I had the great privilege and honor this past weekend of joining my cousin, Andrew, and his congregation for their Palm Sunday services. It was beautiful to worship with them, and Andrew’s sermon was so stunning that I wanted to share it with you all. I hope it can draw your focus to the reality and beauty of what Jesus did during Holy Week, and what his resurrection on Easter does for us.
Rev. Andrew J. Abraham
(Based on the Lord’s Passion from the Holy Gospel of Matthew)
Most of us here have been Christian for many years, and so we are not unfamiliar with the account of all that our Lord went through on the first Good Friday. Of course, we could never probe the mystery of His passion enough. There are many layers and subplots that add immensely to the story of that day, including betrayal and abandonment, sudden outbreaks of chaos, the lopping off of an ear, suicide, political assassination and fierce clashes of Roman and Jewish cultures. In the midst of all the fray, even Pontius Pilate’s wife, of all people, had a dream that terrorized her enough to speak of it to her stressed-out husband: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man!” (27:19).
Near to Crossville Christian School where my sons attend, there is a Baptist church that presently has this on their outdoor sign: “The devil has a plot, but God has a plan.” The day of Jesus’ death, I guess, is where the two come crashing together. It was truly a perfect storm of high drama, sin, evil plotting, intrigue, natural phenomena, violence and a spiraling into passionate intensity representing all that is wrong and unsettled about this troubled and unstable world. But beneath it all, something holy was beginning to rumble- something new.
But let’s be clear, no one who was there would have called any part of this day “good.” It certainly was not good. It was a nasty stream of horrors once foreseen by the Prophet Isaiah: “He shall be high and lifted up… His appearance so marred, beyond human semblance… despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows; as one from whom men hide their faces” (Isaiah 52 & 53).
When Jesus was arrested, there was some half-hearted protest, but He quickly explained that at any moment twelve legions of angels could swoop down from heaven and remove this abysmal situation from Him, but “How then should the Scripture be fulfilled?” (26:54), He asks.
And thus began the violence.
I have to believe that even those who were His antagonists had to have come away from the experience of Christ’s crucifixion somewhat sickened by the meanness and brutality of it all, and that their thoughts tormented them deep into the night, even several hours after Jesus’ body was rendered colorless and cold. Like Pontius Pilate, many eyewitnesses who had come to Jerusalem that week would have had an impulse to wash their hands and their memories of the carnage that had taken place, which no doubt troubled their cogitations as they homeward trod listless and near to vomiting. Many, I think, would have liked to have unseen what they earlier saw concerning the mysterious Galilean who had done no wrong. And it is interesting that even the Roman centurion and his companions, having seen for themselves the spectacle of perfect innocence tortured and murdered, outwardly marveled and exclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God” (27:54).
Yes- God’s Son who suffered the “bath of Satan” at the hands of sinful men.
And now dead was this Son of God- this “Anointed One-” who had healed so many, who had delivered countless sufferers of demons, who had fed hungry multitudes and had looked on vast crowds with immense compassion because He viewed them as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). Dead now was the One who had peered deeply into the eyes of the haggard and the tired and the broken and the wounded and the despairing, and with love unsurpassable, offered the soothing ointment of His gracious promise, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (11:28-29). Yet, there had been no rest for Him- this snuffed-out Messiah, for our need of Him was always too great.
A heavy blanket of thick darkness, like a funeral pall, had fallen over all the land, and by some ancient accounts, the darkness was so dense that even those with lamps were unable to keep from tripping. It hadn’t been that long before that Jesus called His captive audience the light of the world, but now there was no light. Now the world, sinful and lost, pressed down by Satan, who choreographed perfectly the murder of God’s Son by masterful application of man’s addiction to sin, was at its lowest, darkest, coldest nadir of hopelessness and wrenching despair. The last vestige of anything for man to look to for hope was completely gone. It had fled far hence from the scene with the Son of Man’s dying breath. And though they came in throngs to sing largely of His holy birth, not so much as a single angel was present for His death, nor was there among their choirs in heaven even the slightest sound- their faces all turned from the children of Adam who had killed their beloved Prince.
So much drama. So many plots and subplots. So many factions. So many crying out for blood. So much violence. So much that is broken in a world where perfect innocence is made to bleed and to die.
Yet- underneath it all- rumblings of something different…
In the oracle of the Prophet Isaiah, God says to His people, “Behold, I am doing a new thing” (43:19). What was God doing? And what are we to make of this broken Messiah hanging lifeless on the cross?
The earth shook, the rocks split, the tombs of the dead rumbled as though something was happening- something in the world, but not of the world… the universe itself was somehow… changing.
The devil has a plot, but God has a plan.
My friends, I think we can all agree that it’s incredibly hard to be human. It is trying and difficult in a multitude of ways and on a multitude of levels. So much of our daily living is vainly labored toiling, unpredictably dangerous, characteristically uncertain, frustratingly different from what we had intended and weighted down with inexplicable sorrows that could never have been anticipated.
Our appetites trouble and torment us. Our transgressions sadden us. Our remorse sickens us. Our expectations disappoint us. Our pride wounds us. Our coveting defiles us. Our desperate need for love and affirmation often misleads us. Our fascination with things demeans us. Our overthinking compounds confusion within us and gives us headaches. The persistence of our loneliness discourages us. Our mortality both frightens and annoys us. Our interior aches drive us into manifold doubts concerning the inherent value of our lives and individuality. Though there are so many wonderful, beautiful aspects to any number of our experiences as sojourners in this world, we cannot deny our hopes for a deeper and more profound encounter that settles in our thoughts, once and for all, the rich value of our own personal existence and verification of the purpose that sustains it.
I am here today to tell you that for Christians, this much-longed-for encounter comes in the faith that binds us to the mysterious and magnificently kind-hearted, loving and compassionate Healer from Nazareth, whom we worshipfully call JESUS CHRIST. He is the definitive and enduring expression of God’s undying, unyielding, unwavering love for sinners, and as such, taught us the true meaning of our humanity on earth, which is not to escape suffering or to be obsessed with the acquisition of constant comfort, but rather to be in communion with Him who shares fully in the suffering of our earthly plight, and by doing so, draws us into the everlasting nature of His own perfect and sinless, infinite and radiant, all-consuming joy which lasts forever in His heavenly homeland. There in that place of endless splendors, there is no devil and there is no sin, nor is there death or sorrow of any kind. To demonstrate the boundless nature of His personal love and divine desire to be one with undeserving sinners, He endured agonizing torture and death, and just when the devil began to dance and to celebrate the demise of God’s only-begotten Son, he learned the hard lesson that death was powerless to withhold from sinners the love that brought Jesus to us in the flesh.
As the great English poet and pastor, John Donne, wrote so succinctly, “Death, thou shalt die.”