When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
– John 19:30a
[T]he sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”
— Luke 23:45-47
Palm Sunday has always struck me as sort of an odd holiday. In many churches it is celebrated by the children, or even the entire congregation, marching around the church carrying palms and singing songs. But Palm Sunday is also a holiday that ends in darkness as we remember the plot to kill Jesus, and many churches remember this by covering the crosses in the church with black fabric at the end of the Palm Sunday service.
However we remember it, the events of Palm Sunday lead us directly to the cross. And the cross is the focus of our Lenten series on the Seven Last Words. But still… today is Palm Sunday and I don’t want to push that to the side. So in memory of the day, I’d like to begin by reading the story as Matthew tells it.
As we read, imagine yourself in the crowd, and picture in your mind Jesus, and the disciples, and a donkey, and a crowd gathering on top of the hill overlooking Jerusalem. The hill you’re standing on is the Mount of Olives, and there’s a path that winds down the hill, across the Kidron Valley, and up to the Temple Mount.
Here’s how Matthew describes the scene:
“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet [Zechariah], saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. (Matt 21:1-17)
If there was ever any doubt that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, Palm Sunday lays these doubts to rest. First, Jesus rides in on “the foal of a donkey” as predicted by the prophet Zechariah. Second, the word “Hosanna!” means “save!” – a prayer that is rightly prayed only to God. And third, the children call Jesus “Son of David” which is a name belonging only to the Messiah – and Jesus doesn’t correct them. In fact he encourages them.
No wonder the chief priests and scribes were ticked off! Jesus was either the worst blasphemer that ever lived, or he really was the Messiah. There are no other possibilities. Their reaction reminds me of CS Lewis’s words when he said:
“I am trying to prevent anyone saying… ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ […] A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. […] Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (Mere Christianity, edited)
The chief priests and scribes understood that. They knew if Jesus really was the Messiah, they were going to have to step down and let him step up, and they were not about to do that. By their actions they showed they would rather be ruled by Romans than by God.
And as a result, five days later, Jesus was hanging on the cross.
Which brings us to our message for today.
The first thing Jesus speaks in today’s readings is “it is finished” – tetelestai in the original language, just one word – which means ‘completed’ or ‘accomplished’. This is not spoken as a sigh of resignation. Matthew tells us Jesus spoke his last words “with a loud voice” – a shout of victory! It’s like the cry of a marathon runner crossing the finish line. It reminds me of Pastor Sue a few weeks ago running the marathon down in Disney World – tetelestai would have been an appropriate word for her at the finish line. “I did it!” Accomplished!
The second phrase Jesus speaks is “into your hands I commend my spirit”. Jesus gives up his life and all that he is, into the Father’s hands, with certainty and with confidence.
Luke tells us at the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain of the temple was torn in two. This was a curtain that divided the sanctuary, where the people were, from the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was. The only person who could enter the Holy of Holies was the high priest, once a year. For anyone else it would have meant death. But now Jesus has entered into the Holy of Holies in heaven and opened the door for us, opened the curtain for us. There is now no more division between God and God’s people… no more need of priests to go between the people and God. The power of Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf opens to us the Holy of Holies, the throne room of God.
How is it that Jesus’ death makes this possible? Theologians have been talking about that for a couple thousand years. One could say Jesus atoned for our sins; or Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins; or Jesus demonstrates of God’s love for us; or his death is a reversal of the events in the garden of Eden. We can call Jesus Redeemer, Saviour, High Priest, Passover Lamb, Liberator, King… all of the above! The point is, where we were broken, God has healed. Where we have sinned, God has forgiven. Jesus’ death is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”. It is the beginning of the final victory.
How then do we live in light of this victory?
Three simple things.
First, we believe. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God, as he said.
Second, as we live our lives, we take Jesus’ life as our example and do our best to follow in his footsteps. We read about his life, the things Jesus said and did, how he loved and gave of himself to others, and we make it our life’s goal, in prayer and in action, to become more like Jesus.
And third, when we are faced with death, we take Jesus’ example and place our loved ones and ourselves in God’s hands, using Jesus’ words, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” – with faith and with confidence.
Three simple things… that will take a lifetime to master. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 3/20/16