Sunday April 5th 2020
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11
Pastor Galen Zook
I love the energy and excitement of being in a crowd of people — I love parades, and live sporting events, festivals, and concerts when there are tons of people packed in together. I love the sounds of people cheering, and I love it when you feel a spirit of unity even among strangers because you’re all experiencing something together.
As someone who loves being around a lot of people, as you can imagine, the past few weeks have been rather difficult for me, as we’ve experienced social distancing and the stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of the quality time that I’ve had with my family these past few weeks! But I do miss being around other people as well.
And so when I read the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, I can’t help but wish I could have been there. I wish I could have heard the children shouting “hosanna,” seen the people laying down their cloaks and palm branches on the road to welcome Jesus into the city of Jerusalem. I wish I could have seen Jesus riding past on a donkey, and felt the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd as they followed him through the city gates into the city of Jerusalem.
What we find out a little later in the Gospel of Matthew that this was Passover time, so the crowds of people heading into the city of Jerusalem would have been especially exuberant. Every year, throngs of people would go to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, as they celebrated how God had delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Psalm 118 was one of the songs traditionally sung during the Passover feast, so it would have been fresh in their minds. “Hosanna!” (which means “save us!”) they would sing. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
As people who lived under the tyrannical rule of the Roman Empire and suffered under the leadership of corrupt religious officials, the Jewish people of Jesus’s day longed for someone to come and free them, just as Moses had freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.
And now here was Jesus — the miracle worker who had fed multitudes with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish and who had healed people and even brought the dead back to life, the one who had even calmed the storm and walked on water. Here he was, making his way towards their capital city of Jerusalem at Passover time. Perhaps this was it! Perhaps God would finally redeem them and set them free from captivity.
And so the people called out to Jesus to save them, and they hailed him as the Son of David, their term for the king who was to come, the king they hoped would bring them freedom and salvation.
Five Days Later
Now although I love the energy and enthusiasm of crowds, I do not love how quickly the mood of a crowd can change, and nowhere is this more evident than during the last week of Jesus’s life here on this earth. The crowd that accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem and hailed him as the Son of David on Palm Sunday, turned against him, and yelled “Crucify him!” (Matt. 27:23) only five days later on Good Friday. Persuaded by the chief priests and religious leaders, the crowd demanded that Jesus be killed.
The events of the last week of Jesus’s life play out in almost slow motion in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem and went straight to the temple, turning over the tables of the money changers who were charging exorbitant exchange rates to foreigners who wanted to come and worship in the temple (Matt. 21:12-17). Jesus criticized the religious and political leaders for their corruption and abuse of power, causing them to conspire together about how they could get rid of him (Matt. 21:33-45).
The leaders looked for a way to trap Jesus, and eventually they were able to turn Judas, one of Jesus’s own disciples, against him (Matt. 26:14-16). Judas acted as a spy, telling the authorities of Jesus’s movements, leading them to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus had spent the night praying, after celebrating his Last Supper with his disciples the night before (Matt. 26:26-56).
The religious and political leaders arrested Jesus, found false witnesses to testify against him, had him tried and beaten, and sentenced to death in a matter of a few short hours (Matt. 27). And the same crowd who had hailed him as king five days earlier, cried out for him to be crucified (Matt. 27:23).
What made the crowd turn against Jesus so quickly? Why did the crowd who called out to Jesus to save them on Sunday, cry out for him to be executed on Friday? Why did Jesus’s popularity ratings fall so fast?
One of the things that we’ve learned during this coronavirus pandemic is that, even though we are social creatures who enjoy the company of other people, crowds can also be a dangerous thing. Although it’s energizing to be around people at parades, and sporting events, and festivals, there is also such a thing as “mob mentality” — that insidious instinct within us that causes us to be influenced by those around us, and to adapt our behavior to the majority opinion largely on an emotional, rather than rational, basis.
It’s so easy for the mood of a crowd to change, and so often we get swept along with it. This is why fear, and negativity, and criticism can spread so easily in a society.
And so, when the religious and political authorities turned against Jesus, when they had him mocked and beaten and tried, and condemned to death, the crowd turned against him as well. They cried out for him to be crucified, and they demanded that Barabbas, a known criminal and revolutionary, be released instead.
To the crowds that had accompanied Jesus into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and watched him die on Good Friday, it must have seemed like Jesus was just another failed Messiah. Their hopes for salvation would have to wait until another day. They would have to look for another hero to save them.
What the Crowd Didn’t Know
But what the crowd didn’t realize was that the salvation that they needed was so much larger and more all-encompassing than they could have ever known. And the Kingdom that Jesus came to establish was not an earthly kingdom that would eventually pass away, but it was a heavenly Kingdom, one that would never come to an end.
What the crowd didn’t realize was that the cross was not a symbol of Christ’s defeat, but rather the means through which God was bringing about their redemption — their freedom — and not just for the Israelite people, but for all people in all times and in all places who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus and who cry out to him for salvation.
Although Jesus died alone on the cross, crucified between two thieves, rejected by the religious and political authorities of his day, abandoned even by many of his closest disciples, what the crowd didn’t realize that day was that there is coming a day when all people will recognize Jesus for who he was and is.
As the Apostle Paul tells us in the book of Philippians, “And being found in human form, he [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).
So often it’s easy for us to get swept along with the crowd, to do what everyone else is doing. Even our typical celebrations of Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter, and all of the events of Holy Week can so often be about gathering together with the most number of people, and this year many of us are lamenting the fact that we cannot gather to worship together in our church buildings during these most sacred of celebrations.
But this Holy Week and over these next few weeks, as we worship, dispersed in the safety of our own homes, I believe we are being given a unique opportunity to contemplate and meditate and even celebrate the sacrifice that Jesus made for us individually and communally. This Easter season we’re being invited to make Jesus the King and Lord of our own lives, and of our own homes, and of our own families.
This year as we find ourselves celebrating Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter confined in the safety of our own homes, alone or with only a few close family members, we are also invited to remember that we are not actually alone, because Christ is with us. Later this morning as we celebrate the Love Feast, we’ll be reminded that Jesus is not just present in church buildings or in grand cathedrals, but that he is even present at our own tables, as we break bread alone, or together with our closest family members or those in our own households.
And so this week, and over these next few weeks, as we spend time apart from the crowds, and as we experience the intimacy that we have with Christ who is present with us wherever we are, would you commit yourself anew to following Jesus, not based on whether there are people around you who are praising Jesus, but because of the sacrifice that Jesus made for each and every one of us? Would commit or recommit your life to Jesus and make him the King and Lord of your own life, not based on the feelings or emotions of those around you, but because of the love of God poured out for us through Christ’s death on the cross?
The good news is that there is grace, and mercy, and forgiveness for each and every one of us, no matter how much we’ve messed up, no matter how far we’ve strayed. Even if and when we’ve rejected him or turned our backs on him, Christ’s arms of love are always open, always ready to welcome us back again. So let’s meditate on the sacrifice that Jesus made for us, and let’s commit ourselves anew to following him wherever he may lead us.