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I know it sounds sort of sacrilegious, but whenever I read the Palm Sunday story, deep down there’s always a part of me that feels like I’m watching a bad horror movie. You know — one of those movies where the good guys are about to walk into a creepy old house that any sane person would stay away from. And as they approach the house, they hear ominous sounds and see very clear signs that this is NOT a good place to be!
But they go in anyway! And everybody watching is screaming, “What’s the matter with you! Don’t go in there! Don’t you see what’s about to happen?!”
And every year, we read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, accompanied by his disciples. But we know what’s about to happen, and it’s not good. Yet Jesus knows what’s about to happen also. And so do his disciples, at least if they were paying any attention to what Jesus had been telling them on the way to Jerusalem.
Yet Jesus goes in anyway, even though he knows what’s about to happen. He continues to hang out with his disciples, even though he knows one of them is about to betray him. And he stays in Jerusalem, even though he knows it means he’ll be killed.
Why does he do it? That’s a central question that sometimes we don’t think much about. Or if we do, we gloss over it with big theological words like “redemption” or “salvation”. But even if you stop to define what those words mean (which we often don’t!), God is pretty creative. And it seems clear that God could accomplish pretty much everything without Jesus going through death (in fact, even Jesus raises this possibility with God in his garden prayer.)
So why does Jesus go in? And why does Jesus have to die?
Those are huge questions that can’t be answered in one sermon. But historically, on days like this, people have sometimes tended to answer that question by assuming that:
- Jesus needed to die because he was a blood offering for sin … in the OT, the blood of animal was offered to take away sin, and now Jesus’ blood would be the ultimate blood sacrifice. And there are parts of scripture that suggest that this is at least part of the answer. The good part of this explanation is that it means that God takes sin and brokenness really seriously, and that he himself is willing to pay that price by taking on flesh and offering his own blood. But if this were the only answer, it can lead us to think that God is just pretty vindictive and needs to kill somebody to stop being angry. In fact, it can make Jesus’ death into a solution in search of a problem – that is, God is angry, and God needs to solve his anger issues by beating up on Jesus. And so by itself, this can’t be the whole answer…
- Jesus dies, because he made himself vulnerable to oppressive human systems, which in his humanity he was powerless to stop. And indeed, Jesus was (at least on Good Friday) crushed by the “system.” (Again, there are some parts of scripture that seem to suggest that this is at least part of the answer.) And inasmuch as Jesus shows solidarity with us, that’s also a good thing. But if this were the only answer, it wouldn’t be very good news. First of all, it wouldn’t be news. You and I can open our newsfeeds everyday and read about good people crushed by the system. And a savior who’s just vulnerable can’t save anybody. So by itself, this can’t be the whole answer either…
But there’s another strong theme in scripture that suggests another really important part of the answer to why Jesus goes into Jerusalem and why Jesus dies. Paul talks about it in today’s second reading, where he writes that “though Jesus was in the form of God he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.”
Jesus “emptied himself,” Paul says, in order to meet us in our emptiness. And that’s not just about Jerusalem. It’s about meeting us in our brokenness. It’s about meeting us in our loneliness. It’s about meeting us in our hunger and in our sickness. And finally, therefore, it also means meeting us in our death.
It’s one thing, Paul says, for God to stand aloof and promise us heaven from afar. It’s quite another to voluntarily empty himself and walk with us in all the forms of our emptiness.
And so for Paul, and for many others in scripture, the cross isn’t an isolated incident, but the logical conclusion of an incarnate God who never ever abandons walking with us, even in death.
I think it’s really important not to lose sight of that explanation when we consider what Jesus did on the last week of his earthly life, and why he was willing to go to Jerusalem and to the cross.
For this means that Jesus does this not to appease an angry God or to simply commiserate with us, but to show us the extent of God’s love and God’s commitment to us. And in emptying himself even to the point of death, Jesus not only shows us that our emptiness will not the be the end of us, but that we’ll never have to endure the emptiness alone.
Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death show us the extent of God’s love. Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death show us God’s commitment to us right here and right now. And Jesus’ Resurrection shows us that God is not content to simply endure emptiness with us, but to fill us again, even when absolutely everything seems lost.