GOSPEL: Matthew 21:1-11
1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The 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!”
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This season of Lent we’ve been talking about questions. The questions asked by scripture – and the questions we must ask. We heard questions this morning – Who is this?? Who will declare me guilty? Are you the king of the Jews? My God, My God why have you forsaken me? These are but some of the questions posed by scripture. We hear the story of the cross – an instrument of not only violence but terror – and an unspoken question lingers for many. Why the cross?
It wasn’t just the capital punishment of choice for political or religious agitators – it was a method of control. And just as humanity did for thousands of years, public execution was meant to humiliate and send a message. Whether it be burning at the stake of women accused of witchcraft or lynching of innocent black men – the message was clear. You are nothing, your life has no meaning, and we’ll all stand around and watch. That threat that sends a message…
Why the cross?
My 6-year-old daughter asked me last week, “Why did Jesus have to die?” You know how hard it is to not only explain the cross to a small child, but to a small child who is very aware of what a crucifix is, what death means, and why it’s sad and bad and wrong to kill someone. But when we say that Jesus’ death saves us – what do we mean exactly and how does that work?
Violence and death are things that are opposed to God’s peace and abundant life, but crucifixion is a good thing? Jesus shouldn’t have been betrayed but it’s good that he died for us?
There are at least 7 different ways to look at the cross, its purpose, and its work. This work is called atonement; how does the cross fix the situation? Think about how you’ve heard the cross and Jesus’ death talked about. “Jesus has paid the price!” But digging deeper – do you believe in a God who would demand a brutal sacrifice? A God whose anger and system of justice could be placated by the death of an innocent person?
What about the theory that Jesus’ death was our example? That the world would be better, and we would all be saved if people acted like him? Did Jesus sacrifice himself? Or did the Father let his son be sacrificed? What sort of transactional economic system is God running here?
But if Jesus is God, and he chose to go to the cross, and knew about it from the get go – according to some gospel’s viewpoints, then Jesus’s death demonstrates God’s love to us because it shows the extent to which God is willing to identify with our lot as suffering and mortal humans. Willing to die for us. And then because He is God – he beats death at death’s own game. An article I read this week by Yale professor S. Mark Heim reminded me of my own attempt to understand this system from a young age with The Chronicles of Narnia.
“C. S. Lewis, who knew the mythical heritage of the world better than most, saw this aspect of the crucifixion clearly. In his Christian allegory the Chronicles of Narnia, the lion Aslan, the Christ figure, allows himself to be killed so that the evil powers will release those they hold hostage. The idea of this exchange is proposed by the evil powers. The sacrificial process is known to all from the earliest times; it is the law that an innocent one may die on behalf of others and so free them. It is called “deep magic from the dawn of time.”
The evil powers love this arrangement and, incidentally, have no intention of keeping their side of the bargain after Aslan is dead. The resurrection comes into this story as an unexpected development, from what Aslan calls “deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” something about which the evil powers knew nothing. And when Aslan rises, the ancient stone altar on which the sacrifice was offered cracks and crumbles in pieces, never to be used again. The gospel, then, is not ultimately about the exchange of victims, but about ending the bloodshed.”
The traditional systems of threats and oppression, violence and death, retribution, and debt, was blown out of the water – and these evil powers are revealed to have no standing in God’s court of mercy. The cross exposes the roots of human violence and scapegoating the innocent. The crucifixion transformed violent death and suffering into a way forward for everyone, by entering that suffering, God identifies with people who experience death and suffering.
As we walk towards the cross this holy week – we view everything we hear through the lens of the cross. It means that we believe life comes out of death, because we know the end of the story. Listen closely this week for the ways that the story draws us in. But in the meantime – we ask, why the cross?
In the end, even CS Lewis himself wrote
“A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him.”
Have a blessed Holy Week,