Thursday, April 21, 2011

Palm Sunday

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is Palm Sunday, also known as the Sunday of the Triumphal Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. On this day, Jesus Christ rode into the city to receive the accolades of a vast multitude of people who greeted Him as the long-promised Messiah of Israel. The prophet Zechariah had foreseen this event centuries earlier, writing: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, [even] a colt, the foal of a donkey.” [Zech. 9:9] Everything was unfolding exactly as the prophet had foretold, and the people seemed ecstatic to receive the King of Israel into their midst, giving every reason to think that Christ’s hour of glory in the midst of His people had finally come.

But as we know, this crowd’s love for their King was not to last. A mere five days later, many of these same people would be gathered outside the Praetorium on a bitterly cold evening shouting “Crucify Him!” and threatening a riot if Pontius Pilate did not hand Jesus over to the executioners. How is it that the people went from an ecstatic adoration to a murderous rage in less than a week? I guess you could say that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah they were expecting.

To give a bit of background, all these people had come to Jerusalem, not to see Jesus, but to celebrate the feast of Passover. According to the historian Josephus, it was not uncommon for the population of the city to swell from its normal 12,000 or so to nearly three million each year, as Jews from all over the world came to Jerusalem for this feast. For many of those people it was likely that Passover had become less of a religious holiday and more of a national one, something like our own 4th of July celebration. It was a time for Jews living abroad to come home and celebrate their ancient deliverance from Egypt, and to speak of the coming Messiah who most believed would appear very soon to break the yoke of the Roman Empire which ruled over them at that time. There was much Messianic fervor in the air as the people longed, not for someone who would save them from their sins, but for one who would rise up as a great political hero to mount a rebellion against their oppressors and lead Jewish armies to victory over the Romans and all the nations. When the visiting crowd heard that this Jesus had raised a man named Lazarus from the dead, it thought “Surely such a powerful miracle-worker must be the one sent by God to deliver us!” Thus they hastily cut down palm leaves and rushed out to greet Him as a the conquering king they hoped He would become.

Had He wanted to, Jesus could have easily become this king the Jews so wanted. The Romans and all nations would have fallen helplessly before His divine power and Christ could have forced His rule into every corner of the earth from His throne in Solomon’s Temple, if that had been His desire. However, Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom relying on force and might, but a heavenly kingdom built upon peace and man’s voluntary restoration to God. His intent was not to be the warrior-king, waving a sword and riding boldly into battle. Instead, He would become the Suffering Servant, raising His cross and marching meekly up to Golgotha to meet His destiny. This was clearly not the Messiah the Jews were expecting. Furthermore, when Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested and humiliated by the despised Romans, it became abundantly clear to them that this was not the hero who had come to restore the national pride of Israel. If anything, He had become a national embarrassment to them. As the soldiers mocked Him and rudely exclaimed, “Hail, King of the Jews!” the Jews themselves felt insulted and humiliated and sought to distance themselves from Jesus, saying: “We have no king but Caesar!” Because of their pride and ignorance of God’s plan, the Jewish people found themselves rejecting their Messiah as an impostor and hardening their hearts against Him. Because of this, they cast aside the Son of God who had come to save them from the curse of sin.

I wanted us to reflect on these things today not to disparage the ancient Jews, but as always, to aid us in our own repentance and the pursuit of our salvation. The first thing we should note is just how quickly human disposition toward God can change. Isn’t that true? As long as life is humming along well according to our plans, we are happy to praise God and live our little Christian lives. But when unpleasant change comes and we are faced with disappointments, trials, or challenges, we can often find ourselves doubting the goodness of God and His mercy toward us. Perhaps we don’t start screaming for His crucifixion, but we may begin to distance ourselves from God in our hearts, and blame or question Him or otherwise hold Him responsible for making things happen that we don’t like. Like the ancient Jews, our problem here may also be that we too quickly forget the basic spiritual undercurrent to this life and pin our happiness entirely on temporal, passing things that by nature cannot endure.

How quickly we forget that we are a fallen and broken people living in a fallen and broken world. God allows us to live under these circumstance with all the struggles, temptations, pains, and sorrows inherent to it, in order that we might not mistake this life for paradise and be content with it. From God’s point of view, this brief life is given as a time for us to prepare our souls and make ourselves ready for the true and everlasting life to be revealed. His whole focus is therefore on that life to come. Our whole focus on the other hand is often limited to this life alone, and this is why we are tormented when our hopes and dreams don’t come true, and the paradise we seek to make for ourselves here and now never comes to fruition. We may spend many years trying to find happiness here only to find it all taken away in a moment.

At such times it is easier to blame God than to correct our own thoughts and reevaluate our whole perspective. It would be far better to ask ourselves what were we thinking in the first place. Did we forget that our flesh is growing weaker day-by-day? Did we imagine that if we had enough money, health, love, or good times that we would live forever in that state and never die? Have we found despair because our biggest dreams in life were never about being pure in heart and knowing God, but about having the ideal family, the nice home, and a financially-secure retirement? If we are driven throughout life by the wrong desires, can we not see that God’s gentle correction--even if unpleasant now--is for our eternal benefit?

When sorrows come, as they absolutely must to a fallen people living in a fallen world, can we see that these are given as a chance for us to return to God and place our hope in Him alone? Also, don’t we understand that the degree of bliss we will enjoy in heaven is directly proportional to the degree of suffering we endure now with faith? Jesus taught--and the lives of all the saints and martyrs confirm--that we should rejoice when sorrows befall us now, for great is our reward in heaven. Suffering is not a punishment, but a gift of life from the God of life. If we seek only to enjoy unspotted happiness here, we shall not enjoy a life of blessedness there, and that is an unchangable fact.

The Jews living under Roman oppression sought only one thing, freedom from that oppression to live as they pleased. When Christ did not seem to provide them that, they turned against Him. We are living under the oppression of sin and death and all the sufferings these bring to us and we likewise want them all to go away. If they do not, perhaps we fall into the error of the Jews and reject Jesus ourselves. God could make our sorrows go away, just as Jesus could have been the earthly king that the Jews wanted. But this would not bring salvation. How much better it is for us to accept our struggles, our weakness and pain, and bring the Suffering Servant Jesus Christ that much more into our hearts and lives. In this way we will find peace no matter what befalls us, and the joy of Pascha and our own personal resurrection with Christ will be that much greater in all of us.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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