But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Palm Sunday – 2024

Palm Sunday – Matthew 27:11-54

Today we begin our observance of Holy Week, and we begin our recollection of all the things that transpired during the last week of our Lord’s earthly life. One of those pivotal events – as today’s reading from St. Matthew recounts it – was Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate.

In our American system of jurisprudence, a defendant has the right to remain silent. Someone who is accused of a crime cannot be forced to testify in his own trial.

But very often a defendant does not avail himself of that right – especially if it looks as if he is going to be convicted if he remains silent, without giving his side of the story.

And when a defendant is actually innocent of what he is charged with, then he almost never remains silent. He does and says everything he can to persuade the jury and the judge that he is not guilty.

The kind of rights that we enjoy in our American courtrooms were not in place in the trial that Jesus endured before the Roman governor. But even so, it is very telling to see when, during the course of his trial, Jesus was willing to speak; and when he chose not to speak, but to remain silent.

We read in today’s Gospel:

“And the governor asked Him, saying, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you say.’”

Jesus was willing to respond to Pilate’s question, and to admit that he was indeed a King. Jesus was the King of the Jews, and he was willing to say so in open court. He did not hide this fact, or remain silent when he was questioned concerning his royal status.

But of course, Jesus was a different kind of king than what people like Pilate were used to. Jesus is quoted in St. John’s Gospel to say that his kingdom is “not of this world” – a mystery which neither Pilate nor the Lord’s Jewish opponents could truly grasp.

Today’s Old Testament lesson puts forth a contrast between the kind of powerful soldier king who rides in triumph in a magnificent chariot, or astride a tall battle horse; and the kind of king Jesus was. Jesus, as a king, did not embody any of the boastful arrogance of a typical earthly king.

He did not ride in victory as a conquering ruler. But he entered the city on a donkey – an inglorious beast of burden – in order to do some rough and grueling work. Through Zechariah, God exclaims:

“Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem…”

And so Jesus was willing to admit that he was a king. But he was a king who had come among his people to bear the heaviest of burdens for them, and to lay down his life to save them.

He had not come in earthly glory and power. He had come, rather, in “the form of a bondservant,” as the Epistle to the Philippians expresses it. He was a king, but he was a servant-king.

But then we notice that immediately after this exchange between Pilate and Jesus, Jesus did not reply to Pilate’s next question. We read:

“And while [Jesus] was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing. Then Pilate said to Him, ‘Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?’ But He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly.”

Pilate marveled greatly, because he knew that Jesus was not really guilty of the things he was being accused of. He knew that these were trumped-up charges.

He could not imagine why Jesus would not speak up in his own defense, and refute the false accusations that were being leveled against him. Pilate had never before seen anything like this in a trial, especially when the potential punishment could be death by crucifixion.

In such a circumstance Pilate would have expected even a guilty person to lie, and falsely to claim innocence. He certainly would have expected an innocent person to tell the truth, and rightly to claim innocence.

But he never would have expected an innocent person to say nothing, and to let false charges go unanswered. Jesus was acquiescing in his own frame-up.

By his silence, he was virtually guaranteeing his condemnation. Pilate could not understand why he would do this.

But we do understand why he would do this. Jesus in his own person had indeed not committed the many sins that he was being accused of. In fact, he had never committed any sins or wrongdoings of any kind.

The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that he was “without sin.” The Second Epistle to the Corinthians says that he “knew no sin.”

But, as the Second Epistle to the Corinthians also says, God made him who knew no sin “to be sin” for our sake. The sins of humanity were imputed to Jesus, and placed upon Jesus.

As humanity’s substitute under the judgment of God’s law, Christ took upon himself all the blame for all the wickedness of all men. The prophet Isaiah puts it this way:

He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”

He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

And that, my friends, is exactly what was going on when Jesus stood before Pilate in perfect, submissive silence, while every imaginable crime and offense was piled onto him by the accusing lips of the chief priests.

Jesus allowed himself to be accused of our sins. He allowed your sins and mine to be credited to him.

He did not deflect these charges and accusations away from himself, by defending himself and proclaiming his innocence. Jesus permitted himself to be found guilty.

In this “great exchange” – because of his great love for all of us – he was willing to be declared guilty for our sake, so that we could be declared “not guilty,” before God, for his sake.

Jesus took our place before that Roman tribunal, which was really God’s tribunal, so that we can now take his place before the tribunal of God; and so that we can now be told by the Judge of all the universe that, for the sake of Christ, our sins will be forgotten – as if they had never been committed – and will not be held against us.

God says through the Prophet Jeremiah:

“For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

These are the words that a penitent heart needs to hear. And these are the words that a penitent heart can and will hear, because of the silence of Christ before Pilate.

And it truly was God who was doing this. As St. Peter tells us in the Book of Acts, Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.”

By means of the circumstances of history that were swirling around Jesus, God caused his own Son to be arrested and hauled in front of the Roman governor. And God is the one who caused the sins of the world to be placed upon his Son, and who caused Jesus to be condemned to death on account of those sins.

The chief priests – in spite of their personal unbelief, and the wicked intentions of their hearts – were, according to their external office, among the “called and ordained” ministers of Israel at that time in history. And Jesus had told Pilate that, according to his civil office as Roman governor, his authority to pass judgment in this case had been given to him “from above.”

The priests’ accusations were God’s accusations – through which the sins of the world were put upon Jesus by God. And Pilate’s judgment was God’s judgment – through which God’s own Son was sent to the cross, to become the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.

As is often the case with ministers and magistrates, none of these people really understood the deeper significance of what they were doing, or how they and their offices were being used by God on this occasion to fulfill his eternal plan for human redemption. But they were being used by God for his purposes nevertheless, in spite of themselves.

The sins that were placed upon Jesus stayed with him, all the way to the cross. And on the cross, he experienced the equivalent of hell itself, precisely because those sins were upon him, and because his Father saw those sins upon him.

“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?,” he cried. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In his humanity, and as the representative of all sinful humans, Jesus was forsaken by his Father in that moment, because in God’s sight he had become, by imputation and transfer, guilty of all human sin. And he endured the punishment that all sin deserves.

If you ever wonder how offensive your various acts of disobedience toward God actually are, look at the cross. Look, and listen.

If you ever wonder how seriously God takes his threat to punish the transgressions against his holiness that you have perpetrated, look at what Jesus endured in your place. Look, and grieve.

Your sinfulness, with all the pain and misery that it brings to you and others, is not a small problem. It is a major problem. It is a humanly unsolvable problem.

But it is a problem that God can solve, and that God did solve in the person of his Son – the divine Lord in human flesh. Jesus died for your sins.

And now, because of this fact, you need not die for those sins. You are forgiven. You are free.

For the sake of Christ, God has released you from your unpayable debt to him. For the sake of Christ, he has turned his wrath and displeasure away from you, and has made known to you instead his loving, Fatherly heart.

Your guilt has been lifted from you, and the righteousness of Christ has been bestowed upon you in its place. Returning to a passage from Second Corinthians that we have already quoted in part:

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In the gospel, you are embraced in Christ as a child of God. And as you believe the gospel, you are filled with the Spirit of adoption, by whom you cry out, “Abba, Father.” As God’s adopted sons and daughters, you are transformed ever more into the image of his only-begotten Son.

As the Holy Spirit does now indwell you, you begin to bear the fruit of that Spirit in the new life that he gives you. And your hearts and minds are set at peace.

At the time of Jesus’ trial, God used the accusing words of the high priests as a means of putting your sins upon Jesus.

And God used the condemning words of Pontius Pilate as a means of setting in motion his divine judgment against those sins; and his divine judgment against his Son, as the one to whom those sins had been credited.

Today, God uses the absolving words of your pastor – spoken in the stead and by the command of Christ – as a means of putting the righteousness of the now risen Christ upon you.

God uses your pastor’s announcement to you of God’s gracious pardon through his Son, as a means of taking away your fear and dread, and of filling you instead with faith, and with the hope of eternal life.

In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus told his apostles: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” And through your pastor’s divine call, Jesus has told him the same thing.

When Jesus stood before Pilate, and was accused of many crimes, he was silent, and said nothing. But Jesus is silent no more.

Through the called and ordained servant of the Word whom he has placed among you, Jesus now freely speaks. And he is speaking to you, when he pronounces God’s acquittal, and says: “I forgive you all your sins.”

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