04/05/20 “A Face in the Crowd”

Matthew 21:1-11

Did you ever do one of those “Where’s Waldo” puzzles? They’re pictures of densely packed crowds of people with a guy named Waldo hidden somewhere among them, and you have to find him by looking for his signature red and white-striped shirt and hat and round glasses. Waldo was born as Wally in Britain in 1987, when an illustrator named Martin Handford began including him in his drawings of crowds as a focal point. Waldo became an international sensation, showing up in movies and video games, on TV and cereal boxes. Waldo is still around: the newest “Where’s Waldo” book is due out in July.

Waldo would have a hard time finding a crowd to get lost in these days.  No one wants to be part of a crowd today, but crowds are very much a part of the Gospel of Matthew. They first show up in the fourth chapter, where Matthew tells us that “great crowds” from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan followed Jesus. They’re present in the 27th chapter, when they are persuaded to call for Jesus to be executed. And, of course, the crowd plays a big part in our story today.

Scholars have puzzled at length over the significance of the crowds for Matthew. Some say that Matthew used the crowds and disciples to explain the relationship between laypeople and clergy. Others say that, because the crowds are made up of people from all over, they point to God’s intention to have all nations come together in Jesus. They’ve been described as potential disciples or already-committed followers.  Some say they’re basically just a backdrop for Jesus’ actions with no particular theological significance at all. But Matthew refers to crowds in one way or another more than fifty times—more than any other Gospel. That’s a clue to me that they’re there to serve a purpose.

The crowd that surrounds Jesus as he nears Jerusalem is a “very large” one, Matthew tells us. Imagine that you are part of that crowd. Look around at the faces you see. Why are these people here? What has made them follow Jesus?

Some in this crowd have witnessed his healing miracles. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had healed people of “various diseases and pains,” like demon-possession, epilepsy, paralysis, leprosy, and deformed limbs. He healed “the lame, the maimed, the blind, and the mute.” The crowds had watched as people whose illnesses and conditions had made their lives physically miserable were made whole. They watched as people whose lives had been emotionally and spiritually miserable were healed by Jesus’ acceptance and forgiveness.

Some in this crowd outside Jerusalem have experienced some kind of healing, and they can’t bear to be parted from the one who gave them such a gift.  And, as you look at the faces around you, you suspect that the crowd includes some who still hope for healing from disease, seen and unseen.

The crowd that surrounds Jesus outside Jerusalem surely includes people who have heard him proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. Maybe they were even among those whom he had fed on the mountain after a long day of teaching. They would have heard him proclaim the necessity of repentance—the need to enter into a new way of life in light of the fact that God’s kingdom had come near. They would have heard him teach about how to according to the values of that kingdom. They would have heard him speak of God’s great love for us.

Some in the crowd are so excited about what they’ve heard Jesus preach that they are hungry to hear more. Some have only heard about this charismatic preacher and want to find out what all the fuss is about. And, maybe there are some who are troubled by what they’ve heard—troubled by a new awareness of their own sinfulness and aching for some assurance that forgiveness and new life are possible.

The crowd likely includes some who are there to monitor what Jesus is doing because they see him as a threat. As far as these religious leaders are concerned, he’s out to upset the very foundations of their faith. He heals and works on the Sabbath. He reinterprets Scripture. He does things that only God can or should do. He actually claims to have come from God, whom he calls Father. He confronts them, and embarrasses them in the process. In their book, Jesus is a blasphemer, an imposter, and a troublemaker—even Beelzebub himself. He’s a menace who bears watching.

Why are you there—another face in this crowd?  Are you one of the people Jesus has healed in some way? Have you been a witness to healing in someone else’s life that you know couldn’t have been possible without Jesus’ touch? Are you hoping for healing that hasn’t yet come? Maybe you feel drawn to this man who has words that assure you when you’re anxious, challenge you when you’re complacent, comfort you when you’re troubled. Maybe you’re thrilled to hear about the kingdom and your place in it, and you’re eager to hear more of how this can change your life.

Maybe you’re one of those who has struggled in your relationship with God and you continue to follow because you want more and you believe that knowing Jesus is the key. Maybe you’re one of those who, at least from time to time, is skeptical of Jesus’ claims, and you keep following to see if he’s telling the truth. Each of us has a place in the crowd around Jesus, and each of us has a different reason for being there.

Matthew makes it clear that most of the people in the crowd haven’t understood who Jesus is. They’ve been astounded at the authority with which he teaches, not understanding that his authority is divine authority. They’ve been filled with awe and glorified God, because they thought Jesus was simply a human being whom God had endowed with miraculous healing gifts. They’ve been amazed. They’ve been astonished. They’ve been frightened by his power. But, they haven’t actually figured out that his teaching and healing aren’t the real surprise. The surprising good news is that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to save it, but the crowd hasn’t yet realized that the man they are following is that Son!

But today, on the road outside of Jerusalem, it sounds like they’re starting to get it. When Jesus mounts the donkey, something clicks. They remember what the prophet Zechariah said: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” They think about how generals and kings approach the cities they’ve conquered, not on horses, which were reserved for battle, but on a donkey. Maybe Jesus is the king who will overthrow the Roman occupiers. Maybe is the Messiah! Maybe he is the one who will save them! “Hosanna!” they shout. “Save us!”

In a sense, they’ve gotten it right. He is their King—the one who will triumph over the evil in the world. He is the Messiah. He is the one who will save them. But he won’t do it by force. He’ll do it through humble service. He’ll do it in peace. He’ll do it through self-sacrificing love.

By the time Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd again shows that they don’t know who he is after all—not fully, anyway. When the residents of Jerusalem ask who’s causing all the excitement, the crowds say only that he is the prophet from Nazareth. Their description isn’t wrong, but it is incomplete. If we were part of that crowd, we might be in the same boat. I doubt if any of us fully comprehend who Jesus is.

But the good news is that Jesus fully comprehends who we are. When he looks at the crowds who surround him, he sees each of us, not as an anonymous stick figure but a beloved brother or sister. He sees our hurts and desires for healing, and he loves us with a deep compassion. He sees our questions and doubts, and loves us without reservation. He sees the awe and gratitude in our hearts, and he enfolds us in his arms.  He sees our desire to follow him ore closely, and he loves us with an outstretched hand. He knows where our understanding is incomplete and loves us completely. To Jesus, each of us is a face in the crowd—a cherished face.

The crowd shouting Hosanna outside Jerusalem is not the last crowd Jesus will be surrounded by. It won’t be long before a crowd will approach him in the garden of Gethsemane, armed with swords and clubs, ready to arrest him. It won’t be long before he’s surrounded by a crowd calling for his execution. As we enter the last week of Lent, we should ask ourselves, are we part of those crowds, too? Are we among those who betray him?

We probably all have been in those crowds, too, at one time or another. We’ve all betrayed him by what we do and say, and by what we fail to do and say.  But even in that, Jesus looks at each of us with love and compassion. As we stand amidst the crowd, whatever crowd we’re in, he turns our faces toward the cross he suffered for us. Then, he turns our faces to Easter and the coming joy of the resurrection. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young