Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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April 9, 2017

"No Skipping Over"

Text: Luke 19:29-40

Philippians 2:5-11

            As the Kowalski family sat and stood around Stanley’s bed in the ICU of Memorial City Hospital during the last hours of his earthly life, a lot of thoughts were racing through their minds. Something all of them were thinking -- but were hesitant to speak aloud in the early hours of their vigil -- was this: Stanley….. dad…..granddad has been suffering at home for months. Why must he continue to suffer here? Why won’t the good Lord take him? What is He waiting for?

A deeply religious Roman Catholic family, the Kowalski’s knew Stanley’s time was close at hand. They knew exactly where their husband, father, grandfather was headed. Stanley knew exactly where he was headed. In fact, Stanley’s deep religious conviction is what kept the family steady during his decline. The Last Rites had been duly administered. No one in the Kowalski clan had any question regarding the glorious destiny awaiting him just on the other side.

            But during those final hours of Stanley’s labored breathing, and during those final hours of the family’s anxiety and agonizing, how they wished to skip the painful last steps of the journey, and see Stanley released into God’s arms. And how fervently Stanley’s wife prayed for that as she sat at his side, her head bowed; her hands upon his. Many of us have been in that seat; praying those prayers that our loved one’s suffering would come to an end.

            Philip Yancey, who’s an editor for the widely-read Christianity Today Magazine, recalls how at the fundamentalist church where he was raised, there was no observance of the major events of Holy Week; no Maundy Thursday; no Good Friday. He writes, “The church I grew up in skipped right past the events of Holy week in a rush to hear the trumpet sounds of Easter.” It’s understandable that we would desire to skip through the pain of Holy Week. Jesus on the cross signifies death. Jesus resurrected from the tomb signifies life. A sanctuary stripped bare for Good Friday is depressing. A sanctuary filled with lilies for Easter is glorious. Who doesn’t want – in a manner of speaking – to skip the guts and get to the glory? Yet Yancey has learned in his adult life that the Bible, in his estimation, “slows down rather than speeds up when it gets to the events of Holy Week.”

            Did you know that today isn’t liturgically named Palm Sunday? Today is actually Passion/Palm Sunday, because although the week begins with palms and hosannas, and ends with the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can neither avoid nor ignore what lies in between – the suffering, the pain, the crucifixion, the guts, the passion of our Lord. Today actually ends with the beginning of a vigil of anxiety and agony; the longest week on the Christian calendar, and in the Christian life; a week during which acclamations of “hosanna!” descend to shouts of “Crucify him!” Frank Lyman writes that “The irony of the Palm Sunday story is how it ends with a fizzle instead of a sparkle.” So just what happened on that first Palm Sunday? Let’s read about it now.

            (READ LUKE 19:29-40)

            Amidst all the excitement on the road that day -- the acclamations and accolades, that which would swell the head of any person -- it’s important for us to understand that Jesus knew who He was – His identify, His mission, and His destination.

            There’s a story of a business-type airline traveler who thought quite highly of himself. Upon arrival at the airport, he found that his flight had been canceled. He wasn’t a very patient man, so he pushed and shoved his way to the front of the ticket line and angrily demanded a first-class ticket on the next available flight. The ticket agent explained that she’d be happy to help, but he’d just have to wait in line like everyone else. That was more than the man’s patience could bear. “Young lady, do you have any idea who I am!?” Whereupon the ticket agent picked up her microphone and announced, “Attention please. There’s a gentleman at the ticket counter who doesn’t know who he is. If anyone can identify him, he can be claimed at the counter.”

            Jesus knew exactly who He was. And He didn’t lord it over anyone. He didn’t’ come bellowing: “Do you have any idea who I am? He came riding into town on a lowly colt rather than upon a majestic stallion. And He alone knew this parade was merely a prelude to growing hostility and hatred; to a solemn last supper when he’d be betrayed by a close friend; to lonely agony in a garden; to cruel mocking and unspeakable torture; to humiliating death on a Roman cross. Palm Sunday was no end in itself, and there was no skipping over the pain of Gethsemane or Calvary. The cross was the moment to which Jesus had oriented His entire life. There would be no turning back.    Yet there is a miracle in the painful reality of Holy Week; in that agonizing vigil which begins as the “hosannas” die down. God proceeded to take the worst the world could do to Jesus, and made it good. If Maundy Thursday represents the agony of impending death, and Good Friday reveals the reality of sin, then Easter Sunday turns agony into ecstasy; guts into glory; effectively overcoming the very power of sin.

            That day on the road, Jesus knew His mission demanded no skipping over, but a courageous walking through the difficult days ahead. The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian Church that though Jesus was “……in the form of God…….being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death --- even death on a cross.” Jesus set His gaze unswervingly ahead to that week it would have been so much easier to skip over. Even so, Jesus in the midst of His very real agony, knew that at Easter – at the dawn of a new day and the beginning of a new week – hope would be resurrected; a mother named Mary would see her beloved son again; Mary Magdalene weeping outside a tomb would hear her name called by that familiar and cherished voice again. Life beyond the grave would be a reality. The cords of death would be snapped like so many worn out rubber bands by the glory of new life!

            Passion/Palm Sunday is ecstasy and agony jammed against each other, which is the enigma of life I suppose. We go from high to low; from mountain to valley. The art in living is to have faith, even when faith seems illogical in the face of present reality. But faith isn’t about skipping over. It’s about walking through.

            Some church choirs today will be singing the “Sanctus” movement from John Rutter’s “Requiem.” It’s a Palm Sunday piece which is considered the most joyful movement in the composition. But immediately following comes the somber movement called “Agnus Dei” in which the men sing with a rumbling tone: “In the midst of life, we are in death, we are in death.” It’s a chilling movement we would just as soon be tempted to skip over. Yet when the men are done singing “we are in death,” the women begin to sing in ethereal tones: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me shall never die, but have everlasting life.” Defeat is turned into victory! Death does not have the last word! The valley which must be traveled is only for a season. God will prevail!

            The final hours passed, and Stanley Kowalski entered into the glory of Christ. In reflection, his wife Karen says she wouldn’t have skipped a moment of her and Stanley’s fifty-two years together; not even the last few agonizing hours. “It was in the ICU,” Karen claims, “that we passed through our most sorrowful time, and recognized Stan’s most glorious moment. I would not have missed it for the world.” I’d like to wrap up with some words from English poet and clergyman John Donne who captures the essence of ultimate victory. He writes: “I shall rise…..from the prosternation of death, and never miss the sun….for I shall see the Son of God…… I shall rise from the grave….. I shall look up and never wonder when it shall be day, for the angel will tell me that time shall be no more.” On this Palm Sunday, let’s not rush headlong to hear the trumpets of Easter. Let’s not skip over the passion. In fact, let’s slow it down this week. Let’s not be afraid to engage and wrestle with the paradoxes and mysteries of Holy Week – this strange eternal battle between good and evil; between ecstasy and agony; between glory and guts; between life and death. Please be here Thursday as we plumb the depths of Jesus’ passion. Then be here next Sunday morning, for as Jesus knew; as Stanley Kowalski knew; as we know, glorious victory comes at the dawn of a new day, and the beginning of a new week.

Lord God Almighty, as we follow Jesus from Palms to passion, help us to open our hearts to the depth of His pain, and to the degree of His sacrifice. Rather than skip over the week ahead, may we walk through it, with faith and certainty in Christ’s glorious destiny, and our own. In Jesus’ name, so may it be.