Palm Sunday

April 12, 2014

“Coming in the Name of the Lord”

St. Matthew 21-1-11


Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her.  Loose them and bring them to Me.  "And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, `The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them."  All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:  "Tell the daughter of Zion, `Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.'"  So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them.  They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: "Hosanna to the Son of David! `Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!' Hosanna in the highest!"  St. Matthew 21:1-11


The Lutheran Church came to America with the immigration of Lutherans from various parts of Europe, most notably from Germany and Scandinavia.  After German and Norwegian Lutherans had been in America for a while they adopted English.  The move into English made for a subtle shift in their understanding of the Sunday morning church service.  The English have a word for what they do on a Sunday morning.  It’s called worship.  Worship literally means worth-ship.  It is ascribing worth to God, glorifying him and singing his praises.  The language of the Lutherans used a different word for what they did on a Sunday morning.  The German word is Gottesdienst, which translates into English as Divine Service.  Divine Service can mean the service that God offers to us or it can mean the service that we offer to God.  The English word “worship,” on the other hand, refers exclusively to the service that we offer to God.  When American Lutherans lost Norwegian and German, they also lost the Lutheran understanding of Divine Service and adopted, in its place, the English and American view of worship.


The American view of church is not that God serves us.  It is that we serve God.  The purpose of Christians getting together is to praise God together, to celebrate his goodness, to glorify his name, and so forth.  No good Lutheran is going to argue with that!  But we would also insist that the church service is literally Divine Service, and by that we mean both the service that God offers to us and the service that we offer to God.


The reason today’s Gospel Lesson is familiar to us is because it has assumed a part of the Ordinary of the Divine Service, the Ordinary being that part of the service that is ordinarily or regularly used.  Before we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins, we sing the words of the crowd that welcomed him into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest!”  They cried out these words to welcome Christ into the holy city to save his people from their sins.  We sing these words to welcome Christ who comes to his holy Church to save his people from their sins.  God in the flesh rode on the donkey into Jerusalem.  God in the flesh comes to us with his body and his blood.  Jesus came to Jerusalem to give his body into death and to shed his blood for the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus comes to his Church and gives her to eat and to drink the body that was given into death for her and the blood that was shed on the cross for her to take away her sins.


Christ comes to serve us.  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  The name of the Lord is not how we obtain power.  The famous Protestant preacher and writer, Norman Vincent Peale, used to promote what he called a formula for successful prayer, teaching millions of Christians how to get God to do what you want him to do.  Nor is the name of the Lord the correct word to use when addressing God as the Jehovah’s Witnesses imagine.  What a sad spectacle to behold!  In their legalistic fanaticism to call God by the right name they abandon the true God in favor of an idol, not knowing that Jesus Christ is Jehovah God.


But you can understand why they don’t know this.  What in the world is Jehovah doing riding on a donkey?  Why would God humble himself in such a way?  Why would he, who from eternity has shared divine equality with the Father, become obedient, taking on himself the form of a slave, and humbly serving God and man all the way to his crucifixion on a cross?  It boggles the mind, and so we cannot figure it out the way we can figure other things out.  Instead, we confess with St. Paul that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.


Christ serves us on the cross by suffering and dying and bearing our sins.  Christ serves us today by coming in the name of the Lord, baptizing us in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; by absolving us of our sins and preaching to us through his ministers; by giving us to eat and to drink of his body and blood.  By serving us he empowers us to serve him.


You cannot serve until you have been served.  Jesus said that he came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.  Only when Christ serves you can you serve him.  This is because until your sins are forgiven by his blood those sins remain on you, staining you, polluting you, and keeping you from doing good.  As Jesus says, a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Until God serves you by means of his gospel and sacraments and justifies you by the blood of Jesus, your sin corrupts everything you do so that even the most holy and noble things are sin.  You must be served by God.  It is by being served that you are enabled to serve.


St. Paul explains it in these words:


Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.  Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, 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. Philippians 2:4-8


I recently did something I never do and counsel others never to do.  I got into an argument on Facebook.  The topic was same-sex marriage, something that is literally impossible, but in our day of sanctified selfishness considered to be a civil right.  As the argument progressed, it dawned on me that the young man with whom I was arguing saw nothing wrong with selfishness.  How can homosexuality be wrong if it pleases you when pleasing yourself is the greatest good?  That’s the ethic of our generation.  Serving yourself first is a virtue.  Standing up for your rights is courageous.  Humbly bowing before injustice and abuse is the sign of a fool.


If it is, we had better become fools if we want to be Christians.  Who, better than Jesus Christ, can model the Christian life for Christians?  St. Paul teaches us to think as he thought.  He has the dignity and glory of God – being equal with the Father – and he did not scorn to submit to authority, obey, suffer, and die.  He serves to us in his gospel and sacraments the fruits of this death: forgiveness of our sins and everlasting life.  By forgiving us and setting us free from our sins, he also defines for us what the good life is.  It is a life of humility and service.


Think like Jesus thought.  You are shown disrespect.  You are not given credit for what you did.  Others are elevated above you.  They didn’t deserve it.  You did.  But they got the credit.  That hurts.  You think you are small and weak if you don’t retaliate.  You think you are a sap to suffer the unjust wrong.  Stop that way of thinking.  You’re a Christian.  Think as Jesus thought.  Consider how he arrived in his holy city to assume his kingdom.  Look where it sent him.  And this wasn’t just a spur of the moment decision.  It had been determined already by the prophetic word which cannot be broken.  The daughter of Zion would rejoice to see her King come to her humbly riding on a donkey.  He would bear our griefs, carry our sorrows, and be stricken, smitten, and afflicted. 


The lowly tasks you think are demeaning are demeaning only according to that way of thinking that considers the cross foolishness and the suffering of the God-man offensive.  What you do as a Christian is precious to God, even as you are precious to God.  God accepts the service you offer to him, even if the world never notices.  Fathers and mothers who care for their children, disciplining them in love, bringing them to church, and teaching them God’s word at home are serving God.  It is a greater service than making a million dollars, getting a prestigious job, or receiving acclaim from the crowd.  Doing an honest day’s work for an incompetent boss, serving in love and devotion a domineering husband or disrespectful wife, paying taxes to a wasteful government, keeping your mouth shut when you are right and the other is wrong because your pride isn’t more precious than peace –  these don’t seem like such great things to do.  Let Jesus define what greatness is.  He lowers himself to greatness, and calls us to follow him.


You don’t become a Christian by imitating him.  God makes you a Christian by his gospel and sacraments.  That’s also how he keeps you in the true faith.  He gives and you receive.  It is not in imitating Christ that you become a Christian.  But if you are a Christian you have the mind of Christ.  It’s an attitude.  It comes from being served by the Lord Jesus.  As you think, so you do.


We find humility degrading, unrewarding, frustrating, and ultimately unsatisfying.  Why?  We are fools.  We’re enamored by visions of the good life that are false advertising.  When we are insulted and mistreated, especially on account of confessing Christ and laying claim to the life he gave us to live, God blesses us and honors us.  God became one of us to bring us back to God.  Jesus will be confessed as Lord by every tongue in heaven and earth.  First, he suffered.  He humbled himself.  He obeyed, even when it was downright unjust.  That, brothers and sisters, is the good life.  Jesus lived it for us to win for us eternal life.  He gives it to us.  Then he stays with us as we imitate his humility, giving us his grace and Spirit, forgiving us when we fail, sustaining us with his holy Word and sacrament.  He serves us.  This is how and why we live our lives in service to him and to our neighbor.


Rolf D. Preus


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