LIFE CAN CHANGE
The most important week in the Christian year is here. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of what has become known as the Passion of Christ. It’s the last week that Jesus walked the earth in mortal form. On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem. The people thronged the streets to see him as he passed by riding on a donkey with the disciples by his side. He was their great prophet, inspired teacher, successful healer, undisputed hero of the day. The future looked glorious for Jesus and his followers!
But five short days later, Jesus hung on the cross of Calvary, his body whipped, beaten and bleeding, a crown of thorns piercing his head, a hideous sight, an agonizing and barbaric death. The apex of creative Roman cruelty.
What took place between the celebration of Palm Sunday and the horrors of the cross is well known. Jesus spent the week teaching the crowds in Jerusalem. He also spent a fair bit of time antagonizing the religious leaders of the day with his cutting criticism of their hypocrisy and sloth when it came to the spiritual leadership of the people. While there were certainly some good leaders, as a whole they failed miserably at the purpose for which God placed them on this earth and the very last thing that a hypocrite wants is to have their hypocrisy publicly named. And so they designed a plan to get rid of Jesus.
That plan was fulfilled as the weekend approached. On Thursday evening, Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples where he broke the bread and poured the cup. That’s where communion started. Then, after supper, he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane by Roman soldiers at the request of the Jewish leadership. Found guilty of trumped up charges, he was sentenced to die on the cross, which he did. It was a hideous death, excruciatingly painful. The only positive is that Jesus was beaten so badly before being nailed to the cross that he died quickly. Some victims were known to hang for days on the cross. Jesus lasted only a few hours before he gave up his Spirit.
But the point is that Jesus’ life went from the celebration of Palm Sunday with all the hosannas and hallelujahs to the sadness and despair of the cross. It makes us think and it reminds us that life can turn sharply and with no warning. Sunny days can quickly turn to rain or snow or blizzards or tornadoes that can wreck havoc on our lives and even threaten them, just like what happened to Jesus. And yet we are called, even in the midst of hardships to trust in God. Which brings to an important question. How do we trust God in the tough times? What does the Bible say about that?
To answer that question, I want to turn to the Old Testament, to the book of Isaiah. That’s because, if you recall, the New Testament was not written when Jesus died on the cross. The only scriptures that were available were in the Old Testament and it is from there that Jesus would have gained the strength and inspiration that he needed to walk from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. Let’s begin with Isaiah 50:4-5a which says:
The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.
The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears;
Note that the very first thing that Isaiah talks about is what God has done for him. Isaiah writes that God has instructed him. God has made him familiar with the words of scripture so that when tough times come, Isaiah can refer back to them for strength. What a great idea that is. We believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. As such it is filled with the the wisdom and guidance that we need to face tough times.
And yet one of my greatest concerns with many Christians is that they really don’t know much about what the Bible says. They may know the basic stores of Christmas and Easter. They may be able to, with decent accuracy, quote seven or eight of the ten commandments. They may know some of Jesus’ parables such as The Good Samaritan, The Sower of the Seeds and The Pearl of Great Price. They may even know the story of the feeding of the 5,000. But too many people really are deficient in the general knowledge of the Bible beyond that.
There are, of course, ways of overcoming that. You will learn something about the Bible during worship. We try to preach biblical sermons around here. But there are other things that can be done. People can try reading the Bible. It’s amazing how few Christians have actually done that. You know that you can read through the entire book in a year if you read five chapters a day. On most days that would take less than ten minutes. And I would be quite okay if skipped some books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy because they’re mostly just long lists of laws and rituals. I’m not saying that they’re not important but if you aren’t familiar with them, they can make you go cross-eyed.
The other thing you can do, of course, and this is where you will learn the most, is to attend a Bible study where you actually open up the Bible and read what’s there. And in a good study group, those who are more familiar with the Bible teach those who are less familiar so we all win.
When the tough times come, it is so much easier to find strength when you know what the scriptures say to us about getting through those tough times; or as Isaiah writes, “to know the word that sustains the weary.”
Isaiah also writes: “He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears.” Not only does God provide guidance through the Bible, he also opens our ears to understand how it applies to our lives. It’s one thing to read the Bible. It’s another thing to actually understand it.
I realize that it’s not the easiest book in the world to read. That’s because it was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit thousands of years ago by people who had a very different different idea of the world and even how to define truth.
One of the most common mistakes that Christians make is to read the Bible as if it was written by 21st century North Americans to 21st century North Americans. It wasn’t and before we can understand what it means to us, we first have to understand what it meant back when it was written. As I often say in Bible study and even in my preaching, context is important. And that also is where a good Bible study comes in handy. It helps to open our hearts to the timeless truth of the Bible and to apply it in our day to our lives.
Isaiah tells us that God acts to help us through the tough times. He also tells us that if we want to get through the tough times, we have an amazing opportunity to respond to God’s grace. Listen to what it says in Isaiah 50:5b-6 (NIV):
I have not been rebellious,
I have not turned away.
I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.
Let’s look at this. Isaiah starts of by saying that he has not been rebellious and he has not turned away. That’s good. If you want to get through the tough times, you need to follow God’s way. That makes sense. If you want God to help you through the tough times, then you need to be willing to do your part.
Then Isaiah goes on to talk about some examples of what it means to not turn away from God. He offers his back to those who beat him. He offers his cheeks to those who want to pull out his beard. Ouch! People did that back then? I guess then did. He does not hide his face when people mock him or spit at him.
What does this mean, that we are supposed to just sit there and take the abuse the people want to throw at us? No, it doesn’t mean that. Isaiah means this figuratively. What he’s getting at is that life will not always be a bowl of cherries. Tough times will come. It may not include being beaten or having your beard pulled out or being spit at because those are metaphors. But it does mean that tough times will come our way and that turning to God will help us to face those tough times with courage and dignity.
Note what this does not say. It does not say that God will rescue us from the hardships of life. In fact, it says the exact opposite. It says that we are expect them. They will come. Someday, somehow, the tough times will come and we need to be ready for them when they do. And the very best way to be ready for them is face them with God on our side. There is no better way.
THE POWER OF FAITH
Isaiah is absolutely sure that God is with him, that God will help him, that no matter what hardships life can throw at him, he will never be alone but will be held and comforted by the strength and the power of God. We certainly see it in the last few verses that we read from Isaiah 50:7-9a (NIV):
Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me?
Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser?
Let him confront me!
It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.
Who will condemn me?
He sets his face like flint – hard and resolute, ready for whatever happens. He will not be put to shame. Anyone who wants to bring charges against him is welcome to try. Fill your boots! Anyone who wants to make accusations against him can step forward. He is ready for any confrontation that life can throw at him.
This is the power of faith. It is a power that Isaiah would need as he journeyed through life. He would need this faith especially in his final hours for the manner of his death was somewhat gruesome. It seems that he rather annoyed King Manasseh of Judah with his prophecies which were challenging to the king to say the least. Note that prophets are called to tell the truth and the truth is not always popular especially with those in positions of power. And so King Manasseh had Isaiah arrested. Then the King condemned him to die. It says in an ancient Jewish text called the Martyrdom of Isaiah that he was stuffed into a log and that the log was then sawn in two with a wood saw with Isaiah inside. This is how his final minutes are described in chapter 6 verse 9 of that text: “And while Isaiah was sawed in halves he did not cry out nor weep, but his mouth spoke with the Holy Spirit until he was sawed in two.” He faced his accusers with a face like flint. He was not put to shame. And until the end, he spoke with God because he knew that he was not alone.
The last sentence of today’s passage says it all. Again, Isaiah 50:9a (NIV) says, “It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who will condemn me?” The question is a rhetorical one because the answer is clear. No one can condemn those who put their trust in God.
There are, of course, those who will say, “What do you mean by that? Of course he was condemned. Did you just say that he was sawed in two?” I did say that but I will also say that he was not condemned because ultimately God wins. And ultimately the troubles and the sorrows of this world will pass away. That is why we can read these words in Romans 8:1 (NIV): “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because they do not walk in the flesh but rather they walk in the Spirit.
This we know, that the hardships of this world will someday cease. That’s not to say that we should hurry to our deaths and that what happens here on earth is not important. What we do and how we live on earth is of vital importance if we want to be faithful to God’s call on our lives. But it is also true that while the things of this world – the flesh – are temporary, the things of the Spirit are eternal and as Christians we should never lose sight of that reality. And that too helps us to trust God in the tough times, knowing that our eternal destiny is secured through faith in Jesus Christ.
Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with the knowledge that by week’s end he would be
nailed to a cross but still he trusted God because he had the word of God on his
tongue, he responded to God’s with faithfulness and in the faith found the
power to walk in God’s way regardless of what anyone might do to challenge him
or get in his way. And because of that, God was with him through this last
terrible week of his life. Jesus did what God called him to do and because of
that, our sins are forgiven and we can spend eternity with him.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of Grace and Glory, we come to you on this Palm Sunday with heart-felt thanks and anticipation. On this day, we remember how Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, greeted like a visiting king by people who rejoiced at his coming.
As we celebrate Palm Sunday, we remember, also, that in a few short days, he will be crucified on the Cross of Calvary. He, whose entrance was celebrated, will die in silence. We come to this critical time in our faith and realize that he died for us. He died in our place. YOU died in our place to pay the price of our sinfulness. How can we ever thank you enough? Give us the courage to look past Good Friday to the hope that is beyond.
We thank you for signs of spring. For robins and geese and other birds returning from their winter homes. For tulips pushing their heads above the cold earth. For melting snow and warmer days. Life is renewed with fresh hope and vision.
We pray for the youth who are taking part in the March for Our Lives rallies in Washington this weekend. Thank you for their courage and inspiration. Let them know that our thoughts and our prayers are with them but even more that their cause is our cause no matter our age or what country we are from.
We remember the sick, at home or in hospital, who need your healing touch in their lives. Enable all of us, O God, to be open you your Healing Spirit even in the deepest recesses of our hearts.
God, you are able to work for our good in any situation in life. Help us to
trust you so completely that we will not fear any circumstance, but will
confidently trust in you to turn every situation into good. Regardless of what
we may feel at times, we need your help in setting our heart to reject fear and
to trust and rely upon you alone, for your word and promises will never fail. Our
prayers are lifted to you in the name of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
March 25, 2018 / Palm / Passion Sunday
Mark 11:1-11; Isa. 50:4-9a; Ps. 118:1-2, 19-29; Ps. 31:9-16; Mark 14:1-15:47; Phil. 2:1-11
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: The time has come to sing Hosanna!
ALL: God’s love endures forever!
ONE: The gates of the Kingdom are opened by faith!
ALL: God’s love endures forever!
ONE: Let us enter into God’s presence for the Day of the Lord is near!
ALL: God’s love endures forever!
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Your Creation dawns, O God, with the promise of new life and new hope. Spring is beginning to take hold in the frozen north. The snow is almost gone. The days are getting longer. The early flowers are ready to sprout their heads above the wet ground. We rejoice that you are with us in every season of life. You laugh with us in our celebrations and hold us in our sorrows. Come to us in our worship and remind us of your ever present Spirit who abides with us always. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
We come to you, God of Mercy, on this day of celebration. We rejoice with the crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Yet, in the celebration, we are tempted to lose sight of our own human condition. The same man whom we welcome today will be dead on a cross by the end of the week. Forgive us, God, when we fail to see the injustices of this world. Forgive us that an innocent man had to die. Remind us that, by his death, we are forgiven and renewed. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
God loves us. God forgives us. God invites us to the new life that is ours through faith in Jesus Christ. When we confess our sins, the gates of heaven are opened and we are welcomed to enter with joy and thanksgiving.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
We give back to you, O Lord, what you first gave to us. We offer to you that which you first offered. Accept us and our gifts in the same spirit in which we give them to you. Amen.
The Spirit of God is in our midst. The word of
God is on our hearts. The mission of Christ is at our finger tips. It is ours
to share. It is ours to give.