Palm Sunday| April 1, 2012| Rev. Rolf Preus| Isaiah 6:1-5 and Matthew 21:6-9
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Isaiah 6:1-5
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!” Matthew 21:6-9
Isaiah saw God in a vision and wanted to run away and hide. The multitudes saw God in the flesh and ran out to greet him. God is God. The same Lord who appeared to Isaiah in his glory surrounded by angels is the Lord who rode on a donkey into Jerusalem. When Isaiah saw his God in glory he saw his sin. When the crowd saw their God in the flesh they saw their Savior from sin.
In Isaiah’s vision of God’s glory the angels cried out their praise. When Jesus entered the holy city, the crowd cried out their praise. These two cries of praise are joined together in a hymn that the Church has been singing for over nineteen hundred years now. We call it the Sanctus. Here is how it goes:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory;
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he, blessed is he,
Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.
We sing with the angels who cover their faces and their feet. They teach us by their humility that we must humble ourselves before our God. If they who are confirmed in glory and cannot sin must humble themselves in the presence of God, we who are sinners living in a sinful world must surely do the same. This is why Isaiah cried out as he did, bemoaning his sin and his people’s sin, when he saw God’s glory in a heavenly vision. He said,
Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.
Nobody cried out “Woe is me” when witnessing Jesus riding on a donkey entering into Jerusalem. They put palm branches on the road to welcome their God. In Isaiah’s vision, God is seen in his naked glory. The Holy Trinity is revealed as he is, without any covering. This holy God is terrifying to behold. The whole earth is full of his glory. But when God the Son becomes a man and covers up his divinity under humility, he strikes no fear. Rather, he inspires faith.
He did not change. While setting aside the form of God and assuming the form of a servant he retained the nature of God. God did not become less than God. But when God the Son became flesh he also humbled himself and became a servant, and was obedient all the way to the cross. Who was he while he was doing this? He was the almighty and everlasting God. That’s who he was! United in eternal love with the Father and the Holy Spirit, the unity in Trinity was never broken as the Word made flesh covered up his glory and came to sinful humanity in the only way they could receive him.
God comes to us where we are in a way that we can come to him and know him and rely on him. Seeing God in the vision, Isaiah could listen in awe to the angel’s voices saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of your glory.” But he could not approach. He shrunk back in fear. He could not face the holy, holy, holy God. It is a fearful thing to fall into his hands. No one living can stand before him. Everyone must run and hide and cry out, “Woe is me!”
But the song does not end with, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” It continues with the words, “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he, blessed is he, blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.” The holy God who lives in that unapproachable light that no sinner can see and live is . . . where? Where is he? There! He’s riding on a donkey. He is coming to his people in humility. He is coming to them to suffer for them. The kingdom he claimed can be won only by the payment of his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.
See how he comes. Sing how he comes. And then, after singing the Sanctus, we pray the prayer Jesus gave us, the perfect prayer that prays God for everything good. Then we listen to Jesus’ words that make mere bread and ordinary wine his life-giving body and blood. After Jesus blesses the elements with his almighty word, we sing the Agnus Dei, pleading for mercy to Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Then we walk down the aisle, kneel at the altar, and receive into our bodies the body and blood of Jesus.
They call it the medicine of immortality because it brings us eternal life. The body that bore our sin and the blood shed to forgive our sins give us the forgiveness Jesus purchased by that suffering. And where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation. When we eat and drink we receive orally what it is and we receive spiritually what it provides. It is the body and blood of Jesus. That’s what we receive orally, that is, with our mouths. It provides forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. That’s what we receive spiritually, that is, through faith.
And this is how we meet our God. The God who terrified Isaiah because he did not hide his glory is the God who was welcomed by the adoring crowd on Palm Sunday because he hid his glory. This is the God whose body and blood we eat and drink, both orally and spiritually, in the Lord’s Supper as we join with the angels of Isaiah’s vision and the Palm Sunday crowd in singing the Sanctus.
He came in humility. This is how we receive him. The apostle says, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” Think as Jesus thought. This is how we approach him. We humble ourselves before him. We do not despise his lowly appearance. Rather, we embrace him where he has chosen to be.
Pride prevents people from receiving God where God chooses to reveal himself. Pride wants to ride on the clouds to heaven. Pride builds the tower up to God and boasts that it can accomplish anything it sets its mind to. Pride refuses to consider Isaiah’s vision. Pride won’t let God be God or speak as if he is, so when pride sees God riding on the donkey, suffering the loss of the crowd’s affection, enduring betrayal, denial, whipping, mocking, and crucifixion – it turns away from such a terrible sight, shakes his head, and bemoans man’s inhumanity to man. Pride cannot understand why the holy and almighty God would become a humble and obedient servant and willingly take upon himself the shame and guilt of sinners.
This is why Holy Week is ignored. Universities will schedule classes for the evening of Maundy Thursday. Most of the time, they don’t even cancel classes for Good Friday. Easter is about Easter bunnies, the budding spring, and selling stuff you don’t need. Holy Week has nothing to do with the way most Americans live.
And its events don’t make much sense except, perhaps, as an example of ecclesiastical conniving, political manipulation, heroic sacrifice, or some other moral theme. That God would require the shedding of his own blood for the forgiveness of sinners is not considered by people who have never said “Woe is me, I am undone” when confronted with God’s holy presence. So the Sanctus isn’t sung. When our unclean lips cause us no shame we will not open them to praise him who comes to bear that shame upon himself and to take it away.
Don’t let anyone take away from you the treasures of this most holy week. Follow Jesus to the cross. Watch him closely and learn from him. What is he doing as he willingly embraces the burden we bear on our own guilty souls? He takes that burden off of us so that when we come and kneel before the altar and open our mouths we may receive, not just reminders of an absent Jesus who is far above us, but the very body and blood of the ever present Lord Jesus by which our sins are removed from us as far as the east is from the west.
And he is showing us the way to live a genuinely blessed life. “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” Yes, and blessed are those who follow the example of his deep humility. When we humble ourselves in imitation of our Lord’s humility we find true dignity and honor. Our imitations, poor as they may be, of our Lord’s humble life, are imitations that our Father in heaven treasures. Yes, he treasures what we do in imitating the humility of Jesus. Every act of kindness we offer; every word of encouragement; every defense of the weak; every confession of the truth – God sees such humble offerings as precious, even when we tremble at our own unworthiness and the inadequacy of everything we do.
The Sanctus is not just a portion of the liturgy that we sing before going up to receive the Lord’s Supper. The Sanctus is the pattern for our lives. The holy God appears to us and evokes terror within our hearts for our many sins of thought, word, and deed. Our unclean lips accuse our conscience. We’ve spoken in judgment to hurt rather than in humility to bless. God knows it and we know it, but rather than letting us run from him, this same holy God comes to us in the only way we can receive him, humbly, covering up his glory, so that he might cover up our sin. Then we, receiving from him the medicine of immortality in our bodies, use these bodies to imitate the love by which we have received eternal life. He gives us the mind of Christ and with it a good life, a holy life, a blessed life worth living in Jesus’ name. Amen
Rolf D. Preus