On Easter Christ conquered sin through his death and resurrection. Through baptism and faith we participate in this dying and rising with Christ. In the early church, catechumens preparing for Christian initiation were brought into the Church through Baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. It is at Easter that we remember the vows of our Baptisms; that we may put off malice and wickedness, and put on sincerity and truth.
The Sundays following Easter served as a time to teach new converts how to live in light of their baptisms; in other words, how to live as Christians. Today has become known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because the in this morning’s Gospel our Lord describes himself as The Good Shepherd.
One of the primary metaphors the Bible uses to describe God is that of a Shepherd. Perhaps the most famous passage in all of Scripture is the 23rd Psalm. Even those who have a passing knowledge of Judaism or Christianity most likely know the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
When the Bible speaks of humanity, the image most used is sheep. Little sheep are sometimes synonymous with the idea of “being cute.” But the Bible doesn’t use the term to denote lovability; it uses it to represent stupidity. It is not a compliment; it is an insult. Isaiah tells us, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.” Without a shepherd’s guidance, sheep will die.
When Jesus told the Pharisees in John 10 that he is The Good Shepherd, they knew exactly the claim he was making. His Jewish audience most likely knew the 23rd Psalm. They knew that God was the great shepherd of Israel who provided for all their needs. But the Pharisees also knew that the religious and civil authorities of Israel were referred to as Shepherds. By claiming to be The Good Shepherd Jesus is not only claiming to be God, but he is also giving an indictment to the failed leadership of Israel, past and present, including the Pharisees. Jesus had come to Israel be the True Shepherd of God’s flock. He is applying the messianic prophecy of Ezekiel 34 to himself,
“ For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered …I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel… I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD.”
Learning to live as a Christian means learning to live under the leadership of The Shepherd. Today’s Gospel not only tells us something wonderful about the character of Jesus, it also tells us that we aren’t in a condition to fully care for ourselves. We are His sheep, which means we must live in utter dependence of Him. We must recognize our condition and his authority.
Even though we just celebrated the conquering of sin and death, we quickly fall back into patterns of foolish behavior. Did you know that sheep would walk off a cliff if there were no fence to keep them in? When sheep eat grass, they will continue to chew the dirt even after the grass is gone. They will actually starve to death if they are not led to greener pastures, even if those pastures are directly behind them. The disciplines we took up in Lent forced us to keep our eyes on Jesus, to see where he would he would lead us. In Lent, most of us spent more time in God’s word, more time in prayer, and more time in service to others. Now that we have entered back into our daily routine, we may be less conscious of the spiritual battle that surrounds us. It is easy to think that we can fight the world, the flesh and the devil in our own strength. But the reality is, we are sheep; we go astray, and we get off course. Though we like the idea of Jesus as our Good Shepherd, we treat him more as the good consultant. Sheep don’t consult with Shepherds to choose a course of action; they follow where they are led.
Jesus is The Good Shepherd because he gives his life for his sheep. His love for the sheep is so comprehensive, that he will die for them. This leadership is contrasted with the hireling, a shepherd who is just in it for the money. In John chapter 10, Jesus implicates the Pharisees as hirelings; they are Israel’s poor shepherds who wound their own people. The hireling flees when a lion, wolf, or other serious danger comes crouching at the door. The great danger in the Christian life is sin. In Genesis, just before Cain killed his brother Abel, the Lord warned him about his anger saying,
“Beware, sin is crouching at your door.” The Good Shepherd’s love for us is so boundless that when the threat is great, he lays down his life, and becomes a sheep. Jesus conquered death by becoming a Lamb.
In the 7th chapter of the book of Revelation, St. John catches a glimpse of heavenly worship, where he sees a Lamb sitting on a throne surrounded by worshippers. Revelation tells us that this Lamb will “shepherd” and lead us to fountains of living water (7:16-17).
During the week, we wonder into unknown pastures, but Jesus gathers us back each Sunday at the Eucharist. This is a future and present experience of the Good Shepherd gathering the lost sheep from all the nations around himself, where we feed upon rich pastures, and drink from the fountains of living water. Good Shepherd Sunday teaches us to place our hope in the only one who can satisfy all our needs, Jesus Christ, The Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.
Palm Sunday presents a number of contrasts. It is a day to celebrate Christ as King, and yet, his crown is one made of thorns. Today we sing hymns of praise, as well as hymns of lament. While we are joyously celebrating the majesty, power and rule of Christ, we are also experiencing betrayal, humiliation and death.
When we march into the church with Palm leaves, we are playing our part in the drama of the original Palm Sunday, where people from all over the Roman Empire marched into Jerusalem to Celebrate the Feast of the Passover; and this is where they welcomed the arrival of Jesus. But we are also taking our role as betrayers, whose joy turns into shouts of “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!”
In the Gospels, Palm Sunday is connected with cleansing of the Temple. Jerusalem was the center of the Passover because the Temple was in Jerusalem. The Temple was the place where the Presence of God was to be experienced. It was central to the Jewish religious experience because it was the sole place to offer your sacrifices to God. For the Jewish people, the Temple was the place where heaven touched the earth.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem as King, he also came into the Temple as King. When he saw that the worship of God had turned into a bargaining flea market, he became furious. John’s Gospel records Jesus storming through the Temple with a whip of cords, turning over the tables of those who sold animals and exchanged the currency. Temple bureaucrats had destroyed His house; and He has come to rearrange the furniture. The problem was not the sale of animals for sacrifice; this was a good and necessary thing. But the sale of sacrificial animals overshadowed actual worship because it was taking place inside the Temple. The focus had gone from the life of prayer, to the business side of religion. Jesus came to Jerusalem to restore the Temple so it could be a “house of prayer for all people.” But Jesus didn’t just come into the Temple to purify its worship; He came to utterly renew it.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus referred to himself as the Temple, “Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). The Apostle John tells us that when Jesus was speaking of the Temple, he was speaking of His body. Before the cross, Temple worship was limited to the center of Jerusalem. But after the cross, after Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice of Himself, Temple worship in the person of Jesus Christ is available to “all people.”
Jesus is to be at the center of our lives. Two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, Jesus was the place where heaven touched earth, and today we come to Jesus to offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. By encountering Jesus in Prayer and Worship, we eat the Bread from heaven that came down to give life to the world. But before we approach Him, we must make sure our house is in order.
When Christ comes into our lives, is he going to need to rearrange the furniture, to restore the focus to Him? Have we set up false altars to ourselves, and our needs, so that the worship of Christ is not at the center?
Conversion of the heart requires both the proper placement of Christ as the center of our lives, but also, a changed will that fosters affection for the things of God. The Temple before Passover had become a place where duties were being processed and performed so efficiently, you that you could buy an animal right near the altar, sacrifice it to God, and be on your way. What kind of worship is this? Is this a house of prayer? No, it is a processing center.
Many of us have an eventful week ahead, preparing for family parties, business projects, class assignments or just the business of life. It could be all too easy to turn Holy Week into an efficient worship-processing center.
Palm Sunday reminds us that Christ is not only King of creation, but He is the king of our lives. We must always be ready for His arrival, as the faithful and wise Virgins who kept their lamps burning, so that when Jesus comes in glory we can boldly say “Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the Highest.”
Looking back on our Lenten journey, it seems appropriate to ask a few questions. For if the goal of all of our fasts and disciplines is to be conformed into the image of Christ, how are we doing? Have our minds been renewed to the mind of Christ? Have we made the Messiah into something that we want and expect, or have we taken up our Cross and followed him?
Today, Palm Sunday inaugurates Holy Week – the final week of the life of Jesus before he goes to the Cross. It is a week of expectation. It is a week of sadness, and yet, a week of joy. This triumph that we experience today as we commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, will turn into deceit, fear, confusion, and crushed expectations.
Almost 40 days ago at the beginning of Lent, we set ourselves on course with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem as he was preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God. Today, we have reached that Holy City of Jerusalem, and we know what awaits our Savior. You would think we would be mourning, and yet, there is joy, there is celebration. There is a terribly good future that we know must come to pass. And so, we have joined the crowd and shouted, “Blessed is he that Cometh in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the Highest.”
We confidently shout with joy because we know what Sunday will bring, but why did the disciples and the crowds shout with joy as well?
Jesus was not only traveling with his immediate disciples and friends, but with many other Jews who were making the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover – a feast that Celebrated what God had done for the Jewish people in the Exodus out of Egypt, out of bondage and slavery. Multitudes came from all over the region, and the city was bustling with people. Wherever there are crowds of people, there are also merchants, swindlers, consumers, entertainers are soldiers. Jerusalem was alive; it was the perfect place for a parade, or a riot.
The Jewish people had been waiting for the promised Messiah – for the Christ, who would save them from their Oppressors, give them back their land, and set them free. Jesus was coming to set them free; to lead them out of Bondage, to begin the course on a New Exodus, but it was not what they were expecting.
Luke tells us that before Jesus entered the city, he asked the disciples to go and get a colt that nobody had ridden before, and bring it to him. This may sound odd to us, but the disciples instantly picked up on what Jesus was doing, so they immediately got put some royal garments on the young colt. Their expectations were lifted, for their King had come. For the words of Zechariah the prophet speak of this moment: “Behold, your king is coming to you, righteous and humble, mounted on a colt.” The disciples wanted to make sure that their King had the Royal garments, and a Royal welcome as he entered their Holy City.
What hit me afresh as I re-read the Gospels during Lent is that the Disciples were most excited about Jesus being their King on their terms and that we do the exact same thing. We love leaders who are what we expect, who dress like we want them to and believe in what we believe. Looking back on the life of Jesus in the gospels, it is clear that He couldn’t stop talking about the Kingdom of God and how it worked – that the last are first, and the first are last – and that those who are poor, are actually rich. Those who have power must be the servants of all, and that following Jesus means denying your own will and submitting to God’s will. But the Disciples had a preconceived idea of what the Kingdom of God was, and they placed Jesus into that context. When Peter Confessed Jesus as the Christ – the one they had been waiting for, Jesus told Peter that the Christ must die, and Peter got angry. He was furious. This changed all of Peter’s plans. For Peter, the Messiah was going to conquer Israel’s enemies, not be conquered by them. His expectations were shattered.
As we prepare to ascend the altar of God and to meet Christ in his offering of Himself, how do we conform ourselves to him, and to what he wants us to be? The answer is found in our Epistle this morning where St Paul tells us what the mind of Christ looks like. He tells us that Christ made himself of no reputation, but took the form of a servant, and humbled himself to the point of death. The journey of Christ likeness begins by taking up our Cross daily, and dying to our own wills and expectations, and submitting ourselves to His will. This journey is the new Exodus, where Jesus takes us out of the bondage of sin, deception and guilt, and frees us to live life abundantly in The Kingdom of God. This is why we celebrate; this is why there is Joy. Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem marked a victory for the Kingdom of God, that would extend beyond Israel into the hearts and minds of people everywhere. For Christ conquered Sin & Death on the Cross, and he is our King. With this journey to the Cross ahead of us we can look to Jesus and say with boldness, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”