Sermon for Palm Sunday

Jesus, fully human, and fully God.

Lets start by considering Paul’s words to the Philippians. At Philippi, there was considerable persecution, and much to discourage this church. Paul and Silas were arrested and flogged there, and put in chains in prison. It was  there, as they worshipped, that an earthquake flung the prison open and the jailor, amazed that they had not escaped, received the gospel and he and his family were baptized. Paul had strong affections with the Christians at Philippi, and writes a warm letter, ‘make my joy complete by being like minded, by doing everything without selfishness, by loving one another.’

In the middle of this beautiful letter we find what some scholars suggest is the oldest surviving piece of writing on Jesus. These words in chapter two could have been a song or a creed meant to be memorized and chanted or sung in the church.

Unequivocally, Paul sets out just how Jesus is God.

Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Grasped in this sense is not ‘comprehend’ but a physical grasping. The Greek word here means more like ‘exploited, grabbed, taken for one’s own advantage’. He was not willing to use his divinity for his own benefit. He refused to exploit his authority.

He made himself nothing. He ’emptied’ himself. This one word has been the subject of so much debate among theologians- kenosis is the Greek  and comes from the Greek word for ‘to pour’. He poured himself out. He gave himself and his authority away.

He took on the form of a servant, a bondservant, slave, one without any authority.

Being made into the form of a man he crossed that vast gulf between man and God. He is King of Heaven, but became human. Fully Divine, but not clinging to it.

‘Being found in human form’ wrote Paul, ‘he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross.’

Therefore. When Paul says therefore, it usually means heads up, here’s what this all means. God exalted Jesus, and gave him the name which is above every name. Paul is a Jew, well trained in the Jewish Scriptures. In the Old Testament, YHWH, the divine name is holy. Jews came to believe it was risky and unwise to even utter the name of God for fear of violating the third commandment. Paul used words from Isaiah. ‘Every knee will bow to YHWH, and every tongue confess by YHWH,’ Isaiah 45:23 At Jesus name every knee will bow.  ‘In heaven and on earth and under the earth.’ At the name of Jesus. Not the name of YHWH.

If this is to establish that Jesus is fully God, how sure are we that Jesus is fully human too? To examine this, we look at the story from the Gospel reading of today. Throughout, there is this tension: Is he God or just a man? Pilate, the Roman governor asks Jesus ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ And he referres to Jesus more than once as ‘Jesus, who is called the Messiah’. This is not without reason. It is not possible that Pilate had not heard of the very public raising of Lazarus from the dead. How would you feel if you were told someone was God, but stood before you bound and silent in front of his accusers?

Even Jesus’ own friend, one Judas Iscariot, had doubts nibbling away: ‘Surely if Jesus is the Messiah, he will reveal his power and glory when they try to kill him? God cannot be killed!’ Maybe that was in the minds of the crowd calling for his death too. Looking back, hindsight is always 20:20. It is easy for us to be shocked at their behaviour, as they had cheered Jesus into Jerusalem, following that resurrection of Lazarus with very high hopes. What would your expectations be on witnessing someone being called out from the tomb after three days, and going home for dinner? No; no matter what he had done before the crowds, surely this man, with his silence and his submission after his arrest was not the Messiah. He was just a man; special, but just a man.

The very fact that Jesus was fully human is evident of the suffering he was then subjected to after he was handed over for crucifiction. The extent of his humanity was evident in that the Roman soldiers felt no compunction in subjecting Jesus to a very degrading  mock coronation for the King of the Jews.

Pilate officially turned Jesus over to his soldiers for execution. They took Him into the common hall or governor’s quarters, and gathered the whole cohort, possibly as many as six hundred men. There they stripped him and put on him a scarlet robe in imitation of a king’s or emperor’s clothing, a badge of office. This sham of kingly majesty was nothing but callousness and was intended to expose the Lord to the spectators as a ridiculous fraud. Do you think they did this to provoke a reaction in Jesus? Do you think they expected him to reveal his power? Their actions did not in any way suggest that they were even a little afraid of such a reaction.

And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! Little though they knew it, that twisted crown of thorns had significance. In Genesis 3:18 we read that ‘thorns and thistles’ were part of the curse that was the product of sin. Jesus wore that crown of thorns to show that his kingdom was not of this world. It was the custom of some heathen nations, to bring their sacrifices to the altars, crowned with a wreath of flowers; this was different. This mocking crown of thorns was pressed hard into Jesus’, scalp causing pain and bleeding, the blood going down his face and onto his beard, and on to the ground.

They put a reed in his right hand. A reed used for the purpose of making staves for walking. Kings commonly carried a sceptre, made of ivory or gold, as a sign of their office or rank, so the reed was to deride, also, his pretensions of being a king. And they bowed the knee, an act of pretended homage, and said ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ Every action was done deliberatly to ridicule in every possible way the pretensions of a poor, unattended, unarmed man of Nazareth, as a weak impostor or a man  deranged. His lack of reaction, his whole demeanor was that of a defeated man.

They stripped him. The pictures you see of Christ on the Cross are an artist’s attempt to prevent offending our sense of decency by removing the shame of nakedness; he was naked except for the purple robe when in front of the soldiers; on the Cross he was totally naked. What agonies of shame and embarassement and degradation he endured, probably much more than the men crucified routinely. Still, no sense here that something extraordinary would happen, no latent power peeping through. Jesus was totally human in this: bleeding, in excruitating pain, weak from the shock of being whipped, and shaking and sweaty from blood loss.

Convinced that Jesus was not God, the people would not leave him alone; they triumphed in their mockery. During his crucifiction, Jesus hanging between two thieves, is taunted; ‘come on, you can get yourself down, and us too!’ The chief priests, scribes and elders did not hang back either: ‘Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to.’

Possibly the most telling verses validating Jesus’ humanity was his cry ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Alone in his torment, bleeding and wracked with pain, struggling to draw breath, parched and feeling absolutely abandoned, every sinew of his body and the mental anguish of his mind proclaimed that he was fully human. Those things that occurred when Jesus surrendered his spirit, the darkness, the rending of the curtain in the temple and the earthquake; were they not the reactions that people might have been expecting while Jesus was on trial, or being flogged, or tormented, or on the cross? Should we, with hindsight, see that God would not step into the picture until the work of redemption was done by Jesus, fully man…….and yet, fully God?

Jesus is God; He has always been God. And he is also man, a Jew of ancient Palestine who worked as a carpenter and died on a cross. We may struggle to wrap our heads around what is presented in the Word of God, but it doesn’t invalidate what is written. Not everything that is presented as truth can be understood by human reason.

For the one who follows Christ, Scripture must serve as our ultimate authority. We know that the Spirit of God lives within the believer, and that he indeed teaches us all things. But, it is not enough, even for those of us convinced, just to say that Jesus is man and God. As Jose Pagola says in his book ‘Jesus‘, we must ‘put our hearts to the challenge of learning, through Jesus, about God: who God is, how he cares for us, how he seeks us out, and what he wants for us a human beings’. (p446)

As we go through this difficult time, remember we are not alone in the challenges we face. Turn your eyes to Jesus, this man understands.


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