A sermon for Passion Sunday, Year A
Could you not stay awake with me?
What tone do you think Jesus used when he spoke these words to the disciples? How might an actor bring life and emotion to these words?
Was he angry?
Was he discouraged and disappointed?
Was he fearful and lonely?
Despite their best efforts, the disciples, even this early in the story of the last hours of Jesus’ life, are already deserting him. They cannot even manage to keep awake, to pray, to protect him.
I imagine all of these emotions must have surged through Jesus’ heart that night, the night he was betrayed.
We have just heard a dramatic reading of the passion of our Lord according to Matthew.
You may be wondering, why is this Sunday unlike any other? Why did we have two readings from the Gospel? We have entered into worship singing “hosanna,” celebrating the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. But soon the tone has turned dire and ominous – Jesus has been arrested. Jesus has been killed!
Why have we rushed through the story?
It seems that our culture won’t allow us to stay awake with Jesus either. Our lives are very busy. We are overworked and over-played. We rush from work to take the kids to soccer practice or to get to dance class. We manage to squeeze in dinner and homework and a little time for ourselves before we get to bed to start it all over again in the morning.
This week is unlike any other. Jesus asks, “Could you not stay awake with me?”
It would be easy with all the busyness of the week not to show up to church again until next Sunday morning. Unlike the disciples, it wouldn’t be sleep that would distract us from watching with Jesus. It would be our schedules.
The Church in her wisdom recognized this problem. Once upon a time, Holy Week, which begins today, was a time when most Christians would faithfully go to church, at least on Good Friday and maybe even Maundy Thursday. But now, more and more a thing like Holy Week seems to be counter-cultural. As it is on Ash Wednesday, many could not begin to tell you when Maundy Thursday is, let alone Good Friday.
In response the church has transformed this Sunday from just Palm Sunday full of triumph, to Passion Sunday full of paradox. The readings today not only show us Jesus’ triumphal entry, but they also show us the dark side of Holy Week. We see Jesus suffering. We witness him beaten and despised, whipped and hung on a tree.
We witness the paradoxes that filled the last week of Jesus’ life. The crowds first shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And then shortly thereafter the same voices cry, “Let him be crucified!”
The Jesus of the Triumphal Entry is attractive, a winner. The Jesus of Gethsemane is more enigmatic, more disturbing. The Risen Lord is a joy to behold, but the dying Jesus, with his flesh torn, gasping for air, breathing his last, from this Jesus, we wish to divert our eyes. But there would be no empty tomb if there were no bloody cross.
We need to tell the full story.
We have been telling the full story of Jesus’ life and ministry, week-in, week-out, for the rest of the year. We have contemplated the miracles Jesus performed and the teachings he gave to those who would hear him. And now we have come to this week of weeks – the last week of his life, and the first week of the rest of the story.
I invite you this week – despite the disinterested and busy culture around you, stay awake with Jesus. Spend time in prayer and meditation, preparing yourself for the road that is ahead of all of us. As we walk these last days of Lent, we have entered the last hours of Jesus’ life. We need to see it all. The Triumphal Entry, The Last Supper, the washing of feet, the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal, the trial, the torture, the via dolorosa, Calvary, the tomb and the miracle of Easter morning.
We are not forced to abandon Jesus during his last hours. We reenacted the Triumphal Procession this morning, but we need not reenact the betrayal and flight of the disciples.
This church will be open every night this week, offering a quiet space for prayer and meditation. This week is the week of weeks for our faith. Whenever we hear the words in the Eucharistic prayer, “On the night he was handed over to suffering and death” or “For in the night in which he was betrayed” that very night is this week, this Thursday to be precise. We will celebrate the last supper as if for the first time. By three o’clock on Friday afternoon we will come to a place of great grief. This same Jesus, the infant king whom the magi worshipped, the miraculous healer and teacher whom the crowds flocked to see, the Son of David who entered Jerusalem in triumph would be left to die just outside its walls, abandoned, alone and despised. And then early on Sunday morning we will gather in the hush of civil twilight and contemplate the mystery and miracle of Easter morning.
During this coming Holy Week, let’s try our best to go against the prevailing culture. Let us keep awake with Jesus. Let us not rush from triumph to triumph without first walking with our Lord through the valley of the shadow of his death. We are here this morning with the paradox of a triumphant entrance and a lonely exit. There’s much more to the story, and we will visit each of these places this week.
During this Holy Week, let us take time to hear those words that Jesus heard. Let us listen anew to what God may be saying to us.
During this Holy Week, let us take time to walk, if only for a short while, the road that our Lord walked. As our feet wend their way this week toward Calvary, let us recall anew how costly our redemption was.
During this Holy Week, let us take time to see, if only remotely, some of those things that Jesus saw.
But most of all, during this Holy Week, let us look upon him. When we look up on the Crucified One we look upon the one who has reconciled heaven and earth. The curse is undone. When we had become subject to evil and death, God sent the son to redeem us. In a world full of darkness, a light has dawned, and the darkness has not overcome it. Evil has been answered with love, hatred with forgiveness. Death has lost its grip over us, all because of the cross.
Let us prepare for the joy of Easter, with the courage it takes to look upon the cross. Let us stay awake and keep watch with Jesus. Amen