Dear people who would like to come to the feast,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Can you have a palm procession of one? I know that many of you want to be here. I also want you to be here. These circumstances are not ideal, but they do give us the opportunity to see things a little differently than we have ever seen them before. I am not talking about the camera being placed at a different angle than you might see things from your normal seat in the church. Rather, I am talking about seeing the Word of God from a perspective that you have never seen it before.
We have been richly blessed as the people of God in our generations. And we would have never thought that we would not be able to go to church whenever we wanted to go. That is not the way it has been for all generations of God’s people. When the people of Israel and Judah were taken away captive into Babylon, they longed to be able, not just to go back to their own land, but especially to the temple, where God’s grace was poured out through the sacrificial feasts and the Benediction spoken by the high priest.
In similar ways, throughout history, God’s people have been denied the opportunity to gather together for worship. Sometimes it was due to persecution, sometimes due to war, and sometimes due to pestilence much like the pandemic that prevents us from safely gathering together now. We should remember that this is not just an inconvenience for us, a literal fast from the sacrament that will soon enough be restored. Some of our own members live this way all the time. Perhaps we are starting to feel a little bit of what our shut ins often feel since they cannot get to church at all. Remember that the main reason for us selling this building and looking for a new location is because we have watched too many of our members be barred at the door, due to the inaccessibility of this sanctuary.
With all of this in mind, the words from today’s psalm sound a little different to me now than they ever have before. “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD” (Psalm 118:19). One day last week, when I came to pick up the mail and check phone messages, I ran through the psalm in my head as I came up the front steps. I saw the locked doors before me with the signs that state the building is closed. “Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.” I reached the top of the porch and placed my key in the lock. “This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it” (v. 20). I glanced to the right and saw the cornerstone with the date of the building inscribed upon it. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (vv. 22-23). Every Sunday as we have come through the doors of the church we should have been able to sing, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (v. 24).
For we look upon the altar as we enter the nave and we join with the saints of all times and places: “Save us, we pray, O LORD!” (v. 25), that is, “Hosanna” … “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” (v. 26). The words of the Sanctus sung with the preface of the Service of the Sacrament. “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest” (Lutheran Service Book, page 161). And our thoughts in anticipation as the bread and wine are brought to the altar: “Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!” (v. 27b). And after eating of the sacrificial meal the deacon proclaims “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good” and we sing in reply, “And His mercy endureth forever” (v. 29).
It is almost like a pageant where our movements put the words of this section of Psalm 118 into action. Well, that’s because the words are based on the actions of the Old Testament people of God coming to the temple in Jerusalem for one of the sacrificial festivals. They would approach the gates of the city and of the temple with songs like this on their lips, just as we would approach this Lord’s house on a Sunday morning. And like us, not everyone would be able to attend every time. There are those who would not be able to make the journey because of frailties and illness. There would be times when even the great festivals would be suspended due to war or some natural disaster. There were times when the enemies of God’s people took them away into exile and destroyed the temple. It wasn’t just the loss of a building, but loss of access to God’s grace and mercy which He poured out upon them through the sacrificial rites and blessings that He instituted.
But there were other times when people did not enter through those righteous gates to approach God’s presence for needed grace. We heard some of the prophetic words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading of the passion. When some objected to the woman who came to anoint Jesus with an alabaster flask of costly ointment, Jesus said to them, “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me” (Matthew 26:11). This should ring out in our ears as an indictment against us for those times when we thought we had a good and charitable reason for not coming to receive God’s grace at church. Perhaps we thought there was something better to do for the kids or to visit some family members or participate in a charity event.
During His institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus highlighted the unique and treasured gift He was giving when He said, “I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (26:29). He was not making some kind of pious vow to go without. Rather, He was pointing out how His persecution, suffering, and death would force His abstention from sharing this meal with the faithful. There are some, too, perhaps some of our own church family, for which those words will ring all too true. If this virus or something else causes our death before we have the opportunity to come to the Lord’s Supper again, how trivial will seem the reasons we have had for not making it the priority of our life of faith. Who knows if the last time we had the Eucharist will be the last time until we drink it new in our Father’s kingdom?
How tragic then, when we consider that Judas removed Himself from the fellowship with Jesus for money, all of the disciples ran away when confronted with persecution, Peter stayed outside in the courtyard and denied Jesus for fear. All of the reasons that we have not passed through the gates to come to the festal meal in the past, loom large now that it is not an option. We see the guilt and shame of our sin. We feel the weakness of our mortal nature. We understand the helplessness of our situation. Our eyes are opened to those around us who have not been blessed with such easy access to God’s grace in the Sacrament that we have taken for granted. Two years ago while on vacation, Linda and I took the Sacrament to Jerry and Constance in Bishop’s Falls NFLD, who only get to partake once or twice a year because of their geographic isolation. The isolated, the weak, the sick, the persecuted, the afflicted could not come while we chose not to come.
But at the beginning of one festival, there was one who did come, not just for Himself, but for all. He came for us. “The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying out [with the words of today’s psalm], ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’” (John 12:12-13).
And from Jesus’ point of view, the words of the psalm don’t take on a different meaning, but have a sobering perspective. “Open to Me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.” He would give thanks through His humble obedience “to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). “This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.” Jesus is the righteous one, the only sinless one who may enter into the presence of the LORD God. It is only when we are covered by His righteousness that sinners like us may enter.
After such a triumphal entry into Jerusalem and to the temple, the other religious leaders made plans to kill Him. The New Testament, including the words of Jesus Himself, show Him in the words of the psalm as “the stone that the builders rejected” becoming the “cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Through the rejection of Jesus comes our salvation. It is a marvelous and wondrous thing that the LORD has done in order that we might have forgiveness for our sins of despising His grace, and have the door to His presence opened to us again through the righteousness that is ours in Christ Jesus.
Even now our cry rings out along with those who waved their palm branches and spread their cloaks on the road as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. “Save us, we pray, O LORD!” “Hosanna!… Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” We sing it now in prelude to when our communion will be restored, whether in this life or the next.
The festal sacrifice was bound to the horns of the altar when Jesus was nailed to the arms of the cross. “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). Let us find our righteousness in Him and, through the forgiveness of our sins by His death and resurrection, know that we can never be barred from the presence of our loving God and heavenly Father. Not even death can bar us. When Jesus died and the earth shook, “the tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out the tombs after His resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52-53). The gates could not keep out those who were righteous through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The gates are opened to you through the Word and Sacraments that God so richly bestows upon us. Your sins are forgiven in Jesus Christ and it is the Word and the Sacraments that bring the riches of His grace to you. There is one sacrament we cannot receive right now, a sacrament that we have neglected in the past for all number of frivolous reasons, but God’s grace is still open to us that we might be forgiven and treasure His good gifts, and hunger and thirst for the righteousness He provides.
We have not suspended the Lord’s Supper because it is unimportant or something extra that we can do without. We believe that it is a vital gift to the life of the Church, that is to our life as individual members of Christ’s Church. We have not canceled communion services because the body and blood of Christ would be harmful to us even though we would come to receive it in repentant faith. We have forgone gathering together because we pose a risk to each other. The sickness is not in the cup of Christ, but in one another. There is nothing to fear from the Sacrament, but there is good reason to avoid direct contact with one another until this virus is under control. It is out of love for one another that we are fasting from the greatest feast that God has ever given.
At this time when we cannot receive the body and blood of Christ, we can still feast on His Word. Read your Bibles, individually and with your family. Gather together as you are able and sing and pray. Remember your baptismal incorporation into the holy body of Jesus. Ponder the communion of saints and your connection to those who cannot be physically present with you. We have much more in the varied gifts of Christ than the world could ever offer or take away. And as we move through the great festival time of Holy Week and Easter without one of those gifts, may our joy in God’s abundant grace increase all the more and bestow a greater anticipation for those things He has promised that are sure to come.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.