Today is unusual, in a way. In the calendar of the Christian year, it has two names: Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. From the Middle Ages until 1969, the focus was on Palm Sunday and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. But that changed when various church bodies worked on revising the lectionary (the readings for each day of the Christian year). They encouraged churches to include the readings about Christ’s Passion along with the Palm Sunday readings.
This wasn’t a new innovation, though. It was actually an act of recovering what the early church had done for centuries as it prepared new disciples for baptism on Easter by instructing them in the way of Jesus. For us, like them, this Sunday is not only a time of remembering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but it also begins a week of more intense fasting, prayer, and reliving the final moments of Jesus’ earthly life in our services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
When we look at the two stories of Palms and Passion, it may seem like there is a bright line dividing the two. Palm Sunday suggests a time of celebration and triumph, a time when we joyfully wave our palm branches as we walk with our king. But Passion Sunday is its opposite—a time of gloom and foreboding as we anticipate the violence to come. As we near the end of Lent, this time of self-examination and repentance, the juxtaposition of the Palm and Passion stories invites us to a closer scrutiny of our hearts, to see where they may be divided between our desire to follow Jesus and our desire to follow a more earthly way of life.
Lots of things happened between the events of our two Scripture readings today. We began with the story of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. Mark’s telling of the story is more subdued than the other Gospel writers’. John says that the crowds poured out of Jerusalem to meet Jesus, but in Mark’s account, they were already following him in from the countryside. Matthew and John point out that everything that happened that day would fulfill the words of prophecy, but Mark includes none of that. There is no confrontation with the Pharisees, no scene of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem as he approaches.
But even without the added drama of the other Gospels, Mark’s telling of Jesus’ approach to the city is still an exciting story. Jesus appears on a never-ridden colt, amidst pageantry that recalls the imagery used by the prophets. He is accompanied by crowds who pave his way with their garments and the leafy branches they have cut from nearby fields. The crowds surround him—some in the back, and some in the front leading the parade. They cheer as they walk toward the city gates, calling out hosannas as they go.
The second reading takes us to the night of Jesus’ trial—the part where he is before Pilate, and Pilate offers his release to the gathered crowd. There is another man in prison for insurrection and murder. His name is Barabbas—Jesus Barabbas, according to Matthew. Jesus was a common name. It may be that Pilate was confused by the mob’s demands, thinking that the crowd surely would want the clearly innocent Jesus to be released, rather than the murderer.
But no. Jesus’ enemies are not about to let this opportunity slip away. They stir up the crowd into a bloodthirsty mob. For some reason, Pilate asks the crowd what they want him to do with Jesus. He doesn’t see Jesus as a particular threat to the empire, and he has no obligation to do what they want. But he does have a political interest in avoiding any unrest in his territory—unrest that could cost him his job. He apparently sees this as an easy way to stay on the good side of this hysterical mob.
He knows that Jesus is innocent. He knows he is the victim of political intrigue. But Jesus is expendable as far as Pilate is concerned—a bone to throw to the snarling dogs. So he heeds the mob’s call to crucify Jesus. Wishing to satisfy the crowd, he first has Jesus flogged—a terrible ordeal in its own right—and then hands him over to be crucified.
How did we get from the happy cries of “hosanna” to the cruel demand to “crucify”? How did a crowd of admirers evolve into a mob salivating at the prospect of Jesus’ death? What happened over the course of that week to so change the crowd’s hearts and move them from reverence and honor to sneering disdain and outright hatred?
It’s possible that the people in the crowd that accompanied Jesus to the city gates were not the same ones who screamed for his death in front of Pilate’s palace. But we all know how quickly and easily opinions can change. We see how supporters can quickly become opponents when their expectations and desires are thwarted. We have seen all too often in recent years how quickly crowds can become violent. And in the chapters of Mark’s gospel that come between our readings for today, we can read of how opinion and attitudes toward Jesus became more and more hostile.
The seeds of the change seem to already exist at the end of our first passage. Although a crowd had accompanied Jesus to the city gates, Jesus and his disciples were alone when he went to the temple. The excitement seems to have worn off. The leaves are scattered and trampled along the roadway. People have reclaimed their garments, shaken out the dust, and gone home. The colt has been returned. Already the crowd seems to have moved on.
In the days between the hosannas and the calls to crucify, Jesus does not make any friends among the religious authorities. They wanted him dead, but they were afraid that the crowd would riot if they have Jesus arrested during the festival. Despite their attempts to trap him, they succeed only in being embarrassed when he challenged them. The crowd still listens to Jesus with delight, our translation says, but it’s not a delight rooted in love. It’s a delight rooted in a mean-spirited enjoyment of Jesus’ ability to trip up the Sadducees and Pharisees. This is not the kind of delight that loyalty and love are made of. It is a fickle thing—an ugly thing that can easily be turned into something uglier.
By the time Judas had carried out his act of betrayal, the mood of the crowd had turned. Sent by the chief priests, scribes, and elders, the crowd had armed itself with swords and clubs, and descended on Jesus as he prayed in the garden. They took Jesus to the chief priests and council, and they began offering testimony against him—false testimony in many cases. And when Jesus was condemned to death by the council, the crowd blindfolded him, spat on him, struck and mocked him, before the guards stepped in and began to beat him themselves. At the end of the long night, the chief priests, scribes, and elders took Jesus to Pilate, where our second passage picks up the story and takes us to the cry to crucify.
It’s comforting to believe that there is a clear line of division between hearts full of love for Jesus and hearts full of scorn, and that if you are on the “Hosanna” side of the dividing line, you are safely barricaded away from the “Crucify” side. Who among us doesn’t want to believe we are safely on the “Hosanna” side—always faithful, always praising, always recognizing and claiming Jesus as our Lord? Who among us doesn’t want to believe that we would never have anything to do with the “Crucify” side of the dividing line? It’s comforting to imagine that if we had been among the crowd, shouting hosannas as Jesus rode by, we would have continued to love him with our whole hearts.
But I think that there is not only a dividing line between the hearts of people. I think that most of us have a dividing line within our hearts as well. Within each of us there is both the desire to love Jesus and the capacity to crucify him.
Of course, there are clear indicators that reveal a heart that is closer to the “Crucify” side than the “Hosanna” side. When we hear ugly words directed at those who are hated, when we see backs callously turned to the needs of the poor, when acts of violence aimed at keeping others in their place are committed or endorsed, we know that the perpetrators would be the loudest voices calling for Jesus’ crucifixion. When we hear people scoff at Jesus and his followers, we know they are nearer the “Crucify” side. When we hear people claim to be Christian because it’s expedient and popular, but who don’t live it out in their lives, we know that the word “crucify” is in their vocabulary.
But we are not safe on the “Hosanna” side, either. There are no guard rails that keep us from moving toward the “Crucify” side, and the dividing line is not always clear-cut. Instead it is a fuzzy boundary. We can drift from one side to the other so slowly that we might not even notice we’re moving. Maybe we’re like the crowds that dissipated at the gates of the city, when all the excitement of the palm-waving and cheering was over. When the first heady flush of new-found faith passes, when Christmas and Easter are behind us, when a child is baptized, a teen confirmed, a couple married or loved one buried, we can lose interest in the day-to-day work of following Jesus.
We may not engage in obviously evil words and deeds, or in out-and-out blasphemy, but Jesus must hear the words “crucify him” when we live in ways that don’t reflect what he taught us or what we claim to believe. He must hear those words when we listen eagerly to that juicy piece of gossip or feel a secret satisfaction at someone else’s expense. He must hear them when we make a comment or wear a facial expression that tears someone down rather than building them up. He must feel pain when we are ashamed to confess that we are Christians when we are with people who think what we believe is foolish. Jesus must hear those words when we allow our own prejudices to separate us from the people Jesus loves—the poor, the ostracized, and the stranger. When we turn our backs on what he taught us, we drift that much closer to the dividing line in our hearts.
I wonder if Jesus hears the mocking voices when we forget that the names of God and Jesus are special, and we use them thoughtlessly. How often do we sprinkle those divine names into our conversations, not as real praise or true appeals for divine care, but as a casual catchphrase that is so common we don’t even hear ourselves saying it? How many times do our posts or tweets or texts use the phrase “OMG”? (For those of you who aren’t posters or tweeters or texters, that’s the online version of “Oh, my God!”) Does Jesus hear again that question, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Marc and I follow the NCAA women’s basketball tournaments, but in 2015, before the first round of the men’s games, reporters asked the coach of the 16th seeded Hampton University about his team’s chances against the #1-seed. In the middle of the press conference, Coach Edward Joyner, Jr., pulled out his cell phone, and he pretended to call Jesus, whom he claimed to have on speed dial, to ask Jesus for some coaching advice. The reporters listened in as Joyner supposedly spoke with Jesus. First, he told Jesus that he couIdn’t play in the game, and then he asked Jesus about the team’s prospects. When the call ended, Joyner suggested that Jesus had hung up on him. I got a chuckle out of that; I thought it was pretty funny.
But as I think about that fuzzy dividing line in our hearts, I wonder about my laughter. Joyner’s joke seems harmless enough, and for all I know Mr. Joyner is a faithful Christian who talks with Jesus so easily that he feels like Jesus really is on his speed-dial. But I began to wonder, does Jesus hear a mocking voice whenever I treat him as someone less than the Savior who went to the cross for me so that I could live eternally with God? Did my laughing at a joke that treated Jesus with less than the utmost reverence and love move me just a little closer to the “crucify” side? There are so many things in our lives that can do that. That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that, while it’s possible to cross from the hosanna side to the crucify side, as the crowds did so long ago in Jerusalem, it’s also possible to cross in the other direction. Those who are on the “Crucify” side are not doomed to remain there. And those of us who are on the hosanna side have the power of the Holy Spirit to help us remain there. Even the most hardened unbeliever can have a change of heart and move from “Crucify” to “Hosanna.” Those who have become indifferent or doubtful—who have moved the wrong way, a little or a lot—can turn around and commit themselves anew to a deeper relationship with God through Christ. And those of us who feel secure somewhere on the Hosanna side can continue to grow in our faith until we are perfected in love. No matter where we are in relationship to our heart’s dividing line, Jesus is waiting with open arms, offering forgiveness, a new start, and the increasing joy that is eternal life.
That’s what Lent is all about. It is a time when look to see whether our excited cries of praise have turned to indifference. It is a time when we identify where we stand between the “Hosanna” and “Crucify” sides of our divided hearts and see where repentance is necessary. It’s a time when we can grow in our love for Jesus as our lives become living and faithful hosannas that proclaim the coming of our Lord. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young