John 12:12-13 and John 19: selected verses
Well, here we are: it’s Palm Sunday, when we think about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It’s also Passion Sunday, when we flash to the end and see him on the cross. His entry was greeted with joy by his many followers and fans who were in the Holy City for the Passover Festival. They thought they were greeting the coming King who would toss Rome out and restore Israel to great glory.
We might contrast that with its mirror opposite. This is one of the most famous photographs of World War II. It’s a Parisian man, tears streaming down his face. He has been forced to join the crowd “welcoming” the invading Nazi army. It’s a vivid depiction of what it’s like to have the WRONG ruler enter your city. Salute through tears, or there will be hell to pay.
When Jesus comes into Jerusalem, he choreographs things in such a way that his procession resembles the parade of a conquering ruler entering a city. And according to Matthew 21:10, his arrival does throw all Jerusalem into “turmoil.” …But for most, it’s a joyful turmoil. They don’t understand Jesus, but they know they’re ready for change and he is their best hope.
Some, however, are NOT ready for change. The Roman occupying Army resists change with an iron fist, and the few locals who are doing well under Rome’s rule (religious leaders, puppet politicians and the like) may not love Rome, but they’re doing all right. They might be ready to fight, but only if it’s a sure thing. Jesus and his ragtag bunch of followers are NOT a sure thing. Quite the opposite. They’re sure that if someone like Jesus pokes the sleeping giant, the only sure thing is that Rome will crucify everyone in sight.
It was a combustible state of affairs, a dangerous time in which to live. You and I can sympathize with people in such times, at least we can better than we could a month ago. We suddenly know what it’s like to need help; to feel impotent, and shout to no one in particular: “This has to change!”
Now, where is God in all this?
In certain quarters, even asking that question makes you sound hopelessly naïve. Many modern people, if they believe in God at all, believe God is aloof, distant, vague. I remember a book on modern theology beginning with the statement, “The first thing we must get out of our heads is the notion that God is responsible for everything that happens in the world.” I buy that up to a point. If a drunk driver kills a child, don’t blame God, blame the driver’s inability to say no to Vodka. (And if alcohol’s a problem for you, don’t blame anybody, go to AA.) In the same way, if you’re tired of “social distancing,” don’t blame God (or China, for that matter). Blame COVID-19. (And then call somebody who might be lonely; or find ways to thank medical professionals or grocery store stockers; and for heaven’s sake buy eight rolls, not eighty! …That’s a line I’ve never thought I’d use in a sermon.)
God doesn’t cause our problems and tragedies, that’s the point. However, that’s different than saying God is not here. Jesus entered Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. He could have stayed away. In fact, throughout his ministry, when he talked about going to Jerusalem, his disciples urged him to avoid the trip. They knew he had enemies there. But his decision to go was set in stone, it was something he had to do for all humanity.
And a few days after he bounced into town on the back of a borrowed donkey, he faced betrayal, torture, and death – things he knew could happen. But the Son of God was ready to pay any price to save us.
And maybe that’s the most important thing about his entry. He wasn’t coming to magically fix what was wrong with Israel, he was coming to save the world, even though he knew it would be …costly. Crucifixion was not a death chosen for Jesus and no one else. It was the routine way Rome dealt with conquered people who caused trouble for its Empire. Thousands were executed in this manner. Jesus could have bypassed it, but then he wouldn’t be the kind of savior he is.
He doesn’t play it safe. He cleanses the corrupted temple, enrages people in power (both political and religious), calls out hypocrisy, and even refuses to paint a pie-in-the-sky, nothing-but-terrific-from-now-on pictures for his own followers. Follow me, he says, and you’ll have your own cross to carry. And for telling such truths, we responded with violence.
And he took it. Why? He took it for us, and for our salvation.
It’s strange, I know, but the one who bounces into town on the back of a shaggy donkey may not be the answer we want, but he IS the one we need. He comes not just to stand with us in solidarity, but also to redeem us and save us – even if it means dying for us.
We’re going to end by asking you to imagine where YOU would have been in this picture. We’ll take away the palms, the triumphal entry is a five-day lifetime ago. To help us, I’d like us to hear from this soldier. I’ve made his story up of course, but the details in it are very possible. His name, as I’ve imagined him, is Marcus.
Marcus/Dennis: I’m a Syrian Greek who lied about my age so I could be a soldier in Rome’s army at 17 instead of 18. Within a week, I couldn’t believe I’d been in a hurry. After training, I was shipped to Israel, a country I’d barely heard of, and assigned to Fortress Antonia in Jerusalem. I’ve been there five years now. We have 70 men in our cohort, but that number swells during feast days when Pilate rides into town with a small army to help us keep the locals in line.
Fortress Antonia was named for the great Roman leader, Mark Anthony. It’s the most commanding structure in the city and overlooks the Jews’ precious temple. I suppose I should be proud of what we do – keeping the peace; guarding an arsenal of armor, swords and spears – but one of our most supposedly important duties is to keep safe the vestments of the chief priest!
Catering to Jewish high mucky-mucks was just one thing that surprised me when I first got here. Another was how often I’d be part of crucifixion detail. When I arrived in this gods-forsaken country, I’d never seen a crucifixion; in fact, I’d never killed anything bigger than a chicken, but our commander put a whip in my hand and ordered me to flay a man practically to death. When my lashes were too tentative, he threatened to have me take the man’s place! …My lashes got harder.
Once he was sufficiently bloody, we made him carry a crossbeam to the skull-shaped hill outside the city walls. It’s next to the major entry; so those who pass can’t help but see – which is, of course, the point. He was just a thief, so we only tied him to the crossbeam (nailing is reserved for insurrectionists). Then we hauled him up the permanent vertical 12-foot beam.
He lasted two days. We’d stripped him before we put him up and my friends threw dice to see who’d get his clothes. That first time, I wasn’t in the mood to join. I just kept watching the man gasping for air – you can’t breathe when hanging by your arms. He’d push up on the ropes-and-small-block supporting his feet, catch his breath, and then collapse again. Finally the commander said that was enough and ordered us to break his legs so he couldn’t push up. He died a few minutes later. (In spite of all the ways we’d injured him, it was that inability to take a breath that killed him.)
I never really got comfortable with all that, but we did it some 12-times a year and you can get used to anything. I remember the first time I nailed an insurrectionist. This guy had actually killed a Roman soldier so I didn’t feel bad about it, but I almost put the spike in his palm. Cephas told me that wouldn’t work, his hand would rip out. I had to put the spike right behind his wrist, between the two bones in his arm. Of course, while I did, the man was screaming at me: cursing one second, begging for mercy the next. It didn’t bother me, it’s always that way.
At least, it was until today. Today was different. For starters, our new commander hates crucifixions as much as our old commander seemed to enjoy them. He got mad at us when he discovered we’d taken what he called “Obscene pleasure” in whipping the latest convict, Jesus. I asked him what was wrong; he said he once heard Jesus preach and was convinced this was a man of peace; a man who was only condemned because the priests and scribes lied about him. In my mind, I thought that sounded dangerously close to treason. He was implying Pilate made a mistake!
I didn’t say that though, my mama didn’t raise an idiot. But for the first time in years, I suddenly looked at the prisoner as a man. I remembered: a friend told me about a “Sheep and Goats” story Jesus used in a sermon. It astonished me to think this rabbi believes in a god who cares more about how we treat the sick and poor, than about how rich an offering we make or how important we are.
When we got to Golgotha, I forget about Jesus for a moment when I won the casting of lots for his robe. It was a nice one, worth several day’s wages at least. But then the commander told me we’d be nailing Jesus to the cross, and by “We” he meant “Me.” I got the hammer and spike. …But instead of screams and curses – I swear this is true – Jesus looked straight at me and said, “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they are doing.”
Oh, that rattled me. And it was then I noticed how many people were watching. Some of them were his enemies. I recognized one of the temple priests. He was looking at the sign Pilate had us nail on the cross. It said “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” This priest muttered at me, “It should say he CLAIMED to be King of the Jews.”
Other onlookers were there, and many of them were crying. His mother was one. That’s not unusual, but there were 60 or 70 others, and that IS strange. At the execution of an insurrectionist, everybody knows we suspect sympathetic mourners to be possible collaborators.
Around noon, the clouds turned threatening; it started getting dark. We saw lightning not far off. The commander told us to wrap it up, break their legs. We did the two on either side, but when we got to Jesus the commander told us not to bother, he was already dead. I was closest to him; he was looking up, almost in awe, and I heard him whisper, “Surely this was the Son of God.”
That REALLY shook me: so much so I stopped thinking straight. I looked at Jesus’ robe – MY robe, now. Almost in a trance, I folded it, and took it to his mother. Then I – who have never spoken a polite word to a Jew in my life – gave it to her and said, “Ma’am, he’d want YOU to have this. I’m so sorry.”
I don’t know what I was thinking, but I’m glad I did it.
Dear God, that Your Son would give his life for us is beyond our imagining. Help us never take it for granted – not his death, nor the divine love and saving power that underlie His death, and carry his story even farther. In His name we pray. Amen.