God Came Down

SJF • Palm Sunday 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG
The crowd said, He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.
Palm Sunday begins our Holy Week: a time of the church year full of contrasts and contradictions. It is a week that begins in triumph, or what seems to be triumph, and ends in defeat, or what seems to be defeat, and then turns into victory come Easter Day. It is, in short, a week of surprises and turnabouts, of lights and shadows, of joys and pains.

We see this already in the two Gospel passages we heard today, the Palm Gospel at the opening of our worship, and the Passion Gospel we just participated in. The crowd moves from praise to condemnation in a few short steps. As poet Samuel Crossman wrote,

Sometime they strew his way,
and his strong praises sing,
resounding all the day
hosannas to their King.
Then “Crucify!”
is all their breath,
and for his death
they thirst and cry.
But what I would like to do today is go back further than Palm Sunday, further back even than the Epiphany — right back to Christmas, which Saint Paul himself linked with the Passion in his letter to the Philippians. Because that’s when God first came down, when God first stooped himself, emptied himself, made himself weak and vulnerable — for what is more vulnerable than a newborn baby? God, as the old hymn says so well, “came down at Christmas.” He was, as Saint Paul said, “born in human likeness, found in human form.” And in that form of vulnerable meekness, in that human form he came down to us, and in that human form he saved us, even on the cross.

For his meekness was not met with a corresponding charity from those he came to save. No, his meekness seemed to create in the crowds that cursed him an even greater anger, an even greater hatred, to which he continued to submit himself in meekness. Ultimately, he did not back down or come down from the cross — and because he did not back down or come down from the cross, we are here today to testify to him as our Lord and Savior, not simply to honor him as a wise and prudent teacher who got off the hook by careful diplomacy.

We know from the evangelists, their testimony to what happened in Gethsemane, that Jesus did not want to go to the cross; Jesus did not want to die. But he willed to die. He could have backed down from the cross and its pain anytime he chose. But he didn’t. He remained obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He chose to do what he knew God demanded, that the debt of human sin would be paid in human flesh by one who shared that flesh without the sin.

Sin is disobedience, and if Christ had given in to his own fears or the devil’s temptations he would not have been able to carry out God’s redeeming work. And the last temptation, the last temptation of all was voiced by the crowds: “Come down from the cross.” The crowds did not want Jesus to be where he knew he must be, on the cross. The crowds did not want Jesus to be who he was, the messiah, the savior andredeemer of the world.

The crowds did not want a suffering savior, someone who would die for them to save them from their sins. They did not want someone who would die in meekness. No, they wanted some kind of Superman. The Messiah they wanted would use his superpowers, rip those nails out of the wood, break himself free, come down from the cross in power and might, so that, as they said, they “could see and believe.”

But that didn’t happen. There was no flexing of muscles, no ripping of T-shirts in a miraculous transformation like the Incredible Hulk, no breaking free from the cross, no explosive leaping down. There was only the stillness of the hot noonday sunlight, the buzz of flies, the creaking of the wood, and then those clouds of darkness over the whole land for three long, slow and painful hours.

Then finally Jesus broke the silence, as he cried out in a loud voice, a cry of pain and anguish stretching back 1,000 years before his own birth, the cry of his forefather David, a lamentation of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The crowd, of course, misunderstood. They realized by now that Jesus was not going to do a Superman act. But they thought that maybe he had some friends in high places. They thought he was calling for Elijah. And so they waited to see if Elijah, the great prophet, the one who’d flown off to heaven in a chariot of fire, would come to the rescue, storming Calvary with God’s cavalry, to rescue Jesus from the cross.

They didn’t have long to wait, for Jesus soon gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Up in thecity, on the other side of the city walls, up on the Temple Mount, people said that the curtain of the Temple had been torn in two. But outside the city walls, on that little hill called Golgotha, something even stranger happened, something most folks didn’t see, but which the Evangelist Mark carefully recorded.

One of the soldiers who stood there facing Jesus almost two thousand years ago did something as strange and unlikely as the death of God’s own son. In spite of Jesus having failed to reveal himself as Superman in disguise, in spite of Elijah’s failure to show up to rescue him from the cross, in spite of his death and suffering, and all other evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that soldier uttered words of faith that some even of Jesus’ own disciples had not yet dared to utter: “Truly this man was God’s son.”

This soldier recognized Jesus in his not coming down from the cross. That soldier knew, as perhaps only soldiers know, the kind of courage it takes not to leave your post, the kind of courage it takes to die so that others can be saved, the kind of courage to throw yourself on a hand-grenade, or stay behind in the narrow mountain pass to hold the way as long as you can while your comrades escape.

One man came down from heaven and didn’t come down from the cross. One man became a convert at Golgotha because of him, a soldier who saw his courage in coming down, his meekness in being lifted up. Only one convert, but it was the beginning, as countless others would come in succeeding weeks and years and centuries; and the word would go forth from that holy city, that holiest of cities, to tell abroad the saving death of Jesus Christ; to spread the welcome and the invitation to join the Meek King at his Banquet. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.+