By Fr. Justin Clemente. Preached Palm Sunday, 2021 to the people of New Creation Church (Anglican) in Hagerstown, MD. A parish of the Anglican Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic.
I. The Week of All Weeks!
Palm Sunday is a whirlwind. A Super Bowl of Sundays. In this last leg of our Lenten journey, we scan the dizzying heights of the Triumphal Entry and the chasm of the Cross. We lend our voice to the “Hosannas,” but to the “Crucifies,” too.
Jesus said that if his disciples did not praise him, the very stones of Jerusalem would cry out. Church, today we enter into the most important week of human history. In seven days the world was created and, you might say, in seven it was redeemed. This is our story to tell – Christ Jesus’ story! I exhort and encourage you all to give your time and attention to the solemn celebrations of this week. No one else is going to tell this story for us – the media won’t, television won’t, scholars won’t, historians won’t. But the Church must, for it is her mission to do so!
This Holy Week, I want to focus our time together around the words that Jesus spoke from the cross. In Mark’s Gospel, there is just one such word recorded. Mark 15:34 says that Jesus cried out the words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Let’s linger there today, and as we do, I want to try to connect those words back to the Triumphal Entry. To see it in light of these words.
II. Why Did Jesus Come to Jerusalem?
First, why did Jesus come to Jerusalem? Jesus comes to Jerusalem as the great King, mounted on a donkey, a peace-time animal and not a warhorse (though Revelation 19 tells us he has one of those, too), because he has come to make peace by the blood of his very own cross.
On the one hand, in his first coming, Jesus did not come to rage against Rome, as so many who shouted “hosanna” (save now) had hoped. He came to redeem. Before long, many of those Romans, whom the Jews so desperately wanted liberation from, would be joining the ranks of a new army – the church. Jesus did not come to bless the hopes of the mobs of his day, the insurrectionists, the rioters, but instead to go to the very heart of the human problem. That’s where he meets us at today, church!
On the other hand, Jesus didn’t come to dole out cheap grace and favors. His love is not the hollow, coddling, permissive love people think they want or need. We see that as a cancer in our culture today, but I’m sure people have always thought like this in some measure. And so, right before the Triumphal Entry, the mother of sons of Zebedee comes to Jesus and says, “Hey, one thing: will you let my sons sit on your left and right hand in your kingdom, [King Jesus]?” Jesus answers, “You do not know what you are asking and you do not understand the cup I am about to drink.”
III. The Alien Love of God
And that cup is the Cross. Connecting Jesus’ words from Cross and the expectations of the crowd at the Triumphal Entry, what we find is that Jesus Christ brings the absolutely alien and otherworldly love of God into the world of sinners. Over this week, I’ve been meditating on that classic hymn, “My Song is Love Unknown” which so memorably begins:
My song is love unknown, My Savior’s love to me
Love to the loveless shown, That they might lovely be.
Oh, who am I That for my sake, My Lord should take frail flesh and die?
My song is love unknown. And that love is still just as unknown, unnatural, and alien as the day Christ set foot in Jerusalem, fixed like flint with his face set toward the Cross. Set against all the false and fading hopes of humanity, the costly grace of God is poured out for us. “For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
IV. God Forsaken…of God
So that brings us now to the heart of the Cross and back to those words of Jesus. Look again at Mark 15:33-34, “And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice … “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
What do we make of these astounding words? Three things, at the least:
Jesus was truly forsaken
The Gospels are clear on this stunning truth: in Jesus, God came among us as one of us. In other words, he is truly God and truly man. Now, here is a mystery that we may apprehend even as we cannot comprehend it: on the Cross, God was forsaken of God for the sins of man. As he bore the sins of the world, Jesus was, in a way that we cannot wrap our minds around, truly alone.
Blaise Pascal says, “Jesus was abandoned to face the wrath of God alone. Jesus is alone on earth, not merely with no one to feel and share his agony, but with no one even to know of it. Heaven and he are the only ones to know.”
Martin Luther reflects here, “If we asked God if he would live so that sin should remain, or die in order to destroy sin, he would choose death. For God feels more pain over our sin and it gives him more grief than his own torture and death [on the cross].”
G.K. Chesterton revels in the mystery here: “When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God.” – G.K. Chesterton
We sang those arresting lyrics from Isaac Watts earlier in the service, “Alas! And did my Savior bleed and did my Sovereign die?” The clear but unstated answer is, “Yes.”
Friends, here is the heart of the cross for you: Christ Jesus in our place.
Jesus was truly trusting
But even as Jesus is truly forsaken, even in this he is truly and totally trusting his Father. Verse 34 says that he cried out as he spoke the words of Psalm 22, which is, as Bishop John would say, one of God’s greatest hits. Now this is really significant for a couple of reasons. First, the word used for Jesus’ “cry” is a word that is more like a “shout” than a shriek.” If you were come behind me and try to scare me, I might shriek, right? Oh my goodness, you startled me! I didn’t expect that!
That’s not what’s happening on the cross. Jesus’ SHOUT, though thoroughly agonized, is more like a confident cry that he is accomplishing what God sent him to do. So, the cross is not a train wreck. Nails may have held him there, but the mercy of God fixed him in place. The love of God beat man to the cross! Jesus, in fact, came to die. The meaning of his life is found, as John Stott powerfully said, “not so much in the living of his life, as much as in the giving of his life.” The Gospels are clear: no one took Jesus’ life from him – he laid it down of his own accord!
And verse 34 is also a clue that our Lord was praying Psalm 22 all the way through on the cross. And how does that Psalm end? Very differently than it began. Verse 30 is radiant: “But my life shall be preserved in his sight, and my children shall worship him.”
God is truly good
Lastly, because of the cross of Jesus and these words spoken by him, all doubts about the goodness and love of God end here. The lie that hovers over and in humanity that God doesn’t really love us and doesn’t have our best interest in mind dies at the foot of the cross.
I end with these words from J. Brandon Meeks:
“We are convinced that God has ever been in the business of withholding the best gifts. We conceive of Him as a miserly Lord who dispenses joy in droplets and misery in downpours. But Good Friday is the greatest evidence to the contrary. It was precisely because God gives His best that he was pleased to give us his Son. And that giving was not out of necessity but from the fountain of lordly liberty – He gave his Son because he loved the world. The very world that had so little love for him. And that son willingly accepted condemnation at men’s hands so that they would not have to receive condemnation at His.” (The Foolishness of God, pg. 196)
Now let me bring this home for each of us today. As you hear these words, you can be your own Jerusalem: you can fortify your walls, you can throw Jesus outside of the city, you can reject him and the love he has shown. But God desires all men to come to the truth and be saved. Open the gates your heart. Let the king of Glory come in this Holy Week.