Palms of Loyalty - Cries for Crucifixion

Sermon by:
Rev. Terri Thorn
delivered on:
April 9, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 20:1-11
Matthew 26:14-27 and Matthew 27:15-26

So,  I'm not the only one who was ready for a little Glory, Laud and Honor this morning, right? It is the perfect song for Palm Sunday, as we rejoice with the crowds who lined the path while Jesus made his way into Jerusalem.

However, unlike the crowd, which had no idea of what the week ahead would bring, those of us on this side of the resurrection already know how it gets played out.  We have the blessing, and the curse, of knowing that Easter is coming, next Sunday morning. 

It a blessing because, as with any story, knowing that there is a happy ending makes the challenging parts of the story more bearable.  Being confident that Easter is coming somehow softens the assault that the Passion story makes on our eyes, ears, hearts and minds.

Sadly, this is also the curse of knowing that Easter is coming.  The happy ending makes the Passion story a less disturbing...less convicting story...if you will.  Which, to be quite honest, also makes the Passion story altogether easier to gloss over.

In fact, many congregations have moved farther and farther away from observing a true Holy Week...you know the kind where there are multiple well-attended services throughout the entire week leading up to the Good Friday. As a result, it has become very easy to skip over everything that happened between the time Jesus arrived into Jerusalem and when he was crucified, dead, and buried less than a week later.  Instead we tend to give just a brief nod of acknowledgement to the unsettling events of Holy Week...and then turn our minds to Easter baskets and what we're serving for dinner Sunday afternoon.

So yes, it is a blessing to know the ending of the story, but it is also a curse that we tend to sell the story short.

Every year Palm/Passion Sunday creates a dilemma for preachers.  Do we preach one aspect over the other...or do we try to create some condensed version of both? And every year we have to figure out how capture the shift from "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" to "Crucify him, crucify him"...in roughly 60 - 70 minutes. How do we get from the joy of Scott's story, to the sinister one that I told, to the ugly truth of the one George offered. 

The fact of the matter is that a whole lot happened that last week.  More than we can possible address today.  However, on Maundy Thursday we will use art, music, prayers and stories to try to convey the progression of events.   I do hope you will all make it a priority to come that night to hear the powerful truth of Holy Week. 

Today, though, is about the mood shift in Jerusalem.  What caused the hearts and minds of the people to shift so drastically from joy to anger, in less than a week? 

I contend that the children's sermon this morning revealed the answer.  The people began to show their true colors.  There was, in essence, a failure of faithfulness...a lack of loyalty - actually conflicted loyalties might be a better description.  Basically, as the week passed, the Jews who had gathered for the Passover Festival were forced to choose between Jesus' more difficult path of love and sacrifice, or the easier path of self-preservation and fear.   

Still, let's not be too quick to judge though.  The choice was not always deliberate...nor was it clearly laid out like a fork in the road.  In fact, with the exception of the Temple Leaders, who had been apprehensive about Jesus from early on, many folks gathered around Jesus with the best of intentions.  They cheered his arrival and willingly followed him into town.  After all they had seen the miracle feedings...the healings...the driving out of demons.  They knew the prophecy about the Messiah...and by all accounts it seemed as if Jesus fulfilled it.  So yes, absolutely they were waving their palms...with anticipation and hope...that Jesus was their new King...the one chosen by God to bring the salvation and restoration to the people of God.   

Those who gathered around him were hopeful.  They were the oppressed  looking for their liberator....the poor looking for their help....the outcast looking to be restored...the broken looking for a redeemer...the silenced ones looking for their voice...the downtrodden looking for a hero. 

In a way, it reminds me of the Purdue football fans at the Spring game yesterday.  Now let me just say, there's not a better way to describe Boilermaker football of these past years than "downtrodden" and in desperate need of a hero.  So yesterday, several fans were there...checking out the new coach, Jeff Brohm...hoping that somehow he can save the program.  They are looking to him to get some wins on the board and restore some element of dignity to the program.  We want him to be THE one.  And to be quite honest...there's energy and hopefulness in the air right now...granted, it's probably a bit over inflated hopefulness.  Still, like those first century Jews looking for Jesus to be the answer, we really hope that when it comes to Boilermaker football and post-season play, Brohm is our answer.

But...here's the thing...realistically...it's probably not going to happen.  Not in a coach's first year.  He has to build his program.  And we, the fans, need to do our part by showing up, buying the tickets and supporting the team.  However...what's more likely to happen is that if Coach Brohm doesn't get some early wins this season, the fans will turn on a dime.  The chants will become boos and the fans will slowly drift away...heaven forbid, they might even shift their loyalty to another team.  Now IU fans, don't get your hopes up...no matter how bad it gets, true Boilermakers can never become Hoosiers.

Yet, in Jerusalem this is exactly how it went down.  You see, expectations had been placed on Jesus...expectations that he was going to be a military king, like King David.  That he was going overthrow the occupiers and oppressors to put political power back into the hands of the common Jews.  And when that didn't happen, the grumbling started - even though Jesus had never intended to bring about a political kingdom. His was always a spiritual one...one of compassion and justice, one of mercy and forgiveness, one of grace and peace. 

Still, when people, including his own disciples, began to realize that this arrival was more along the lines of a protest march rather than the big military coup they expected, doubt and disloyalty began to creep in.  Some folks became vocal about their disgruntlement.  Others quietly faded to the background...disenchanted that Jesus was not giving them what they had hoped...even though he would offer what they needed.

Many abandoned Jesus.  They were no longer loyal.  They called for his death.  One in particular, Judas, went so far as to trade himself to the other team.  He sold out his loyalty for money.

At the same time, the temple leaders became increasingly threatened by Jesus' presence in Jerusalem.  For one thing, he openly accused them of selling out to the Empire...he challenged their legalistic interpretation of the law, particularly when it meant they missed the mark of God's intent...or when it was held up as the means of righteousness.  Jesus' message of forgiveness was a threat to their both their power and their authority. 

Likewise the presence of an edgy crowd created another worry for the Temple Leaders.  You see, it was their job to keep Jews in line. If there is one thing that Empire did not like, it was chaos and unrest in their cities.  Rome counted on the Temple leadership to quiet any disturbances.  So the restlessness that Jesus stirred among the people became the responsibility of the priests and rulers to settle. 

That said, it is likely that there was a large contingent of crowd-control Roman soldiers sent to Jerusalem for the Passover.  Still, when it came to the struggle between the Temple leaders and Jesus, the Romans had no skin in the game.  They saw it as an internal conflict that the Jews needed to work out among themselves.  Of course, if they could not settle things, Empire would settle it for them and that would not be pretty. 

Given all this tension and diverse loyalties, the question really isn't how did things go downhill so quickly for Jesus. The question is, "how could it not?"  In 21st century slang...Jerusalem was a hot mess!

As Jesus rode that donkey into the city, I believe he knew that Jerusalem was about to become a tinderbox of emotion and conflict, and every wave of a branch was a metaphorical fanning of the embers that would eventually become the flame of Holy Week.   

Yes, Jesus knew what was ahead.   Did he know it would take one week? I'm not sure...but he certainly knew that his days were numbered.   After all, his was a radical voice of dissention that challenged prejudices, hierarchies, and priorities.  He spoke truth to power, and it's only a matter of time before power seeks to silence unpleasant truth.

From the instant Jesus sent the disciples to go get the donkey, he knew that the final plan was set in motion. It's hard to be sure if he had every detail worked out, but he knew that there was no turning back.  Jesus also knew that the faithful would fail him.  He knew that loyalties would be challenged; loyalties would be divided; loyalties would be changed. 

He was aware that while many traveled into Jerusalem with him, few, very few, would follow him to the cross.  Yet, he went anyway...for the sake of the gospel...for the sake of a message of God's welcome and grace...for the sake of message of justice and mercy and compassion...for the sake of the truth that God's power is greater than any power including death.  

Friends, Jesus went into Jerusalem for you and for me...knowing full well that we would be the first in line to wave our palms and shout hosanna...and that we would also be among those shouting crucify him, crucify him.  

Maybe not in word...but often in action and deed.  I know, it's uncomfortable to think we would ever deny Christ, much less crucify him.  But let's be honest...our loyalties are often divided...divided between faith and self-reliance...between generosity and financial security...between loving others and avoiding risk...between talking the talk and walking the walk.   

Still, we can't imagine ourselves turning on Jesus the way the crowds did.  We can't fathom participating in his death.  Nonetheless, when we refuse to hear the cries of the hungry, the oppressed, the poor, we not only ignore them, we ignore Jesus.   Folks, Jesus went up against the oppressive ruling powers on behalf of those who were the least, the lonely, the outcast...in order to bring salvation to them.  When we refuse to see or hear these neighbors, we are as guilty as the Temple Rulers or the Roman Empire.  We crucify Jesus by denying his gospel.

Anytime we are deaf to the voice of justice, the voice of mercy, or the voice of love...our ears are deaf to Jesus.  When we are prejudiced against people...for any reason...race, gender, nationality, immigration status, socio-economics, or sexual preference...we are prejudiced against Jesus.  We are, in essence, mocking him the way the soldiers did.  <<pause>>

It's not something we really want to think about, is it?  Our fears and failures are never easy to face...especially when it means we have disappointed Jesus.  We'd much rather see ourselves with palms in our hands rather than Christ's blood on them...yet what is Easter to us unless we profess both?

So as difficult as it may be, this is why we all need to experience Holy Week.  It forces us, as followers of Jesus, to own up to our true colors.  We don't get a "hall pass" to skip the difficult truths of who we are, why Jesus died, and who we are called to be.   As much as we would prefer to celebrate Palm Sunday and then skip to Easter, Holy Week takes us on Jesus' journey to the cross and makes it ours.   

Hopefully, at some point along the way the question of our heart stops being, "What does Jesus give me?"  After all, we know the answer --  he offers salvation and peace.  Instead may we find ourselves asking, "What am I willing to give for him?"   The first is an expression of our selfish needs, the second expresses sacrificial love.

All glory, laud and honor is his.  Amen.