Luke 22:14-23; Philippians 2:1-13
Palm Sunday today marks the beginning of Holy Week, the most significant time in the Christian calendar – the days we follow Jesus to the last supper, then to the cross, to the tomb and then wind up at the empty grave next Sunday, on Easter. I am old enough to recall how Holy Week used to be publicly somber week. I remember stores being closed, and religious programing with movies like “Ben Hur,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and “King of Kings” shown on commercial television.
Those days are gone. The most we see on TV are ads for Easter candy. So how are we to mark the days of Holy Week? Will we spend the week distracted, and focused on the cares of the world, or will we choose to orient ourselves to the cross? Will we enter the passion of Jesus or the passions of the world? What choice will we make?
Holy Week forces us to ask: Who is Jesus for us? It is estimated that there are over 1000 films, documentaries and shows made on the life of Christ. From the farcical “Life of Brian,” to “Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter,” “Jesus Christ, Super Star,” to the over-the-top blood and gore “Passion of the Christ” by Mel Gibson – to the 2020 “Jesus Film.” Each movie has a unique angle to tell us Jesus’ story. Who was he? A holy man? A prophet? A charlatan? The actual messiah? More importantly, what difference does he make in our lives? How will that difference lead us to spend the next five days? Will it be just another mundane week, or will it be the most important week of our lives?
The messiah, in Jewish teaching, is the expected king of the Davidic line who would deliver Israel from foreign bondage and restore the glories of its golden age; which includes: to build the Third Temple (Ezekiel 27:26-28). to gather all the Jews back to the Land of Israel (Is. 43:5-6). to usher in an era of world peace, end all hatred, oppression, suffering and disease (Isaiah 2:4); to spread universal knowledge of the God of Israel, and to unite the entire human race as one. (Zech. 14:9). This is why the expectations of the crowds ran wild when Jesus entered Jerusalem. All these expectations were being projected unto Jesus. That’s why people spread their cloaks on the ground as a sign of great respect, they waved palms, they shouted “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Peace in Heaven, glory in the highest heaven!” The crowds, Luke tells us, witness Jesus perform deeds of power. Healings. Miracles. Jesus fit the bill of the foretold Jewish Messiah. Centuries of waiting was finally over.
Yet the gospels remind us that Jesus, throughout his life, carved out a different image of messiah. In his first temptation in the wilderness, Jesus refuses to worship the devil in exchange for power over the earth. Jesus proclaims to Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world – and that also speaks that the peace he offers us is not of this world. The teachings of Jesus are clear: the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of peace, repentance, justice and love of God and neighbor. Jesus identifies himself as suffering servant, the son of God who accepts the cross and death on behalf of sinful humanity. What earthy king would do that? In Luke alone, Jesus plainly predicts three times his impending passion and death (Luke 9:22; 9:43b-44; 18:31-33). However, people hear what they want to hear. Jesus does not force the truth of his mission on us, even in his death and resurrection. We are free to choose to accept Him or not to accept him. We are given a choice to repent or not to repent, to declare Jesus as our Lord and Savior – or that he’s just another ordinary guy, who was at the wrong place at the wrong time?
In Jesus’ interactions with people, people have a choice on how to act and engage Jesus. Will they respond with love? Or out of selfish regard? Remember the rich man who kept all the commandments, no mean feat, but wanted to know the way to eternal life? Jesus looked on him with love and said, “go sell what you have and give to the poor and then follow me.” The rich man walked away dejectedly. Jesus didn’t force him to give up his money; he didn’t call him back and tell him to do something different. Jesus left him with choice. In the parable of the prodigal son, the elder son refuses to join the feast when his younger brother returns. The Father doesn’t force his older son to enter, doesn’t bribe him. It’s his choice. If we look through the gospels, we seem many occasions where Jesus could have smoothed things over or could have insisted on certain conduct. But he didn’t. Jesus operated on the core belief that love requires that we have free will. Love that is not freely chosen is not love. God loves us too much to take free will away from our lives, even if it means at times we sin, make mistakes, or suffer as a result. Our free will to choose is that important.
Jesus, this week, gives us an example of a steadfast free will that stays the course through his passion. We see this in his refusal to walk away. We see this in his refusal to abandon the principles of the Kingdom. In his commitment to the will of his Father. We see this in his refusal to lash back at those who tortured him, who hated him, who treated him in the most egregious manner possible. That free will won us our salvation, and now we have our free will to make a choice for or against Jesus, the salvation he offers, the guidance he gives, the love he pours out on us. It is simple as that. How will we use our free will this week? For ill or for good? With or without Jesus?
We have been given, not the messiah we want, but the messiah we need. Throughout this week we have the opportunity to reject out right or accept with humility the truth that Jesus the Messiah dies freely for us. The messiah we need offers us a choice: will we stand with him or flee? The messiah we need seeks to awaken in us the power of love, to repent and to free our will from the tyranny of selfishness.
Let us now, in this holiest of weeks, freely embrace the messiah we need, the messiah who emptied himself and took on the form of a slave for the forgiveness of our sins, who show us how true love, free will acts. Spend time this week to get to know this messiah. Pray. Fast. Read the Bible. Come to worship on both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Through the faithful choices we make this week, may we recommit our lives to him – and discover true freedom for our souls and experience the joy of salvation in our hearts.
Let us pray: Lord God, today as the crowds proclaim you as King, we come before you asking your help to accept you as king of our hearts. Some of us today need your grace to receive your forgiveness and love as lord and savior of our lives. So, we ask for a Holy Week that transforms us, converts us, to you, the messiah we need. Help us to lay our burdens at the foot of your cross. Touch all our hearts present because we need you in our lives. May we find ourselves at Easter Sunday a changed people, a holy people a people whose lives are on fire through the power of the Holy Spirit filling us. Thank you, Jesus, because you have freely chosen us, and now we freely chose you. Amen.