Over the season of Lent, the church I serve has been affirming the basic beliefs we share in common with all Christians as well as a few distinctive things that make us United Methodists. This Sunday we reaffirmed that we believe in salvation for sinners.
It’s no coincidence that this affirmation comes on Palm/Passion Sunday. We step back in time through the power of scripture to witness Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding humbly on a young donkey, as the crowds spread their cloaks and branches on his path, greeting him with glad shouts of “Hosanna!” This is the same crowd that will turn, with the guidance of their religious leaders, into the mob that lets the brutal criminal, Barrabas, go free while demanding that Jesus be crucified.
It’s always a difficult thing to embody this turn in one short worship service. The tradition of the church has given us a whole week to walk the final days to the cross together, which is called Holy Week. And we’ll have a couple of services to remember particular moments in Jesus’ last days, but we also recognize that life is evermore complex, busy, and fractured. While the medieval church may have had every confidence in attendance during Holy Week, the same just isn't true today.
So on Sunday, we went from greeting Jesus with triumphant shouts one moment, to lamenting our own betrayal of the Son of God in the next. It’s right for us to do this because to leap from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday is to miss the drama of salvation that occurs during Holy Week. It’s like climbing from one beautiful mountaintop view to an even higher one, without experiencing the depth and darkness of the valley between them.
God, in the person and work of Jesus Christ, addressed the problem of sin that is real and deep. In some liturgies, or words of worship, Jesus is called the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Growing up in a good-size city, I never had much opportunity to see lambs. But in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed something as I drive from my home to our church along McCart Street. There are sheep just east of the railroad tracks and it appears that many of the ewes have just had their lambs.
My son and I look forward to seeing them each day on our commute. They bounce on springy legs, finding joy in this new life. They explore the world, finding home and comfort near their mothers. But most of all, they strike me as so small, so fragile, so blameless and gentle. And this image, this vulnerable metaphor, is what our God – the creator of all life and savior of creation – choose to take on as God’s own way of being in Jesus.
I know God could have accomplished it another way. God could have behaved more like Samantha on Bewitched, twitching God’s nose and setting everything right again. But God didn't choose that way. God chose to continue to respect our free will, to come to walk alongside of us, to teach us and love us and ultimately die for us to show us that not even death can overcome God. If everything had been twitched into right-ness, I don’t know that we would have even noticed. Even as it is, many of us struggle to understand and appreciate just what God did for us. At least, I know I do.
I don’t look forward to Holy Week, but I know it’s good for me. Standing with the crowds, witnessing the sacrifice of my Savior, all with the knowledge of his resurrection in mind, makes me pause in awe and wonder.
Beyond Palm/Passion Sunday, we’ll remember the maundatum novum, or new commandment, at our Maundy Thursday service, reading the account of how Jesus, teacher and Lord, stooped so low as to wash his disciples’ feet. And on Good Friday at our service of darkness, we’ll watch as the light of the world grows dim as God incarnate consents to suffer and die.
We don’t have to pretend we don’t know the good news of the resurrection, but the light of Easter morning is so much brighter when we have waited in the darkness. I pray you find your way to the cross this week.