Palm Sunday of the Passion of the LORD
The Lectionary Gospel reading for today takes us from Jesus’ show trial, to Golgotha and the cross -- the moment of truth for both the Hebrew nation, the Roman Empire.
But, this is not all.
Surprisingly, this moment of truth falls even to us, we who live so far away that first century. Yes, that's right. It's difficult to imagine, I know, but those events so very long ago on that hot dusty day in Jerusalem not only bore significant consequences for that generation, but continue to bear significant consequences for this present generation as well.
Because you are here this morning, I suppose I do not have to convince you of the truth of this statement. Still, I would appreciate it for a moment if you would think-through the import of what is being said.
We who are so far removed from the ancients and their ways often think of ourselves as more wise, more sophisticated and more informed than they, and in some ways this is true. But that should not be viewed as admission of their irrelevance. On the contrary, the events of that particular day so long ago -- and may I add the following Sunday as well -- are actually the hinge of history, where everything turns and upon which everything hangs.
An audacious statement? Yes, quite so. But I stand by in none-the-less.
On that day of grief when Jesus joined the exclusively human club of the cognitive experience of death, there was actually more occurring than the death of the one human being, Jesus of Nazareth. To be sure, part of what was happening was his very personal and very frightening death, but there was also the movement of the Almighty GOD within the execution of Jesus, a movement meant to absorb both the ancient evil of sin and the terrible powers of darkness, bringing to the world the knowledge and full exposure of forgiveness, a new humanness, and finally, the resurrected life.
To aid in our unpacking of St.Luke's account of the cross, therefore, I want us to examine four ideas:
THE POLITICS OF THE CROSS
THE REJECTION THROUGH THE CROSS
THE SACRIFICE OF THE CROSS
THE RESPONSE TO THE CROSS
THE POLITICS OF THE CROSS
Notice first the politics concerning the cross, and how the text offers us the challenge of the political maneuvering that faced Jesus:
The elders of the people, chief priests and scribes, arose and brought Jesus before Pilate.
Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” Pilate then addressed the chief priests and the crowds, “I find this man not guilty.”
On hearing this Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean; and upon learning that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod who was in Jerusalem at that time.
The chief priests and scribes, meanwhile, stood by accusing him harshly.Herod and his soldiers treated him contemptuously and mocked him, and after clothing him in resplendent garb, he sent him back to Pilate. Herod and Pilate became friends that very day, even though they had been enemies formerly.
Pilate addressed them a third time,“What evil has this man done? I found him guilty of no capital crime. Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.” With loud shouts, however, they persisted in calling for his crucifixion, and their voices prevailed.
Jesus is the innocent man condemned through political expediency, which is a regard for what is politically useful rather than for what is just and true. That is, Jesus is tried and executed through lies and contrived crimes because of the self-interest of the religious leaders and the political leaders.
Big shock! Tell is not in Gath! Politicians protecting themselves, even to the point of judicial injustice and murder. It’s not like we’ve never heard of this before.
These men of power use the judicial system, and Pilate's fear of what the Roman authorities would hear, as a means to execute Jesus. But, as I say, this is no surprise to us, is it? It has always been this way. All systems of government are corrupt because all are administered by sinful, corrupt people. This is why the fights we now see between the left and the right, at least from the Christian believer's point of view, can only, ultimately, be meaningless, for what difference is there between a conservative pagan or a liberal pagan? Both use religion to have their own way.
Or, think about it in this way. In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon writes about this with some alacrity:
"The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord."
Or, said differently still, and as I have often repeated from this pulpit, if we are looking for the answers to our decline and problems from Washington or Springfield (state capital), we are looking in the wrong place and we will soon be sadly disappointed for they have no answers; indeed, they are the problem.
THE REJECTION THROUGH THE CROSS
Notice, second, how the people who were once so strong in following the LORD now turn on him in rejection and hate:
But all together they shouted out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us.” — Now Barabbas had been imprisoned for a rebellion that had taken place in the city and for murder. — Again Pilate addressed them, still wishing to release Jesus, but they continued their shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Perhaps this is in part the reason why Jesus never seemed to worry much about how many people followed him, and why he persisted in offering the truth of the Kingdom even though it did not align with his hearers expectations or wants. Here, I am reminded of Jesus hard teaching in John 6, and his willingness to allow the crowds to walk away. Perhaps he recognized their fickleness and how soon they would turn against him.
Having said that, I want us to think about the rejection of Jesus and his assignment to the cross from the idea of how the political powers and the powers of darkness meant it for evil, but how GOD, who empowered the Christ, used this evil for good.
Jesus, beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane really, and certainly on the cross, faced down the forces of evil and darkness that had dogged his ministry from the very first. Wave after wave of hate and evil, darkness and grief broke over the heart and the body of this young Jewish prophet, who was more than a prophet but who seemed to the crowd to be just one more man murdered at the hands of this brutal Roman dictatorship.
As had always been the answer from the forces of evil and the selfish political forces before -- which coalesced on that day into a shrill killing machine -- death to the dissident was the answer. To kill this young man was to get rid of his message and to make an example for other would-be revolutionaries. Dead and gone he would be no factor in their future.
That is, they meant it for evil. Obviously.
Little did they realize how that GOD, the Almighty, was at work through providence, using the power of their hate and fear as a display for the power of sacrificial love and reconciling forgiveness. Think of it in this way, when Jesus was on trial, seemingly under the powers of the State and of darkness, actually, it was the State and darkness on trial before the Great Judge Almighty. Likewise, on the cross, it was the State and Evil who where shown to be what they truly were along -- dastardly and empty, even though they hid behind all their trappings of power and their high-sounding words.
Which moves us to the very important question of what would happen? If GOD was at work in the Christ reconciling the world, what would be the fate of those who reject the message of peace and reconciliation, of going the second mile and turning the other cheek?
Here the text is very instructive:
Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’ At that time people will say to the mountains,‘Fall upon us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry?”
Jesus offers the final word to the people. Judgement is coming. And if you think things are horrible now -- in the time of the green wood under the occupiers, what do you think will happen a generation from now when the ferment of revolution is really powerful and the wood is dry for the fires of rebellion? What do you think will be the response of the monster Rome, then?
This makes the Master's words at the Triumphal Entry take on an entirely new meaning:
41 But as they came closer to Jerusalem and Jesus saw the city ahead, he began to cry. 42 "I wish that even today you would find the way of peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from you. 43 Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you. 44 They will crush you to the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you have rejected the opportunity God offered you." (Luke 19:41-44)
THE SACRIFICE OF THE CROSS
This leads us to notice, third, how the sacrifice of the cross brought some to learn a new humanity, a understand a new life and a new way to live. Here I have in mind the thief on the cross who came to faith:
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Not all trusted in the Jesus, in fact few did in the beginning, but some did. Some heard the message of the Kingdom -- that the King had arrived, and they believed. We have one such example in the believing criminal. Clearly, from his example, we learn that even in the final hour the penitent may turn to the GOD of mercy and the LORD of Grace and find fellowship in the holy family of believers.
This must give us pause. Do you remember how St.Luke describes a conversation between Jesus and one of the towns he visited in ministry? It is worth repeating:
22 Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he went, always pressing on toward Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" He replied, 24 "The door to heaven is narrow. Work hard to get in, because many will try to enter, 25 but when the head of the house has locked the door, it will be too late. (Luke 14:22-25)
What this means for us is that we must search and find the Jesus-way, for, as I have spoken from the pulpit for thirteen years now, supremely, the Christian life is something to be done! We begin by faith and believer's baptism, but we continue with the gift of good works laid out for us before hand by the Heavenly Father. We continue with a daily conversion, offering to the LORD a daily allegiance, a daily repentance and a daily detachment.
THE RESPONSE TO THE CROSS
All of which leads us to a crisis of response. What will we do when confronted with the cross of Christ? Has the message of true humanness through sacrificial love and a reconciling forgiveness strangely warmed our hearts? Will we believe and follow?
Clearly, St.Luke wants us the know that the Jesus was innocent of the accusations against him and yet condemned, whereas Barabbas was indeed guilty of the same accusations, and yet set free.
Barabbas must be viewed, therefore, as a metaphor for us all. Jesus offers himself as the sacrifice and the model for humanity, all of humanity. As the sacrifice Jesus confronts the powers of darkness, breaks the back of evil by breaking the power of death. And, as the model, Jesus in the cross and the resurrection gives to us the clues of a true humanity and a genuine humanness.
As the sacrificial lamb of GOD, Jesus overturns the rule of hate and greed and selfishness of sin, leaving in place, instead, the path of abundant human life. And, as the model of forgiveness, Jesus opens to us the path out of the false-self and into the person GOD always intended us to be, a person in community and love.
Here we see GOD’s good plan to reclaim this good world now marred by darkness and sin. Here, the Almighty’s calls for us to join Jesus in the truly human way to live, thus displaying to the powers their defeat, and opening to the world -- one person at a time -- the path to a new life and a new way to live.
The elders of the people, chief priests and scribes,
arose and brought Jesus before Pilate.
They brought charges against him, saying,
“We found this man misleading our people;
he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar
and maintains that he is the Christ, a king.”
Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
He said to him in reply, “You say so.”
Pilate then addressed the chief priests and the crowds,
“I find this man not guilty.”
But they were adamant and said,
“He is inciting the people with his teaching throughout all Judea,
from Galilee where he began even to here.”
On hearing this Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean;
and upon learning that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction,
he sent him to Herod who was in Jerusalem at that time.
Herod was very glad to see Jesus;
he had been wanting to see him for a long time,
for he had heard about him
and had been hoping to see him perform some sign.
He questioned him at length,
but he gave him no answer.
The chief priests and scribes, meanwhile,
stood by accusing him harshly.
Herod and his soldiers treated him contemptuously and mocked him,
and after clothing him in resplendent garb,
he sent him back to Pilate.
Herod and Pilate became friends that very day,
even though they had been enemies formerly.
Pilate then summoned the chief priests, the rulers, and the people
and said to them, “You brought this man to me
and accused him of inciting the people to revolt.
I have conducted my investigation in your presence
and have not found this man guilty
of the charges you have brought against him,
nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us.
So no capital crime has been committed by him.
Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.”
But all together they shouted out,
“Away with this man!
Release Barabbas to us.”
— Now Barabbas had been imprisoned for a rebellion
that had taken place in the city and for murder. —
Again Pilate addressed them, still wishing to release Jesus,
but they continued their shouting,
“Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Pilate addressed them a third time,
“What evil has this man done?
I found him guilty of no capital crime.
Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.”
With loud shouts, however,
they persisted in calling for his crucifixion,
and their voices prevailed.
The verdict of Pilate was that their demand should be granted.
So he released the man who had been imprisoned
for rebellion and murder, for whom they asked,
and he handed Jesus over to them to deal with as they wished.
As they led him away
they took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian,
who was coming in from the country;
and after laying the cross on him,
they made him carry it behind Jesus.
A large crowd of people followed Jesus,
including many women who mourned and lamented him.
Jesus turned to them and said,
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me;
weep instead for yourselves and for your children
for indeed, the days are coming when people will say,
‘Blessed are the barren,
the wombs that never bore
and the breasts that never nursed.’
At that time people will say to the mountains,
‘Fall upon us!’
and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’
for if these things are done when the wood is green
what will happen when it is dry?”
Now two others, both criminals,
were led away with him to be executed.
When they came to the place called the Skull,
they crucified him and the criminals there,
one on his right, the other on his left.
Then Jesus said,
“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
They divided his garments by casting lots.
The people stood by and watched;
the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Above him there was an inscription that read,
“This is the King of the Jews.”
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
“Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us.”
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply,
“Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal.”
Then he said,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied to him,
“Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon
because of an eclipse of the sun.
Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle.
Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”;
and when he had said this he breathed his last.
Here all kneel and pause for a short time.
The centurion who witnessed what had happened glorified God and said,
“This man was innocent beyond doubt.”
When all the people who had gathered for this spectacle
saw what had happened,
they returned home beating their breasts;
but all his acquaintances stood at a distance,
including the women who had followed him from Galilee
and saw these events.