Accepting the Tension Between Our Expectations and God’s Fulfillment : Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-18

          In religion or anything else, we get used to whatever we get used to.  We tend to take for granted whatever becomes normal, expected, and routine in our lives.   Once we learn to see ourselves and the world in a certain way, it is easy to become blind to even the most obvious truths that challenge our perspective.

The chief priests and Pharisees certainly missed the point of our Lord’s raising of Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb.  They were so afraid of losing their own position and power that they were unable to recognize Him, as Lazarus’ sister Martha did, as “the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”  The Savior showed that He is “the resurrection and the life” by resurrecting Lazarus, but all that the religious leaders could see was a threat to themselves.  Though they had the great blessings of the Old Testament law and the worship of the Temple in Jerusalem, they made themselves blind to a Messiah Who was different from what they had expected.

We see something similar in the crowd’s reaction to the Savior’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  They received Him as the Messiah everyone anticipated, a conquering military hero ready to liberate Israel from the defilement of Roman occupation.   “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”  The irony is that Christ arrived not as a fierce warrior, but peaceably on a humble donkey.   When in the following days it became clear that He is the Prince of Peace Whose Kingdom is not of this world, the same crowds yelled “Crucify Him.” The Roman governor Pontius Pilate quickly saw that there was no reason to do so, but as a practical administrator, he could tolerate the death of an innocent man more easily than civil unrest.

Irony abounds in the events leading to the Savior’s Passion.  Raising a dead man somehow made people want to kill Him.  Those who praised Him enthusiastically on Sunday called for His death on Friday.  He died as a failed Messiah, rejected by Jewish religious leaders and abandoned by His disciples.  When the women went to His tomb, they did so in order to complete the proper burial rituals for the deceased.  They did not expect to find the stone rolled away and the grave empty; neither did they anticipate the astonishing message of the angel.    The tension between what anyone thought of Jesus Christ and Who He revealed Himself to be in the final days of His earthly ministry are truly shocking and beyond normal human comprehension.

Our challenge in the coming week is to enter into the tension between our conventional expectations and the Lord’s strange victory over death through His Cross and empty tomb, for it is through that tension that He has brought salvation to the world.  If we approach His Passion as simply part of a story that we take for granted because it is so familiar and we have watered it down to fit our sensibilities, we will miss the point of this week entirely.  Instead, we must learn to see that we have far too much in common with those who wanted a Messiah to serve their interests in this world.  Those who sought Christ’s death were highly religious, upstanding members of their society, but they were ultimately idolaters of their own will.  We must not shy away from facing the truth that we are often very much like them.  As well, we are not much different from those who denied and abandoned the Savior when things did not go as they had hoped. There is much within us that wants to run away from the dark night of the Cross and the grave.

Even though it goes very much against our inclinations, we must struggle to abide with Christ as He offers up Himself for our salvation to the point of death.  We must resist the temptation simply to disregard Him because we do not like what His Passion reveals about our need for healing that we cannot give ourselves.  We must behold Him in the tomb, facing the astonishing mystery of the death of the God-Man, of the Eternal Word of God Who spoke the universe into existence, if we are to share in His great victory over Hades and death itself.  We must dare to disorient ourselves from our usual schedules and preoccupations, turning away from the temptation to make the world our god and to use religion for our own self-centered purposes.

As we follow our Lord to His Passion this week, we will come face to face with the profound tension between our ways and God’s ways.  We will not merely have thoughts and feelings about what happened long ago, but will instead enter mystically into Jesus Christ’s great Self-Offering for our salvation.  We will encounter personally the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world in a way that calls us into question from the depths of our souls.  The more fully we open ourselves to the unfathomable mystery of the God-Man Who enters into death, the more we will die to the prideful illusions that so easily blind us to the truth about who we are and Who He is.  We will see that conventional religion that helps us get what we want on our own terms in this world is powerless to deliver us from the clutches of death.  Such distorted religion is precisely why the chief priests and Pharisees rejected their Messiah and insisted on His crucifixion.  It is precisely why they chose death over life.  That is a tragic irony that we must avoid, if we are to share in the eternal life of our Savior, Who triumphs over the worst that corrupt human powers and death itself can do.

Throughout the coming week, we will have the opportunity to open the eyes of our souls to the brilliant light of the glory of God, shining from the empty tomb.  But in order to do so, we must first endure the pitch black midnight of the God-Man hanging on the Cross purely out of love for you, for me, and for everyone He created in His image and likeness.   Let us do so in obedience to the instructions of St. Paul in today’s epistle reading:  “[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Regardless of what else is going on in our lives in the coming week, there could be nothing more important than opening our hearts to the Savior Who offered up Himself for our salvation.  He alone is able to bring us all from the dark pit of despair into the blinding light of His Kingdom.   Now is the time to “lay aside all earthly cares” and to attend to Him.  “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”

 

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