Palm/Passion Sunday B: Meaning Shines Out From Steadfastness

The readings for the Liturgy of the Passion:

Old Testament      Isaiah 50:4–9a

Psalm                    Psalm 31:9–16

New Testament     Philippians 2:5–11

Gospel                   Mark 14:1–15:47 or Mark 15:1–39 (40–47)

Friedrich Nietzsche was a harsh critic of religious belief; but he was right about some things, including the idea that once we lose conviction about ultimate meaning in our lives, we no longer have anything to sacrifice or suffer for.

The New Testament has many ways of speaking about what Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection, but surely woven throughout the many readings that we find relevant to Holy Week is this: Jesus’ steadfast resolve to endure the cross flashes in our souls as proof that there is something ultimate—there is something worth living and dying for.

People of faith, from the first disciples to today have turned to the “Suffering  Servant” poems in Isaiah to throw light on the Passion of Christ. From Isaiah 50, one of the readings for this Sunday, we hear that the ideal teacher must also be a steadfast learner. This one understands that sometimes suffering innocently teaches vital lessons both to the one suffering and the oppressor. The Servant utters these lines:

I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face

from insult and spitting.

7     The Lord God helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

8        he who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who are my adversaries?

Let them confront me.

9     It is the Lord God who helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

All of them will wear out like a garment;

the moth will eat them up.

This Servant never backs down from a fight. But he fights the only way that can win—with the means that flow from the ultimate meaning he lives and suffers for.

Today we have more choices but less moral conviction to direct those choices than ever. Our fabric of community is frayed, our traditions are trashed, and so our sense of moral absolutes have dissolved.  The ones who pull beard, spit, and cast insults, whether in the streets or on social media, are legion becasuse they are the ones who have little sense of anything ultimate. They flail around in an ocean of nihilism.

I am afraid that nihilism has many faces. In the end, the garment woven out of flags and posters and slogans and the “isms” of the hour—be they of the left or the right, will all wear out.

But the Servant conquers, not only because he has a cause that is right, but because he has Someone who is faithful even when he is wrong. He has something more True than a cause. He has a Lord and God to help him.

And by the very act of steadfast suffering, of setting the face like flint, and moving forward from Gethsemane’s revulsion at the cup of suffering, to swallowing it defiantly, this Suffering Servant Christ shines forth with meaning that we all can learn from throughout Holy Week and every day of our lives.

Let this Holy Week good news fortify you to keep on doing what is right for your family, your  neighbor, and the planet. Don’t give up because you are fed up. Keep on keeping on not just for another week or month, or until we have “herd immunity” and are “back to normal.” But set your face like flint.

He who vindicates you is near.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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