Palm Sunday 2004
Grace Church, Utica
For reasons that are not easy to fathom people have always been attracted to the scene of tragedy. Years ago, in the American West, when a criminal was to be executed, entire families would gather with their picnic baskets to watch the hanging. We like to think that humanity has progressed beyond that, but I’m not at all sure it’s true. Even today within hours after a tornado cuts through some town, you’ll often find traffic jams as the curious drive through to see what’s happened. But then that’s quite tame compared to more recent pass-times. We send the men and women of our armed forces off to war, while people here at home pop popcorn and watch the actual battles on television.
Evidently we’re regressing. In the Gospels we’re told that most of Jerusalem gathered on Golgotha to witness Rome’s ugliest form of punishment. Crucifixions drew huge crowds. This day there are three— three men who have been convicted and condemned, tied and nailed to rough wooden crosses. The scriptures say that the people stood by watching. Even “....[Jesus’] acquaintances [and] the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching....” Jesus of Nazareth is dying. He is the one on the middle cross— he’s the preacher, the miracle worker, the prophet. Some believe that he is the Son of God, the Savior. But for now he is dying before the eyes of the crowd.
In a national poll taken several years ago people were asked what they thought would happen if Jesus came back. A majority felt that we would most likely kill him again, but that we would do it more quickly this time. Perhaps you find that surprising. People are drawn to Jesus, you say. We’re drawn to him ourselves. Yes, but there’s also something in us that is threatened by him, something in us that wants to hide from him, or maybe just get rid of him.
Early in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus’ ministry has only just begun, we read that the Pharisees “...immediately conspired... against him, how to destroy him.” (Mk 3:6) Why? Why that kind of reaction? Jesus said it was because of their hardness of heart. You see people of that day believed that the heart was the center of thinking and feeling— not our heads but our hearts. They believed that the heart was the center of our will. Jesus said that their hearts had grown hard.
When he comes to offer us new life, Jesus also tells us that we have to be willing to change, to risk some of the earthly things to which we’ve always clung for security. That’s where our hardness of heart gets us into trouble. We tend to stiffen up at the idea of venturing out into something new. Often, we just walk away from it— and not necessarily because we place little value on our religion.
Remember that the two groups of people who were most opposed to Jesus were very religious people. The first group was the Sadducees. Their lives were centered in the religious institutions of Israel. The Sadducees had status and prestige, they were financially well-off, and they were absolutely inflexible in their interpretation of the Tradition. So when Jesus came into their midst and began talking about a relationship with God that wasn’t based upon the observance of the law but upon love and trust, the hearts of the Sadducees grew hard— they dug in their heels. They wouldn’t consider that kind of change because it would mean moving too far beyond the Tradition. It would also mean giving up a great deal of their own power and prestige.
The Pharisees were a little different. They were the legal experts— they knew Jewish law backwards and forward. They knew exactly what the law required and they would allow no less. On the other hand, neither would they offer any more— to God or to anyone else. They valued their own righteousness above everything. They expected recognition for it— from God as well as from other people. The Pharisees were also Israel’s first nationalists; if their first love was their own righteousness, then their second love was for their country. And they believed that their nation would be protected by God as long as the people would be faithful in observing what the Law required. So when Jesus came along healing a crippled man on the Sabbath day the Pharisees saw this as a threat to the security and well-being of the whole nation. Why? Because it was contrary to Jewish Law to do any such thing on the Sabbath.
There’s a story about the courtship of Moses Mendelssohn, a well-known 18th century Jewish philosopher. Mendelssohn was a small, hunchbacked man who fell in love with a beautiful woman. Several months after they met Mendelssohn visited her father and asked him how she felt about the possibility of marriage. The father said, well, the truth is that she’s very frightened of you, because you’re a hunchback. So Mendelssohn asked if he might see her just one last time.
He found her doing some sewing. She avoided looking at him during their conversation, which eventually came around to the subject of marriage. The young woman asked Mendelssohn if he believed that marriages were made in heaven. And he said, “Oh yes, in fact something very unusual happened to me. You see, when children are born, they call out in heaven, ‘This boy or this girl will get this or that one for a husband or wife.’ When I was born my future wife was announced, but then I was told that she would have a terrible hump on her back. And I shouted out, ‘O Lord, a girl who is hunchbacked will very easily become bitter and hard. A girl should be beautiful. Lord, give the hump to me, and let her be beautiful.”
The young woman was deeply moved. She saw Mendelssohn in a whole new way.
In assuming human flesh in the person of Jesus, God also embraced our human imperfections— our weaknesses, our failings, and our sin. He did it in order to destroy their power over us, and so that, by grace, we could become the people God calls us to be. Jesus experienced the depths of human suffering so that we could be assured of God’s presence with us in the midst of our own.
The Gospels tell us that the people who gathered at Calvary taunted Jesus, that they hurled insults at him: Save yourself! If you’re the Messiah, come down from the cross! The chief priests, the Scribes and the Pharisees said, `Yes, if he’s really the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross.’
Thank God he didn’t! And because he didn’t come down from that cross you and I can receive the strength to overcome our own hardness of heart. Because he didn’t come down we can see God and each other in a whole new way. And it’s that new way which is the true way, the one that will bring us to life, both in this world and in the next.
© James M. Jensen