Read the following Scriptures before reading the sermon below:
Mark 11:1–6 and Mark 15
Jerusalem was the place to be during the festival of Passover. For that one week a year, the holy city would swell to at least four times its normal population as faithful Jews made their pilgrimage. Residents and the political and religious elite pulled out all the stops to make sure everything went off without a hitch—and, of course, that they would be able to profit from their new guests. Passover had all the political showmanship of the Olympics, complete with demonstrations of power and prestige.
The highlight of all this pomp and circumstance was the grand procession into the city of Jerusalem. On one spring day in the early 30s of the 1st century AD, onlookers lined thestreet as their divine representative, the locus of power and authority, rode horseback into the center of the city, all the way to the Jewish Temple. Some people watched the procession with zeal, waving their hands inthe airwhile others cowered in fear of the great power that was on display.
I am speaking not of the procession described to us in Mark 11, but of a parade on the other side of town. This was the triumphal entry of Pontius Pilate, the prefect of the Roman province of Judea, serving under the Emperor Tiberius. Every year, he would enter to this crucial city center with soldiers and weapons in tow to remind the entire Jewish world that he was in control.
To the crowds that gathered to watch Jesus’s grand entrance into Jerusalem, the distinction between these two gatherings was clear: Pilate was the Roman occupier who oppressed them under his tyrannical rule. Jesus, in contrast, was the one with a true claim to the throne. He was about to lead a revolt to take Pilate off of his high horse and into the pit of death. Jesus was going to free them, once and for all, from their Roman oppression and restore the glory of the city of God. It was to be an Arab Spring, thousands of years before the events bearing that name, that would bring peace through force. As the Arab world cried out in recent history “the people want to bring down the regime,” the crowds surrounding Jesus cried out, “Hosanna!” (which means, “save us”).
This was, as we well know, only what the crowds thought they were seeing. They were, in fact, misinterpreting the events they were witnessing. Like Calvin in the comic above, the language they were speaking meant something different to each of them. When Calvin’s mom gives him permission to get a snack, he thinks that means he can have a cookie. But his mom means no such thing, clarifying that she means he can have an apple or orange.
The crowds have gotten it wrong, just as Peter had gotten things wrong when he rebuked Jesus for speaking of his own death. And though the disappointment of the crowds is not verbalized, we never again in the Gospel see the crowds gathering around Jesus in support of his ministry. In fact, the next and only time we see them, they’re calling for Jesus’s crucifixion. Why? Because, after this grand spectacle openly parodying Pilate’s military parade, Jesus enters Jerusalem and does…absolutely nothing.
Jesus just looks around and leaves. After all, it’s late.
Instead of breaking the walls down and beginning a great revolt, Jesus basically says, “Oops, the city is closed for the night. Guess we’ll have to come back another day.”
From here on out, it’s just Jesus and his disciples against a world that wants them dead. And one by one, the disciples will fall away too. The crowds and the disciples both anticipated a glorious showing of God’s power. They expected great mountains to be thrown down. They expected that Jesus would witness to the power of God. Instead, he witnesses to God’s self-giving love by going to the cross of execution without resistance.
This brutal execution was the Roman punishment of choice for sedition and treason, as well as for slaves. It was the most humiliating and excruciatingly painful method of torture that had ever been devised. Even more than that, crucifixion was a sick joke. Through crucifixion, the Roman government gave traitors the glory they felt they deserved. Those who had tried to ascend to power or who had dared question the Roman authorities were raised high in the air, in a sick parodic glorification. We see that in Mark’s narrative, where Pilate asks Jesus if he claims to be the “King of the Jews,” and in response to this charge, the soldiers gathered ‘round and clothed Jesus in a purple cloak, the color of royalty, and adorned his head with a crown of thorns. They mocked him, chanting “Hail, King of the Jews!” while spitting on him and hitting him on the head. To top it all off, Jesus was hung on this great, awful throne under the words “the King of the Jews.”
We know how this story will end. We know that next week brings Easter and the celebration of resurrection. But let’s not be too quick to skip over the pain of Holy Week. Let’s take time to process what is happening before our eyes. What does the death of Jesus mean, anyway? How can it possibly be “good news”?
The simple (but incorrect) answer would be to say that it’s not—that Good Friday is merely a sick misnomer. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, this crucifixion is a stumbling block for all who encounter it. Religious folks refuse to believe that God would ever die in such a manner. Non-religious people think it’s foolishness to see this as anything other than the execution of a political revolutionary.
But to those of us who can see through the dark humor and into the depth of the cross’ meaning, this divine act is an expression of the power of God. For on that cross, the world’s need to sacrifice one for the sake of many was exposed for what it is. On that cross, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is fulfilled and cast aside in favor of mercy and the acknowledgement of God. That cross became the decisive blow against the powers of evil who had nailed Jesus there as Christ overcame the powers of sin and death. There too, under those nails, is the ransom payment, freeing us from those who have held us in bondage.
But that’s not all. As those who followed Jesus and listened to his teachings fell away, one by one, that cross was the place where our faith of convenience was destroyed. It was the final death blow to the gospel of prosperity and the principle of retribution that says we get what we deserve. In light of that cross, we cannot say that faith is easy. We cannot continue to believe that it comes with rewards for doing good. After all, the one who was killed on the cross was the most righteous man who ever lived, and look where that got him. All our sins, all our temptations, all our easy answers are nailed to that tree.
And all this was in the shadow of the temple whose destruction Christ predicted. Under those nails was not just the savior of the world, but the house of prayer for all peoples. And so, in light of this cross, we cannot continue to worship our buildings, our grand structures. We can’t have fights about carpet color or the necessity of pews anymore, because Jesus is our house of worship.
We are thereby called to worship, pray, debate, and make decisions in light of that cross, because under it, we can no longer hold onto our sacred cows and favorite sins. We can’t hold onto our righteous judgments against other people. Under the weight and the life-giving freedom of that cross, everything comes into right perspective.
I think N.T. Wright expresses it best in a story he tells about the power of this cross (“The Day the Revolution Began,” 11).
He says that an archbishop once told a story about a priest who was hearing confessions of sin from three hardened teenagers in the church.
All three boys were trying to make a joke out of it so they met with the priest and confessed to a long list of ridiculous and grievous sins that they had not committed. It was all a joke.
The archbishop, seeing through their bad practical joke, played along with the first two who ran out of the church laughing. But then he listened carefully to the third prankster, and before he got away told the young man, “Okay, you have confessed these sins. Now I want you to do something to show your repentance. I want you to walk up to the far end of the church and I want you to look at the picture of Jesus hanging on the cross, and I want you to look at his face and say, ‘You did all that for me and I don’t care that much.’ And I want you to do that three times.”
And so the boy went up to the front, looked at the picture of Jesus and said, “You did all that for me and I don’t care that much.” And then he said it again, but then he couldn’t say it the third time because he broke down in tears. And the archbishop telling the story said, the reason I know that story is that I was that young man.
There is something about the cross of Christ that has the power to break the power of stubborn sinners. There’s something about that cross’s power that has the power to save, as the hymn says, “the vilest offender who truly believes.” There’s something about that matchless love and grace that has the power to turn the whole world upside down.
The cross—and not any theory we attach to it or any pithy tract which tries to present it in easy language—is the witness of Christ to the world. The cross is the witness of the Christians who picked up their own cross and followed Jesus: Stephen, James, Peter, Paul, and Andrew as well as countless Christians in the 16th century in Nagasaki, Japan and in the 21st century in Raqqa, Syria. And the cross is the witness of all those who have been convicted and forgiven under its power. This cross, glory in shameful death, is a stumbling block to many. It’s utter foolishness to many more. But, for us who live in its shadow, it is the power of God in the world and the ultimate witness of God’s love for us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.