Lent 2024: Do This in Remembrance
March 24 | Palm Sunday |Year B
Remembering the Servant’s Ascent
Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Mark 11:1-11
What’s the historical context?
The Servant of the Lord
This is the third of Isaiah’s four “Servant Songs,” which display the posture of the true and perfect Servant of the Lord. There are, of course, different perspectives on who the servant is—the prophet himself, the Messiah, or some vague other servant—but it does not take a lot of homiletical or theological gymnastics to reconcile them while still affirming that they point forward to Jesus himself. One can still ponder how one’s own efforts to be faithful amidst difficulty reflect the true and more complete efforts of a would-be perfect servant, and any pondering of proper service to the Lord would obviously be Spirit-led. Isaiah’s own self-offering and his intimate knowledge of God’s voice and God’s will would have made him especially attuned to a Spirit-given image of what the Messiah would be like and how he would comport himself.
Honor and Shame
Approaching Holy Week, this third Servant Song portrays both the temerity of faithful prophets of the past and the faithful arrival, ministry, and suffering of Jesus himself. As we see, there are many aspects of near eastern culture that are little changed from both Jesus’s time and Isaiah’s, as the honor-shame dynamic is still prominent in social mores and community life. The tone of legal proceedings in public intercourse, the “mocking and spitting,” and even the confidence in God’s vindication are on display today just as they were in Isaiah’s and the Gospel writers’ times.
In preparation, it would be worth reading the whole of Isaiah 38-55 to see the context of Hezekiah’s illness, the nation’s waywardness and suffering, and the thread of legal proceedings throughout this portion of Isaiah. We see a full scope of unfaithfulness, judgment, faithfulness, and vindication, pointing to God’s sovereignty as mentioned four times in today’s passage. As such, we get a sense of walking with Jesus himself before and especially through this week.
How do we point to Jesus?
The Character of the Servant
In that walk, Jesus woke up in Jericho, ascended the hills toward Jerusalem, and looked upon the city from the Mount of Olives. Isaiah’s previous chapter proclaimed God’s restoration of His people while also recounting their despair, providing a look into Jesus’s own mind as he approached the city.
Additionally, the first lines of today’s song provide an affirmation of Jesus’s own faithfulness not only as part of his nature but also as part of his practice. In fact, the “well instructed tongue” of v4 can refer to Jesus’s own intimacy with the Father, his desire for solitude and prayer, and the practice of reciting the Psalms of Ascent while ascending the hills to Jerusalem on this very day. We can assert the same for the “word that sustains the weary.”
Likewise, there is helpful imagery in this Servant Song that can tie into the life of Jesus even prior to Holy Week. He has “not been rebellious” and has “not turned away” (v5). As we approach v6, however, we get more into Jesus’s literal experiences in the week and the Passion.
J. Alec Motyer notes that “disgraced” and “put to shame” in v7 connote “reaping shame,” which suggests a level of investment in God’s sovereignty that will yield a return on the other side of the world’s greatest efforts at humiliation. Jesus’s knowledge of this sovereignty and faithfulness in it give him the ability to set his face like flint. As v8 can remind us, the nearer the humiliation, the nearer the vindication on the other side; and as v9 states, true condemnation can only come from the one who is sovereign, and it is he who vindicates.
How does this impact us today?
The Identity of the Servant
Isaiah’s prophetic experience is helpful, as is any speculation over whether the Servant Songs refer most heavily to the prophet’s plight, to Jesus himself, or to some other supposed “servant.” Such speculation can be seen as overthinking the matter, but it is a reminder that while there is only one perfectly faithful servant-savior, all servants may experience suffering and are called to emulate faithfulness. An advantage that we have over Isaiah is that we have had the proper posture confirmed and exemplified in Jesus. We know who the servant-savior is and how the vindication looks.
Who is Sovereign?
Nevertheless, we need frequent reminders in life of who the Sovereign Lord is, as Isaiah was keen to remind us four times in this song. The first lines remind us of the importance of practice—listening to His word and letting him train our tongues—and the lines about suffering remind us to maintain trust amid hardship. The legalese about vindication can be both retrospective and prospective, as we do look with hope to resurrection and eternity—i.e.- God’s final vindication of Himself and the faithful —but through faith the Sovereign Lord provides vindication as we walk through life. We can approach life itself with hope because we know who is Sovereign and whom we are serving.
To Whom Are We Listening?
A particular note for this year lies in v4b, in which our ears are guided morning by morning. What are we hearing in the world and what are we hearing from God? Especially in an election year, to whom are we listening? Are our hearing and speaking trained by the one who is ultimately sovereign or by the whims of those vying for worldly influence? Where are we seeking vindication?
One of the scariest questions in the Palm Sunday story…. How will I respond when Jesus comes riding humbly into my life? Will I recognize the time of God’s coming to me? Will I recognize and welcome God’s personal visit?
—Marty Boller, Sermon: “Palm Sunday: How Will You Respond?”
No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown.
—William Penn, No Cross, No Crown, 1669.
An Acted Parable
The entrance into Jerusalem was an acted parable. It gave the faithful the sign they had been waiting for. It inaugurated the Master’s final mission to his people and was a fitting prelude to the days of intense activity and emotion which were to follow. It focused the whole city’s attention on Jesus, so that wherever he went during that closing week, crowds followed him, and his name was on every tongue.
And, not least important, it flung down the gauntlet to his enemies. It defied them. Much they could endure, but this procession through the streets was intolerable. This fanatic and usurper must be put down finally. Jesus in that tumultuous hour was issuing a challenge. Every token of royal honor which he accepted that day gave point to the challenge, and every hosanna of the crowd drove it home. Let the powers of evil do their worst; he knew his power. He was the Lord’s anointed. He was riding to the throne which God had given him. He was ready for the last campaign.
- What does “sovereignty” mean to us?
- What does “vindication” mean to us?
- Have you ever “set your face like flint” in the midst of doubt, ridicule, or shame?
- This passage deals with both physical harm and the potential harm to the servant’s honor. What kind of harm or suffering do we risk in the world? What does the persecuted church experience?
- How can we have well-instructed tongues?
- If we were sure to receive God’s word morning by morning, how would that affect our posture in the world?
Adapted from Psalm 118:19, 2c
Leader: Open the gates of victory;
People: I will enter them and praise the Lord.
Leader: This is the gate of the Lord;
People: The victors shall enter through it.
Leader: This is the day on which the Lord has acted.
People: Let us exult and rejoice in it.
Prayer of Confession
Jesus, you are our king, yet we do not act like it. You came in humility, to serve and give your life for the world. We do not follow your example. We live our own way and reject yours. We only claim allegiance to you when it’s convenient, when it serves our interests. On this Palm Sunday we are reminded of how quickly our loyalty to you diminishes. Please forgive us for our hypocrisies and apathy. Please give us passion for you as we remember your passion for us this week.
Time of silent reflection and confession…
—Austin D. Hill
Assurance of Pardon
Let us remember that Christ forgives our sins because he bore them at Calvary, not because we deserve Christ’s pardon; and though our sins stubbornly cling to us, our Savior’s love releases us from their grip and gives us freedom to live the new life of grace. In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Amen.
—C. Hassell Bullock
Isaiah 60:1 & 2
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the Lord’s glory has risen on you.
For, behold, darkness will cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will arise on you,
and his glory shall be seen on you.
Go in peace.
(WEB, adapted for liturgical use)
Year B: Do This in Remembrance (Series Page coming soon)
Moses descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments by Ferdinand Bol, 1662. Oil on canvas. Royal Palace of Amsterdam.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
More Quotes: Palm Sunday
More Illustrations: Palm Sunday
Allen Thompson is senior pastor at Fairview Presbyterian Church in North Augusta, South Carolina. Allen attended Pittsburgh Seminary (M.Div.) and Fuller Seminary (D.Min.) His wife, Kelsey, is a Marriage and Family Therapist, and they have two children.
Allen enjoys golf, hiking, camping, cooking pigs, ice climbing, and live music. He loves to imagine being in the story and culture of the Bible, wondering how we might have responded to God then and how we can follow Jesus now. As an “ideas” person, Allen is passionate about working with others to find out how God is calling us to use the many gifts and resources the Holy Spirit provides.
Allen holds a Doctor of Ministry (Fuller Theological Seminary) and a Master of Divinity (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).