Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”Matthew 27:54
This is a strange Palm Sunday, and it will be a strange Holy Week, too. There’s no doubt about that. But this is still Palm Sunday. And this week will still be Holy Week, the holiest week of the year. And next Sunday we will still celebrate the most joyous day in our Christian life together. Jesus died for us. He was raised from the dead. And no pandemic can take that away.
After this sermon, as is the tradition on Palm Sunday, I invite you to read the account of Jesus’s suffering and death, and I want to remind us of why that is so important. Especially this year, with so much suffering and uncertainty all around us, we might ask: why dwell on the suffering that Jesus underwent for us? There are several important reasons to do this.
First, it reminds us that it is Jesus’s sufferings that heal us. “By his wounds we are healed,” we will hear in our Good Friday reading from Isaiah. We need Jesus to suffer for us, now as much as ever, because his suffering is what heals us. And we always need to be reminded of that. His resurrection makes no difference if he first does not die for us.
Here is how the poet Wendell Berry puts it in a poem called “The Way of Pain”:
“I read of Christ crucified, the only begotten Son sacrificed to flesh and time and all our woe. He died and rose, but who does not tremble for his pain, his loneliness, and the darkness of the sixth hour? Unless we grieve like Mary at His grave, giving Him up as lost, no Easter morning comes.”
And so, we grieve, at the cross, and at the grave.
Easter morning does come, of course, and that is the second reason to spend time on Jesus’s sufferings today, and throughout this week – because it makes the joy of Easter that much greater.
I remember a particularly significant Holy Week for me when I was in my twenties, and fairly newly married. I was working for a consulting firm in downtown Chicago. Working very long hours, and that year we had a big case coming up, so it didn’t look like I was going to be able to attend any of the Holy Week services at our church. But, then, something strange happened: The great tunnel flood of 1992. Repair work being done on a bridge across the Chicago River damaged the wall of a utility tunnel beneath the river. It flooded basements and facilities of many of the downtown skyscrapers, including the one where I worked. It was deemed unsafe to go to work, so we were required to stay home. This meant, among other things, that I was able to go to all of the Holy Week services that year. And what an incredible celebration of Easter I experienced after doing that! It taught me how important it is to reflect on Jesus’s sufferings, so that the joy of the resurrection can be experienced fully.
And one more reason why I think it is important to spend time on Jesus’s sufferings today, and this week, is because it can help us to keep all of what we are currently experiencing in perspective. Whatever suffering we are enduring now is really nothing compared to what the Son of God willingly endured for us. And that is good to remember.
Martin Luther made this point in a powerful piece of writing called “How to Meditate on the Passion of Christ.” Here are his words:
“Let me say this very clearly and openly for all to hear … The right kind of meditation on Christ’s suffering changes a person’s character. As in Baptism, a person is newly born again through such meditation.”
That is why we are doing this. Because thinking about what Jesus did for us in the right way changes our character. It resets our priorities. It focuses us on what is truly important. It humbles us. And it makes us incredibly grateful.
And as we get ready to hear the story of Christ’s sufferings, let me share a little more from Martin Luther on how to do that. He writes that:
“You should deeply believe, and never doubt, that in fact you are the one who killed Christ. Your sins did this to Him … When you see nails driven through the hands and feet of Christ, know that you should be suffering this for all eternity, with even more painful nails.”
That is hard to hear, but it’s true. And we need to remember this, and to never forget it. And then, Luther shares what happens when we do this. He writes this:
“when the day comes that sickness and sorrow weigh you down, think how little it matters compared to the thorns and nails of Christ … If you have to do something you don’t want, or can’t do something you want to do, think about how Christ was led about by others, tied up as a prisoner. Does pride attack you? Look at how your Lord was mocked and disgraced along with murderers … If any trouble or adversity trouble your body or soul, take heart!”
Luther reminds us, in other words, that meditating on the passion of Christ can change how we approach life, in almost every conceivable way.
But Luther goes on to remind us of something else that is very important. He says that after we have really thought about what Jesus did for us; after it has changed our hearts and opened them to Christ; then we must watch out that we do not go down the road to despair. After you have accepted that Jesus died for you, then, Luther says:
“Here is what you need to do. First, stop looking at Christ’s sufferings any longer. They have already done their work … Press forward through all difficulties and see His friendly heart. Look how full of love God’s heart is for you. It was this love that moved Him to bear the heavy load of your conscience and sin. If you do this, your heart will be sweetly loving toward Him. The assurance of your faith will be stronger … This is how a person is truly born again in God.”
And that is what this story can do. It can cause us to be truly born again in God. Because it is not just a story. It is our story. And once we accept our place in this story, then it changes us. Nothing else matters more to us. Once we realize in our hearts and souls that Jesus died for us, then we are truly born again in God.
So, I invite you to really meditate on the passion of Christ this week. And right now, I invite you to do that by reading the Passion according to St. Matthew, and then spending some time in quiet reflection.
And, as we do this, and to quote Luther one last time, let us stake everything on what we are about to hear. It is, after all, the greatest love story ever told. And so let us turn to this story now, with the prayer that as we do so, each and every one of us might be born again, and know again the consolation of God’s eternal love.
To read the Passion of Our Lord according to St. Matthew, follow this link: Matthew 27:11-54.