell her that we thought our coworker said that it wasn’t due for another week. When a friend tells us that she’s really angry at one of our mutual acquaintances, we find it easier to distance ourselves from that third person by sharing in the criticism than confronting the person we are with and telling her that we think she’s off-base. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If only we knew that we weren’t really threatened, if only we knew that we have nothing to lose, then we would possess the freedom to stand up for the truth.
When you look upon the cross of Christ, what do you see? Is it an innocent man suffering the wrath of an angry God or the sacrifice of a loving God who willingly gave up his Son to show the world a love that has no limit? I suppose that either of those perspectives has the power to get you to heaven, but only one of them gives me the confidence that I have nothing to fear—a confidence that frees me up to stand with Jesus and not worry what it might cost me.
When the disciples saw that their master had been arrested, tortured, and crucified, they thought that Jesus had failed. Understandably, they worried that the same thing would happen to them, so they ran away and hid. What they couldn’t yet see was that Jesus’ suffering and death was a gift of God’s limitless, unconditional love—that Jesus’ sacrifice meant that nothing—not their failure nor their fear—could undermine God’s loving purposes for their lives. God’s redeeming love for them was guaranteed whether they fell asleep during prayer, ran away and hid, denied their master, or even betrayed Jesus to the authorities. It took them a while to see that, but, once they did, they knew that they had nothing to lose. Once they saw the sacrifice of Jesus as the ultimate life-giving act of God’s unconditional love, they knew that they could stand up for Jesus without worrying what might happen to them.
What about you? Can you see within the cross of Christ the fullness of God’s unconditional love, or are you here to behold a death sufficient enough to appease God’s wrath once and for all? Either way, you get to go to heaven. But only those who have received unconditional love find the freedom to risk everything in order to stand up for the truth. Only those who know that they are loved not only despite their failures but right along with them can set the fear of failure aside for good. Only when we are immersed in that love can we live as boldly for God’s kingdom in this life as we hope for it in the next.