FROM PALMS TO THORNS
A Palm Sunday sermon based on Matthew 21: 1-17, preached April 1, 2012
For generations, churches have presented annual Christmas pageants. I once appeared in one as the hind-end of a donkey! Pageants can be hilarious, yet powerful. In twenty minutes, children playing Mary, Joseph, named angels, unnamed angels, shepherds, wise men, and Herod, tell the story of how Jesus came to us. Be that as it may, what became Christianity’s symbol wasn’t a crib but a cross. Likewise, the gospels pay far more attention to the end of Jesus’ life than its beginning; nowhere is Jesus’ story more dramatic that its final week. It involves a now grown Jesus, twelve disciples including Judas; Pilate, Caiaphas, yet another Herod, and crowds who shout either “Hosanna!” or “Crucify him!”Yet Holy Week pageants have never taken hold in congregations. Perhaps it’s because we’d rather focus on a death than a birth.
But there’s more to it than that. To begin with, the dynamics of Jesus’ last week were complex. It began with a triumphant march by Jesus and a palm-waving crowd into Jerusalem; it ended with Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. What went wrong? Some commentators suggest that Jesus naively walked into and was crushed by a political storm he couldn’t control. Others say he was a revolutionary, who, even though it cost him his life, wanted to defy the status quo. What happened that final week?
We begin with Judas. You don’t often meet people called Judas, do you? And for good reason: he sold Jesus for cash. But on the first ‘Palm Sunday’, he was a participant in Jesus’ march into the Jewish capital. Up to then, we’ve no reason to think of Judas as anything other than Jesus’ loyal disciple. But something happened. That final week Judas hung out with Jesus and his disciples, eating with them, talking late at night, anticipating Passover. But inside his head lurked evil. Aware that Jesus was a marked man, Judas may have decided to seize the opportunity to make money by betraying him to the authorities; as they say, ‘everyone has his price’. Or maybe Judas, possibly an ex-member of the revolutionary Zealots, still hoped that Jesus would mount a coup in Jerusalem against Rome. But hearing Jesus repeatedly refer to the inevitability of his death, Judas became more and more disillusioned. He’d signed up to be the disciple of a Messiah not a martyr.
Judas was undoubtedly an accomplice to Jesus’ crucifixion. But he wasn’t the initiator. So let’s look at the larger forces at work. As I said earlier, there were two crowds in Jerusalem that final week; one shouted “Hosanna”; the other, “Crucify him! The crowd that accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem with palm branches, consisted largely of Galilean pilgrims arriving for the Passover. They were outsiders, provincials, nobodies. But their chant of “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” was provocative, for the words and the palms were meant to identify Jesus as the Messiah. “He’s the One!” That’s what the Palm Sunday march was trying to say.
That chant challenged Jerusalem to the core. In the politics of the capital, the Jewish leaders had established a modus operandi with Pilate and his military force that went like this: “If you allow us to have some political power, we’ll look after local affairs and keep a lid on any revolutionary activity”. Anyone claiming to be the Messiah was bound to threaten those arrangements. The Jewish leaders were therefore incensed by Jesus, incensed by what they considered his disrespect for the law, by his challenge to the temple, their prime institution, by his claims to be the Messiah, endorsed by his followers. If Jesus were to succeed, it would mean their political fall.
Things moved fast. The noisy march by Jesus and his supporters into the capital forced nervous Jewish leaders to plan how to get rid of him. All sorts of secretive, closed-door meetings took place that week, between pious Pharisees and political Sadducees, and between Caiaphas the High Priest, Herod, and Pilate, the Roman governor. By Thursday of that week, the night of Jesus’ arrest, the plotters had with Judas’ help, arranged everything, even a rent-a-mob crowd which was ready to shout what the authorities wanted to hear: “Crucify him!”
Though all of this is historically reliable as far as it goes, the question still has to be asked: does it fully explain why Sunday’s palms gave way to Friday’s thorns? We’ve been looking at circumstances external to Jesus. But what about Jesus himself? Did he just go along, ready to accept whatever happened, allowing himself to be destroyed by the disloyalty, envy, hatred, and pride of those around him, things, by the way, that we also see mirrored in ourselves? Not according to the gospels.
The Victorian painter Holman Hunt has a painting titled ‘The Shadow of Death’. In it, a young Jesus is pictured working at a carpenter’s bench in Nazareth, stripped to the waist. His eyes are lifted up, as are his arms. The evening sun, streaming through an open door, causes Jesus’ raised arms to form a shadow on the wall behind him in the shape of a cross. What Hunt suggests is that the cross wasn’t just hastily arranged by Jesus’ enemies during his final week; it was a shadow that lay over his whole life. That’s what the Gospels teach. Jesus told his disciples, long before they reached Jerusalem, that as the Messiah, he would ‘undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’. [Matthew 16:21] Similar words appear over and over in all the gospels.
Was it just a case of Jesus being aware of what the hostile Jerusalem authorities might do to him? That was part of it. But there’s more. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that when referring to his coming death, Jesus kept using the word ‘must’. He told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem...to suffer and die. He was determined to go. As Luke puts it, he ‘set his face to go’. [Luke 9:51] In other words, whatever his enemies were plotting, Jesus chose to die, and understood his death as the reason for his birth and the purpose of his life.
How come? Jesus answered that question by quoting the Old Testament. His death, he said, wasn’t just a matter of what his enemies were planning; it was a matter of fulfilling prophecy. Luke says that Jesus took the twelve disciples aside and said, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished’. [Luke 18:31] Almost every single event during the last week of Jesus life is presented in the gospels as fulfilling the Old Testament. In today’s Matthew 21 reading, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is presented as fulfilling what was spoken by Zechariah. His challenge to the temple is backed up by a reference to Isaiah and Jeremiah. Even the noisy enthusiasm of the child-supporters shouting in the temple is referenced back to Psalm 8. But beyond these details, Jesus indicated over and over again that the key Old Testament text propelling him on to his death, was the prophet Isaiah’s portrayal of a suffering servant to come.
The clearest picture of that servant comes in Isaiah 53. Of all Old Testament texts, that’s the one the New Testament uses most often to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death. ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities’, writes Isaiah of the coming servant; ‘...he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole’ [Isaiah 53:5] Texts like these were burnt on Jesus’ mind. His vocation and his determination to go to Jerusalem were motivated by the conviction that he was Isaiah’s suffering servant, whose mission it was to be wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquity. On page after page, the gospels report that Jesus made allusions that final week to his death as something prophesied by the Old Testament, and thus as being central to God’s plan all along.
The most explicit moment came as Jesus gathered with his disciples to celebrate the Passover meal on Thursday evening. Taking bread, Jesus broke it and said: “Take, eat, this is my body”.Then he took a cup of wine and said, “Drink from it...for this is my blood of the covenant,...poured out...for the forgiveness of sins”. The words are so familiar that we miss the fact that Jesus here tells us why he died. He didn’t die because of Judas, or Jewish leaders, or Pilate, or any combination of enemies. Through symbols of bread and wine, Jesus says that his death is a sacrifice for sin.
Sin isn’t a popular topic, but it’s real nevertheless. I’m not talking here of obvious sinners guilty of obvious sin, like the prostitutes and tax-collecting Jewish mafia with whom Jesus associated. Sin isn’t just criminal activity, nor is sin just about sex! Sin is our failure to be God’s loyal people; Judas represents us. Sin is our desire to keep God at bay because we’ve made arrangements that don’t include him; the Jewish elite represent us. Sin is our refusal to take a stand, and instead compromise with evil and injustice. Pilate represents us.
Some of us are here this morning weighed down by something we’ve done that is so despicable it handicaps us. Or perhaps there’s someone in your life you won’t talk to? Someone you won’t forgive? Something for which you can’t forgive yourself? The deepest need we have is to be forgiven, to have failure washed away, and to be able to stand in front of God, pardoned. That’s what Jesus came to do. He did it, not by ignoring sin, and pretending that evil and selfishness and corruption don’t matter. He forgives us by standing in our place, being wounded for our transgressions and being bruised for our iniquity.
From palms to thorns. The final week of Jesus’ life was complex. But at its heart is the love of God so deep, so full of mercy, that it was prepared to reach to the deepest depths of our sin, and forgive. That’s why we will leave here today, ready to return again on a day we’ve come to call Good Friday.