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On the Sunday we call Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, the gospel reading (Matthew 21:1-11 & 27:11-54) offers the vivid picture of our Lord riding triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of his disciples and the crowds.  Matthew writes, “The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9)

The crowds are correct in their praise.  Truly, this is the Lord; this is the Messiah, the King of kings who has come.  Jesus rebukes the Pharisees who command that he silence the crowd.  He responds, “”I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:40)

This is the one through whom all creation was made.  He is the one who has no beginning and no end.  As the early church declared, “There was never a time when he was not.”  Jesus came to the earth from the glory of heaven. In his pastoral, priestly prayer prior to his arrest, Jesus prayed, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:5)

This hearkens back to Jesus’ birth when the angel appeared in great glory and declared to the shepherds, “A Savior who is Christ the Lord” has been born.  Then heaven opened and the multitude of angels sang “Glory to God in the highest.”  This glorious announcement of the Christ would seem to point to a prince being born in a king’s palace.  Rather, the shepherds arrived at a manger and viewed this Christ, humble and poor with his parents, seemingly needy like us.

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem seems to be an event to precede a majestic enthronement of the Christ.  It is easy for Christians to go from the Sunday of the Palms to Easter Sunday—from glory to glory, and avoid the road between; however, that is not the way of Jesus.  Jesus’ birth, his triumphal entry, his journey in the flesh, occur on the way of the cross.  The way of following Jesus leads to the cross.

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The meaningful relationships and accomplishments in our own lives often involve glorious events marking the way of the cross.  Marriage begins with glory and has glorious moments, and it also includes the way of the cross of self-denial, dying to self, bearing with one another, commitment and submission.  The glory of parenthood—the birth and the milestones, coincides with taking up one’s cross and sacrificing for the sake of others.  Sports, careers, education, etc., can only lead to glorious moments as much as one follows the way of the cross of discipline and submission.

Many of us Christians would say we know and understand what it means to be a Christian.  “Of course, we know how to be a Christian!” we would say.  I know how to play golf, too, “It’s easy…Tee up the ball and hit it until it is in the hole.” That hides the reality that I don’t know how to play golf well.  I continue to play badly, but yes, I know how to play.

We might describe being a Christian as getting saved by accepting Jesus, trying to live a good life and going to heaven when you die.  That is true.  The Christian life involves that. Like my description of golf, it doesn’t tell the whole story.  We can know about the Christian life and even how to do it and not do it very well at all.  I think the biggest reason for living the Christian life poorly is because we expect or demand to live from glory to glory yet resist and reject the way of the cross.  Jesus says we simply cannot be his disciples apart from the way of the cross.

We can be childish Christians refusing to mature in the faith.  Like a child who picks up a guitar and strums the strings making noise who says, “Ha! I know how to play the guitar,” we play at being a Christian by avoiding the way of the cross.  James Packer describes these as “innumerable converts who are existing in what seems a permanent baby stage – Christians who were never properly discipled and who spiritually have never grown up.”  Packer praises the Lord for his unfathomable love and faithfulness by which he keeps such immature Christians safe in the world.

Jesus’ life is bookmarked by a glorious birth announcement and a glorious resurrection; in between these is the way of the cross.  It is Jesus’ death that speaks to the centurion at the cross who declares, “Truly this was the Son of God!”  We know God’s Son, Jesus, will arises from death to great glory.

The glory of the Son of God is revealed in a passage of Revelation that reflects some of the jubilation and waving of Palm branches present in the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem,

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12)

We see the glory of God in the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death and the realm of Satan.  The saints in heaven rejoice in his glory.  We sometimes imagine or may even describe the Christian journey as from “glory to glory.” Paul writes,  “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:18)

Return to the picture of the glorious worship in heaven in Revelation 7:

“Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:13-14)

Only the blood of the Lamb is what allows for this glorious scene. For Jesus, the triumphal entry to the resurrection and his exaltation in heaven was traversed only by the way of the cross.

The road linking Palm Sunday, the triumphal entry, to Easter is the way of the cross.  The journey from our baptism, the washing of repentance and the new birth in Christ, to our entrance into this great multitude before the throne of God in heaven is also the way of the cross.  We live in the great tribulation of this fallen world. We will come out of it victorious by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The way to victory in Christ is the way of the cross.

We can only be Easter people if we are also Good Friday people.  If Jesus had merely ruled in his glory on earth, we would never have been saved from sin.  Because Jesus went to the cross, we can proclaim that even at the grave, “All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

As Christians, we are in Christ, and Christ is in us.  He is our “hope of glory.”  Paul writes, “thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.” (2 Corinthians 2:14) We could misinterpret this as describing a life of glory and triumph and having all we want during a royal life.

The Apostle Paul continues and describes the Christian life this way, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.  For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11)

When we consider our lives, we can identify times of affliction that we survived.  We have been perplexed, disillusioned and frustrated; life sometimes strikes us down.  We go through trials, and the Christian life doesn’t exempt us from trouble.  In the midst of all of these and on the way of the cross, we have victory through Jesus.  We may be driven to despair; however, we don’t have to go there ever, because we have hope and salvation.

Jesus exhorts the church, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)

The way of the cross may include faithfulness unto death—that is the way of the church! Jesus was triumphant always during his pilgrimage in the flesh.  He was never defeated and never failed.  His pilgrimage was for the glory of God.  He gave up his rights to glory and became a servant to the Father’s will.  His obedience led him to death on the cross.  For that faithful obedience, he is exalted in glory above all things. (Philippians 2:5-11)

I think Pope Benedict makes a poignant assertion, “Yet we know that through all the centuries, right up to the present, Christians need the Lord to teach every generation anew that his way is not the way of earthly power and glory, but the way of the Cross.” (Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict)

To worship the Lord in “Spirit and truth,” as he desires requires that we follow Jesus from glory to glory along the way of the cross.  Our destiny through Jesus is certain.  If we have experienced the glorious event of new birth in Christ, we are assured that we will experience the glory of his eternal kingdom of heaven.  That path from the glory of new birth to the glory of heaven takes us to the cross.  We are being conformed to Christ and shaped by the Lord, so that with Paul we can proclaim, I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

We will be where he is.  As Jesus prayed for himself to return to glory, he prayed also for us to be with him in glory,Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)

It is a mystery to me why the apostles of the Lord suffered and most were martyred for their faith.  I don’t understand why the Lord has allowed so many of his faithful followers in the early church to be killed for their faith.  I am saddened for the Christians who have suffered under communist, Islamic and other oppressive regimes in my own lifetime.  I am frustrated to hear of Christians in Syria, even children, who were tortured and killed for their faith during the month of this writing.

I know this is the way of the cross; it is the way from glory to glory.  It is the way of discipleship—to take up our cross, deny ourselves, lose our lives, following in the way of our Lord.  I know it is for his glory and good purpose.

A prayer from the Book of Common Prayer “collects” the calling of the Christians and the reliance on God’s grace, guidance and power.

“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.

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From the Book of Common Prayer

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a  season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

How do we begin and where do we aim our journey of Lent?  I believe we can find the answer when we look at the beginning of Jesus’ own journey of Lent.  His Lenten journey was not only the 40 day fast in the wilderness but was the entire trek from his baptism to the cross.  Jesus began his Lent when he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  At this pinnacle of his life, Jesus accepted the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the Father’s will to enter testing in the desolate place of the fallen world.  Jesus could have done anything as the Spirit-empowered, beloved Son of God.  He could have gone into the heart of Rome and begun to reign.  He could have ascended to heaven.  He could have indulged in whatever the flesh desires.  Rather, he began his self-denial of Lent.  His step toward the wilderness was a step toward the cross followed by one after the other into the desolation of sin and death. 

Lest we be deceived into thinking that Lent is an arbitrary suffering for the sake of itself or that the cross is the end of the story, we look to the resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus’ journey of self-denial and resisting temptation takes him to the cross of sin and death and to the resurrection from the dead.  Likewise, our Lenten journey begins and aims at the cross and the resurrection.    It is in Jerusalem that Jesus will die and be buried; it is also in Jerusalem where Jesus will rise from the dead.

Satan tempts Jesus to doubt his relationship with the Father and to entice him with promises of fulfillment and happiness.  Whereas at his baptism the Father embraced the Son, in his wilderness temptation the Son embraces the Father and the Father’s will.

He returns from the desert “in the power of the Spirit.”  His ministry begins demonstrated by miracles, authority over Satan and demons, authoritative teaching and love for people.  He begins his mission, that is still toward the cross and resurrection, by proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15)

In Jesus’ proclamation, his command of repentance coincides with the command to believe in the gospel—the good news of salvation in and through himself.  This gospel becomes defined by the early church as the salvation story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mk 1.1).

No matter how it has come to be characterized, repentance is best defined as a turning or changing of one’s life.  Christian repentance involves a grace-empowered turning away from temporal attachments toward Jesus Christ and toward the kingdom of God which is present in Jesus.  The season of Lent only makes sense if our eyes, heart and mind are on the crucified and risen One in order to cling to him and to be conformed to his image.

The term “gospel” means good news and glad tidings.  We are not called to turn from this world to something of similar value as it.  We are embracing good news of great joy. (Lk 2:10) We are turning toward eternal life and rewards in a kingdom that will one day be the only kingdom that exists.  What we repent of and what we turn to fail to balance.  The scales are infinitely weighed in favor of the kingdom of God and salvation.

The Anglican Church’s traditional Ash Wednesday gospel reading is from Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.  This series of teachings of Jesus exhorts his audience to give up the rewards of this world for the rewards that come from the Father and exist in the eternal kingdom of God.  That is what Lent entails—a turning from the attachments of this world whatever they may be in order to receive the rewards that come from an intimate relationship to the Father who sees all and alone gives eternal rewards.

Jesus says and repeats that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  He encourages us to give up storing treasures in this world that will dissolve and disappear—treasures of the world will be destroyed, stolen, lost or consumed no matter how you hold onto them.  Rather, he offers eternal treasures in heaven.  Jesus knows that this first heaven and earth will pass away, and a new heaven and a new earth will come.  Lent involves seeking and receiving the treasures that belong to the new heaven and new earth—the holy city, the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21).

So let’s begin our Lenten journey acknowledging the goodness of God–that he is, in fact, a God who rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)  At the center of our journey is the One we follow, Jesus Christ.  As we follow him, we affirm God’s grace and love demonstrated in the gift of Jesus.  We affirm the subsequent truth that the Father who gave us his one and only Son also graciously gives us all things. (Romans 8:32)

We give up the lesser to receive the greater.  We let go of the temporal to hold onto the eternal.  We turn a deaf ear to deception to grasp the truth.  We turn from the broad road to destruction to take one step after the other on the narrow road to life.  As it did for Jesus, that narrow road to life leads first to the cross of self-dying, self-denial, suffering and sacrifice for the glory of God.  But just like repentance does not occur in isolation without the gospel and kingdom, the cross does not occur without the assurance of the Easter resurrection.  The Easter resurrection would never have come if the Christ was not crucified on the cross; we don’t enter the kingdom of God and receive salvation unless we repent of our sins.

What is God calling you to do during this Lenten season?  We know that it will be congruent with Jesus’ call to repent and believe the good news of himself and his kingdom.  If we give up earthly things during this Lent, may we also take up heavenly things and live according to our citizenship in heaven.  This Lent, may our lives anticipate the new earth and the new heavens by living according to God’s rule now.  In that city, the light will be the light of God who dwells in the midst of it.  The water will be the water of eternal life.  The air will flow from the leaves of the tree of Life that are for our healing.  The food will be the fruit of the tree of life that gives abundant life.

Something that is often overlooked when it comes to repentance and especially during the time of Lent is that as we turn to God he heals us.  We are repenting (turning from and giving up) of those sinful things that cause death which is the punishment for sin.  When we turn to God in repentance, God heals our woundedness and brokenness.

John records Jesus citing Isaiah 6:10, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”  (Jn 12:40)  In our repentance and turning to Jesus, our eyes our being opened, our hearts softened and enlightened, and we are being healed spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically.   The Father is a rewarder of those who seek him and serve him.  He rewards us with what only he can give…eternal, abundant life and the treasures of heaven.

 

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