SJF • Palm Sunday 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The crowd said, He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.
With Palm Sunday, we begin the observance of Holy Week, the church’s annual recollection of the events that took place in Jerusalem about nineteen-hundred and seventy-five years ago. It is a week that begins in triumph, or what seems to be triumph, and ends in defeat — or what seems to be defeat. It is, in short, a week of surprises and turnabouts, of contrasts of light and shadow, of joy and pain, of light and darkness and then light again.
God willing we are beginning to see a different kind of light — that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel — concerning the war in Iraq. But I would like to remind you of something that happened near the start of that conflict, something that bears an odd similarity to what happened long ago in Jerusalem.
American troops entered the city of Najaf, one of the holiest cities for followers of the Shi’ite sect of Islam. Welcoming crowds greeted the Americans, shouting their joy at being liberated from the domination of Saddam Hussein, who supported the predominantly Sunni population that had oppressed the Shi’ites. For a change there was some fulfillment of the promise that Americans would be greeted as the liberators.
Unfortunately, the cheering didn’t last. The next day, because of confusion or malice, word falsely got around that the American troops were going to occupy the shrine of Imam Ali in the great mosque of Najaf, one of Shi’a Islam’s most sacred sites. As the rumor spread, the same crowds that the day before had greeted the American troops with open arms and shouts of welcome, stood with their arms stretched out, their fists in the air, chanting curses upon the infidels.
Does this sound familiar? Something like the contrast between the Palm Gospel and the Passion Gospel ? As poet Samuel Crossman wrote,
Sometime they strew his way,
and his strong praises sing,
resounding all the day hosannas to their King.
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
and for his death they thirst and cry.
As I recall the crowds in Najaf turning from cheering to cursing, I cannot help but think of the same turn made by the crowds in Jerusalem. Even stranger, the next stage of the story continues to hold its mirror up to the events of Holy Week. Both Jesus in Jerusalem and the American troops in Najaf made the same response to the crowds. Jesus, the lamb who opened not his mouth, submitted meekly to the assaults of those who cursed him. And the American troops, at the direction of their commander, chose an extremely unusual response for a military outfit, to show the people that they were there in good faith as liberators, not conquerors. Those American soldiers each went down on one knee, and lowered their weapons to the ground.
And this is where the difference between the two stories come in. The crowds in Najaf, when they saw the Americans’ response, quieted their protests. And when the soldiers stood and began to back out of the town, to back away and back down, peace was restored.
Jesus’ meekness, however, was not met with a corresponding charity. No, his meekness seemed to create in the crowds that cursed him an even greater anger, an even greater hatred, to which he continued to submit himself in meekness. Ultimately, he did not back down — and because he did not back down from the cross, we are here today to testify to him as our Lord and Savior, not simply to honor him as a wise and prudent teacher who got off the hook by careful diplomacy.
We know from the evidence presented by Mark and the other evangelists, their testimony to what happened in Gethsemane, that Jesus did not want to go to the cross; Jesus did not want to die. But he willed to die. He could have backed down from the cross and its pain anytime he chose. But he didn’t. He remained obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He chose to pay the debt of human sin to God, and as God, fully divine yet fully human, though without sin.
Sin is disobedience, and if Christ had given in to his own fears or the devil’s temptations he would not have carried out God’s redeeming work. And the last temptation, the last temptation of all was voiced by the crowds: come down from the cross. The crowds did not want a suffering savior, someone who would die for them to save them from their sins. They did not want someone who would die in meekness. No, they wanted some kind of Superman. They wanted to see Jesus use his superpowers, to rip those nails out of the wood, to break himself free, to come down from the cross in power and might, so that, as they said, they “could see and believe.”
But that didn’t happen. There was no flexing of muscles, no miraculous transformation like the Incredible Hulk, no breaking free from the cross, no explosive leaping down. There was only the stillness of the noonday sunlight, the weeping of the women, the occasional curses and taunts from the crowd, the buzz of flies, the creaking of the wood, and then clouds of darkness over the land for three long, slow and painful hours.
Then finally Jesus broke the silence, as he cried out in a loud voice, a cry of pain and anguish stretching back 1,000 years before his own birth, the cry of his forefather David, a lamentation of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The crowd, of course, misunderstood. They realized by now that Jesus was not going to do a Superman act. But they thought that maybe he had some friends in high places. And so they took the wait-and-see attitude beloved by skeptics the world over, to wait and see if the prophet Elijah, would come to take Jesus down from the cross.
And so they waited, not so long this time, until Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Up in the city, beyond the high walls, up on the Temple Mount, people said that the curtain of the Temple had been torn in two. But outside the city walls, on that little hill called Golgotha, something even stranger happened, something most folks didn’t see, but which the Evangelist Mark carefully recorded.
A soldier who stood there facing Jesus almost two thousand years ago did something as strange and unlikely as the American soldiers did in Najaf just a handful of years ago, something as strange and unlikely as the death of God’s own son. In spite of Jesus having failed to reveal himself as a superhero in disguise, in spite of Elijah’s failure to show up to rescue him from the cross, in spite of his death and suffering, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that soldier uttered words of faith that some even of Jesus’ own disciples had not yet dared to utter: “Truly this man was God’s son.”
Truly, he was God’s son, who suffered death upon the cross for our salvation. And so it was that the meekness of Christ was vindicated. The stories turn out to be not dissimilar after all, and in the end meekness and truth triumph over anger and hatred. Just as the submission of those American soldiers in Najaf turned the hearts of those who cursed them, so too in Jesus’ act of submission, he finally did turn one heart, as a soldier saw, perhaps for the first time in his life, that God’s power is made perfect, not in domination, but in obedience. That one man’s heart turned, moved by the power of God in Christ, not to compel, but to welcome; not to order, but to invite. It was only one heart, but it was the beginning, as countless hearts would come to be turned in succeeding weeks and years and centuries; and the word would go forth from that holy city, that holiest of cities, to tell abroad the saving death of Jesus Christ; to spread the welcome and the invitation to join the Meek King at his Banquet.
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I said at the outset that Holy Week begins in triumph, or what seems to be triumph, and ends in defeat — or what seems to be defeat. But the primary lesson of Holy Week is that we must never mistake meekness —— not using one’s power — for weakness: not having any power in the first place. Why did the soldier at the cross recognize Jesus as the Son of God? Not because he had no powers, nor because he exercised his powers, but because he had the confidence in God to lay them aside, to refrain from using the powers at his disposal. For that soldier knew, as perhaps only a soldier knows, that it takes greater courage to lower your weapon than to fire it. The centurion saw and believed, not because Christ came down from the cross, but because he stayed there, even unto death.
May we, when we are tempted to lash out, when we are tempted to save ourselves at whatever cost, when we are tempted to act in our own interests at the expense of others, may we remember Jesus on the cross who chose, on our behalf, to submit himself to the powers of death so that he might bring us eternal life. +