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Palm Sunday: The Trial Between the Triumphs (Matthew 21:1-11, 26:36-27:66)
The following is the series of readings from the passion narrative in Matthew. The intent in breaking the reading up in this way is to help the congregation to "hear" the passion story in such a way as to feel it and understand it and to "be in it" as much as possible. The sermon is delivered in between readings of the gospel story of the passion as follows:
Pastor: The setting of the text
1st: Reader: "Gethsemane" Matthew 26:36-56
2nd Reader: "The Trial" Matthew 26:57-68
Pastor: The laws of the Jews
1st Reader: "The Denial" Matthew 26:69-75
2nd Reader: "Condemned to Death" Matthew 27:26
Soloist: Sings "Were You There?"
2nd Reader: "The Way of the Cross" Matthew 26:27-44
1st Reader: "The Lord Speaks From The Cross" Matthew 27:45-66
Anthem
Pastor: Sermon Conclusion
Just outside of Eureka Springs, on the top of a beautiful hill, there is a giant statue of Jesus standing out above the evergreen trees. Viewed from the hills in Eureka Springs, it looks like a giant white cross, but when you actually drive over to it, you see that it is a stylized rendering of the resurrected Christ, standing with His arms outstretched.
I expected to be impressed when I made my pilgrimage to see the Christ of the Ozarks. It was huge, but on approaching the statue you hear gospel music being played on a very bad sound system. The statue, itself, is full of cracks and is apparently constructed of concrete, which is crumbling.
My basic impression of the statue and its surroundings is that it is gaudy and poorly done. In many ways, it is the Jesus of our consumer culture -- huge, yet its only positive feature is its size.
But beyond all commentary on good taste or good art, my deepest disappointment was theological. The Christ of the Ozarks has no scars ... no nail holes in the hands. It is simply large and triumphant, as Gerald L.K. Smith crowed on the day the statue was completed, "Now the world comes to us at Eureka Springs." In the midst of all of the triumphalism and seeking after a religious "house of power," there is a Christ who says to the church, "Look at my hands and feet."
One of the problems with our modern observance of religious holidays is that we confine our observances to a single day. If you come to church on Palm Sunday and joyfully join in the throngs of worshippers, waving palm branches and singing hallelujahs, and then return to the same sanctuary the next Sunday morning to declare the good news of the Easter resurrection, then we are missing a vital part of the gospel. A major portion of all four gospels are dedicated to telling the events of the passion of Christ which took place between Palm Sunday and Easter. To understand the gospel, this is a narrative which the church must hear.
No movie, no single artist has ever been able to fully capture the fear, the despair, the love, the grief, the friendship and the sacrifice of the passion story. There is no story in the history of the world that is like it. Let us open our hearts and minds to hear the story of the cross.
1st Reader: "Gethsemane" (Matthew 26:36-56)
2nd Reader: "The Trial" (Matthew 26:57-68)
For all of the derision leveled against it, I would rather be on trial in the judicial system of the United States of America than anywhere else in the world. Our judicial system is not perfect and it is sometimes tediously complicated. However, its due process is a sign of the level our civilization has reached. You may remember how, in Romania a very few years ago, they arrested their own national ruler, Nicoli Chochesque, and that very day he was tried and executed, and his wife with him! The man was certainly guilty as sin, but there is something about that judicial process that makes your blood run cold. People will get it in their heads that someone needs to be punished and before you know it, all possibility of appeal and re-trial is gone! Even in the ancient world, people were aware of a need for judicial rules so that true justice would be served and not just the passion of the moment.
A mob will often feel very brave and righteous in the heat of passion, but when morning's light dawns and cooler heads prevail, mob action is generally something to be ashamed of. The religious commitment to truth and justice in the ancient Jewish world caused the elders and the rabbis to form a legal code for the conduct of a trial.
These rules may seem primitive, but they are obviously insights born of repeated experience: The Mishna, the book of Jewish law, says that in cases where the offense is punishable by death, the trial must be held during the day and the verdict must be reached during the day. There is something more than symbolic about light and darkness -- closed doors, drawn shades, the cover of darkness can give those of ill intent the impression that they can do their evil deeds and be unseen. The most serious matters of life should be discussed and decided upon in the open and in the light of the sun.
The Mishna also instructs that if a charged person is to be found innocent, the acquittal can be made on the day of the trial, but if a person who is to be executed for their crime is to be found guilty, the verdict cannot be announced until the jury waits for a day.
In our legal system, the death penalty must be appealed; the actual time between the first conviction and the actual execution is so long that most prisoners die of natural causes rather than execution. But in the ancient world, the wisdom of a delay before executing a criminal was a bold and unusual step in the direction of civilization.
The Jewish legal code also dictated that everyone convicted of a capital offense had to have the charge corroborated by at least two witnesses who were to be cross-examined separately so that any conflict in their testimony could be discovered. And so that the true judge and arbiter of justice could be fully acknowledged, no capital trial was to be held on the eve of a Sabbath or a festival. A religious country needed to hold itself to the discipline of honoring those days set aside for worship of the Almighty.
We have rules for how to conduct a fair trial in order to protect ourselves from ourselves. While we may all have an innate sense of justice, it is much more acute when we are aware of being wronged than it is when we need to be aware of how we have wronged someone else.
In spite of all the rules and our shared awareness of how we may arrive at just decisions, the human creature is capable of such misguided self-interest that all of our morals and our cultural rules fail us. This is the point Matthew goes to such lengths to illustrate in his depiction of the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. Step by step, Matthew outlines a trial that was a miscarriage of justice.
Jesus was arrested at night and a mock trial was held that very night. Honest witnesses to any crime could not be found. There was no case presented for the defense. The jury reached a verdict which called for execution in the hours of night on the very day of this trial. The whole of the passion narrative is a tale of treachery -- evidence of the human capacity for sin. The Jews, who despised the Romans, took one of their own before Rome to be charged and tortured to death.
Matthew is at pains to demonstrate even the reluctance of the bloodthirsty Romans to participate in this abortion of justice. Pilate tries to dismiss them, then tries to allow the people to call for the release of Jesus, but even here the elders have persuaded the people to call for Jesus' death.
1st Reader: "The Denial" (Matthew 26:69-75)
2nd Reader: "Jesus is Condemned to Death" (Matthew 27:1-26)
Soloist: "Were You There?"
2nd Reader: "The Way of the Cross" (Matthew 27:27-44)
1st Reader: "The Lord Speaks from the Cross" (Matthew 27:45-66)
Anthem
The whole of the passion narrative in Matthew is a contrasting of good and evil. One could name dozens of painful ironies in the narrative, but one that stands out to me is the choice Pilate gave the people between Barabbas and Jesus.
Some ancient versions of Matthew record that Barabbas' first name was also Jesus (Yeshua), so that Pilate's choice given to the people was between "Jesus Barabbas and the Jesus who is called Christ." Jesus was a fairly common name in those days. You may also know that in ancient Israel, people did not have "family" names. Everyone was given a first name and then they were identified by their father. The prefix "bar" means "son of." So Jesus was known in Nazareth as Jesus Barjoseph and John the Baptist grew up as John Barzechariah. Barabbas is an odd name, "Bar - Abba." It means "Son of the Father." Jesus Barabbas was an insurrectionist, a kind of terrorist who had evidently fought in one of the many Jewish battles for independence.
It is ironic that Barabbas had done the very sort of thing that the crowds had attempted to persuade Jesus to do ... what the crowds at the triumphal entry had counted on Him to do ... the people wanted a brave soldier messiah who would lead them in battle against the Romans, not surrender to them.
In fact, it is not all that surprising that the people called out for the release of Jesus Barabbas; that is what we have done ever since. We call out for a Rambo-like Jesus. His names are the names of the militant leaders the world has always seemed to prefer.
There are the inevitable religious leaders who believe they are defending God when they defend the status quo and shout down all voices which declare God's present activity in their midst. There are the faithless, cowardly friends and family members who run and hide when siding with Christ becomes too dangerous or too unpopular.
There is the pathetic governor who never before showed any concern for the people but who will not risk himself at all to save the life of an innocent man in his own power. The words of Dante in the Divine Comedy were penned just for him: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of crisis, maintained their neutrality." And yet, the fact that Jesus was crucified, in and of itself, is not historically noteworthy. Of the five major roads coming into the city of Jerusalem, the Romans kept someone hung on a cross at all of them, virtually all of the time. This was how the Romans reminded the Jews of the severity of their conquest.
Even after two thousand years, parts of more than 6,000 crosses have been unearthed in archaeological digs in the vicinity of first century Jerusalem. Crucifixion took place almost daily in that occupied city.
What Matthew wants us to see is the contrast of evil intent and innocence. The way to read the passion narrative is to see yourself as playing a role in it: a self-centered disciple, an untrue friend, a traitor, a zealot, a passive governor, a willing executioner, a mocking citizen, a cowardly follower. The power of the story is the mirror it holds up to our own lives that by conviction we may move to conversion.
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