a sermon on Matthew 27:11-66 for Palm/Passion Sunday
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on April 17, 2011
The week started out incredibly well for Jesus – the parade was fit for a king! After three years of ministry out in the countryside, he finally made his way to the big city, and the people seemed to be on his side. He enjoyed all the marks of royalty as he came into Jerusalem, with a colt and a donkey for him to ride, cloaks providing a comfortable place for him to sit, and a ceremonial carpet of palm branches and cloaks covering the road. As Jesus made his way through the crowd into the city, everyone was abuzz about this prophet coming in from Galilee, so once the chant got started, it only got louder along the way:
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
On Sunday, it was a parade fit for a king – but by the end of the week, everything had changed, and the crowd now shouted, “Crucify him!” This was no way to treat a king.
What happened in between these days? How did Jesus go from being lauded by seemingly everyone to being crucified and nearly friendless, from the latest and greatest hope for a real Jewish alternative to Roman rule to just another faded insurrectionist executed at the hands of the powerful? While it is difficult to sum up the six chapters of the gospel of Matthew that come between Jesus’ arrival on Sunday and his trial and execution on Friday, I think it is nonetheless fair to say that in the course of those five days Jesus managed to threaten nearly every institution of power and control in Jerusalem. From the Roman government to the puppet king to the religious leaders to the secular power-brokers, Jesus managed to anger nearly everybody. In the city of the establishment, he proclaimed that something new was breaking in, that God’s kingdom was bigger than any earthly government, that what God had in store for them was more than they could ever imagine and yet would require them to give up everything that they had. Along the way, everyone turned against Jesus – the establishment figures, the puppet government, the temple leaders, even some of his own disciples – and his message died before it could even begin to take hold. The establishment figures would rather kill Jesus than explore the real possibilities of freedom and new life. This was certainly no way to treat a king.
And so at the end of the week, our reading this morning reminds us that Jesus ended up caught up in a cycle of violence, spurned by those who cared for him, ignored by the people who once cheered for him, and feared by those whose livelihood and power was threatened by him. Everyone who could break the cycle stepped aside. Pilate tried to get the people to relent and washed his hands of the situation when they didn’t. The people insisted that the bandit Barabbas be freed and that Jesus be killed. The soldiers got caught up in the violence and mocked him all the more. Simon of Cyrene got pulled into the whirlwind and was forced to carry the cross part of the way. Innocent bystanders, religious leaders, and even those crucified alongside Jesus joined in mocking him. Even Jesus said nothing to refute the charges against him. And the Roman soldier standing guard only recognized the gravity of the situation when it was all over. This is no way to treat a king.
Throughout it all, though, Jesus remained faithful. This king didn’t need proper treatment in order to be kingly. This lord didn’t even need to be acknowledged by anyone in order to have power over everyone. Our response that helped break up our incredibly long reading today reminded us of this over and over again. While we may be able to do nothing more than “wonder and stare, fear and beware,” while “heaven and hell [may be] close at hand,” “God’s living Word, Jesus the Lord, follows where faith and love demand.” (John Bell, “Wonder and Stare”) If nothing else, the events of this week remind us of this incredible truth, that Jesus knows the full depths of our sorrow and pain and hurt because he went there himself, that God in Jesus Christ has experienced the worst of evil and violence that the powers of the world can bring because they attacked him with full force, that faith and love demand to be followed even when they lead to the darkness of the tomb.
And so we join the journey, making our way with Jesus through the “Hosannas” and into the city gates even though we know where this journey must lead, trusting that God will offer us something more than we can imagine along the way and will transform this moment that is no way to treat a king into a moment of faith, hope, and love for all of us. May God give us strength for this and all our journeys as we join Jesus along the way of the cross and into the hope of the resurrection.