“CHRIST BECAME A CURSE FOR US” Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
Luke 22:14—23:56 March 20, 2016 [revised and expanded May 2016]
This present service is among the longest and most demanding in the entire worship year. The whole course of our Lenten journey so far is meant to bring us to a place where we may attend today with spiritual endurance; with focus of mind and heart.
We’ve just been propelled, uncomfortably and with great spiritual force, into Holy Week.
We began this morning with such joyful acclamation: Jesus is our true and rightful King. Then suddenly: the Psalm; the Passion narrative. The acclamations fade—so quickly; the voices of rejection prevail. It’s a difficult shift to hear—and it’s on purpose.
We all want to feel that had we been there, then, our responses would have been so different. If we had, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten so scared like the brash Peter and denied his Lord in a moment of panic. If we had, surely we wouldn’t have decided that Jesus was just too dangerous to keep around.
And certainly had we been there, back then, we wouldn’t have said “Away with him!”.
Surely not we. “Surely not I, Lord.” (Matthew 26:22)
But we were there. That “then” holds and confronts all our “nows.” We are implicated in that “then”—even in our respectability and highest aspirations. At the least, we like to think that we maintained our pious neutrality; that we didn’t “take sides.” But “not choosing,” is usually, in fact, making a choice—just not admitted, to ourselves or others. In our sinful humanness we did choose, a choice that we have recapitulated in different forms, both personal and corporate, many times, over and over again. The Cross of Christ is itself the revelation of God’s perfect, holy, entirely just, and final judgement. We don’t need to wait until the end of time to hear the Word that is impossible for us to bear.
This is not all that we can say today (thanks be), but it is part of what we must say.
Even those who have come to faith in our Savior—and rightly acclaim and receive him—now live in a presently mixed reality. There are parts in us; still all-too deep-rooted—where we’re not yet responding in faith. We too—often before we know it—get afraid at the risks of sticking with Christ; we panic, we deny, or maybe even say some new, subtle version of “Away with him; away with him!”
All of us, including the human Jesus, have some essential needs, which we look to our community of fellow humans to fulfil: Basic safety, purpose, and perhaps most of all, a sense of real belonging. These are deep-seated, “hard-wired” needs. And yet, Jesus, as he went to the cross, was stripped of all of them.
Well, it certainly wasn’t safe going to Golgotha. It was the ultimate un-safety.
As far as purpose, to all earthly appearances, including those closest to him, Jesus would have ended his life as a failure. And we remember his own personal cry of abandonment on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So: the deepest core human need—belonging; this, too, was stripped away from the Crucified.
Nevertheless, Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people* to myself.” (John 12:32)
From the place of the Cross, and to this place, Christ calls us. What’s going on here that could possibly be “Good”?
A difficult verse from Paul’s Letter to Galatians comes to mind, and to it, I invite us to draw our attention. Galatians, chapter 3, verse 13:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written, cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”
That verse contains a citation from Deuteronomy, which says that someone executed by hanging was considered cursed and had to be buried quickly—so as not to defile the holy dwelling of God’s people.
But what can it mean that Christ became a curse for us?
Well, what do we do when we curse somebody? We cast them out from our hearts, into the realm of our ill will. We do this, so sadly, far too casually, and far too frequently. Perhaps we try to take it back later, but at the time, but what’s going on when we curse—either in words or attitude—is that we eject someone from the sphere of our positive regard. At least temporarily, they become for us an outsider. Someone who doesn’t matter.
The Roman technique of capital punishment that we call “crucifixion” was designed to strip away everything from the condemned person—and do so permanently. It was the most degrading form of capital punishment that the Romans used; meant not only to torture and kill, but to dehumanize.
Victims of crucifixion would become an object of horror, even to those who loved them—and certainly also to themselves. Ejected from belonging. Ejected from recognizable humanness.
It’s said that Jesus was executed “outside the city wall”; outside the holy place of God’s dwelling. Utterly rejected. Cast out; beyond the bounds of the safe, the pious, the lovely, the respectable. You don’t belong, and you don’t count. Jesus died as the ultimate outsider.
But precisely “out there,” God acted, to turn things upside down, and inside out. “Christ redeemed us…by becoming a curse for us.” The place of utter desolation—a “no-where,” on the fringe of nothingness—becomes the new Center of all things. The unpayable debt is paid; the unforgivable, forgiven. The impossible to bear, borne on our behalf, by the only One who could do so. The unbridgeable gap is now spanned. And Jesus calls us to himself, right where he made it so. Who will trust him, and heed his call? Will you?
Jesus speaks to all and each of us: “Come unto me all you who labor and our heavily burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
Jesus said that he would draw all the world to himself. The new place of that holy drawing, the place to which we are summoned, is Calvary. So, we can’t get to the Jesus by staying inside our present, comfortable insider-zones; with the hedged bets, with the not fully given new loyalty, with all our evasions and the equivocations. If we’re going to respond to the call—if we’re going to get to the One who is calling, we go to the Cross. No other way. No “at a distance” option.
He offers rest, not evasion.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are told:
“Jesus suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured for here we have no lasting city but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (13:12-13)
Let us then go to him, outside the bounds, and find the new center; a new belonging, a new loyalty, that wells up—in him—to eternal life, starting right now.
With the eyes of faith, we see that the Cross was not a defeat but the Victory of God. There’s more of that Victory to come—to be sure—but on Calvary, it’s already begun. God restored our own humanness through the One from whom everything was taken. Jesus gave it away so we could get it back.
In him, we now belong. We have a reason to be here, and we are held in perfect care.
Now, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Of course, it won’t be. This present life is often difficult: unsafe, uncertain; alienating. The fact is that the sinful human condition, as it is, cannot provide what we need; not ultimately, and most deeply. And we will likely be especially disappointed if we look at “systems and structures” (even the most pious) to provide us what can only come from above. But through the Crucified, we have something new and indestructible in our hearts. We know, through him, that we have a belonging, a purpose and a care that nothing can destroy, no matter what. No matter what! And in him, in spite of all else, we are being drawn to a more perfect love and faith.
Jesus had to walk his lonesome journey: Utterly alone, so that none of the rest of us would ever have to be. In the Passion Narrative we heard today, as the rejection of Christ overwhelmed everything else, there’s the line “and their voices prevailed.” (Luke 23:23) A very telling phrase.
So: Which voices will prevail? We think about the state of this world. We think about the state of our country, right now in this election cycle. We think about our contradictory lives. We think of all the complicated stuff that’s going on inside of us. Before the face of Christ, and him crucified, which voices will prevail?
But the seeming silence of God, at Calvary, speaks more effectively than all else.
More deeply, more truly, more terribly, more wonderfully: Whose Voice has prevailed?
* “ ’Twas I, Lord Jesus,” verse 2, “Ah, Holy Jesus,” Johann Heerman, trans. Robert Bridges; Hymn 158 in The Hymnnal 1982