Sunday, April 5, 2009

Thoughts on an early Palm Sunday morning

Today is a joyful day for the church. That's as it should be. It's a joyful day for our particular church for other reasons. Later this morning we'll see three of our youth baptized upon their professions of faith (Presbyterians practice believer's baptism too!), and we'll be receiving several new members. If that wasn't enough excitement, our new co-pastor will be preaching for the first time. As one who served on the committee that called him to our congregation, today is the joyful culmination of a year and a half long process of meetings, interviews and reading resumes. Yes, today is a day to joyfully celebrate the king that rode into Jerusalem, not to conquer, but to die. My thoughts this weekend have been on the kingly attributes of Christ described in Psalm 45.

But there's another side to Palm Sunday that I find as sad as Good Friday. The crowds that cried "Hosanna!" would soon turn into the mobs crying "Crucify Him!" We're confronted with the fickleness and duplicity of our hearts as we meditate on the gospel narratives of that penultimate week beginning with Palm Sunday. And how can we not be moved by the anguished grief of Jesus as he wept over Jerusalem and foretold the terrible destruction seventy years hence, and his righteous anger over the commercialization of the temple? All this leads me to reflect on a more sobering subject as the cross begins to come into focus. In the Apostles' Creed we confess that Jesus "was crucified, dead, and buried/He descended into hell." That last phrase has been controversial through the centuries with some theologians wanting to remove it. For a good treatment of the controversy and defense of keeping it in the Creed I recommend In Defense of the Descendit by Daniel Hyde.

To me the phrase "He descended into hell" is valuable because it expresses an aspect of the atonement that isn't expressed by simply saying "He was crucified, dead, and buried", namely, the aspect of spiritual death that went beyond a mere physical one. This is the dark reality hinted at when Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (quoting from Psalm 22). In a real sense Jesus was experiencing hell in our place. I'm not here to debate whether hell is a spatial piece of real estate somewhere in the universe akin to the visions of Dante or Jack Chick. I think that debate misses the point that the words used in the Bible describe a reality far worse than we can imagine (in the same way that the words used to describe Heaven are simply inadequate to the glorious reality). Scripture is clear that there's a spiritual death ("the second death") that will be experienced by all who die apart from Christ. Looking at the cross one can get a glimpse of what that will be like. J.I. Packer writes in Knowing God:

On the cross, God judged our sins in the person of his Son, and Jesus endured the retributive comeback of our wrongdoing. Look at the cross, therefore, and you see what form God's judicial reaction to human sin will finally take. What form is that? In a word, withdrawal and deprivation of good. On the cross Jesus lost all the good that he had before: all sense of his Father's presence and love, all sense of physical, mental and spiritual well-being, all enjoyment of God and of created things, all ease and solace of friendship, were taken from him, and in their place was nothing but loneliness, pain, a killing sense of human malice and callousness, and a horror of great spiritual darkness.

So, too, those who reject God face the prospect of losing all good, and the best way to form an idea of eternal death is to dwell on this thought. In ordinary life, we never notice how much good we enjoy through God's common grace till it is taken from us...It is a terrible thought, but the reality, we may be sure, is more terrible yet. "It would be better for him if he had not been born." God help us to learn this lesson, which the spectacle of propitiation through penal substitution on the cross teaches so clearly; and may each of us be found in Christ, our sins covered by his blood, at the last. (p. 195)

Amen and amen.

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