April 5, 2020 Palm Sunday

 “The Love of Christ”


 Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 27:15-37


As we continue to live in unprecedented times such as these, in self-isolation, in worry over an increasing global pandemic’s death toll, this is an appropriate time to consider the problem of human suffering. This is one of the most profound questions that confront the human condition, especially in today’s world.


Beginning with today’s passage in Isaiah, we hear of the prophet trying to make sense of the human condition of suffering, in the midst of a painful exile in Babylon. This text is one of four suffering servant songs found in Isaiah. The other passages are 42:1-4; 49:1-6; and 52:13-53:12. This nameless servant, whom Biblical scholars have identified as possibly second Isaiah himself, (my choice in this case) or collective Israel, addresses suffering through oracles of hope and redemption.


This passage and the other suffering servant songs are also an echo, an expectation of Messiah. This Messiah and the suffering people’s hope for a true son of God would not arrive for nearly 600 years in the future. The suffering servant in Isaiah speaks to the cost of following God, the cost of discipleship, where living in faith comes with a price.


We read that Second Isaiah has the tongue of a teacher, so that he may sustain the weary with a word. Then we read that he was obedient to God’s call, and did not turn his back from those who struck him, and who did not turn his face from pain, insult and spitting. In this midst of such suffering and rejection, the prophet sets his face like flint, knows he will not be put to shame and will be vindicated. God is Isaiah’s hope and helps in times of great rejection and suffering.


It is easy to see the connection between that suffering servant so well described in Isaiah and in Jesus Christ as we begin Holy Week. His suffering and rejection to come, as he is poised upon the mount of Olives, getting ready to come into the city of Jerusalem will end up with his vindication from God through a stone rolled away and an empty grave.


This is such a strange Palm Sunday. There is much to grieve and lament over- not being able to worship together in person, sing our hymns, shout “Hosanna!” and wave the palm branches. I had a moment of grief this past Friday when the box of palm branches we ordered a couple of months ago arrived at my doorstep. I wondered aloud, “Whatever am I going to do with these now?” A few of them got picked up on my porch after I offered them to you. (If you are home with one now, go ahead and wave it! ) You’ll also see a few of them scattered about as decorations in the sanctuary, but it just isn’t the same.


And yet, as we grieve what is lost, Jesus will still enter- He will enter into a world of suffering and social distancing, into a world of COVID-19, of death and mourning. Jesus still comes. He will not stop on the outskirts of the city of Ashland nor the fringes of our lives. He comes toward us, riding humbly on a donkey, knowing our doubts, our denials, and our failures, accepting us as we are and accepting whatever we have to offer- palm branch waving or cloak laid down upon the road, praise or wonder… C-95 mask or hand sanitizer, grief or fear, knowing the suffering and death that lay ahead for him.


Just as Jesus set his face like flint and came into Jerusalem, was rejected by the crowds for Barabbas, was mocked by the governor’s soldiers, had a crown of thorns placed upon his head and was beaten, and was crucified at the place of the skull, Golgotha, he comes once again into our lives here and now.


Theologian Jill Duffield, in looking at our current suffering situation in the world on Palm Sunday writes, “All this upheaval, cities stirred up with anxiety and illness, countries heaving with disasters natural and unnatural, human beings reeling from forces well outside of their control, and still, Jesus will not be thwarted. He enters into the fray, vulnerable, humble, so close he can see our faces, hear our petitions, feel our swirling emotions. Nothing can stop Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Nothing can stop the coming of the Son of God. Nothing can prevent Jesus from being present in the midst of all that shakes us and stirs us and causes us to tremble.”


There is much suffering in today’s world and much that causes us to tremble.  However, even in the midst of this suffering, there is hope. You are not alone. Jesus is with you, and, there is great sacrificial love which speaks to this unprecedented time, helping us when we tremble.


This past Thursday evening, our Daughter Abigail put up a dry erase board under our calendar in the kitchen. She wanted us to be able to write notes and reminders to one another so that we could keep track of each other. Apparently, later that night, after I went to bed, she wrote a really important reminder, saying, “Just a reminder, I love you guys a lot. Sometimes that’s just what you need to hear.”  It was a wonderful message, and indeed something I needed to hear in such times.


We need those kinds of reminders, especially in the times in which we are living, especially in these times of suffering, times that cause us to tremble. Reminders of love bring us hope and make us feel grounded. I have a few Talismans that remind me of love that I wear. There’s the beautiful silver Celtic braid bracelet my wife got me for our 20th wedding anniversary. On the inside is engraved, “My love is mine, and I am his”  in Gaelic from the Song of Songs in the Bible. I wear it daily, and it reminds me, even when we are struggling through an apocalyptic world, that my wife loves me, and that I love her, and that we are grounded in love together.


I also decided to wear another talisman a couple of weeks ago. I decided to regularly wear the Celtic Cross which I normally just wear on Sunday mornings at church. As we are in unprecedented times, I felt a need to wear it daily. This cross reminds me of a few things- of my mother, her faith and my love for her; of my Celtic heritage; and most importantly of all, of the great love Jesus Christ has for me. I grab it by my hand once in a while, especially when the news is so dire and I find myself trembling, for it reminds me that Christ’s suffering on the cross has given me grace, freedom from sin and forgiveness. In addition, this empty cross reminds me that his death and resurrection has opened up the gates of heaven for us all. What wondrous love is this, oh my soul? And, so like the dry erase board, and my silver bracelet, the cross around my neck reminds me of Christ, surrounds me in his love and ground me in times such as these.


So, this week, if you have a cross necklace, I encourage you to wear it also, so that during this time of suffering you too might be reminded of, surrounded by and grounded in this wondrous love. Greater love hath no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13) Sometimes, that’s just what you need to hear. Amen.

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