Reflections on the Passion (Palm Sunday, 2012)


Presented at West Boylston First Congregational Church, UCC, April 1, 2012 (Palm Sunday).

(NB: This message was preceded by a dramatic reading of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus from Mark 14 & 15, which included the Congregation participating as the mob that shouted out [to Pilate] “Crucify Him!.”  The reading is available as a Pamphlet from St. Gregory’s Church of Muskegon, MI.)

How does it feel?

How does it feel to be here this morning, to be one of those shouting “Crucify Him” during our dramatic reading from Mark?

How does it feel to be one of them, one of the mob, one of those calling for His death?  To turn on him in his hour of need?  How does it feel?

Let us pray…

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s message.  May it touch our hearts, may it speak clearly to our souls.  We believe your word and your love will rescue us from the depths of doubt, unbelief, and Sin.  Speak to us now, Lord.  Help us to know you in the way you have wanted us to know you since the beginning.

Amen.

Poor Peter.  He really tried to do the right thing.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, he tried to stay awake while Jesus prayed nearby, but failed.

When Jesus was arrested, Peter ran away, just like everyone else.  But he tried again, tried to be there for his friend, the man whom he knew to be God’s anointed.  He stumbled along in the dark behind that mob, following their torches to the house of Caiaphas, then sat in the courtyard, wondering what to do, listening to the voices coming through the window above him, hoping to hear his master speak, hoping that Jesus would somehow redeem himself or escape.  But, Peter also feared for his own safety, hoping no one would recognize him as he warmed himself beside that fire.

He did his best, but it was too much for him.  When the test came, when the servant girl called him out, he couldn’t do other than what he did.  He lied.

Then he heard the cock crow, and he wept.  He was confronted with the fact that his failure was complete, that his weakness had contributed to the death of the man he loved, and Jesus had known it all along.

We all know how it feels to be a Peter.  We have all been confronted by forces and situations we could not face, let alone overcome.  Were you Peter this morning?

And what about Judas?  Judas was certain that Jesus was the Messiah.  Some think Judas wanted to force Jesus to show his power and so end Roman Rule.  Others believe that Judas betrayed Jesus because he was hurt by Jesus’ rejection of the Zealots’ plan and methods; and, in his anger and humiliation, sought revenge.  In either case, Jesus had failed to meet Judas’ expectations.

Whatever the reason, Judas’s world came tumbling down when he realized – too late – that the man he loved more than life itself was to die; was to be crucified because Judas had betrayed him.

Once Jesus died, Judas had nothing and no one left to turn to; and so, Judas sought to expunge the sin he found within himself in the only way he knew, the example of the temple, sacrificing the only thing he had left, his own life.  It was the all he could do.  Judas never understood that Jesus was more than the man Judas thought him to be.

Judas was angry at God, he felt God had betrayed him, that God had abandoned him.  How many of us can honestly say we haven’t been angry at God, or felt God has failed us, at some point in our lives?  How many of us have failed to see God at work, because we were blinded by our own pain, preconceptions or biases?  How many of us have acted or felt like Judas?

And what of the High Priest? Caiaphas felt he was responsible to God for the welfare of his people.  He took that responsibility seriously, but had to be careful to never anger either his Roman masters or his people, the Jews.

In Jesus, Caiaphas saw a threat, a man who would shake up the established order, perhaps threaten his own position or even anger the Romans.  What else could Caiaphas do but find a way to get rid of this rabble rouser who claimed to be the Messiah and King of the Jews?

To Caiaphas, preserving the status quo was what mattered, because he could not imagine the preservation of his own position as being anything but the best choice for his people. Something had to be done.  This so called Messiah had to be stopped.  It was the right thing to do.

How often have we fought, like Caiaphas, to preserve our own position, our own sense of what is right?  How often have we done so without asking God?  How many of us have been like Caiaphas?

And what of Pontius Pilate?  The son of a prominent Roman family, he had been appointed Governor of Judea by the Emperor.  Being Governor was a risky though often rewarding assignment: good governors kept the locals in line and peaceful.  Good governors generated a healthy flow of tax revenue for themselves and for the Empire. Bad governors risked the Emperor’s displeasure; which meant humiliation, exile, or even death.  I can assure you, Pilate really wanted to be a good Governor.

The scriptures tell us that Pilate had some sympathy for Jesus, but it’s clear he feared that displeasing the people shouting for Jesus’ death might result in riots.  He couldn’t allow his position and the peace of the province to be jeopardized by his sympathy for this one puzzling prophet.  A man who, in some odd way, claimed to be King of the Jews, but not the ruler of an earthly Kingdom.  For Pilate, killing a man he knew was innocent was the right thing to do.  Jesus’ crucifixion preserved Roman Order and Peace, and Pilate’s position.

How often have we had to do things we knew were ugly, painful or cruel?  How often have we allowed the innocent to suffer because there was no other choice?  Is there perhaps a bit of Pilate in all of us?

Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, Peter.  They all tried to do what they felt was the right thing for them to do, but none of them asked God for guidance.

The Gospels do not tell us whether Pilate or the High Priest felt remorse for their deeds – probably not – but those who knew Jesus best, Peter and Judas, did feel remorse.  They knew they had sinned.  They knew that Sin was a prison from which they could not escape.

And this is a lesson that Jesus teaches all of us in this, his final act as a fully human being: No matter how powerful we may be, no matter how well intentioned we are, no matter how wise, or how foolish, we all constantly make choices that create a great chasm between ourselves and God.  We can’t help it, we can’t change it, it is part of being human.  It is Sin, Sin with a Capital “S”, the Sin that has been passed down to us as our share in the brokenness of all existence, the Sin that began with Adam.  In today’s world we often think of sin as an action, as an event, not as a state of being.  We forget the biblical truth that Sin is a deeply embedded and pervasive aspect of us and of all creation.

The Passion of Christ makes plain the truth that Sin is a deep and undeniable part of us, and always leads us to further separate ourselves from God.  It prevents us from experiencing the Love that God so wants to shower us with.  Good intentions don’t help, great wisdom and power are of no value.  There is nothing we can do through our own strength that can change this.

For this reason, for Sin, the Son of God died.  We killed him, despite the best of intentions, because our flawed natures do not allow for any other outcome.  We are forever stuck in our Sin, unable to redeem ourselves, unable to make ourselves clean and righteous enough to please God.  But then again, God knew this all along.

The season of Lent is now drawing to a close, a time when we confront our own Sinful natures and powerlessness.  We come face to face with the hopelessness of our existence, that nothing we do will make God rescue us.  Nothing can erase the fact that we are the ones who killed God’s most prized possession.

So, what can we do?

Jesus is dead.  We can’t go back, an apology won’t fix it.

At this point in the story, Peter and the rest of the disciples are in hiding, fearing for their lives, unsure of what the future will bring, knowing only that that which was most precious to them, and God, the man they loved above all else, is gone, and their only hope died with him.

What will the future bring?

We, in this modern world, already know the answer.  We know that Easter will be here very soon, we know that when the sun rises on that glorious day those who loved Jesus will find an empty tomb.  We know the end of this tragedy and know the new hope that arises in its place.

But, we’re not there yet.  Easter is coming, but is not yet here. Lent is the time of each year when we are given a chance to remember that our Sin – yours and mine – is what crucified Jesus.  Lent is a time where we learn to see ourselves as participants within the story of Christ’s death.  A chance to realize that it wasn’t just those of long ago, but we who are here today, who have joined in the demand to “Crucify Him!”   …That we did not physically nail Jesus to the Cross does not excuse us.  We are just as human, just as Sin-filled, and therefore just as guilty, as they.

But then there are the words of the Centurion: “Truly, this man was God’s Son!”

And for this we can be profoundly thankful.  Jesus has died, but he came to earth knowing he would die.  We cannot reach God, but through his Son, God reaches out to us.  God is pursuing us and has forgiven us, and seeks to heal our brokenness and restore the relationship that He has wanted with us since the beginning.  To claim that Hope, all we need is faith, faith that Jesus words are true, faith that God will remember us, faith that the resurrection is true and real.

All that is asked of us is to remember and have faith in those famous words from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Our sin prevents us from reaching out to God, but nothing prevents God from reaching out us, nothing but our own unbelief.

Have Faith, for God loves you and believes in you.

Amen.

Copyright (c) 2012, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my full name and provides a link back to this site).

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Passion (Palm Sunday, 2012)”

  1. Far better than the one I heard.

    But how do you know that Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas and Peter did not ask God for guidance? We know at least the latter three were religious people, accustomed to praying. We know very little about any of them and least about Pilate but even he might have been prayerful in his own way, with a different concept of God, perhaps. I could be wrong but I don’t think scripture is clear about whether any of these people asked God for assistance in their dilemma.

    According to the Gospel, Jesus’ arrest, persecution and crucifixion was preordained — the will of God. That being the case, what would have been God’s advice to these people? Would he have advised them to do something other than what scripture says they did and what Jesus, apparently, knew they would do?

    Like

    1. Good point Scott: arguing from a lack of evidence is always problematic. You are right, the scriptures are not explicit on the point you raised, but I think I can make a good case for saying they did not ask God for guidance – or at least that they rejected it (if given).

      The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Pilate was sent a warning message by his wife, because she had seen in a dream that he must not kill Jesus. So, he did hear from God, and rejected it.

      I would also argue that Judas and Peter were not [yet] to the point where they saw God as proactive and personal – so why God for help? Also, their very failure, plus the detailed testimony of Peter’s own feelings at the time, seems to indicate they did not think of doing so. I also think back to how I react in a Crisis – as many of us do – the thought of “oh, I should have prayed and asked God for guidance on this” often comes after the crisis is past.

      Caiaphas was a political creature – appointed by the Roman Governor to his office as High Priest. I believe he was also the longest serving – by far – of any of the High Priests who lived during the Roman occupation of Judah. He was an adroit politician and a survivor, good at walking the tightrope of competing interests that impacted his ability to stay in power. Therefore, I’m sure his “real world” concerns would have trumped any personal convictions or feelings he might have had, no matter where they came from.

      As for your ending question, stay tuned for my Good Friday sermon! 😉

      Like

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