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Following the Crowd

A Homily from Luke 19:28-40; 22:14-23:56

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

April 4, 2004 (Sunday of Palms and Passion)

We humans are in impatient species. As a people, we like quick fixes; and those of us who are Americans are particularly notorious for wanting things done now. There is ample evidence of this in our television advertising, but particularly so with the ads for medicines. Drug companies now promise to cure all sorts of embarrassing or irritating problems with a single dose, instead of the long series of doses that might have previously been required.

Our worship for today is drawn on the same principle of those wonder drugs. In one tightly-knit package, we present all of the fundamental elements of Jesus’ last days. We do this, knowing that many of us will not be able to attend the Holy Week services during which the specific components of those days are broken down and presented in greater detail. Secular calendars do not always accommodate or religious ones; and our liturgy for today is intended to make sure that we all have the necessary preparation to fully appreciate Easter Sunday when it arrives.

There is no way for one homily to fully digest the significance of so much biblical material. It did occur to me in preparing this sermon that this text has enough guilt to go around; and if I played my cards right you would all feel guilty enough to stay for the many hours it would take to preach from every word of our texts for today.

Tempting as that might be, there is a line between being honest about our own guilt; and mind-numbing torture. Some popular depictions of Christ’s final hours have chosen one side of that line, and I will try to stay on the other.

Since we can’t cover everything, and since so much of the content of these texts is familiar territory to many of us, we’ll focus on just one part of the texts: a word that recurs throughout them. That word is “crowd.”

It’s not surprising to find Jesus surrounded by a crowd in the gospel accounts. Crowds flocked to hear Jesus’ sermons. A whole crowd of people was healed simply by touching Jesus. Sometimes the crowd was so thick, that Jesus’ own family couldn’t reach him. And when that happened, Jesus said that all of them were, in fact, his family. At other times, Jesus would even thin out the crowd by offering them more truth than they were willing to hear. Even still, Jesus’ teachings and miraculous power were always sure to draw some sort of audience.

What is perhaps more surprising about today’s texts is how quickly and dramatically the crowd’s role shifts at key points in the story.

At the beginning of the passion account, the crowd provides Jesus with a hero’s welcome into Jerusalem. Luke calls them a “multitude of disciples”, and they cheer until their throats are raw as Jesus enters the city on a young colt. Quoting Psalm 118, they cry out “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

There’s something surprising in that, because Jesus’ arrival looked nothing like what one would expect from a visiting monarch. More importantly, he is hardly the image of the warrior-king and savior whom the people of Israel expected to be their Messiah. Warrior-kings come with armies. They wear polished armor and have sharpened swords at their sides. Jesus comes into Jerusalem wearing a carpenter’s homespun robe and riding on a borrowed donkey while teaching of peace and non-violence.

Yet, even though he’s not what people expected, the crowd still sees in him the promised Messiah. Luke provides perhaps some insight into why the crowd cheers, even throwing down their cloaks in the colt’s path as a sign of their respect. Luke says that this throng of disciples is joyful because of the deeds of power they had seen.

Jesus may not look like the king they were seeking, but they know he has power. He can change things. He can do things. (That requirement alone, incidentally, is why committees can’t be Messiahs.) Messiahs transform the world around them. The crowd who cheers Jesus on knows that, apparently first-hand.

Perhaps Jesus healed some of them, freeing them from a life-threatening or crippling illness. Perhaps Jesus welcomed some of them when no one else would, and the simple act of friendship changed their lives. Perhaps some of them heard Jesus’ teachings, and realized a truth about themselves or the world that made their lives different and better.

Whatever the miracle, the crowd has seen something in Jesus, and – in welcoming him into Jerusalem – they celebrate their own personal miracles while hoping to experience more.

We made ourselves part of that crowd today by joining in the Palm Sunday Procession. It is perhaps presumptuous of us to think that – had we lived in Jerusalem two thousand years ago – we too would have stood at the gates of the Holy City and welcomed our Savior as the Son of God. Yet, we are not so different from that crowd. We are here because we have seen something in the person of Jesus. Not the idea of Jesus, but the living person of the Son of God. He has touched us or transformed us in some way that was so important that we’re willing to give up a beautiful Spring day to gather and worship.

I don’t mean to tempt you too much with that “Spring day” concept, but why are we here? Why are you here? What has Jesus done in your life that makes coming here worth our time. For me, I can think of some pretty frightening times in my life when I knew, when I knew Jesus was there. In times of fear and loneliness, I took no comfort in doctrines or religion; only in the tangible presence of God – God who came to us as a flesh-and-blood human being. God who came to me, when I needed to know God was there.

That’s good enough for me to get out of bed on Sunday morning. It’s good enough to make me want to be part of the crowd that calls Jesus “Blessed” and welcomes him as King and Lord. Sometimes it’s good to follow the crowd.

After that jubilant welcome, Luke tells us that Jesus – having cleansed the Temple of its greedy vendors and jousted with the pious professors there – gathers his disciples for a final Passover meal in a rented, upstairs room. Afterwards, he takes them to a private garden to pray, although none but Jesus can stay awake.

It is in that garden that he encounters the crowd again. They are lead by Judas, and they have come to capture Jesus and take him to his death. At this point in the story, I think we’d all like to opt out of the crowd; but we don’t have that luxury. Even Jesus’ most stalwart friend Peter chooses to pretend to be a part of the crowd to avoid Jesus’ fate.

There are only two roles in the story of Christ’s passion: Savior and crowd; and the first role is taken. The crowd, like it or not, is us. When push came to shove, when following Jesus went from sharing in Jesus’ power to sharing in Jesus’ bloody execution – the crowd makes a decision. They decide that whatever Jesus had done for them in the past, it’s not worth dying for.

So, if we’re part of that crowd, we must ask ourselves that same question. Is what Jesus has done for us worth dying for? Are the things that brought you into this church this morning worth dying for? I don’t mean are they worth Jesus dying for. He obviously thought they were, and just about any of us would be willing to let someone else die for us.

The question is, are the things that Jesus has done for us worth giving up our lives for? Not next year or in 50 years, but right now – with all of our unfinished business and our unfulfilled dreams and our loving friendships all cut short…is it worth it.

I have to be honest. If I were faced with that decision now or two thousand years ago I’d probably say “no, it’s not worth it.” There’s nothing more amazing in my life than the love and presence of God, but – if I’m really honest – I’m just not brave enough to die for my faith. I’m simply not as strong as Jesus.

Thankfully, I don’t need to be. As I said, there are only two roles in the Passion story, and “Savior” is already taken. Part of the liturgy of the Passion is understanding that, as weak and fragile humans we belong in the crowd – when it worships Jesus and when it leads him to his execution.

The crowd does just that with alarming swiftness. Jesus is taken to the chief priests where he is mocked and beaten, then to Pilate who sends him to be mocked and beaten. Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate, where Jesus is again mocked and beaten. The casual brutality of it all, whereby the religious and political leaders strip the flesh and blood from the One True God is horrifying.

And in the end, they kill the Messiah. Jesus dies an excruciatingly slow death by suffocation, carelessly thrown among the refuse of society. At the moment of his death, the Sun is snuffed out. And then, as the veil in the Temple that kept the human priest from encountering the full presence of God is shredded by God’s own death; we encounter the crowd again.

Stunned and horrified by what they had done, the crowd leaves the site of Christ’s murder beating their breasts in grief. They have made a grievous error, and in their fear and shallowness they have put God, the very same God who loved and healed and touched them, to death.

They decided that he wasn’t worth dying for, so they let him die for them…for us.

Yet at least one person there at the place of Jesus’ gruesome death – a place called Golgotha or “the Skull,” – knows what is really going on. He is dying too, facing a fair punishment for his crimes. And in the midst of his own suffering, he knows that Jesus’ slow execution is different. Jesus is blameless. What’s more, he is a king – a king whose realm is not like the cruel and capricious governments of our world.

And so, having faced the truth of his own mortality and having nothing to lose, the thief asks to follow Jesus into his kingdom.

Part of the Lenten message is the realization of the criminal crucified with Jesus. Whether we realize it or not, we too have nothing to lose. As surely as the men next to Jesus died, so will we. Our money, our success, our education, and all of the comforts and conveniences of our lives will mean nothing when that day comes.

And when it does, we will be like the crowd leaving Golgotha. We will realize that we made some terrible choices. We will beat our chests in grief over our silly priorities. We will deeply regret the foolishness of forgetting that Jesus as the Son of God should be the center of our lives.

I will be so very sorry and so will you, because that’s what it means to follow the crowd – as is our role. We are only human, and the one perfect human to ever live…the only one who was fully human and still fully divine…he has already died so that we don’t have to be as perfect as he was.

Gasping for breath, knowing each gulp of air might be his last, Jesus turned to a man whose crimes were so vile that he deserved to rot alive in the hot sun for hours; Jesus turned to that man and whispered “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Truly I tell you, that paradise awaits every one of us. Today we face the dark truths about ourselves, so that on Easter Sunday we can celebrate that hope with our Risen Lord. Today we draw Lent to a close, because we will not need to observe Lent in Heaven.

Today we remember our mortality, so that next Sunday we can touch the scars in his hands and remember that death is not the end of our stories.

Some of that truth can scare and wound us, but the fullness of that truth will lead us, together, to Paradise; where our loving God waits to welcome us home.