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Palm Sunday
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Michael Moffitt, April 14, 2019

He Emptied Himself to Become a Servant

Text: Philippians 2:5–11

Not long ago Teresa and I watched a movie produced by Mel Gibson entitled, Hacksaw Ridge. It was based on a true story about a man named Desmond Doss. He was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, and was drafted into the Army in April, 1942. He could have gotten a deferment because he worked at the Norfolk Naval Shipyards, but he chose to enter the Army because he felt he had a responsibility to serve his country in whatever way he could.

The problem came when he told the army that he refused to kill or carry a weapon into combat because of his personal beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist. As a child he had been taught the Ten Commandments and sought to keep them as best he could. His understanding of and commitment to the 6th Commandment “Thou shall not kill” would prevent him from taking up arms. Once in the Army Doss was made fun of, belittled, bullied and threatened with court-martial. The Commanding Officer wanted him out of the Army because he was considered a hindrance rather than an asset to the Army. Years later he told a reporter that he had tried to explain to the army that he still wanted to be in the military and do his part, just without having to kill. For this reason, he told them he wasn't a conscientious objector but rather a "conscientious cooperator."

His father was able to find help with some higher ups and Doss consequently became a medic, which is what he had applied for when joining. While serving in the Pacific theatre of World War II he helped his country by saving the lives of his comrades, at the same time adhering to his religious convictions. However, it was at the Battle of Okinawa at what was called Hacksaw Ridge, that Doss distinguished himself. In that battle the casualties were very heavy and only a third of the American soldiers defending the ridge made it out alive. Doss refused to leave the battlefield while there were still wounded soldiers needing help. He stayed by himself up on the ridge all night and personally found and carried off 75 of his fallen comrades and lowered them to safety using a harness that he had constructed. He was wounded by a grenade but wouldn’t leave until everyone else was safe. Ironically, the officer that had given him the most trouble about his convictions was rescued by him, as was his drill instructor.

In all, he was wounded three times during the war, and shortly before leaving the Army he was diagnosed with tuberculosis that he had caught overseas, and this would cost him a lung. He never let anyone call him a hero, but only someone who was trying to do what was right. Mel Gibson actually left out some of the unbelievable things that Doss did as he was afraid that the movie wouldn’t be believable. His life has been the subject of books, the documentary The Conscientious Objector, and the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge. I recommend the movie and the various articles to found about Desmond Doss on the internet.

Everyone loves a story about someone laying down his life for the good of others. It’s so out of the ordinary that it causes us to stop and pay attention. At the end of Hacksaw Ridge they interview some of the actual people who were there with Desmond Doss, and they spoke of his bravery and selfless actions as an example to them as to how they should live. In John 15:13 Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Today, on Palm Sunday we enter what is known to the church as “Holy Week”. Since Ash Wednesday on March 6th, we have been in the season of Lent. We have focused on the cross of Christ while we remember that it was our sin that put him there. This week we follow the drama from the “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem remembered today, through the last few days in Jesus’ life and to his betrayal and death. In our gospel readings this morning you have had the story read to you in its entirety, now for a few moments longer we will consider the implications and importance of the greatest story of self-sacrifice ever told.

In the story of Desmond Doss, he reacted to what was happening at the moment and acted will tremendous courage. But Jesus, who knew well the prophecies foretelling his coming, acted with love and courage knowing fully what would happen to him. Consider a few descriptions from our reading from Isaiah 52 & 53,

His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind…. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief……but he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities…..he was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth, like a lamb he is led to the slaughter…Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him, he has put him to grief..

Jesus knew exactly what he was walking into and yet he didn’t hesitate. He knew that what he had to do must be done alone. Though there were many who assured him that they would stand with him no matter what. In John 13:36–38 Simon Peter tells Jesus that he was ready to even die for him, but Jesus knew better and told him that in reality Peter would deny three times that he even knew Jesus. Jesus knew that even the Father would have to turn away from him as he bore the sins of the world upon himself.

You and I have no way to fully understand the implications of what that meant for Jesus. The Trinity had always lived in perfect unity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But now for the first time the Father, who is perfect purity and holiness, would have to turn away from his beloved Son in the moment of his great need. We can never comprehend what being perfect and completely holy looks like or feels like. However, we can see that what was done on our behalf was done intentionally. In our Epistle reading from Philippians 2:6–8,

Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

I confess to you that sometimes I am so overwhelmed by this that I can hardly read this passage without pausing to thank and praise the Lord. I can’t even imagine that he would do that for someone like me, but he did, and I am forever grateful.

As we consider the story of Jesus’ move into Jerusalem for the last time before he returns, it’s helpful to compare the four Gospels in their individual accounts of the last days in Jesus’ life. In doing so you get a full picture of all that went on from the Triumphal Entry to the crucifixion. I encourage you to take the time to read all the accounts this week as you continue the journey to the resurrection.

Leading up to Jesus’ entry back into Jerusalem tensions had been growing between Jesus and the religious leaders, who have made it known that they intended to kill him. This is a very dramatic scene. By openly entering the city where he is a marked man, Jesus takes the first step toward the final confrontation. Again, it is an intentional move and he knew there was to be no turning back.

Passover was one of the three major feasts that Jews were supposed to attend in Jerusalem, and consequently the population of Jerusalem swelled enormously at this time. The city was packed not only with those who had come from all over to attend this feast, but also those who had come to see what Jesus would do. As this great crowd is beginning to gather from around Israel — and even the larger world of those who lived away from Jerusalem — news about Jesus was spreading and there was a feeling of hope that maybe, finally, the Messiah had come.

Matthew, Mark and John’s gospel adds that the crowds cried out “Hosanna” as Jesus entered the city, however it has been suggested that Luke changed it to “peace and Glory” because the phrase “Hosanna” would have no significance to Luke’s primarily Gentile audience. I’m adding it because the Greek word for “Glory” has the same connotation as the word “Hosanna,” and because it has great significance to us today as you’ll see in a moment.

As Jesus enters, they cry out “Hosanna! Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in Heaven and glory in the highest.” They are quoting the passage from the Messianic Psalm 118:25–26. As I pointed out last week it is not uncommon in our day to quote from this Psalm too, but it is best seen through the context of Jesus’ triumphal entry. It is often a temptation to quote verses as stand-alone promises but listen to Psalm 118:22–26 as a unit and it takes on a whole new meaning,

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord.

The Psalmist is pointing us to a particular day that should cause us to rejoice, no matter what is going on today. It is the day when Jesus becomes the cornerstone upon which the church would be built, a solid foundation and the cry of “Hosanna” literally meant, “save us” or “help us”! In the Hebrew “save us” is “Yasha Anna” which we now render “Hosanna!”

Jesus had come to do just that, but they couldn’t see their greatest need. The very words they were quoting I think were from the Holy Spirit who caused them to acknowledge, to cry out in praise, “Hosanna,” “Help us, save Lord Jesus!” Truly they had no idea that what was happening right before their eyes was the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the Messiah. The Jews and the disciples had a no or very little understanding of what was really happening when Jesus entered Jerusalem. They believed that their greatest need was to be delivered from the tyranny and oppression of Rome, but Jesus knew better and had come to set them free from the bondage of the sin of unbelief and unfaithfulness. He would demonstrate what faithfulness to the commands of God looked like and he would pay the price that they were unable to pay on their own.

The fact that they chose to welcome Jesus by waving palm branches reveals a lot about what it was that they were expecting from him. This had all the elements of a patriotic parade. Palm branches were a symbol of Jewish nationalism since the time of the Maccabees. F. F. Bruce in his commentary wrote,

From the time of the Maccabees palms or palm branches had been used as a national symbol. They had figured in the procession which celebrated the rededication of the temple in 164 BC (2 Maccabees 10:7) and again when winning the full political independence was celebrated under Simon in 141 BC. Later palms appeared as national symbols on the coins struck by the Judean insurgents during the first and second revolts against Rome (AD 66–70 and 132–135).

They saw Jesus as a military leader against the Roman Empire. In many stories within the gospels you may remember that the people came to take Jesus and make him king, but he slipped away from them. He was to be their King but not in the way that they assumed.

It’s also important to know the prophetic word in the next part of the reading where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey. Jesus sent the disciples to find a colt-young donkey to sit on (v. 30), thereby making a mess of the picture they were creating. In their thinking he should have found a powerful steed to ride into Jerusalem to declare himself king or find another symbol of power. Instead he intended to present a different image. His action undercuts their nationalism and points in a different direction, evoking an image from the Prophets in Zechariah 9:9,

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout aloud O Daughter of Jerusalem! Behold your king is coming to you, righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt a foal of a donkey.

He is indeed king, but in a greater sense than they could realize. Jesus knew the prophets and the role he was to play but at the time he was the only one who did. John 12:16 recounts,

Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him

Try and understand this from the perspective of the disciples. They are most likely caught up in the nationalistic fervor of the crowd because they also believe that Jesus has come to Jerusalem to take over as king and they will rule with him. They thought they were honoring Jesus as king, and they were, but at this point no one was connecting the Scriptures with what was happening—even the disciples would not put the two together until after Jesus was glorified. They needed an “AHA!” moment but that wouldn’t happen until the Holy Spirit anointed them at Pentecost.

It has been my experience that I rarely fully understand what God is doing. Praise God that he is not constrained by the limits of my imagination. God always has a greater thing in mind than I can comprehend, and I think that is true of all of us. Jesus wasn’t going to be limited to being the King of Israel, he was the creator of the universe and had come to do a greater and more complete work than they could conceive of. He was going to transform the world and make a way for mankind to be reconciled to the Father. They didn’t conceive of how lost they were and how much they needed God’s mercy and they certainly didn’t see how far God was willing to go to save them. He loved them more than to simply solve their immediate situation as servants of Rome and his task and vision was far broader than Israel. If Jesus had settled for the throne of David in Jerusalem the real issue of mankind’s bondage to sin and death would never have been dealt with and the kingdom of Satan would have remained in power and authority over the earth. At the time of his entry in Jerusalem only Jesus fully understood what was at stake and that only he could do what was necessary to overcome the kingdom of darkness.

It was no coincidence that Jesus chose Passover to enter Jerusalem. Flavius Josephus, the 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian, wrote that one year a census was taken of the number of lambs slain for Passover and that figure was 256,500. Jesus entered Jerusalem walking in the midst of lambs who were destined for sacrifice during the celebration, and as he walked he alone knew that they were a symbol of what he had come to be: the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus was the living reality of what the sacrificial lambs pointed to—a sacrificial atonement that would be made once and for all. He knew what the scriptures foretold about the Messiah, and was under no illusion that it would be easy. Scriptures like Isaiah 53:6–7 that we read this morning,

 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, everyone, to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

I am certain these things were on his mind as he entered Jerusalem to the cheers and celebration of the crowds, some who would be the very ones a few days later who were screaming, “Crucify him. Crucify him!” and yet he still came. Our epistle reading from Philippians 2:5–11 reminds that,

at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.

Why? Because he is the King who overcame sin and death and for those who embrace him by faith and live for his glory there is new life both now and throughout all eternity. Like Desmond Doss, men can do great things to save the lives of their comrades temporarily, but Jesus was the only one who could pay the price of our sins forever.

I must confess that I really enjoyed telling you the story about Corporal Doss, but not half as much as the story of Jesus laying down his life for us. It’s been said that it’s the greatest story ever told, and I definitely agree.

Unfortunately, the truth is that there are many churches who claim to gather to worship God but deny the divinity and authority of Jesus Christ alone, and as a consequence, they are merely celebrations of death. When he came into Jerusalem, they welcomed him as their new King, but when he went to the cross to the price for our sins, He did the kingliest thing that he could do, he laid down his life for his subjects.

As we consider all that is happening around the world it’s a reminder that we are far from being through telling this story. Jesus won the victory over sin and death but the battle for souls still rages. I’m a sucker for a good quote and I’ve never been disappointed by Winston Churchill who said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

The task before us is to live into the victory that Jesus won and in His glorious name enter the fight that rages on all around us. Signs of the kingdom of darkness are all around. I can see the evidence and I can read about it daily in the news. The task before us is to be living witnesses to the love and power of Christ to those around us and to be continually praying that God would use us in the lives of those in our community.

Friday night we had the Wyldlife banquet here and approximately 100 people gathered to hear about what God is doing among the young through them. Many of us recently went to Richmond for the Anglican Frontier Missions banquet celebrating 25 years of taking the gospel to unreached people group around the world. May 4th we are joining other churches supporting a youth rally at the YMCA for kids 12 and over. We are supporting ministries of outreach both foreign and domestic, and we should. I am praying that God will open my eyes to those around me that I see every day within the community and that I will have divine appointments to share what Jesus has done in my life. If you have embraced Jesus as King, I hope you are praying that as well. We must learn to pray and think in terms of laying down our lives for the lost, the wounded and the hopeless.

I loved one of the last scenes of Hacksaw Ridge the best. Every time Doss rescued another man and got him safely down the cliff, he would say “Just one more Lord. Just one more” and off he would go looking for another comrade still alive and needing rescue. He did that all night until there weren’t any more to save. Do you think that Jesus is asking us to do less for those whom he loves and longs to save?

I don’t think so.

Let’s pray.


©2019 Rev. Mike Moffitt

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