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Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday), Cycle C (2016)

God’s love shines through the Cross and changes us. Sermons on our sinful condition and how through the Cross God overcomes and changes our condition (Justification by Grace and the Atonement) are what this Sunday’s theme is all about.

Psalm 31:9-16
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies, attributed to David. Since it is not likely that David is the author or even the agent in collecting this and other Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it seems appropriate to contend that the song is not only about David, but rather to read it as a pertaining to the Davidic line, to pertain to Jesus as a prophecy of his sufferings. The psalmist begins by articulating his distress and grief/anger [kaas] while pleading for Yahweh’s graciousness/mercy [chanan] (v. 9). The reference to soul [nephesh] in this verse is not an embrace of the notion of soul in Greek philosophy or as most of us understand the term, but a mere reference to the life-source. The psalmist proceeds, claiming to be in sorrow — scorned, a broken vessel [keli], and the object of schemes (vv. 10-13). He prays for vindication that we may be saved [yashad, also translated, “given safety”] by God’s steadfast love or mercy [chesed]. Awareness is expressed that our whole life is in God’s hands [yad] and that God’s face [panim] might shine on us [his favor shown] (vv. 14-16).

Application: One possible sermon direction with this text is to read it prophetically as referring to Jesus, to highlight the suffering Christ endured to save us (Atonement). Another possibility is to highlight God’s love and mercy for us, illustrated in his giving us Christ but in his kindness to us in the trials we face (Justification by Grace).

Isaiah 50:4-9a
This lesson probably has its origins in the second oldest of the three distinct historical strands of prophecy which comprise the book. It seems quite clearly not to have been the work of the eighth century BC prophet Isaiah who worked in Judah (the Southern Kingdom), but to have emerged soon after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 539 BC and so during the Babylonian Captivity. The text is taken from the Book of Consolation, a series of eschatological prophecies. It is the so-called Third Servant Song. There is much dispute about the identity of the Servant in these songs (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:1-6; 52:13–53:12). Historically the Church has claimed the referent of these texts is to an individual (the Messiah, and specifically to Jesus). But many scholars understand them to refer the role the nation of Israel would play in propagating God’s mission.

The Servant says that God made him a teacher, to sustain the weary (exiled Israelites) (v. 4). The Servant is said to do the Lord’s bidding and accepts the insults received (vv. 5-6). The images here could suggest that the Servant is an individual who has not turned away like Israel as a whole did. Using a law-court image, the Servant expresses unshakable confidence that God will vindicate him. The one who justifies [tsadaq, declares right] the Servant will come near, so none will condemn [rasha] the psalmist. In fact, it is said, opponents of the Servant will perish like moth-eaten clothes (vv. 7-9). We are reminded that the Hebraic equivalent term for “righteousness” does not just connote legal, judgmental actions, but when applied to God it concerns loyalty in relationships, the loyalty of God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff).

Application: Sermons on this text may proclaim God’s kindness (a forensic understanding of Justification by Grace) despite our Sin.

Philippians 2:5-11
This letter was written by Paul while a prisoner to Christians in a province of Macedonia. There is some debate about whether the Epistle in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters (for an early theologian of the Church named Polycarp spoke of several of Paul’s letters written to Philippi [Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 33]). Its immediate occasion was to thank the Philippians for their gifts, by way of the return of Paul’s co-worker Epaphroditus to Philippi (2:25-30), the church member who had brought these gifts to Paul. The main purpose of the apostle is to urge persistence in faith in face of opposition.

After urging the faithful to love and be concerned with the interests of others (vv. 2-4), Paul exhorts them to have the mind [froneisto, be of the affections] of Christ Jesus (v. 5). Christ is depicted (in hymn form, probably of pre-Pauline origins) as divine (in the form [morphe] of God), but also as one emptying [ekenose] himself into humanity in the form of a slave [doulos] and to death on the Cross (vv. 6-8). In turn, God has exalted [huperupsose] him so that all might confess [exomologeo] him as Lord. The confession that Christ is Lord [kurios] is central to this letter (vv. 9-11; v. 29; 3:8, 20; 4:1, 2, 4). It is possible that the hymn is inspired by the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah (52:13–53:12).

Application: Sermons on this text might proclaim God’s use of contradictory means to accomplish good and give life (Providence). Insofar as the aim is to have us totally depend on God, Justification by Grace is also proclaimed.

Luke 22:14–23:56
We are again reminded that this gospel is the first installment of a two-part history of the Church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Along with Acts, the author’s intention was to stress the universal mission of the Church (Acts 1:8). Addressed to Theophilus (1:1), it is not clear if this means that the work was written for a recent convert or for a Roman official from whom the Church sought tolerance. But since Theophilus means “lover of God” it is possible that the author addressed all the faithful.

This lesson is the Lukan account of the Passion from the Last Supper through the Crucifixion. The narrative begins at the Passover Meal, as Jesus tells his followers that he desired to eat with them before he suffered, for he would not eat another meal until the Passover is fulfilled in the kingdom of God (22:14-16). Then he took the cup, gave thanks and had the faithful divide it among themselves on grounds that he would not drink the wine again until the kingdom comes (22:17-18). Jesus seems to regard this meal as pointing forward to the meal celebrating the fulfillment of the kingdom of God.

After uttering the words of Institution of the Lord’s Supper (22:19-20), Jesus notes that it has been determined [horizo, marked out] that one present would betray him and woe to that one.

(He refers to himself as Son of Man [huios tou anthropou], noting what befalls him is determined. This title typically appears in Luke when identifying Jesus as a suffering figure [9:22, 44; 18:31; 24:7]. The author of the gospel may have had in mind the use of the title for one with prophetic authority or the end-time judge [Ezekiel 2:1, 3; Daniel 7:13-14].)

It is reported that the disciples begin to wonder who this is who would betray Jesus (22:23). A dispute next arises among the disciples over who is the greatest [meizon]. Jesus insists that the greatest among them must become like the youngest [neuteros] and a servant [diakoneo]. He is among them as one who serves (22:24-27). This discussion is unique to Luke. Jesus is next reported as praising the disciples as those who have stood by him in his trials and notes that he will confer a kingdom [basileia] upon them as the Father conferred it on him. They will eat and drink at his table and sit on thrones judging the tribes of Israel (22:28-30). [Eating and drinking in God’s kingdom seems to connote salvation.]

Jesus speaks to Peter, prophesying his failure to confess him before the cock crows the next morning, though Peter insists he will stand by Jesus (22:31-34). He asks the disciples if when he sent them without material possessions they lacked anything. They say no (22:35). He tells them to get the resources they need now (22:36). Scripture (Isaiah 53:12) must be fulfilled in him, he claims (22:37).

With the disciples Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives (presumably Gethsemane), instructs them to pray that they may escape this trial he endures, and then he withdraws (22:30-41). Jesus requests not to have to endure the upcoming trials, yet adds that his will should be subordinated to the Father’s will (22:42). (It is reported but only in some manuscripts that he is comforted in his great anguish by an angel [22:43-44].) He finds the disciples asleep because of grief. (The point about their grief is unique to Luke.) He rouses them to pray more (22:45).

The betrayal by Judas’ infamous kiss of Jesus to an armed crowd follows (22:47-48). Kissing a rabbi as a greeting was a common sign of respect in this era. One of Jesus’ followers takes armed action against the high priest’s slave, but Jesus puts an end to the violence and heals the slave (22:49-51). He next allows the chief priests and officers of the temple police to seize him, treating him as a bandit. Jesus notes that he was not arrested previously when teaching in the temple. He claims it is the hour [hora] of these adversaries, the hour of the power of darkness [skotos] (22:52-53). Jesus is seized and led to Caiaphas, the high priest. Along the way Peter denies him when confronted by a female slave. Then he denies Jesus again and then the cock crowed (22:54-60). Jesus looks at Peter, and remembering Jesus’ prophecy of his failure to confess him, Peter weeps (22:61-62). Jesus is beaten and mocked (22:63-65). The assembly of all the Jewish elders [including chief priests] (the Sanhedrin) gathered and invited Jesus to tell them if he were the Messiah [Christos]. Jesus claims that if he told them they would not believe (22:66-68). He claims as Son of Man [huios tou anthropou] he will be seated at the right hand of the power of God. When they ask him if he is Son of God [huios tou theou], Jesus simply said that is what they say. The assembly claims in anger that Jesus had made idolatrous claims (22:69-71).

The Sanhedrin brought Jesus before the local governor Pilate, accusing Jesus of perverting the Jewish nation and of forbidding the payment of taxes to the emperor and claiming to be the messianic king [basileus] (23:1-2). Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews, and Jesus simply notes that that is Pilate’s confession (23:3). Pilate then claims to find no basis for the accusations, but the Jewish crowds insist on his guilt, claiming that he stirs up people with his teaching (23:4-5). Learning that Jesus is a Galilean, Pilate turns him over to Herod’s jurisdiction. (Luke seems anxious to show that Pilate sought to free Jesus.) This pleases Herod who had hoped to see Jesus perform miracles (23:6-8). Herod receives no answers from Jesus, and the chief priests and scribes who are present continue to accuse him (23:9-10). The king and his soldiers treat Jesus with contempt and mock him, finally putting an elegant robe on him and returning him to Pilate (23:11). It is reported that from that point, Herod and Pilate, previously adversaries, formed a coalition (23:12).

Pilate tells the crowd that neither he nor Herod find Jesus guilty of perverting the people as charged by the Jews. He does not deserve death (23:13-15). Pilate proposes to flog Jesus and release him (23:16). A seventeenth verse, absent in most ancient manuscripts, refers to Pilate being obligated to release someone for the Jews at a festival, though there is no historical evidence of such a practice. The crowd shouted for Jesus’ death, calling for the release of Barabbas, a man imprisoned for starting an insurrection and murder (23:18-19). Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate addresses the crowd again, but the crowd shouts for crucifixion (23:20-21).

The same scenario happens a third time (23:22-23). Finally Pilate relents, releasing Barabbas (23:24-25).

On the road to the site of the Crucifixion, Simon from the African district of Cyrene (a region with a large Jewish population) is made to bear Jesus’ Cross (23:26). He is given no credit for undertaking this task, as it is imposed on him. Many followed, among them women who beat their breasts and cried for Jesus. He comforts them, saying only that they should weep for themselves and their children (23:27-28). Jesus invokes Hosea 10:8 and makes reference to the blessedness of one with a child in view of the days that are coming. Proverbially he suggests that Jerusalem will endure a horrible fate (23:29-31).

Also led to the Crucifixion site, the Skull [kranion], are two criminals [kakourgous] who were to be put to death with him, one on each side of him (23:32-33). Jesus urges that those involved should be forgiven [aphiemi, or sent away]. His garments are divided by lot (23:34). He is mocked as the Messiah who cannot save himself. Solders give him sour wine with the same mocking mantra. An inscription of the charge, “King of the Jews,” is placed on the Cross (23:35-38). Jesus engages in a dialogue with the two criminals crucified with him, the one mocking him for not saving all of them if he is the Messiah and the other rebuking such mocking on grounds that Jesus was innocent (23:39-41). He requests that Jesus remember him when Jesus comes into the kingdom, and Jesus responds with the promise that this criminal would join him in Paradise [paradeisos, or garden, a contemporary Jewish term for the lodging place of the righteous prior to the resurrection] (23:42-43).

Darkness envelops the land from noon until three, as the persecution proceeds (23:44-45a). This may be a reference to Amos 8:9-10 where mourning for an only son is related to the sun going down in daylight. The curtain of the Jerusalem Temple is reported to have been torn (23:45b), a miraculous event paralleling the natural miracle of the light. When dying, Jesus comments his spirit [pneuma] to the Father (23:46) (as per the Davidic Psalm 31:5). Unlike in Mark’s version (15:34), Jesus trusts God to the very end. This leads a centurion to praise God and proclaim Jesus’ innocence (23:47). The crowds witnessing these events seemed agitated (perhaps by a sense of guilt [18:13; cf. Zechariah 12:10]) (23:48). But Jesus’ acquaintances stood at a distance (23:49).

Respected member of the Council, Joseph of Arimathea, expecting the immanence of the King of God, asks for Jesus’ body. Pilate receives the verification of the death and gives Joseph the body (23:50-52). Women who had followed Jesus from Galilee see where the body is laid. The return and prepare spices and ointments (23:53-56).

Application: Sermons on this account can explore the depth of Sin, or the tendency to take it and the magnificence of what Christ has done for granted. Of course, Christ’s death for us (Justification by Grace) should have the final word.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen