“Palms to Pilate: The Journey of Holy Week”
Isaiah 50:4-9a and Mark 11:1-11
April 1, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Grand Rapids
Throngs of people surround the street. There is a palpable buzz in the air. You can hear the whispers of excitement, “This is the man we’ve only heard about.” “This man can do great things.” There’s the smell the sweat of those who have been standing out in the sunlight in eager anticipation. And then, here He comes! The crowd gives a roar and people begin to throw things into the street at His feet.
Everything about this experience has the feel of some famous celebrity coming to town. Of course, since this is Palm Sunday, you know I’m talking about Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But for a moment I’d like you to consider the last crowd you saw with this sort of energy. Perhaps it was at a live concert of your favorite band; perhaps it was in watching paparazzi and reporters on some red carpet event. At some point we’ve all seen this sort of crowd, and maybe perhaps been a part of it. It seems it is human nature to be attracted to celebrity.
Why is this? Perhaps it is curiosity at how someone with power or money lives; perhaps we believe that we too may be made special by our proximity to celebrity. I know I have told more people I can count about the time I met Steven Spielberg. And for some hard to explain reason, that meeting means something to people, and that meeting means something to me.
It is this sort of energy that surrounded Jesus as he came into the city of Jerusalem. People had heard talk of this man who could do great things, this man who was rumored to be the new king. He was rumored to be the Messiah. He had gained celebrity. And though there were not paparazzi in that time, I can still picture people clamoring to have a view of Him. They wanted to be able to tell people about the time they saw Jesus. It meant something to the people they told, and it meant something to people who saw him.
As we celebrate Palm Sunday a great many years later, we too greet this day with excitement. [We, along with] many [other] churches wave palms on this day. We celebrate Jesus’ entry into this Holy Week.
We have heard the parables of the Kingdom of God that Jesus is bringing. We have been told to follow the example of Jesus’ sinless life. Throughout the season of Lent, we have been making way for Jesus.
Traditionally, many people give up things for Lent. In the early Christian church this was a time for fasting, a time when physical hunger pains could remind people of the way we hunger for Jesus. Perhaps you’ve elected to give up something this Lenten season. Or perhaps you have chosen to take on a spiritual discipline. When we engage in these Lenten practices we make the anticipation of Easter a little more tangible. The small and large changes we make in our lives makes us think about the immeasurably great sacrifice Jesus made for us.
If you’re anything like I am, giving things up for Lent has the feel of a New Years resolution. You are excited about this new thing, anticipating the great spiritual growth that will come from it, excited about how this year you will feel all the more close to Jesus because you have made a change in your life to make room for Jesus.
This year, I decided that for Lent I would give up the snooze button. Seems silly perhaps, but I am certainly not a morning person, so even an alarm clock doesn’t quite help me to put a limit on my sleep somedays. I merely just hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. So, this year for Lent, I planned to give up that snooze button. I would give myself some extra time in the mornings to prepare for the day. I had great intentions of using this time for time to spend in prayer or reading scripture, or perhaps for exercise. This Lent was going to change my habits and how I related to the world. This Lent was going to change my life.
This lasted for about five days. Gradually, and nearly unconsciously, I began hitting that snooze button. Hitting it once couldn’t hurt, right? Twice wouldn’t make that much of a difference, right? Well, before I knew it I was right back into my old patterns. I had given up on this great idea that I thought was going to change my life.
Watching the actions of Christ’s disciples, the events of Holy week seem to me to be an amplified, sped up version of this change I experienced from excitement to passivity. When I began to hit the snooze button I was not trying to actively undermine this Lenten journey. But that was the problem, I wasn’t trying to do anything. I had become passive in my intentions and passive in my Lenten experience.
When Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem he sends out two of his disciples in front of them to find him a donkey to ride in on. They follow Jesus’ instructions to a tee, find the donkey and bring him to Jesus. People surround the procession and excitedly and joyfully throw cloaks and branches on the ground in front of Him to welcome him in. We can imagine the disciples walking in alongside Jesus and part of his entourage. They are part of the “in” crowd.
The Gospel of Mark tells us that the very next day Jesus comes into the temple and famously throws over the tables of those who are buying and selling in the Lord’s house. In Mark 11:17 we read that,
“He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And then, we are told in verse 18 that, “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”
Jesus was becoming more and more radical in the eyes of the people in power. They were okay with Jesus as a figure of hope. They might’ve even been okay with the healing He had been doing, as long as He would stop performing miracles on the Sabbath. But when his presence became a challenge to the way things were done, a direct confrontation to the commerce of the society, he was a force that needed to be stopped.
Anyone who has read the Hunger Games books or seen the movie will hear the chief priests’ fear echoed in President’s Snow’s admonition that “a little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, but it must be contained.”
And so, the chief priests set about containing it, asking Jesus in Mark 11:27,
“By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.”
They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
With each controversial act, the dominoes of Jesus’ likeability fell around Him. Those who were initially supportive withdrew. The excitement of celebrity was wearing off quickly. Spending time with Jesus became something you did not brag about.
Mark 14 tells us that a woman, filled with love for Jesus, brings an alabaster jar of fragrant oil to the house where Jesus is. To even use a little bit of this ointment would be seen as generous, but this woman breaks the jar and pours all of it over Jesus’ head. Those around them scold her. Why is she wasting this oil that could’ve been given to the poor? This woman’s act was seen as extravagant, wasteful. Just a few days prior they had likely all been throwing their cloaks out for Jesus, creating a comfortable path, excitedly welcoming Jesus into their midst. But now, this woman’s act was seen as offensive. Why spend your prized possessions on this man?
Immediately after this instance scripture tells us that one of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas Isaricot, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus. Jesus, of course, is not oblivious to the impending betrayal. In fact, he addresses it directly when seated with his disciples for the Passover meal. He tells the disciples that all will desert him. Peter insists that he will not, and Jesus tells him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”
And while Jesus is off in prayer, he returns to the disciples sleeping, not bothering to keep watch. He awakens them to Judas Iscariot arriving with a crowd of chief priest, scribes, and elders. This unlikely mob comes equipped not with the scriptures and scrolls with which they would normally be associated with, but carrying swords and clubs. Judas approaches Jesus, and with a kiss, identifies Jesus as the man they’ve been looking for. Peter, too, betrays Jesus, not with direct condemnation, but by denying any association with Jesus three times. Jesus is brought to trial and stands before Pilate.
What brought Jesus to this trial that we know will lead to His death? The Gospel of Mark tells us that there were no testimonies that agreed with one another. When Jesus is questioned, He responds with deflection. Sure, Judas’ betrayal offered Jesus into the chief priests hands, but without evidence they could’ve just dismissed Him. Still, the many ways Jesus had challenged the system could not be ignored.
The reality is Jesus’ death was not caused by any one event or action, but rather by accumulation of many small desertions that Holy Week. The excited crowd of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem had dispersed. Some turned away when he confronted people in the temple, some left when he would not give a direct answer about his authority, some turned away when he didn’t admonish the woman with the oil, and those who were left fled at the sight of Judas’ mob. Aside from Judas, none of these followers actively sought out to harm Jesus, but they also did not actively seek to help Him.
Sin is not something that only happens we intentionally act in ways that separate ourselves from God. Sin is also our inaction when faced with ways to become closer to God. We cannot hit the snooze button and hope for someone else to do the work of Christ’s Kingdom.
At the beginning of the week, people were shouting, “Hosanna,” and by the end of the week, they were shouting, “Crucify him!” Not because they hated Jesus, but because they were afraid to be associated with what he had become.
The reality of following Jesus is not easy. Jesus overturns the tables of corruption. Jesus welcomes extravagant generosity. Jesus redefines monarchy. It’s hard to follow in the wake of that sort of change. This week we will make our way towards darkness of Good Friday, yet we anticipate the promise of Easter. Don’t allow the excitement of inviting Jesus into this week fade with the challenges of accepting what that will mean. Keep your eyes open to the ways God is calling you to act out your faith. Amen.