A sermon for Palm Sunday
Finally, finally, Psalm 24 has come true. David wrote those words centuries before Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and for centuries the Church sang those words, asking, “Who may stand in his holy place?” And they answered, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Savior.”
Perhaps some saw effort and striving in those words. “We may ascend,” they say, “we may stand before God,” they declare, “when we purify ourselves from false worship, from impurity, from sin.” God does seem to lay out parameters: clean hands, pure heart, no idols, no false swearing.
But who can do this? Who, indeed? If we come to the conclusion that we can, we’re in trouble beyond measure, trouble beyond words. Are my hands clean? Are yours? Is your heart pure? Is mine? That’s what’s required to stand in God’s holy place. To stand before God. God said to Moses, “No one can see me and live.” Not because God is some Howard Hughes-like misanthrope who plays the game of how not to be seen.
God can’t be seen and survived because he is the light of lights, the holy of holies. He is. We can’t even grasp such a concept. We can barely wrap our minds around the word “is” in day to day language. But that God is from everlasting to everlasting. That when there was nothing, there was God. That in the beginning God created by speaking. That he could make light without a light source. He founded. He established. He owns. It isn’t just that we can’t bear his presence, as if the heat is too much; he is too much. He is too big, too great, too grand. What would or could we say to him that doesn’t sound silly or puerile? What can we give to or get for the God who has everything and owns everything? “The earth is the LORD’s.”
Yet we make our efforts and excuses. We explain why we can stand in his holy place, or why his place isn’t all that holy to begin with. “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner,” we say. He would never be such an exclusive God, bad business model. Except God says, “I hate all who do wrong.”
“Well, let me make up for that, Lord,” we say. “Let me put together this nice package, this nice gift, this nice offer for you. How do you like that?” So we come to him with our offerings and say, “Look, how nice, right?” We come to him with our faithfulness and say, “Look, how good, right?” We come to him with our prayers and say, “Look, how strenuous, right?” We come to him with any number of things and say, “Look, how glorious, right? Credit me, Lord.”
He says, “Clean hands. Pure heart. No idols.”
And we fail to see what the big deal is. The big deal is anything but clean, pure, and holy offends. You know the angst of cleaning up and finding that one last spot. You know the frustration of reading and re-reading only to find those piddly little mistakes in the final copy. You know the shame of practicing and still hitting wrong notes or misspeaking. It hurts. It offends. It frustrates. It shames. It embarrasses. It does not give or bring glory. It drags down.
That defines blasphemy. Blasphemy isn’t simply saying, “I am God.” Blasphemy drags God down to my level, speaks poorly of God, slanders him by words or deeds, shows contempt or a lack of reverence for God. To drag God down to my level. My level is tit-for-tat. “I will do this, God will do that.” My level is lowest common denominator, “Well, no one can do those things, but we can do this, so this will be good enough.” My level makes him come to me. “Like it or lump it.”
Each of these things does something dreadful. It hides God’s glory and benefits. It does great harm to Christ’s merits. It clouds over Christ’s glory and office. It diverts people from the glory of Christ’s passion. It robs consciences of firm consolation. By dragging God down. By taking his glory and making it ours. By assigning to ourselves the glory, by making our faces shine as God’s presence made Moses’ face radiate the glory of God.
On Palm Sunday we talk glory. “Who is this King of Glory?” we sang. We tend to make the mistake of assigning those middle verses of the psalm to us: “Who can ascend the hill? Who can stand in God’s holy place? Clean hands, pure heart, etc.” Either we find ourselves clean and pure, or we rightly realize we are not, either way, it’s a problem. But when we make those words about us, we miss something. Note what follows: “Lift up your heads, o you gates; be lifted up you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in….Who is he, this King of glory? The LORD almighty – he is the king of glory.”
Finally, we see the one who can walk up God’s hill and stand in the holy place. The King of glory. Up until now, we haven’t always been able to be sure that that’s Jesus. We’ve seen signs of it, potentials, possibilities. The sick get healed, the deaf hear, the mute speak, demons flee, water turns to wine, the dead rise. But even John the Baptist waffled, “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?”
But now, now, our King comes, righteous and having salvation, as Zechariah says, and he makes us prisoners of hope. Why prisoners? We’re trapped, locked in, bound to this. The king comes, surrounded by great crowds, but he ends up hiding from them, because he knows men, he knows their hearts.
He enters to shouts of acclamation, “Hosanna! The king has come! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” It looks so glorious, so radiant, so honorable, but prisoners of hope function based not on what they see but on what God says. John tells us that Jesus hid from these people because “they still would not believe in him.” Though he revealed God’s arm, their eyes stayed blind. Even though Jesus says, “When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.”
Really? Really. “Though being in very nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing,” Paul writes. So fully did he make himself nothing that he submits to death, the lowest place, the deepest place, the darkest place. My place. For my sins. With my sins. The King of glory. The LORD almighty. Riding in pomp, to die.
“He became obedient to death, even death on a cross,” Paul says. It’s time. For years Jesus has said, “It’s not my time.” Now on Palm Sunday he says, “It’s my time.” Now is the time. For what? “For the Son of Man to be glorified.” Honored, lifted up, praised, given high status, given high rank, lifted up. But not how you think: “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself,” Jesus said. And John comments, “He said this to show the kind of death he would die.” Earlier, to Nicodemus, Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” Lifted up, glorified. Jesus came for this moment, for this hour, for this reason, for this glory, the glory of the passion of Christ.
Now we see the King of glory. He is a king of glory not because of the crowds surrounding him, not because of the acclaim he receives or his popularity. We fall so quickly into that trap of glory, for both God and ourselves. We desire comfort and popularity, for ourselves and for God. He talks about neither. He speaks of the cross, his cross and ours. The cross he took up which gives us the power to take up ours for serving him.
So we see this king of glory, we see him more brilliantly, in the words of our Lutheran Confessions, “when we teach that we make the most of him as our Mediator and Atoning Sacrifice.” Because here and only here can we find our firm consolation, the answer to our “Hosanna! Save us, please!” It comes not from my clean hands and pure heart, but from his. It comes not from my faithfulness in word and worship, but from his. This glory belongs to Christ alone: he fulfilled the Law of God; he became obedient to death, even death on a cross. So Paul says, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” Now, Jesus says, “is the son of man glorified.” And he talks about destroying the devil and drawing all men to himself at the cross, so that, in the words of that blessed hymn, “My eyes will then behold you, upon your cross will dwell; my heart will then enfold you – who dies in faith dies well!”
Because the King of glory has come, the LORD almighty, the Lord mighty in battle, your Lord and mine, Jesus, the Christ, God’s picked and anointed champion. He entered his glory as he suffered these things and then entered more glory still, the glory in which he went back up into heaven, the glory with which he will return, and the glory with which our bodies will be raised at the last.
He makes this glory ours already as he comes to us by his Spirit and dresses us in the lowly pomp of Baptism and speaks the lowly words of promises, and gives us the masked glory of his son’s body and blood, masked in bread and wine.
But rejoice, lift up your heads, here is your king, coming to you, righteous and having salvation, just as he did on Palm Sunday. He comes with his holy, precious blood, his innocent suffering and death. So now we can sing into eternity with angels and archangels, the saints and hosts of heaven: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seal, because you were slain, and with your blood your purchased men for God…to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever!” Amen.