Seeing Jesus on the Cross
Text: Isaiah 52:13–53:12, Matthew 21:1–11
Audio: Seeing Jesus on the Cross
Speaker: Christian A. Schmitt
1 Introduction: Jesus is the King who dies
"Imagine what is must have been like to wake up in Jerusalem on that morning two thousand years ago. The sun would have been warm, since the spring was just beginning, and he city already dusty, buzzing with activity in preparation for the Passover, which was going to be in just a few days. By now, the crowds are flowing in just like they do every year. But one crowd in particular draws your attention: they follow a Galilean man riding a donkey into Jerusalem, taking the path that David took when he captured the city for the first time. This is the path of the victorious king, and the crowd that came in with him is shouting to him as if he were the king: 'Hosanna, Hosanna!' The cry means 'save us, save us'–it’s a cry of glory, of adoration, to the one that you believe can save you. All of it makes you wonder: Is this the Savior? Is this the Messiah? Is this the one who will finally set the Jewish people free from Roman rule? Will he declare to Caesar, 'let me people go?'. The one who will defeat the Roman army just like Moses defeated the Egyptian army? You know that he’s got an impressive, and very, very loud, following by now, since you can hear them shouting as they go past. But you’re still not sure what to think.
Now imagine five days later. The Galilean made a huge stink in the temple for a few days, then he got arrested and tried–and they nailed him to a cross early this morning. Some king he turned out to be, right? He sure talked a big talk for a king, but kings are military leaders–they’re not supposed to die! They’re supposed to defeat their enemies and bring prosperity to their people. A real king doesn’t get crucified between common criminals. So you turn away and go home–the Passover is tomorrow, and you’ve got more important things to do than to watch this fool die. You can’t help but notice that the crowds that surrounded him a few days ago are totally absent now.
Even two thousand years later, what happened in Jerusalem that Passover defies explanation. Was Jesus really the Davidic king, coming to restore the people of Israel from Roman subjugation, solving the great problem of the Israelites and setting up a new kingship for the glory of God?
If he was, what was going on on the cross? And how come the throngs of his followers cried out to him 'save us, save us,' but instead of liberating Israel from the Romans, he died, held to a Roman cross by Roman nails? What’s the connection between Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday? If Jesus is the king who dies, what does that even mean? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?
It turns out that these cries of hosanna that we celebrate on Palm Sunday were one of the greatest misunderstandings in history. The Palm Sunday crowds misunderstood the problem that they actually faced, and they misunderstood the kind of savior that Jesus was. They misunderstood their problem and their savior. So we’re going to look at these two things this morning so that we can know Jesus truly and worship him fully, according to his Word to us and not according to our preconceived notions.
2 The Palm Sunday crowds misunderstood their problem.
2.1 They thought Herod was their problem...
The Palm Sunday crowds misunderstood their problem. We’ve been talking about this all over Lent–in the mind of the Jews, and even of Jesus’ own disciples, it was the Roman occupation that was stopping Israel from becoming everything that God had promised–Israel could be the city on the hill as soon as there was a real Israelite king on the throne again–not this half-Jew Caesar sympathizer Herod. They needed a real Davidic king to deal with Herod.
2.2 But their sin was their problem.
But how does this stack up against the Old Testament? Let’s turn back to the passage of Isaiah that Megan read for us. Isaiah says that 'we all like sheep have gone astray, every one of us has turned to his own way.' And that’s even a kind way to say it. In chapter 1, Isaiah says that Jerusalem, God’s holy city, has become just as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah, those cities that God destroyed all the way back in Genesis. These cities are bywords for destruction and sin. Isaiah says that God is even rejecting Israel’s sacrifices and prayer because of their sin. For Isaiah, the problem isn’t the Babylonians at the gates, the problem is that people’s sin has thrust them out of right relationship with God and with one another.
And this is just as true for us today. The greatest problem that we face isn’t that the wrong people are in the White House or the Capitol. Our problem is the same problem that every single person faces: we are sick beyond healing, damaged beyond repair, and guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. But you don’t see that in the New York Times. Headlines don’t read ‘Man separated from God by sin.’ But there certainly are headlines about filibusters and taxes and sports and vaccines. So we’re liable to forget this too and get distracted by how good or how bad the government is or by how much the coronavirus is getting in the way of our lives. We’re liable to think that Herod is the problem! But whether we’re in the first-century Middle East or the twenty-first century United States, the problem faced by all of humanity is a lot deeper than than who happens to be in political power that year. The problem that every person faces is our sin, which separates every one of us from God. And that’s a much bigger problem than a half-Jew Caesar sympathizer, but the Palm Sunday crowds were oblivious to it.
3 The Palm Sunday crowds misunderstood their savior.
3.1 They were looking for a military leader, so they abandoned Jesus when he looked like he couldn’t save them.
Just like the Palm Sunday crowds misunderstood their problem, they also misunderstood their savior. When the crowds declared ‘hosanna!’ they were expecting Jesus to enter Jerusalem as a military leader, a mighty man who would incite a rebellion and finally re-establish the Jewish ethnostate. Jesus was supposed to be the invincible, undefeatable Messiah, a new King David.
But it wasn’t too long until Jesus didn’t look very mighty anymore. Most of us have never witnessed a crucifixion personally, but by the time you flog someone three quarters to death and let the cross do the rest, you barely have a person left. It really does fit Isaiah’s description: 'and his appearance was marred, beyond human semblance.' This is the end of hopes that Jesus would be a mighty military Messiah. A dead general is useless! And there’s no point in following a king who dies.
So the crowds abandoned him. There were no more shouts of ‘hosanna,’ only taunts and insults. Remember how people spoke to Jesus on the cross? 'If you are the Son of God, just come down from the cross!' Even the disciples, the people who Jesus had invested in most heavily for years, abandoned him. Peter, the team captain, even denies knowing him three times! John is the only disciple mentioned to be at the cross, and Jesus’ whole follower group scatter after his death. In the mindset of the Palm Sunday crowds, the fact that Jesus died in such a state of weakness and dishonor was proof that he count have been the real Messiah.
But if they knew their Old Testament, it shouldn’t have been any surprise to them: it’s right there in Isaiah’s playbook: 'He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief!' So they shouldn’t have said 'look at him suffering, he can’t be the Messiah.' They should have said 'look at him suffering, isn’t that what the Messiah is supposed to do?' This is the what the Palm Sunday crowds couldn’t understand: Jesus’ suffering isn’t what disqualifies him as their savior, but it’s exactly what makes him their savior in Isaiah’s definition.
3.2 But he was saving them from a problem that they didn’t acknowledge they had...
And that brings us to the last question I want to answer this morning: what was Jesus actually doing on the cross? Isaiah answers that one for us too, even right in the next sentence: 'Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows...He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.' he goes on 'The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.'
So Jesus didn’t suffer on the cross because he was a failed military Messiah, he suffered because he was suffering in our place! We’re the ones who went astray like sheep, but he entered into our world as a sacrificial lamb. It’s not a coincidence that Isaiah says almost in the same breath that we have gone stray like sheep and Christ was like a lamb to the slaughter and a sheep before its shearers. The one God from time eternal, who created the heavens and the earth, became a human, not to be worshiped, but to die on a tree that he himself willed into existence.
The eternal wrath of God was directed against us, justly, because of our sin, but Jesus, God in the flesh drank down every drop of it. The cross is God saving us from himself, by himself, and for himself. The cross wasn’t Jesus’ defeat, like the crowds thought. The cross was Jesus’ ultimate victory. It’s how he won us. And in Isaiah’s vision, it worked: 'by his wounds, we are healed!' Isaiah says that he 'bore the sin of many'–if he took it away from you, you can’t still have it! If you believe in Christ and follow him as the true Messiah, your sin is gone. There is nothing more between you and God. It’s like Paul says in Romans 5: we have peace with God. And nothing can shake that! It’s like we sing when we sing 'Before the Throne of God Above': 'I know that while in heaven he stands, no tongue can bid me thence depart.' And that is good news. The best news I can imagine.
But the crowds missed it–they missed what Jesus was doing on the cross because they misunderstood what their problem was and what sort of a savior Jesus was. For years, I missed it, too: even though I grew up in the church, I didn’t understand until college that the phrase 'Jesus died for my sins' meant that I had an infinite guilt before an infinitely holy God and something of infinite value has to die before God and I can be on good terms again. When I understood that, my entire life came crashing down, and then it came crashing back into place. I realized that my biggest problem was that my sin created an unpassable chasm between me and God, and that was the key to understanding what Jesus was doing on the cross and why he had to die. There was no other way for me and God to be reconciled, because sin demands death. But seeing Jesus as the Suffering Savior now gave me a reason to worship and to follow him with my whole life, because Jesus had done something for me that nobody and nothing else could ever do!
4 Application: Take Holy Week to recalibrate our image of Jesus in community.
This is Palm Sunday. We’re a week away from Easter, where we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, his victory over our sin and his victory over the death that should have been ours. So my encouragement to all of us is this: let’s prepare to celebrate Easter on Jesus’ terms, not necessarily our own. We all have our own backgrounds and histories and personalities, so we all have our own ways of getting off track in our walks with God. I know I do–as soon as I let this image out of my sight, I start acting as though Jesus were some great cosmic taskmaster sitting in heaven with an abacus keeping score on my life. All demand, no grace. Other people think of Jesus like a cosmic vending machine: ‘if I put enough good works or enough faith in, he’ll reward me by giving me what I want.’ But that’s not the image we get in Isaiah: Jesus is the one who rescues us by suffering and invites us to follow him in his spiritual kingdom no matter what sort of earthly kingdom we have citizenship in.
And on top of our own personal propensities to misunderstand Jesus, this has been just about the weirdest and most challenging year most of us have experienced. It’s been a year where everything normal has just been yanked out from under us. If you’re anything like me, a year like we’ve had can knock your perception of God completely out of whack.
So let’s take Holy Week as a time to invite God to continue to reshape our picture of Jesus and bring us into worship that is even truer and fuller, just like we’ve been inviting him to do all of Lent. Texts like we’ve looked at today are great places to start. Maybe take a half hour every day this week to read and pray over this chapter and a half of Isaiah. Or read through a gospel and watch what Jesus is doing. And you don’t have to do this alone. What better time is there than Holy Week to seek out and deepen Christian friendship? We all have friendships with other believers that God has given us to share our journey with. Many of us are even married to one! It’s as simple as asking some intentional questions: 'How are you and God doing? What have you been learning in the Bible recently? What has been in your prayer life?' Heck, my phone number and email are in the church directory, reach out to me if you want. Let’s be a community seeking the true Jesus together.
My prayer for all of us is that Holy Week would be a time of preparation and rediscovery as we see and behold our savior not through the eyes of the Palm Sunday crowd, but through the eyes of the prophet Isaiah. The real Jesus is the one who came to deal with our real problem, our sin and guilt before God. And he saved us not with military might or political power, but by pouring out his life on the cross. Let’s pray.
Lord Jesus, you came to pay the price of our sin. That is our confession. Help us by your Spirit to hold fast to you as you really are and not lose you to a Messiah of our own making. Help us understand you and what you came to do. We thank you for everything that you have done for us, pouring our your whole self to redeem and restore us. Bring us into worship that is full and true, and guard us against building an image of you that considers our desires over your Word. We give ourselves fully to you, praying in your name–amen."