Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. On this day we follow the ancient custom of the church by reading aloud the Passion of our Lord Jesus according to St. Matthew. Consider for a moment the scene: Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate accused of a capital crime. Who is Pilate? He is the Roman governor, appointed by Caesar. He wields the authority of the mightiest Empire the world had ever seen. But who is the man on trial for his life? He is the Son of God in human flesh. He is the King above all kings, with legions of angels at his command. The man who awaits Pilate’s sentence is the Judge of all, who will weigh the souls of men on the Final Day. The man who submits to Pilate’s word is the almighty God who created the universe with his Word.
Consider the irony: Here is God himself, charged with teaching dangerous heresy. The King of the universe has been arrested by his subjects. The Creator stands accused by his own creation. Sinners, who rightly deserve their punishment of death, conspire to execute the only sinless man. What is most astonishing about this sham trial, is not that men would dare to execute their own God. It is that Jesus, the all-powerful Judge and King and Creator meekly submits to the charade and allows himself to be crucified.
St. Paul writes of this very thing: Our Lord Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil 2:5). If you or I claimed to be equal to God, it would be blasphemy. We would be trying to grasp something far, far above our station. But not so for Jesus. He didn’t need to grasp for equality, because he already had it. He is and always has been true God. But he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Phil 2:7). The Psalmist writes that by becoming man, Jesus was made to be a little lower than the angels (Ps 8:5). We confess in the Athanasian Creed that Jesus is “equal to the Father with respect to His divinity, less than the Father with respect to His humanity.”
Jesus was and is equal to God the Father, yet he made himself nothing and joined our stricken human race. This, by the way, is why we bow during the words of the Creed: “and was made man.” We bow in profound humility that our Lord has honored us in this way. He did not become a great and mighty angel or some other celestial being. He became a man. And what’s more, having become man, he humbled himself by veiling the power and majesty that were always his and allowing himself to be led to the slaughter. Incidentally, this is why we veil the crucifix during the final weeks of Lent.
Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8). Having the form of God means that Jesus is to be worshipped, praised, and obeyed. Everyone must bow down before him. And they will on the Last Day. But here, Jesus humbles himself. He assumes the form of a slave. He submits to the unjust and corrupt power of sinful men. Watch God’s love for sinners in action as he comes to rescue us from our enemies. He joins our flesh and blood and humbles himself all the way to death on the cross. His own people mock him and he doesn’t respond in kind. They insult him and he keeps quiet. They torment him. He endures it. He bears the lies of liars without complaint. He obeys. He suffers. He dies.
What a thing to do! It’s amazing because it’s exactly the opposite of how people naturally behave. We assume a glory that is not ours. We set ourselves above others. We want to be in charge. We want to be recognized. We want status and we want others to know we have it. We are always grasping for what doesn’t really belong to us.
But what does our Lord do? He sets aside the glory that is truly his by right. He becomes the most humble and dutiful man that ever lived. Isn’t it amazing how Jesus could be so highly praised on Palm Sunday and so savagely denounced on Good Friday? Where did the crowds of adoring followers go? Where did his own disciples go? They all ran and hid. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him. And what did Jesus do to grasp onto the recognition given him on Palm Sunday? Not a thing. He let it go.
Instead of taking what belonged to him, Jesus took what belonged to us—every slight, every unkind work, every selfish thought. He bore every wicked deed, every time someone took the last ten rolls of paper towels or stood too closely in the checkout line. And not just the sins that other have committed against us, though we are best at remembering those. He took the sins by which we have wronged others, our desire to grasp for recognition, our spiteful words, the times we have failed to act in love. Jesus took the whole monstrous burden of human sin. He suffered every illness, he bore our diseases, he died our death. Why? In order to give us what belonged to him: perfect righteousness, perfect love, and life eternal.
In the last few weeks, some Christians have been asking if we should delay Holy Week and Easter until the coronavirus plague is over. They mean well, but they are in danger of missing a central part of the message of Holy Week. Jesus does not wait until things are going well to come to us. Christianity is not a religion where we must first clean up our act in order to become worthy of God’s attention and favor. It’s the other way around. While we were God’s enemies, he descended to us, in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of our plague, in the midst of our sin. If anything, celebrating Holy Week during an epidemic gives us a picture of how Jesus loved us. In truth, we have always lived amidst an epidemic of sin and death, but in recent days this has been highlighted. Since the fall our world has been filled with corruption and decay. Every life is but a slow, relentless march to the grave, even at the best of times. But when the night was darkest, then our Lord entered in. He stepped into our dying world, breathed our poisoned air, walked and ate with sinners, and finally died a shameful death between two common criminals.
This is what we celebrate during Holy Week—the First Coming of our Lord in meekness and humility. He came as our slave, as the Suffering Servant, and he bore all in your place. There is no isolation, no sorrow, no shame that our Lord has not known. There is no sin that he has not carried. All this he did, not grudgingly, but for the joy that was set before him, the joy of ransoming you and every believer from the power of sin and death, the joy of redeeming and restoring his once perfect Creation.
It grieves us to celebrate Holy Week apart, in exile, so to speak. Nothing about the church this morning looks glorious. Yet she is the radiant bride of Christ. In a similar way, we don’t see the glory of Christ yet. He is exalted above all in heaven and on earth. His name is above every other name. But in we don’t see this now. In this life we must be content to walk by faith and not by sight. We see only his humiliation and suffering. But the day of glory is fast approaching. Even as the joyful day will come when we are reunited under one roof in worship, so the Final Day will dawn at last, the day of untold rejoicing when we are reunited with all the departed saints. And then the time of humility and meekness will be over forever. The need for faith will be past. For then we shall see our Lord, radiant in all power and glory, and every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.