St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Palm Sunday
April 14, 2019
“Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.”
IN 1862, at the height of our American Civil War, Victor Hugo published an historical fiction book called Les Miserables, the Miserable Ones. It was about Jean Valjean, a poor man who was arrested and imprisoned for stealing bread to feed starving children, and also about a policeman named Javert who dedicated his life to tracking down Valjean and exposing his former crime. The balance of ethics in this epic battle of wits and rights becomes a test case of what is truly right and truly wrong. Javert clearly has the law on his side, that is, he is starkly aware of one single fact, a fixed idea, the truth that consumes him. But Valjean is good, and does overwhelmingly better things with his life, ever since his minor crime, than Javert. There is a deeper truth that he serves, and he lives a better life because of it. In the end, not only is mercy required of the officer, but a recognition of a superior life to his own, and the realization causes him to execute himself.
We are rational creatures who embrace rules of reality, facts of mathematics, for instance, that require us to comply with a formula, like 2+2=4. In biology, we ascent that a thing has life or does not have it. An object can be measured for size and mass. Time passes in measured clock ticks and tocks. A color is ‘seen’ by our eyes as light vibrating at some rate or other.
And then there is Jesus. Jesus Christ, an historical figure undoubtedly stood at the crossroads of time and human history. He said and did things now questioned by experts, but whether or not every word said about Him bears out, He changed everything about the way we look at life and death, good and evil, right and wrong, and the value of people. He showed us God, and told us God was His Father, and that He was God on earth, the Son incarnate. These facts pass through the barrier between fact and opinion and we are asked to take the record as accurately portraying the amazing events of the single most important life ever lived as true. Then we are asked to conclude Him as Savior of our souls and the ransom God paid to release us from an eternal hell into an everlasting heaven.
Math and biology are speechless at such suggestions. Human reason balks at taking on such a huge pill and swallowing it. But face the opposite direction, reason backwards from the result to the evidence, and you see it all. It has to be so. The alternative is horrible, life is simply a bad joke, the creation an accident with no cause or inherent value, and these marvelous minds that take all this in, do so for no apparent purpose. We might as well be hallucinating. But then, what are our brains, our minds here for? Can they really lie to us?
If God exists, then the best shot we have at His making any sense of our reality is the life of a man from a small village north of Jerusalem in our 1st century AD. The fact of those years being called the 1st century AD is evidence itself. We base time on His appearance. He lived mostly in obscurity, but became a public figure for three years, wandering with a band of followers between village and town, hamlet and city, teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven and healing people of their diseases.
The violent reaction against Him seems to have been caused by certain words and acts of His that offended the religious system of His nation. He did things on Saturdays that brought Him ecstatic positive attention, but looked to be a challenge to the religious dominance that denied doing things on such days. And then He said that ‘Before Abraham was, I AM.’ He exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and priests who placed religious burdens on people, making long lists of dos and donts, the strict observation of which would win favor with God. Instead of teaching rules, the Anointed Savior, which is what His name meant, offered every person God’s forgiveness, a merciful face for the Almighty turned in love toward those who believe His Son. This clash between a religious system and a profoundly powerful spiritual experience brought Jesus to Jerusalem at the upcoming season of Passover one year, about 30 AD, in the month of April.
We read St. Luke’s account of Jesus borrowing a donkey colt to ride in humility into David’s city: “As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’” Luke 19:36-40 Jesus then looked out over the city and wept for her because nothing of it would be left 40 years from that day. And it was so because the people did not know the time of their visitation. He then entered the Temple built for His Father, but whose priests denied the Father’s Son.
The very stones would cry out. Rules are to be followed when the rules make sense. The cause of Javert, trying to expose a hero for the insignificant crime of stealing bread so many years before, drove the inspector mad. The cause of the Jewish rabbis against a man who healed and fed thousands and walked on water and had no respect for their pettiness drove them mad with anger and fear against the very God they claimed to serve. Rules are for every day when you don’t know which way to go. When a man raises your dead body from the grave to live again, and He tells you He is the way, the truth and the life, you don’t argue that what He just did is scientifically impossible. “I can’t be alive, or if I am, then I wasn’t really dead! It’s some kind of trick. I don’t believe you!” If God on earth does something that never happens in normal life, then you have to decide whether your eyes have deceived you, or that you are in the presence of the God for whom nothing is impossible.
St. Paul wrote of Jesus that, while He was still in heaven, in the form of God, did not need to stay in the appearance of the heavenly godhead, “but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a slave, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Phil 2:5-11 The Son left His eternal position at the side of the Father to become one of His creatures in obedience to the will of His Father, and He did it for love of us. Knowing that He would be rejected by us, He came anyway, and died on a cross we nailed Him to, and while dying He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
Therefore, the Name He bore on earth, that of Jesus Christ, has been raised to the highest name in heaven and earth, such that even at the mention of His Name, we bow our heads, kneel down, serve Him, revere Him and thank Him forever. Paul even claims that every knee will bend, and must bend. That includes the ones who deny Him. At some juncture, they will be forced to confess that they were all wrong. It won’t be possible to deny Him then, much to their misery and sorrow.
St. Paul sees how all creation will then be ordered. The Father “raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things...” Eph 1:20-23 At the end of everything, all but the Father will be under the dominion of the Son. And 2000 years ago, that Son rode into the city on a donkey’s back. And the religious authorities complained, “Stop that racket! Make them stop saying such things about you! We are offended.”
They are still offended. Today’s authorities are not armed with a religion that we recognize as such, though it is their religion. They may call it ‘science’ or ‘reason’ or ‘social norms’ or ‘justice.’ When we publicly declare Jesus as God’s unique and only Son, we offend them. In my youth, it was acceptable to be a Christian out loud. But this many years later, we are a laughing stock. Public officials who claim Christian faith are told their prayers offend others. Islam holds as much right to proclaim Allah as a Christian to praise Jesus, even more so. And no Christian may offer a prayer in school. It’s no different than when He walked the earth. We bemoan the fact, but perhaps we’ve been specially blessed to live in such an anti-Christ world. We share His scorn. Yet we have not yet shed our own blood as we strive against sin, in ourselves and in the world around us. Hebrews 12:4
Every knee should bow, but will it? to what end? You have watched films about ancient wars when men in armour, defeated in battle, have been forced to kneel at the approach of the victorious king of their opponents. It is a humiliation to them, but they have no choice. St. James make this point about believing Jesus is God, yet doing nothing in life to show you believe. “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder?” James 2:18-19 In other words, just saying Jesus is in fact God on earth, at some point, will make no difference in the judgment. It will not save those who resisted until they are forced to admit it. Yet they shall all admit it. 2+2 will be 4 then, and Jesus Christ will clearly be all that we have believed Him, and so much more.
In Holy Week, we face the cross of this Friday and we stand amazed that our world, our fellow men could do such an atrocity. Yet the 20th century murdered over 100 million innocent people in the name of no god at all, in the name of improving the species, in the name of science, so-called, in the name of nothing. Every war since 1918 has been a clash between claims of some untrue ideology and real faith. We war not against flesh and blood, but against the new religions of intolerance, greed, deception, false gods, power and lust. We may die before their armies. We stand with the living Christ, and wrapped in His armour, we stand, we pray, and we trust in the truth we know. If we die for Him, we are assured we will live in Him always. This world is not all. But if the battle remains for us one of nasty words and allegations, we will glorify Him by standing in love and faith and hope, praying for those souls who would crucify Him again.
He rode into the city on a humble beast, never before ridden. Today, I like to say, I am the donkey He rode into town, as are we all. Just bear Him gladly, and hear the crowds loving Him, “Hosanna! Son of David, save us now! Give us freedom from our sins and save us from this world so lost!”