In the name of Jesus. Amen.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1-2)
These are Advent words. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
Where is our comfort today? Was it only three months ago that we celebrated the delivery of the infant Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-Us? We were so hopeful that this one would deliver us; that he would indeed breathe new life into dry bones. Listen to us now:
- “Shall we use our swords?”
- “Tell us, are you the Messiah?”
- “Away with him! Give us Barabbas.”
- “He has saved others: now let him save himself”
- “Crucify him, crucify him.”
What have we done? We who have heard his teaching and seen his miracles, and now we are bold to ask if he is indeed the messiah, as if we do not know! We said it ourselves “he has saved others,” how then our doubt? He comes preaching peace, making us ambassadors of reconciliation, and we say, “shall we use our swords,” and “give us Barabbas,” as if there is any salvation in those violent revolutions that replace one tyrant with another. But no, “Crucify him, crucify him.”
Why our bloodthirsty cry? Who can claim to be surprised, when Mary herself told us who this son of hers would be?
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:50-53)
A song of promise and hope in the abstract became far too uncomfortable in the tangible, concrete flesh. He ate with sinners. He spoke with outcasts. He asked us to live our lives as if we were already free people. He told us that in fact, we are already free in every way that matters: free from our fear of falling and caught in God’s loving arms. Free from fear of death. Free for our neighbor, for the strangers among us.
No wonder then, our response. “His teaching is causing unrest among the people all throughout the land,” we say. “It started in his day, in his country… and it has continued up to this very day, this place. Troubling our minds and upsetting our lives.”
“Comfort, comfort my people.”
Palm Sunday begins with all the anticipation of Advent as we wave our palm branches to announce the arrival of the King of Kings. But in the minutes between our procession into the sanctuary, in the weeks from Advent to Lent, in the two thousand years between the birth of Jesus and the world’s suffering today, we have journeyed from all the hope of the incarnation to the paradox of the cross. The King who comes to us comes as the opposite of all that we had expected. It is more than we can bear to understand. It was then as it is now. We cannot understand what Jesus the Christ is saying to us. This promise of unconditional love, for free, for all. What comfort is this, if there is no difference between the son who runs away and spends his inheritance in shameful ways in foreign lands and the son who stays at home to work the fields? We reject God’s comfort, sure that our own righteousness will count for something, afraid that perhaps it will not.
Our cruelty is criminal. We have taken the very one with the power to release us from the all the traps of our lives: the trap of overwork, the traps of pride and arrogance, of fear and self-loathing, the traps of rage and hopelessness and boredom and meaninglessness. That is the one we have nailed to the cross. “Crucify him, crucify him.” Even as the words leave our mouths, we can feel their cruelty. We are convicted by our words. We are criminally negligent before God’s promise of love.
We know that we are in the wrong, and we have to wonder, “what comfort?” But then, what of the words of that other criminal hanging next to Jesus? “For us this cross is plain justice; we are paying the price for our misdeeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And then the heart of the plea, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Hanging from the cross we put him on, Jesus looks on us with compassion and pleads on our behalf, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
He comes not for the well, but for the sick, for the sinner, the criminal. He comes for you and for me. “I tell you this,” he says to the convict hanging next to him, “today you shall be with me in Paradise.” These words are The Word. This promise, made to sinners that we will have life; this promise, made on a tree and proven by God’s triumph over even death.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.