Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday
+ John 12:12-19 +
The Gospels don’t give us the exact dates, but it was almost certainly the tenth day of “Nissan,” the first month in the Jewish calendar, roughly 1,981 years ago. It was almost certainly a Sunday, and the people of Jerusalem were especially busy that day. Each family was busy running to the market to select a lamb – a choice lamb without any spot or blemish, a lamb marked on the tenth day of Nissan for slaughter on the fifteenth day of the month. This was the annual celebration of the Jewish Passover or “Pascha.”
You remember, I’m sure, the origin of Passover. The tenth plague was about to be unleashed by God against Egyptfor keeping his people imprisoned there as slaves. So God commanded Moses to instruct the people of Israelabout this Passover. Each family was to choose a spotless, year-old lamb on the tenth day of the month of Nissan, and then, at twilight on the 14th day of Nissan (which, by Jewish reckoning, was now the 15th day of the month), they were to take the unsuspecting, uncomplaining lamb and slaughter it, without breaking any of its bones. They were to roast the meat and eat it in their houses, and they were to take its blood and paint it on the doorframes of their houses, so that when the destroying angel saw the blood of the lamb, he would “pass over” their houses and spare them from death. Over a thousand years worth of Passover lambs had been slaughtered inIsrael to commemorate this divine rescue by the blood of lambs, chosen every year on the tenth day of Nissan.
But this particular tenth day of Nissan was even more special. Jerusalemwas stirred up in anticipation. Just a few months earlier the most amazing thing had happened in the nearby town ofBethany. A man named Lazarus had died and had been buried for three whole days when another man named Jesus showed up and called that dead man out of his tomb. And out he came! The people ofJerusalemwere anxiously asking one another, “Will Jesus come toJerusalemfor the Passover Feast this year?” Will we get a chance to see him?
Sure enough! There he was, riding on a young donkey down the slopes of theMt.ofOlivesand up the hill towardJerusalem. There he was, the Bread of Life, the Conqueror of Death. Oh, how eager they were to greet him with their palms and with their praises. “Hail! Hosanna! Save us, now! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!” They were so excited about having him ride into their city, so pleased to have him as their Savior from…something. On the same day the people of Jerusalem chose their Passover lamb, they went out to acclaim Jesus as their Messiah, on the tenth day of Nissan.
It’s ironic, isn’t it?, that they didn’t put two and two together – Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, as the prophet had said long ago, that all of this was taking place during Passover week, that John the Baptist, three years earlier had even pointed out Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? Jesus’ disciples didn’t put it together either, John says. Not until after the fact, until after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Only then did they begin to understand and think back on these events. On the tenth day of Nissan that year they witnessed a Lamb go uncomplaining forth, the guilt of all men bearing. He was a Lamb without any spot or blemish, not only before men, but before God, having committed no sin, and, having been born in a miraculous way, he was even free of the blemish of original sin. The blood of this Lamb would be spilt – though none of his bones would be broken. His blood would serve to cover all who seek shelter under it from eternal death. On the tenth day of Nissan Jerusalem willingly chose Jesus as her King, but, most unwittingly and even unwillingly, Jerusalemalso chose Jesus as her Passover Lamb. And on the 15th day of Nissan – Friday of that Holy Week, they slaughtered and consumed their Passover Lamb, without even realizing the link between the Passover lamb that saved Israel from death in Egypt, and Jesus, the Paschal Lamb of God who saves all who trust in him from death and hell.
This was the thing they never got about Jesus, and frankly, never sought from Jesus. The “King” part they could go for, at least superficially, as we saw when Jesus multiplied the loaves of bread for the five thousand. But the great secret – God’s mystery – was that the King would establish his kingdom, not by force or by might or with any earthly glory at all, but by the sacrifice of himself – that the King would reign on his throne not as a lion, but as a Paschal Lamb. This was God’s eternal purpose for his Son, that he should be the Lamb who was slain “from the foundations of the world.” He was the Father’s choice to save sinful man. And, though uncomplaining like a lamb before the slaughter, Jesus was not unsuspecting. “Yea, Father, yea, most willingly I’ll bear what Thou commandest; My will conforms to Thy decree, I do what Thou demandest.”
Mingled with the joy and the awe of this Palm / Passion Sunday, there is a warning for us here as well. It’s fine and good to take up our palm branches and sing to Jesus, “Hosanna! Save us now! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” But your Hosannas must be quickly followed up with an “Agnus Dei!”, Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus wishes to be king only by being the Passover Lamb. He wishes to have as servants in his Kingdom only those who seek him as the Passover Lamb, who look to him first, foremost and always as the one who paid the price for your sins and offers the forgiveness of sins to you, who so desperately need it. If you look to Jesus as King apart from his Passover sacrifice, if you worship him for his greatness apart from his forgiving blood, then his kingship will be of no benefit to you, for he reigns in those who seek shelter in his blood as the Lamb.
How does one seek shelter there? How do you take part in the Passover celebration? Who gets to eat of the Lamb and share in the protection of his blood? The Old Testament Passover Lamb was only for the covenant people – for the families of Israel in which all males eight days old and older had been circumcised. The New Testament Passover Lamb is also for the circumcised, but listen to what the Apostle Paul says, In Christ you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. If you were baptized into Christ, then you have him as your Passover Lamb, too, and his blood covers your door. His flesh he gives you for food and his blood he gives you for drink in a better Passover, a brand new covenant, not just once a year, but “whenever you do this in remembrance” of him, that you may live forever and not die at the hand of the destroying angel.
It’s no accident that the two songs we sing before receiving the Sacrament are, “Holy, holy holy! Hosanna, blessed is he!” and “O Christ, Lamb of God!” Every Sunday we celebrate Holy Week, from the Hosanna’s of Palm Sunday to the offering of the Lamb on Thursday night and Friday, to the resurrection of the Paschal Lamb on Easter Sunday. This is our Holy Communion with the Lamb who was chosen for us, by men and by God, on the tenth day of Nissan.
Journey with the Lamb this Holy Week, and rejoice in the Paschal mystery. Watch your Passover Lamb…
…go uncomplaining forth, the guilt of all men bearing;
And laden with the sins of earth,
None else the burden sharing!
Goes patient on, grow weak and faint,
To slaughter led without complaint,
That spotless life to offer;
Bears shame and stripes, and wounds and death,
Anguish and mockery, and saith,
“Willing all this I suffer.” Amen.