Preaching text: Mark 14:1-15:47
Welcome to one of the most confused day of the church year! Are we happy? Are we cheering Hosanna? Are we nailing Jesus to the cross? Are we doing both? How? Why?
A quick explanation for the uninitiated: throughout much of church history, this day is Palm Sunday, and the focus rests squarely on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The sad stuff (i.e.: the Passion) would all unfold on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. This is nice and neat and orderly, right?
But in recent decades, fewer and fewer people commit to the liturgical slog that is the Three Great Days, which include Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. While I inwardly rage about people’s disinterest (because the Three Great Days ARE MY FAVORITE AND I WILL LOVE THEM ALWAYS), I also understand that going to church for four consecutive days is not everyone’s idea of a good time. Most congregations have a significant chunk of people who come to church on Palm Sunday, and then don’t go again until Easter Sunday. They miss all the nailing-Jesus-to-the-cross-and-him-dying bits, which we must admit is fairly central to the plot of Easter.
That’s why so many churches now have Palm/Passion Sundays, where they try to squeeze everything into one morning. The palm-waving. The Hosanna-shouting. And the long-ass Passion reading. It all happens in this one single liturgy. Lord help us.
I’m going to be honest: the one way I’ve experienced this liturgical mash-up in a way that works involves substantially cutting down the preaching time and letting the story of the last week of Jesus’ life speak for itself.
But there is a new covenant struck in the midst of the Passion reading, and if you care to drive this “Promise Us” series home (or cue your congregation up for its ultimate fulfillment next week, when Jesus rises from the freakin’ dead), then there is an incredibly rich repository for you here.
For the promise itself, we turn from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament, to a moment when Jesus offers a new covenant. These two parts of the Bible, just like the promises they contain, DO NOT stand apart from one another: what Jesus is doing is not an erasure of what’s come before, but an extension of the same history of promises that he himself has been shaped by, both as one fully human and as one fully divine.
“While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’”Mark 14:22-25
Why do the disciples need the promise?
As you read through the Passion according to Mark, there’s something that starts edging out and holding up one awkward finger to attract your attention: no one in this story does anything right.
Jesus tells his disciples that one of them is going to betray them, and they all furrow their brows in genuine confusion, look at him, look at one another, and ask, “Is it me? It’s me, Jesus, isn’t it? Shit.”
I’m editorializing, clearly, but c’mon, it’s like watching a murder mystery that ends with one of the characters pointing to themselves and shouting in sheer surprise, “Hey everyone, look, I’m dressed like the butler!”
It gets worse from there.
After the supper, the disciples follow Jesus to Gethsemane, where they fall asleep on him once, twice, three times. It got so ridiculous that they literally did not know what to say the third time Jesus caught them snoozing.
Then Judas betrays him. Pilate judges him. Witnesses testify against him—but poorly, Mark is quick to point out. This is a shit trial, where not even the witnesses get can their story straight. The crowds condemn him. The soldiers mock him. The religious authorities deride him. Peter denies him. Let’s not even talk about the random streaker in the Garden of Gethsemane. If it weren’t so terribly tragic, this Passion would be one long comedy of errors.
The point of all of this is: not a single person in this entire narrative stands as an example who might make God think, “Absolutely. This sacrifice is utterly worth it.”
But there the Son of God is in the middle of all of it, knowing what’s coming, and still choosing the strike a new covenant with a people who thoroughly demonstrate that they don’t deserve it.
This is the culmination of all the promises God has made to God’s beloved people. Despite everything, everything, despite our breaking of multiple divine contracts, despite failures up to and including this last most critical moment, God sets a table, and says, “Come here. It’s the last night of my life, and all I want to do is to give you a promise, and that promise is my own self. Come break bread with me.”
Why does God need the promise?
The first and most remarkable thing I can offer here is: God doesn’t need this promise at all.
But God choose it because over the course of all these generations, God has seen again and again both how incapable we are of our own redemption…and God has decided that God still wants us. Still wants this relationship with us. Still wants to call us beloved. Still wants us to know all of that is true.
So God wrapped flesh around all that Love and sent it walking among us, even when the path led to the cross.
God needs this promise because God realized standing in the shards of all those promises we broke that if we are ever to meet God face to face, it will be because God comes down to us, not vice versa.
And to that, God says, “Yes.”
To that, God says, “I’ve got this.”
To that, God says, “Here I am. Take, and eat. Take, and drink. I am here, you are mine, and I am yours. Forever.”
Why do we need the promise?
Here I quote at length from our preaching notes from this summer, which I’m pretty sure were largely written by Em, because I don’t think I can say it better:
The reason we need the promise is…sin and death. It’s humanity’s violence, greed, and lust for power…it’s a world that crucifies the Prince of Peace and where the powerful continue to crucify the vulnerable in his name. It’s our own brokenness that makes us complicit (and sometimes knowing accomplices) in such a system. It’s our mortality. And more…
And the promise is…that’s not it. None of that is the final word. God’s promise creates a new reality, a new identity (like the renaming of Abram and Sarai). A new covenant, new promise, new world where love, peace, and justice rule in every human heart. A promise we see on Easter Sunday in the resurrection that triumphs over death…and it’s also a promise we wait for the fulfillment of still.
Between the waving palm branches and the cross, we see everything we are: fickle and faithless, violent and untrustworthy, thwarted by our best intentions and ruled by our worst. But we see who God is too, as God looks at us from across the table and from the height of the cross and from across the dawn-dark garden: as one whose promises reshape us and remind us and reclaim us into God’s own beloved people.