Sermons That Work

The Crackle of Dried Palms…, Palm Sunday (A) – 2011

April 17, 2011


The crackle of dried palms crunch under the feet of the crowd. The sound is but a faint crackle lost in the din of angry voices. The meaning of the sound is lost on the mob now shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him! CRUCIFY HIM!”

That crackle of dried palm branches covered by the shouts of an angry mob is the sound of a world turned upside down. The King of Creation and Judge of All Humankind put on trial before Rome’s puppet King Herod and their governor in Palestine, Pilate.

We can’t know that any of the people are the same. One crowd could have greeted Jesus as a King when he entered Jerusalem and another crowd could have shouted for Pilate to put him to death. But in centuries of Christian preaching and teaching, the two crowds are seen as one; not because of solid historic data, but because of instinct forged in the fires of life experience.

More than once in history crowds have been known to turn even more quickly and to just such violent effect. The mob wants you as King, and then they want you dead. In the meantime, all you have to do is not live up to expectations. Jesus came to Jerusalem, yerushalayim [NOTE TO READER: PRONOUNCED “yeh-roo-shah-LIE-eem”] in Hebrew. Literally it means “foundation of peace,” and Jesus arrived on a donkey as the King of Peace. There were hosannas that day, but the crowd didn’t want peace. They wanted violence. Years of oppression at the hands of Rome in general and Pilate and Herod in particular had taken their toll.

Yes, Rome brought work, water projects, road projects, and Herod’s endless building projects. And with all this came the pax Romana, the peace of Rome. But for the Jews gathered in Jerusalem that fateful Passover, the peace was peace for Romans, not peace for Jews. The back-breaking tax burden contributed to the nagging feeling that the arrangement between Rome and Jews was nearing a flash point. This deal left them free to practice their faith, but there were signs of strain.

Pilate had given a small show of force by placing Roman standards, or military ensignia, within his palace so that they could be seen within the Jewish Temple. The Jewish leadership saw this as placing idols in sight of their holiest of holies. This was an affront to their faith. Jews revolted. Pilate had them put to death. More Jews rose to take their place until even Pilate had to stop killing. A governor can only put so many people to death and still govern. Pilate relented and an uneasy peace returned.

It was into this uneasy peace that Jesus rode on a donkey as the crowd shouted Hosannas and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” So much for the peace.

Whatever else we want to say about Jesus, he was put to death as a threat to Roman rule and the Jewish King Herod’s control. Jesus’ teaching turned the world upside down and this threat to the way things work could not be tolerated by those in power.

The specific accusation in our gospel reading is that Jesus was the, “King of the Jews.” Could he be a king in place of Herod in Jerusalem and the Emperor in Rome? Not possible.

In Matthew’s account of the Passion, Pilate is particularly reluctant to put Jesus to death. Perhaps this is because of his wife’s dream. Or having already put quite a few Jews to death, he learned along the way that it is best not to incite the crowds during a festival. With Jerusalem’s population swelled by all who came to the capital for the Passover, this is no time to get an angry mob going.

Pilate offers a choice. Following his custom of letting one prisoner go free, he asks whether that man should be Jesus, who is called the Messiah, or Jesus Barabbas. The choice in the Aramaic of the time is quite stark. “Barabbas” is not a name but something like a nom de guerre, a revolutiony’s nickname. It means “Son of a Father.” The dramatic irony is that we are to see the crowd choose Barabbas, the “son of a father,” instead of Jesus, the “son of the father,” our father in heaven.

When given this choice, the mob shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” Pilate abdicates to mob rule, hoping that the anger of the mob will spew out over Jesus. Pilate literally washes his hands of the matter, hoping the mob will leave him and his palace in peace.

This is where the gospel accounts of Jesus differ from most of human history and literature up until this time. Jesus’ story was not the first story of redemptive violence. It was, however, the first time the story played out like this. Usually, it was the people who knew what was best. The one outsider, the one who wanted change, was put to death and order was restored. The crowd was right. The one agitating for change was wrong. Violence against the one person restored order, and peace returned.

Yet the idea of killing Jesus to bring peace is clearly found here in Matthew. The equation is: unanimity plus one. We all agree with one another, except this guy preaching that we should love everyone – sinners and outcasts alike. So the formula was simple: remove the one, and unanimity returns. The status quo is preserved.

In the gospels, we read of an innocent victim. And even though the whole world on that day seemed to be set against him, the one man, Jesus, was still right. It was possible for everyone – every person against him, every follower of him, everyone – to be wrong and for Jesus to be right.

It’s still true. So often, Christianity is judged by the ways Christians act. It is hard to separate Christ from Christians. Yet, we may all act wrongly, and the truth of Jesus still remains true.

This is part of the way the world was getting turned upside down in Jesus’ life and ministry. You could no longer count on common sense. For sense has never been something we humans held in common. You could no longer count on “what everyone knows.” You could not count on what “they” said. If Jesus was and is God made man, then it was possible for the one suffering at the hands of the many to be right.

There would have been voices on the edge of the crowd. People who wanted to speak and remained silent. There would have been voices of reason in the angry mob – voices silenced by the shouting crowd, by fear. Their silence equaled consent. Remaining silent in the face of injustice is a way of standing with the unjust. Many in the mob that Good Friday did just that.

As the sky darkened that noon when Jesus hung on the cross, there would have been those who felt foolish to have ever proclaimed Jesus as a King. Some had waved palm branches and shouted at the tops of their lungs, who would now wish they had remained silent. From the joy of that Sunday entrance, to the darkness of the Friday we call “Good,” the crowd went from praise to derision. When Jesus failed to vent their anger at Rome, the violence turned against the son of David.

By three o’clock, the darkness of that day is complete, and Jesus cries with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is time for the crowd to go home. The dry palm branches crackle under their feet as the mob shuffles home, vented of their anger. The promise of hosannas now crushed into dust.

The earth shook, and few heard the words of the centurion as Jesus died, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” The only voice of hope to be heard until Jesus own feet stepped on the dust of those palm branches three days later, proving that love could conquer even the anger of the crowd and the sting of death.

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Chris Sikkema

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