On Palm Sunday
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, April 20, 2008
(St. John 12:1-18)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God is One. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!
We sing a hymn on Palm Sunday giving thanks that the Holy Spirit has brought us together this day in His most holy Church. In I Timothy chapter 3, verse 15 St. Paul calls this Church, "the pillar and ground of the truth". The Church is "the pillar and ground of the truth" - the very Church in which we are gathered, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church of the Apostles, the Church which has kept the faith in purity and offers it to the world. We must stay close to Her like children to their mother and be nourished by Her teaching so that we do not fall away from the Lord. This Church is the ark of salvation. Every one of us is here today because we have heard His voice.
Do to a misunderstanding of Holy Scripture many among the Jews made a serious mistake. They expected an earthly Messiah. They imagined an avenging savior who would bring down the Roman Empire and reestablish the Kingdom of David. They did not know how to read the prophecy of Isaiah that reads, "He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief...He was despised and we did not esteem Him. Surely He Himself bore our grief and carried our sorrows. He was pierced because of our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities...And by His scourging we are all healed." The true Messiah is "the Suffering Servant." Isaiah laments in chapter 48, "O that you had hearkened to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river and your righteousness like the waves of the sea..." But they did not as many in our time do not.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem humbly on a donkey, not like a king, but like a commoner. This was a fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy. The pious crowd would have recognized this. Still the Lord knew their adulation was misguided and would last only a little while. They looked for liberation from Rome, but He offered something much better: liberation from sin and death. He chose a donkey to fulfill a prophecy and to confirm what he would say later in His trial, "My kingdom is not of this world." As he sat in the temple and taught for several days until His arrest the people could not fail to notice that He did not talk about establishing an earthly kingdom. Had they noticed His Life itself would have altered their interpretation. But they were blinded by their own expectations just as we are.
Interpretation must be handled very carefully. The Fathers wisely taught that Scripture is not in the reading. Scripture lies in the interpretation and if the interpretation is wrong, then the Scripture is adulterated. The Scriptures suffer much abuse from those who refuse to make reference to the Church which wrote them. Interpretation of Scripture is not a private matter (read 2 Peter 1:20), because the Bible is the Book of the Church interpretation belongs to the Church. Reading Scripture calls for extreme humility and obedience for we must submit every thought "bringing every thought captive to Christ", that is, to what has been handed down by the Church. Our capacity for self-delusion is infinite. Reading Holy Scripture without the help of the Church is like staring into the sun with unaided eyes. We need help, the help of the Church which wrote the Scripture. Many have been separated from the Body of Christ due to bad interpretations of the Bible. Only by immersing ourselves in the life of the Church can we come to know what Scripture means.
Take all the nonsense we read about the Second Coming these days. Due to terrible interpretations of Revelation and the Old Testament, many are expecting for a regal and earthly Messiah like the Jews did on that first Palm Sunday. They look for an angry avenging judge, an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like hero, who will come swooping out the clouds to rescue them and smite the ungodly with divine wrath. How misguided! The "Left Behind" books are nothing but fantasy and delusion. Apocalyptic language is highly stylized and never to be taken literally. The hope for an angry, vengeful Messiah comes from angry, vengeful believers. The appeal of such a theology escapes me. It reveals deep psychosis.
When Fr. Timothy Ferguson visited the Holy Land a couple of years ago he met a friendly evangelical Christian shop-keeper. The shopkeeper told him to take note of the grandstand that had been built along the road to Jericho overlooking the Valley of Megiddo. His group built it so they could watch the final battle between God and the devil. And because these folks were biblical literalists the shop-keeper insisted that the soldiers must ride on horse back and wield tactical nuclear weapons! This, my friends, is biblical literalism run amok not to mention just a little crazy!
The coming Messiah is "the Suffering Servant." We do not await liberation for He has already come! When He comes again we will adore Him because He is love. The One who was born in a manger, who healed the sick and raised the dead, who suffered and died for us on the Cross is the same One who will descend "with the sound of the trumpet". He will bring with Him the divine, consuming fire called Mercy. Some will be unable to accept this revelation then for they cannot embrace it now. Unlimited, unconditional compassion is more frightening than divine wrath to sinners. Those who greet Christ every week in the Divine Liturgy, who pray His Name with every breath, who meditate on Him in silence, who receive His Body and Blood, who know and live the life of His Church already know there is no reason to fear. "Perfect love casts out fear". These will recognize Him for He is familiar to them. The shock and dismay of the Second Coming will be caused by the sudden, unexpected, universal outpouring of God's compassion so spectacular and overwhelming that "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ to the glory of God the Father." Everyone will cry, "We are not worthy of such great love!" His first coming was love and His second coming will be love. How do we know this? Because scripture says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" and because "God is love". (I John 4:8) Those who do not love their neighbors will be deeply disappointed.
We celebrate this day joyfully for one reason: because God is love. My dearest friends let us love and serve God through our divine worship today in the power of the Holy Spirit Who has brought us together. Let us greet one another with love and tenderness so that He who is n our midst will be pleased. Directing our fullest attention to the task at hand let us lay aside all earthy cares and celebrate the truth: The Lord of Love, Christ is in our midst!