This is a story we have heard so many times before. Many of us grew up hearing it. Year after year, we follow Jesus on a Lenten journey to Jerusalem. And every year it leads us here, to the threshold of Holy Week. We read the story of his triumphant entry into the city, and we read again how the crowd’s shouts of “hosanna in the highest!” quickly turn into chants of “crucify, crucify him!” We follow Jesus all the way from a stable in Bethlehem to the cross and to the empty tomb.
This story is so well known and so familiar to the church that it’s hard to add much to it. Some friends of mine even asked me a couple of weeks ago: how do you preach on stories that people have heard so many times? How do you find something new to say? And I told them honestly: the Spirit works! But also, I can’t help but think of how many thousands of years we have been telling ourselves and our children these stories. Humanity has a long term relationship with the story of salvation in Jesus Christ. And so, as old as this story is, it somehow keeps being new. Each year that we tell it again, it seems to speak to us in a new and different way.
This year, as I have been reading this story, what has stood out most to me is how freely Jesus gives himself away to others. He gives away his body and blood and even his very life. It sounds like kind of a silly comparison, but what it’s kept making me think of is the movie “The Princess Bride”; have any of you seen that movie? It’s a sweet and epic love story. The movie follows a young woman named Buttercup who lives on a farm with a young farmhand named Westley. She delights in ordering Westley around, always calling him “farm boy” – and each time she orders him to do something, Westley simply says to her, “As you wish,” and he does what she asks. And as the narrator tells us, one day, Buttercup finally realizes that every time Westley says to her, “As you wish,” what he’s really saying is, “I love you.”
In our gospel reading, Jesus makes his love known in this same way again and again. He gives what is asked of him without hesitation and with great love:
When he prays to God in the garden to take this cup away away from him, he ends his prayer by saying, “yet, not my will, but yours be done.”
As you wish.
When Judas comes with the crowd to arrest him and take him away, Jesus asks, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you betray the Son of Man?”
As you wish.
When the chief priests and elders and the authorities ask Jesus repeatedly, “are you the king of the Jews?” he replies, “you say that I am.”
As you wish.
When the crowds get riled up and start shouting for Jesus to be crucified, he doesn’t resist, but goes willingly to his death on the cross.
As you wish.
And when the criminal hanging on the cross beside him asks Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, he replies, “truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”
As you wish.
Jesus gives himself away freely. He pours himself out for others in response to all their demands. As Paul writes, he didn’t flaunt his divinity – he didn’t demand the praise or recognition he deserved – but instead he emptied himself, humbly acting toward others as a slave. He really is like the lover in a great love story. He does anything to be with the one he loves, gives everything to try to win over his beloved. He never stops, even when his beloved demands his death. And even after his death, he still doesn’t stop.
It’s not all that surprising then that this story reminds me so much of a love story like “The Princess Bride.” The story of Jesus’ passion reads very much like a love story – because it is a love story. It is the love story – God’s love story. But instead of one person chasing after another, this is our loving God chasing after a wayward human race. This is God trying to turn our hearts away from the shiny, fleeting things of this world, to make us remember that our true love, our true life, is in God.
And like the people we read about in scripture, we are sometimes faithful followers, but we are also sometimes guilty of denying God when faith becomes inconvenient. We still find ways to put God on trial, trying to justify ourselves when we want to ignore what God is saying to us, or when what we want is different from what God wants. We are still living out this story, whether we realize it or not. This story doesn’t end with the words of scripture, any more than it ends with a body in a tomb. The story we read year after year is our story too. We retrace its steps again and again to help ourselves remember who we are – and to help ourselves understand who God is.
So with that in mind, I encourage you to live fully into this week. Set aside the time to immerse yourself in the story again. Let the hosannas and the shouts of “crucify him” roll off your lips. Come on Thursday to sit at the table with Jesus and his disciples to eat the last supper before he is handed over. Come on Friday to lament and weep at the foot of the cross as Jesus is crucified. Come on Saturday and Sunday to wonder again at the empty tomb and to rejoice in Christ’s victory over death.
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard the story or how well you think you know it. There’s always some part of us that needs to hear the story again.