Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

Palm/Passion Sunday Yr B, 28/03/2021

Ps 31:9-16

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Suffering: The psalmist’s, Christ’s and ours”

Today is Palm, also known as Passion Sunday. It is the beginning of Jesus’ last week on earth. The word passion refers to Christ’s suffering. So Psalm 31:9-16 is an appropriate one for today—even though the psalmist is speaking of his own suffering, as followers of Jesus, we can see some similarities of the psalmist’s sufferings with our Saviour’s sufferings. My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible has two titles. Psalm 31 has the following superscription: “To the leader. A Psalm of David.” The second title is: “Prayer and Praise for Deliverance from Enemies.” The Good News Bible gives it this title: “A Prayer of Trust in God.” The Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849), identifies Psalm 31 as an individual prayer for help and lament. 

Someone asked C.S. Lewis, “Why do the righteous suffer?” “Why not?” he replied. “They’re the only ones who can take it.” There is some truth in Lewis’s answer, especially when we focus on the passion, the suffering of Jesus. 

In a famous study by Victor and Mildred Goertzel, entitled Cradles of Eminence, the home backgrounds of 300 highly successful people were investigated. These 300 subjects had made it to the top. They were men and women whose names everyone would recognize as brilliant in their fields, such as Helen Keller, and Albert Schweitzer. The intensive investigation into their early home lives yielded some surprising findings:

Three fourths of the children were troubled either by poverty, by a broken home, or by rejecting, over-possessive, or dominating parents. 

Seventy-four of 85 writers of fiction or drama and 16 of the 20 poets came from homes where, as children, they saw tense psychological drama played out by their parents.

Physical handicaps such as blindness, deafness, or crippled limbs characterized over one-fourth of the sample.

“The world is inexplicably mysterious and full of suffering,” wrote Albert Schweitzer. Both a Christian and a doctor, Schweitzer recognized the immensity of human suffering. He devoted himself to its relief, but he recognized the mystery and accepted it.

Those in Victor and Mildred Goertzel’s study who were people of faith grew stronger in their commitment to God and love of neighbour through their suffering—as was the case with the psalmist and Jesus, and hopefully the same is true for you and I. 

Since today we focus on the Passion, the suffering of Jesus, let’s take a closer look now at verses 9-16 of our psalm, which for us may also be regarded as a Messianic Psalm, in that it reminds us of Jesus’ sufferings in other biblical passages. 

After the psalmist prays in the first eight verses for help and expresses trust in God’s deliverance from his enemy—the enemy may be some kind of illness, and/or others violating the first commandment by worshipping idols—he then goes into a lament beginning in verse nine. 

In verse nine, the psalmist asks God to be gracious in his distress. The Good News Bible puts it like this: “my eyes are tired from so much crying.” The NRSV renders it this way: “my eye wastes away from grief.” What New Testament passage does this remind you of? In Luke 19:41-44, Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem. He foresees Jerusalem’s destruction: “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (vs 44) 

In verse ten, the psalmist cries out with the following lament: “For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing.” This may remind you of the suffering servant song in Isaiah 53:3, where we read in the RSV translation: “He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” 

In verse eleven of the REB translation, the psalmist’s lament continues. This time he refers to “my enemies” plural. He also complains about his neighbours and friends, saying: “I am scorned by my enemies, my neighbours find me burdensome, my friends shudder at me; when they see me on the street they turn away quickly.” In other words, the psalmist is feeling socially and perhaps spiritually isolated, rejected, betrayed and persecuted. Once again the words of Isaiah 53:3, describing the suffering servant come to mind: “He was despised and rejected by others; and as one from whom others hide their faces.” Jesus’ suffering on the cross also comes to mind, in the words of Mark 15:29-31: “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross! In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” 

Then, in verse twelve of our psalm, the psalmist feels totally abandoned, and says, in the Good News Bible rendering: “Everyone has forgotten me, as though I were dead.” This reminds us of Jesus’ experience of his disciples abandoning him when he was arrested in the words of Mark 14:50: “All of them (i.e. his disciples) deserted him (i.e. Jesus) and fled.” 

Speaking of death, in verse thirteen of our psalm, the psalmist now laments that his enemies are out to destroy him, saying: “they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.” Once again the story of Jesus’ Passion come to mind in the words of Matthew 26:3-4: “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” 

Here I would like to emphasise that it was not all of the Jews, or even all of the Jewish leaders who planned the death of Jesus—nor should we Christians today blame the Jews for killing Christ. The whole larger picture of the Passion of Jesus emphasises that humankind crucified Jesus, so to blame the Jews is wrong and feeds into antisemitism, which has been so destructive over the centuries, and is unfortunately still present today. As followers of Jesus, who himself was a Jew, we Christians are called to love our neighbour, which includes loving (not hating!) the Jewish people. 

Now back to our psalm. In verses fourteen and fifteen, the psalmist prays a prayer of confidence and trust, realizing that, no matter what happens to him, his life is in God’s hands: “But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.” Here I am reminded of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane as he agonized over his imminent suffering and death, he prayed the following words with confidence and trust in God, as recorded in Mark 14:36: “He said, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 

In verse sixteen, the psalmist prays for God’s blessing upon him, reminiscent of the Aaronic benediction in the Book of Numbers 6:22-26, which we often end our worship services with. The psalmist’s prayer also are words of trust in God’s all-encompassing steadfast love, which remind us of the last words of Jesus on the cross as recorded in Luke 23:46, also words of confidence and trust: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

So, these words of Psalm 31, as well as the other biblical passages I shared with you today are also words of encouragement for you and I—they are words that instruct us in our suffering and give us hope. 

That reminds me of the Japanese Lutheran theologian, Kazoh Kitamori, who wrote a book entitled: Theology of the Pain of God. In this work, Kitamori presents the idea that because of God’s love, justice and mercy God suffers pain. God who loves the world and humankind so much is willing to undergo endless pain. The justice of God demands punishment for sin—yet, in love and mercy God suffers pain to prevent complete punishment from being carried out and taking its ultimate course. We humans and the whole created universe experience God’s very being/essence/personality in our pain and suffering. God is in solidarity with us humans and the whole universe when we suffer and are in pain. One who suffers and is in great pain really is in very close relationship with God. For Kitamori, the clearest revelation of God is in pain. 

That is why the crucified Jesus is the Saviour of the world. When we suffer, he suffers with and through us—therefore we can face, live with, and by God’s grace, overcome our suffering, knowing and trusting that God is always with us and we are with God. Moreover, suffering is not the ultimate end. There is redemption. There is resurrection. For that, thanks be to God! 

About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: dimlamp.wordpress.com gwh photos: gwhphotos.wordpress.com

2 Responses to Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

  1. Leroy Seat says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I was happy to see that you made reference to Kazoh Kitamori (1916~98). His book that you referred to was published first in 1946, so he was writing to people who had been suffering great pain. Maybe it was in the 1980s that Kitamori-sensei came to the university where I taught in Japan, and I was happy to hear him speak in person.

  2. dimlamp says:

    You’re welcome. That is interesting, Leroy. I wondered if you might have known of him or met him. Yes, there was a lot of pain in Japan after the war and the bombings.

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