Palm Sunday: The Lord is at Hand

Philippians 4:4‑9



In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


The Gospel today, mentions Lazarus who had been dead and that there was a dinner given for the one who had been raised from the dead.  So the Entrance of Jerusalem and the Raising of Lazarus are very much connected.  In fact, the troparion is the same for both Feasts. 


It was yesterday that we celebrated Lazarus, and to be honest with you, I think the raising of Lazarus is the more important Feast.  Of course, this is considered a Great Feast of the Lord, and on this day you have fish, and on Lazarus Saturday you can only have caviar.  So by that token, perhaps you might think that the Entry of Jerusalem is more important. 


But the Raising of Lazarus is about our resurrection.  The Entry to Jerusalem is about the King coming to His people, riding on the colt, and terrible things would happen in the ensuing week.  But the resurrection of Lazarus, that is wholly about our resurrection. 


And you might not know this: to the Jews, four days in the grave, was the point of no return.  Perhaps at three days a person could still be raised.  But after four days it was considered to be completely hopeless.  Lazarus was four days dead, and yet the Lord raised him. 


And to be honest with you, as your pastor I say this in a fatherly way:  Most of you don't hear the story of the resurrection of Lazarus during the Church year.  You come for Palm Sunday, but you don't come for Lazarus.  You did not come yesterday for the Liturgy when we read the entire chapter 11 of John.  And that's the more important one, because that truly makes application to you. 


Now, I'm sorry if this is going to be a little incoherent because, to be honest with you, I'm really tired, and it's just hard to get everything done, so I haven't really thought on the sermon that I would give very much at all today because there were so many other things that came up last night and this morning.  So I'll just tell you what's on my heart.


What's on my heart is that we have lots of palms and lots of pussy willows, branches, that we're holding up.  So we're emulating the children of Israel.  But most of those children of Israel rejected the Messiah.  And perhaps most, and certainly a great percentage of people who are Orthodox will not find the Kingdom because they are not striving for the Kingdom.  They go to church occasionally, but they are not striving for the Kingdom. 


So when I see all these branches, and when I hold the branches, I think:  Am I going to be the one who denies God, or am I going to affirm Him by how I live my life?


So when you hold these branches, I hope that that thought comes to you too and you rebuke yourself for the ways in which you do not live like a Christian and that you make up your mind that I will try harder, I will try to do better.


Now, most people, when they think about trying harder in the Orthodox context, say "I'll fast from now on".  Or "I'll go to church more. "  We measure ourselves by these sorts of things.  I think you should try harder by trying to love God with all of your heart, to love your neighbor, to read the Scriptures with attention, to pray with attention and not just to occasionally come to church and live your life.  That's how I think you should try harder. 


Now, all the other things come up with it, fasting is going to help you there, coming to church is going to help you there, but the most important thing is that as you're holding these branches, that you have in your heart that you want to be closer to God. 


Now, the Epistle ‑‑ I told you this was going to be incoherent.  I was about to talk about Lazarus.  Now I'm going to talk about the Epistle.  Normally I'm not like this.  But I'm sort of shaken up like in a paint mixer today.


The Epistle says, "Rejoice in the Lord alway, again I say rejoice".  He goes on to say, "The Lord is at hand".  I think that's why this Epistle is selected, because the Lord was coming into Jerusalem, not as an earthly King really; he was coming in meek, on a colt, the foal of an ass.


A King would come in on a great charger with all of his soldiers in front of him and beside him and in back of him and with great shouts and cries about how great he was.


There were the shouts and cries.  They cried Hosanna, which means God saves. 


So the Lord is at hand.  So right now we are, in our mind's eye, we are just before the Passion of our Lord.  Of course, in a week, if you count exactly a week we won't even be in church at this moment in time.  We will be getting ready, hopefully getting up and getting ready to come to the Agape Vespers because we will have already celebrated the Resurrection.  So it's only a week's time now. 


And the Lord came into Jerusalem with great fanfare.  People cried out: "God saves".  They put their garments down.  They put the branches of trees and palms down as accepting Him as their King and as victorious.  But He didn't stay in Jerusalem that night.  Saint John says, He went back and He lodged near there, in Bethany.  And the reason why was because in Jerusalem after all that, He wasn't accepted by the people.  The ruling class hated Him and wanted Him killed. 


So He would go in and out of Jerusalem during that period of time before His Passion, Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and He was arrested Thursday. 


The Lord is at hand.  What does that mean for you and me?  In history, when the Lord went into Jerusalem with all this fanfare there was great evil that occurred in the coming days.  People plotting to have Him killed.  Judas covenanting for thirty pieces of silver to give Him up.  Lies being told and palms being greased and bribes being done.  And evil friendships being made, between Herod and Caiaphas. 


The Lord is at hand.  It says, Rejoice.  So what does it mean for us?  If we were those people, would we rejoice, would we cleave to the Lord?  You're holding branches in your hands.  May God help you to truly cleave to God, to struggle to follow the Commandments, not just to follow the formal things of our faith. 


(Here's more incoherence.)  When I was a child, I was raised Roman Catholic, and really it was just about being a good Catholic, which means that you go to church on Sunday.  There wasn't really much beside that.  My father was not a believer.  He said he believed in the "Man upstairs".  And so there was not really much application of religion to our household, but certainly there were some external things, you had Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday and you had these kinds of things.  And to me, all that didn't make much sense because it didn't seem like there was any heart in it.


And when I was becoming Orthodox, one of the hardest things for me was seeing all of these things that we do as Orthodox Christians and looking at them and saying, "those are empty rituals".  Because that's the way that people outside of the Church think of the things that we do.  They think of being anointed with oil as an empty ritual, of getting the blessing of a priest as an empty ritual, holding palms in our hands, etc are just empty rituals and traditions of men.


When I became Orthodox I saw the great and deep meaning of these things.  As you're holding these branches in your hand, you should be thinking:  Which child of Israel am I going to be?  Am I going to be the one who says, Crucify Him?  Or am I going to be the one that loves Him and follows Him in His way of the Cross?  That's very important.  There's nothing empty at all about holding these.  The angels see you holding these things up.  God sees you holding these things up.  So what are you saying?  Are you saying that you are going to follow Him?  Or are you saying that you're just coming because it's a big church holiday? 


It's very important to have heart in what you do.  And that's why the Epistle of the Philippians is here.  "Rejoice in the Lord.  Again, I say, Rejoice.  Let your moderation be known unto all men.  The Lord is at hand. " 


Of course, the Lord is always at hand.  He doesn't have to go through Jerusalem for us to have Him be at hand.  He's always with us.  He sees all.  He understands all.  He helps with all.


And why should we rejoice in the Lord?  Well, Saint Paul goes on to say, Be careful about nothing.  That's kind of archaic.  It means basically:  Don't care about anything that's unimportant.  Let your request be know to God, and the peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ.  So this is the point of our life:  To have the peace of God in our hearts


So you're holding up branches.  Are you a peaceful person?  Are you trying to be a peaceful person?  This is important.  You're making a statement right now.  So you have to follow through on your statement.  You have to struggle to only know God.  That's all that matters.  Everything else is going away.  And to have the peace of God which passeth all understanding in our hearts.  By definition we can't even understand what that is like because it passes all understanding.  But it's a whole lot better than the peace we have now.  It's a whole lot better than the world we have now.  This world is full of sorrow.  Even if you have joy in the world, there's still so much sorrow.  If not directly in your personal life, in those you love or in those you know or even in those you don't know, finding about all those terrible things being done in the world.  There's not much peace in the world.


But we're holding up branches, and only a few days later the Lord is going to be arrested.  He's going to be scourged.  He's going to be spat upon.  He's going to be blasphemed.  He's going to be made to carry His Cross.  He's going to be crucified naked on the Cross, and people are going to throw things at Him, and they're going to try to make Him drink vinegar.  And they're going to gamble for His clothing as He's dying.  Only in a few days.


And we're holding up the branches and the Apostle is saying, The peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds.  So how does it happen?  That's a mystery to me.  I only know that God helps us to attain peace, but we have to struggle for it.


So as I see all these branches held up, my pastoral prayer for you is that you would struggle to know God in everything and that you would struggle to be a peaceful person and to have the peace of God be within you.  It can happen.


Now, let's come back a little bit to the Gospel about Lazarus.  As Michael Daum tells me, I go down rabbit trails sometimes.  Well, there's a lot of rabbit trails in this little talk, because, as I said, it's a little incoherent. 


When Jesus came to Bethany, Lazarus had already been four days dead.  Mary and Martha loved their brother dearly, and they loved the Lord; they knew Him well, they knew that He could heal Lazarus.  They knew that he could raise Lazarus from the dead, but he'd crossed that demarcation point.  He had gone beyond three days.  He was four days dead.


So Martha comes to Jesus and says, "Lord, if You were here, my brother would not have died".  And He tells her that he will be raised up.  And Martha says, I know he will be raised up on the last day.  And then Jesus says:  'I am the Resurrection and the Life; do you believe this?'  She says, Yes.  But she didn't quite believe.  She almost believed.


Isn't that like how it is in your life?  Don't you almost believe?  Don't you 99 percent believe, but there is a part of you that doesn't believe maybe?  A part of you that thinks, I'm that guy that good thing is not going to happen to?


So after she calls Mary and then they go to the tomb, the Lord says, Open the tomb, and Martha who had just had the conversation with the Lord, says, Lord, it's been four days, he stinks.  And Jesus says, Didn't I tell you to believe?  They open the door, and of course Lazarus comes out bound in the grave clothes.  And they take off the grave clothes, and there's living, breathing Lazarus.  Raised after four days dead. 


I think that this long account that John gives about the raising of Lazarus is because we have trouble believing good things will really happen to us.  We have trouble believing we will ever, ever stop being angry at stuff, stop being irritable with our loved ones.  Well, start praying more.  We think the things in our lives are kind of there to stay; they're there for days, they have been there so long; they're four days dead; they're not going to get better.  But they will get better.  The peace of God which passeth all understanding can be in your heart.  All you need do is just pray, struggle, fast, be a Christian, put away the things that are not Christian.  Change your priorities.  It's a difficult thing. 


We just had a baptism today.  It's only the beginning for this young man.  It's a happy occasion, but in essence, you could say this is like Michael holding up palms and saying Hosanna.  Okay, now, after the baptism he's going to prove whether or not he loves God by how he lives.  All the possibilities are there.  All the capability is there; it's up to him now.  Is he going to live as a Christian or not? 


May God help us to make good on our promise as we wave our palms and our pussy willows.  It's a beautiful sight to see.  But let it be our statement, that we want the peace which passeth all understanding in our hearts.  And then God will help us.  May God help you in all things.  Amen.



Priest Seraphim Holland 2014    

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