Entering Jerusalem to Liberate Us from Slavery to the Fear of Death: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

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

          No doubt, there are many obvious differences between the time and place of our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and our own circumstances.  It would be hard to confuse first-century Palestine with twenty-first century America.  Nonetheless, the charged setting of the days leading to the Savior’s Passion resonates with the challenges people face in every period of human history, including our own.  His friend Lazarus had died and He wept at the tomb, as we all do for those we love.  Today’s wars, natural disasters, and diseases make it hard to ignore the inevitability of death and mourning. Lazarus’ sisters were overcome with grief and wondered why the Lord had not healed their brother. In a time well before modern medicine and mortuary practices, people had no illusions about the grim realities of decay and stench for a body that had been that long in the grave.

Despite Martha’s warning about opening the tomb, Christ commanded Lazarus to rise and come out, which he did in his grave clothes.  The Lord foretold His own resurrection and foreshadowed ours by rescuing His friend from the inevitable corruption of those made of dust in our fallen world.  The sights and smells of this stunning scene reveal that Christ’s salvation is not for some imaginary realm where beautiful feelings suffice, but for a world like ours where the bodies of massacred civilians in Ukraine and other places decay in shallow graves or simply remain where they fell, exposed to the elements or covered with debris.  Regardless of the rationale or conduct of any war, some will mourn its victims for the rest of their lives.  The raising of Lazarus shows that Christ is “the resurrection and the life” even for a world where death, with all its graphic horror and tragic sorrow, so often appears to reign supreme.

When He raised the dead man after four days in the tomb, the Lord demonstrated that He is “the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” Even before Lazarus’ resurrection, Martha said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”  Ironically, it is this magnificent sign that led the chief priests and Pharisees to decide that Christ must die, for “If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.”  The actions of the crowd when the Lord entered Jerusalem on a donkey were very unsettling to those corrupt religious leaders, for people welcomed Him as a conquering hero precisely because He had raised Lazarus from the dead.  They “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!’”  They longed for a new King David to liberate their nation from the Romans, but would yell “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!” five days later when it had become clear that He was not the kind of Messiah Who brings death upon a nation’s enemies.  No, He is One Who enters into death through the Cross in order to conquer it.

The One prophetically anointed for burial by Lazarus’ sister Mary will be lifted up upon the Cross in judgment of the idolatrous schemes of politicized religious leaders for power and the resentful desires of the masses for vengeance against their Roman oppressors. A week after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the true Passover Lamb will rise in victory over them all and liberate us from slavery to the fear of the death, which is at the root of the horribly ironic response of the chief priests to Pontius Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar!” (Jn. 19:5) To this very day, some present themselves as being very religious while rejecting Christ and His Cross rather than risk losing their chance to gratify their passion for power.  Of course, that is never the way to true peace, whether in one’s own soul or in relation to others.  There is nothing but constant worry and fear in store for those who ground their hopes in the passing power arrangements and other circumstances of the world as we know it.

Doing so makes it impossible to obey St. Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to “Have no anxiety about anything.”  He wrote these words while under arrest for his Christian ministry in a pagan empire and would ultimately die as a martyr.  He had no illusions about the sufferings and trials he would face.  The foundation of the peace he describes was not in hopes of a nation defeating its opponents or in any other worldly course of events, but simply in the confession that “The Lord is at hand.”  Because Christ is coming, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your petitions be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Today we celebrate that the Lord is at hand, coming into Jerusalem as the Messiah, hailed by the crowds as their Savior.  He enters Jerusalem on a humble beast of burden, carrying no weapons and having no army, political machine, or media campaign to flatter the powerful and play on the fears, resentments, and hopes of the masses.   For this was not a warrior who would make a nation great by conventional standards, but the Lamb of God Who will take away the sins of the world through the shedding of His own blood.  He will reign by being lifted up on the Cross, dying as a victim of brutal capital punishment, descending to Hades, and miraculously rising in glory from the tomb on the third day. In doing so, He will reveal the pathetic weakness of the corrupt powers of this world and even work the death of death itself.

In one week, we will celebrate His great victory on the third day, but what an unsettling victory it is for us who have become too comfortable with our place in a world enslaved to the fear of death.  We are worried, insecure, angry, and resentful because we have entrusted ourselves to proud hopes about how this or that circumstance in life turns out. We have grounded our wellbeing on the approval of others or perhaps on whether we have met our own self-imposed standards or achieved our goals.  No wonder, then, that we have no peace, for realities far less grave than death will keep people from being satisfied with us and keep us from being satisfied with ourselves. Basing our lives on such insubstantial realities leads to constant fear that the very meaning and purpose of our lives will come crashing down in an instant.

That is what drove those who called for our Lord’s crucifixion.  They saw Him as a threat in light of their fears about what would happen to them if they lost.  The Romans were so afraid of losing power that they used the Cross to remind the Jews of what they would do to anyone who dared to threaten them.  That is why Pontius Pilate had a placard identifying the Savior as the king of the Jews attached to His Cross.  Our calling this week is to enter into the profound contrast between the insecurity of living according to dynamics of the fallen world and the peace found through our Lord’s Passion.  Only the One Who refused the temptation to gain worldly power throughout His ministry has the power to overcome the meaninglessness of the grave.  By offering Himself fully for our salvation on the Cross and rising in glory on the third day, He has destroyed the foundations of fear and made true peace possible for us even as we live and breathe in a world terrified of failure and death.

That is why, especially this week, we must refuse to be distracted from entrusting ourselves to the One Who has destroyed the very root of our common misery.  The Savior Who rides into Jerusalem on a humble donkey has shown power beyond what this world knows.  He took upon Himself the very worst that the forces of evil can do and then rose triumphantly over them.  When we know from the depths of our souls that the joy of Christ’s empty tomb comes through the terror of His Cross, we will gain the peace that enables us never to embrace despair.   Today the Messiah enters Jerusalem to make even death itself an entryway to eternal life.  That is why we must always say with St. Paul, who became a martyr: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything…And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

 

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for your sermons and well-thought-out words. You have a wonderful way of expressing and synthesizing your comments and it is very helpful to many of us to follow and build upon your ideas as we plan our homilies. Thank you and have a blessed Pascha.
    Fr Nick

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