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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Palm Sunday – Year A

In a few moments we’re going to hear once again the heartrending story—this time from Matthew: the parade of palms has ended; the shouts of Hosanna have faded; the crowds have dispersed; the Passover is approaching; Jesus and his friends have had that final meal; Judas has slipped away to betray him. He leads the soldiers to Gethsemane where they seize him and arrest him. The disciples flee in fear; the Jewish Council convicts him. And now Jesus stands before Pilate.
Pilate will release a notorious criminal and set him free; he will condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion—crucifixion: one of the most diabolical means of execution ever devised. Death comes not from nails through the flesh, not from the loss of blood, not from the excruciating thirst and dehydration. Death comes by asphyxiation, when you are too exhausted to remain upright any longer, and your head falls forward, and your airway is cut off, and you die. Pilate will condemn Jesus to this kind of death. The soldiers will strip off his robes, put a crown of thorns on his head, genuflect before him in mock adulation, nail him to an enormous wooden cross, and lift it high alongside the road where passers-by will taunt him and shout, “Save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
Finally, Jesus will cry out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His head will drop upon his chest, and he will breathe his last.
Now, when you and I say we believe Christ Jesus is God Incarnate, what we are saying is that in him we believe we see the very nature and character of God. Do we really believe that about this beaten, forsaken, humiliated, dying individual, crying out from the cross? The pain, the suffering, the loneliness, the desperation—can this be happening to God? Part of me says, No—this can’t be! Isn’t God all-powerful? God is my rock, my fortress, the very ground I stand on! But the hurting part of me, the part of me that lives in the real world, is moved by those words of Paul to his friends in Philippi in today’s Epistle. They were written by a man who himself knew what it meant to suffer: “Christ Jesus…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
Paul sees in Christ a suffering God, a crucified God! And it is so very important for you and me to understand God this way. If you’re ever tempted to think that God doesn’t care about your pain, your loss, your discouragement, your loneliness, don’t believe that for a minute! God knows; God understands; God hurts with you and for you. If you’ve ever felt forsaken by God because you prayed and prayed, and your loved one died anyway, or you didn’t get what you prayed for, then rest assured that the God who in Christ shouted out in desperation from the cross—and died and was raised—holds you in God’s own tender loving care.
Recently I read a book by Philip Simmons entitled Learning to Fall. Philip Simmons was a mid-western college professor who in the prime of his life and career received the death sentence of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” Writing from his wheelchair in rural New Hampshire where he and his wife and young children settled, he rejoices in the rugged beauty of mountains and forests, even as he comes to terms with his wasting body. In one chapter, he pictures the Palm Sunday scene: “And here comes Jesus, astride his donkey, slogging through mud, with a crowd of followers around him….” He notes the calm clarity and utter conviction with which Jesus makes his way through the days following and on to his death. “Now, this is a man I can love,” writes the dying Simmons.
And this is the man I love, and the God I love—with all my heart. This is the ground I stand upon, and sometimes fall upon, in this hurting world—because, through this man’s suffering and death, freely accepted and freely offered, I feel myself held in the embrace of a love which no earthly circumstance can take away. May you find this love too, dear friends, this Palm Sunday.

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