Matthew 27: 33-54
April 13, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Today is a Sunday that always presents preachers with a huge question: Palms or Passion? In other words, is our focus on the triumphal entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, the week before his resurrection? Or will our focus be on the passion of our Lord in those hours that led up to the cross? The answer for us today is both.
As we have done in the past, today we began much like Jesus began his last week – in joyful celebration. We have processed with the palms and joined our voices in singing Hosanna. But in the background stands the cross, on a hill called Golgotha, the place of the skull. We know that after the shouts of Hosanna, the crowd will, within days, be shouting, “Crucify him!”
Jesus has entered the city and has been speaking in parables, confounding the wisdom of the religious leaders. He has answered their challenging questions. They tried to trap him by asking, “What is the greatest commandment?” and he answered "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew )
Jesus has been making dire prophecies, and inflaming the anger and suspicion of those in power. He has shared the Passover meal with his friends, and instituted communion. This Thursday, when we gather for Maundy Thursday, we’ll obey his commandment again, to “do this in remembrance of me.” A week from today we’ll shout, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!” But before there is Easter, there is Good Friday. Before there is resurrection, there is death. From now until Easter, we sit with the reality of his suffering, his pain, his agony.
Listen for God’s word to us today in Matthew 27:33-54
And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews."
38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him."
50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"
I said a minute ago that the question of Palm Sunday is always, “palms or passion?” But there are more important questions for Christians this week. As we consider Christ’s passion, there are two crucial questions, questions with two very different answers. The first is, “Why was Jesus crucified?” And the second is, “Why did Jesus die?” They may sound like the same question – after all, they ask about the same thing. But they are very, very different.
To ask, “Why was Jesus crucified?” gets at the very heart of our broken and flawed humanity. After all, they had greeted him with shouts of triumph! They laid down their coats for that donkey to walk on. They waved palm branches, they shouted Hosanna, which means “God saves!” Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna! Four days later he was in the hands of the Roman authorities, on trial for his life.
Why did they kill him? Because he was a threat. He was a threat to their power. He was a threat to their position and status. He was a threat to their smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied lives. He was a political threat to the Roman Empire, and he was a spiritual threat to the people he challenged. His entry into Jerusalem was the exact opposite of the parades of the Roman Empire – an anti- parade, that confronted them and scared them. So he was betrayed, not only by Judas, but later by Peter in his three-time denial. He was betrayed by his own people, and by a government that cared more about security and keeping the peace than about learning the truth. That’s why Jesus was killed – for blasphemy and sedition.
But the second question, “Why did Jesus die?” That may be the question that haunts us through this week. Why did Jesus die? He died because it was necessary, strange as that seems. He died because he had come into that city knowing what would happen. He died because he was willing to continue to speak the truth to power, even on pain of death. He died because he was fully divine, and in order to redeem us, he had to enter completely into his humanity.
He died because he was fully human and humans die. In order to redeem us, he had to die, too. To be human, after all, is to know what it is to suffer, to know fear, and sorrow, and heartbreak. To be human is to know what it is to struggle – do we make the decision to stand up for the truth, to stand up for the oppressed, to speak for those who have no voice? or do we, in our fear and our frailty, choose to keep silent? To be human is to be limited, to be finite – to know that one day we will die.
Gods do not struggle or fear.
Gods do not have limits.
Gods do not suffer.
Gods do not die.
But Jesus did. He did die.
He died because the crowd who had greeted him with shouts of Hosanna, roared for his crucifixion. How quickly we turn from celebration to condemnation! How quickly the roar of the crowd turns from Hosanna! to Crucify him! You can see it all the time in our society – a hero falters and becomes a zero; a friend fails to meet our expectations, and we turn on him – never to forgive; we vote for a politician and when she turns out to be a politician we say we have been betrayed.
About fifteen years ago, in the basement of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, the children and I acted out the events of Holy Week. Alex, who was about eight years old, played the role of Jesus. After the betrayal in the garden, when Sean and Rachel and Isabel and Paula and Jordyn had dragged him off to be crucified, Alex came and sat quietly beside me.
Can I ask you something?
Sure you can.
Why did Judas do that to Jesus?
Well, I’m not sure. I guess he was mad at him.
But Jesus didn’t do anything wrong. And he told Judas what was going to happen. So why would he do such a terrible thing and let Jesus get killed?
Hmm. Remember when we talked about Palm Sunday?
Yeah, about how they wanted Jesus to come to town and be a king. But he wasn’t a king with a golden palace. He was the king of love.
Right, but remember, some people, maybe Judas, wanted Jesus to be the other kind of king? And when he wasn’t, they were disappointed, and angry.
Yeah. I remember.
Have you ever seen that happen? Two good friends, and one friend wants the other to do a certain thing, or act a certain way, or believe a certain thing. And when they don’t, the other person gets angry. He feels betrayed, so he betrays his friend. You didn’t do what I expected! You didn’t do what I wanted! And then they say bad things about their friend. Have you ever known anyone who did that?
Alex was silent for a long moment. Then he answered quietly, “Me.”
This morning we baptized Danika, and we told her that she is a child of the covenant. We promised to support her family as they raise her, to demonstrate God’s love to her, to teach her, to nurture her. And we rejoiced with her and with her family. But we also acknowledged that to be baptized is to die to self and to live in Christ Jesus. We can’t prevent sorrow or grief or pain in Danika’s or anyone’s life, even though as loving parents, as community, we do everything we can to keep it away from our children. Since we can’t prevent suffering, we turn to one another, to the Christian community, to help us, to support us, to walk with us during our times of struggle. And in baptism we recognize that as Christians, we enter into the suffering of Jesus along with the glory. In Galatians 2:20, the Apostle Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Why did Jesus have to die? He was crucified because of who he is, and he had to die because of who we are. On that cross, he threatens our power, position and status. His goodness, his beauty, his righteousness – they frighten us. And so we betray him, we hand him over to the enemy, we pretend we do not know him, we ignore him when he becomes an inconvenience to us, and when we can’t ignore him, we crucify him.
And here is the good news, if you can stand to hear it – here is the good news:
he loves us, and he would do it again, if he had to.
For you, friends, Christ came to the earth as a tiny baby, a human child like you. For you, Christ ministered on this earth, teaching and preaching and calling all people to repentance. For you, Christ rode into Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna, for you, he suffered the jeers and insults of the crowd, for you he was forsaken, despised, for you he was tormented. For you, he gave his life on the cross.
Why was Jesus killed? Why did Jesus have to die? He was crucified because of who he is, and he had to die because of who we are.
Here is the good news, if you can bear to hear it – he did it because he loves you, and he would do it again just for you, if you were the only sinner on the face of the earth.
There is nothing you can do that would make God love you more, and there is nothing you can do that would make God love you less. Jesus would do it all again, just for you. And you do not need to do anything for him to love you that much.
All he wants from you is everything.
Because that is what he gave on the cross.