Sounds of the Passion
Sunday March 28, 2010
Rev. James E. Butler, D.Min., pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church, Springfield, Massachusetts
One thing a person quickly learns about large groups of people is that, collectively, as groups, they have little common sense. Large groups are often fickle and quick to change direction. Just look at any sports event—the crowd may cheer or jeer the home team at any moment. The larger the crowd, the less control.
This “mob think” can be extreme. About 10 years ago, a group of British soccer fans trying to get onto the field crushed some of their own against a fence, killing many of them. Mob psychology is scary—a cheering crowd can turn into an ugly, vicious mob in seconds.
A good place to view the fickle nature of “group think” is in Jesus’ passion. The crowds that cheered Jesus into the city on on Sunday called for his crucifixion on Friday. Their cheers became jeers; their shouts of “Hosanna” became “crucify him!”.
LISTEN TO THE SHOUTING MOB—AND HEAR YOURSELF.
During Passover Jerusalem’s population mushroomed, going from approximately 20,000 residents to close to 100,000+ inhabitants for that week. People camped in the streets, outside the city walls, anywhere they could find a spot. During the week, the city could become a powder keg of explosive force just waiting for the right match to set it off. The situation was explosive.
The first time the crowd shouted was on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode in on a colt. The crowds saw Jesus coming, and the words of Zechariah rang in their ears: “See, your king comes to you . . . riding on a donkey” (Zech 9:9; Mt 21:5). Someone started shouting, then another chimed in, and soon those in the crowd were all calling out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!” (Mt 21:9).
The priests were mortified. They knew what these actions and cries meant—and it was nothing good as far as they were concerned. The people wanted Jesus to seize power and be their king and rule them forever. The cry “Hosanna” means “Save us now!” It was an exclamation of praise. The powers that be would have to stop Jesus and stop him now.
Pushing their way through the crowd, they came to Jesus. “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” But Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Lk 19:39b–40). Jesus had no intention of quieting the mob; indeed he rejoiced in their cries and rejoiced with them that the hour of salvation was at hand.
Late Thursday night the chief priests and teachers of the law managed to do what no one thought they could ever do—arrest Jesus with no one near. Thanks to the inside information of Judas, they were able to place Jesus under arrest with no crowd nearby. A quick trial and Jesus was sent off to Pilate for condemnation and death.
Except that Pilate decided to try Jesus on his own. Instead of simply taking the priests’ word that Jesus was guilty, he wanted to find out for himself. So, taking Jesus inside his palace, he left the priests outside. Now they were worried. Within five minutes even Pilate would figure out that Jesus was not the revolutionary they had tried to paint him as. Pilate would set him free unless there were a few people to convince him otherwise.
Pilate was a politician. Politicians listen to crowds. No true politician will act against the will of the people; it’s political suicide. Just see how hard Tony and Kevin are working at the moment! If Pilate could be convinced that enough people wanted Jesus dead, then he would cave in and put Jesus to death.
So the priests provided a second crowd that Holy Week. Pilate came out with Jesus in tow only to find a huge mob of angry faces shouting for Jesus’ blood. Of course, this was a carefully screened crowd, put there to do the priests’ bidding. The priests were the cheerleaders; the people shouted what they were told to shout.
Cry out they did. The moment Pilate came outside, the crowd shouted for Jesus’ blood. “Kill him! Crucify him! Nail him to the cross! Get on with it already!” Pilate couldn’t believe his ears. Crucify him? Why? On what charge? But the only reply he got was “Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!”
Pilate didn’t want to crucify Jesus, and he tried everything he could think of to set him free. First he offered to let one prisoner go: Jesus, who was innocent; or Barabbas, a well-known thief and murderer. Surely the crowd would choose Jesus.
But someone shouted out Barabbas, and suddenly the crowd demanded that he be set free. “Barabbas! We want Barabbas! Set Barabbas free! Release Barabbas!” “But what about Jesus?” Pilate asked. Again the cry went up, “Kill him! Away with him! Nail him to the cross! Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!”
Pilate tried to reason with them again, but the mob stopped listening. They were ripping their clothes and throwing dirt in the air. They were crying and shouting, condemning Jesus to death. And Pilate heard the constant refrain of “Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!” Pilate gave in to the crowd’s wish and had Jesus put to death.
When we hear the cries of those two crowds—one shouting words of praise; the other, cries of death—we applaud the one and condemn the other. But surely we know we are part of both crowds. We shout words of praise to our Lord, yet we also condemn him to death. We call “Hosanna!” and “Crucify!”
We are part of that ugly Good Friday mob. We are standing there, calling with the crowd for Jesus’ death. We don’t understand him. He is too much for us. His way is seemingly too weak; not prosperous, powerful or positive enough. In a thousand ways we disown him, rebel against his way of living, give in to the passions inside us and get what we need at the expense of others, or place our life in someone or something’s hands other than in His hands, We need no help to stage a crucifixion.
But the stunning news is that God can place us in the other chorus – the Palm Sunday chorus of praise and dependence upon God. This can only be experienced as we acknowledge who we really are and where we really are before a holy God of love.
In that moment we are overwhelmed with the experience of our own guilt before God. We hear of Jesus, hanging on that wooden cross. We know that he is there to bring us back to our full voice – to the voice of the angels and archangels and all those who have gone before us – to a billion sinners world-wide praising the name of the Healer, the Lover, the Victor, Jesus.
“Hosanna! Save us now! Save us, Lord! Take our sins away and grant us new life with you! Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us!” At the cross, and only at the cross of the Crucified Servant King, we are forgiven. And the new voice rises within us. We sing together. We shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Blessed is he who comes to forgive us. Blessed is he who gives us new life through Baptism in his name. Blessed is he who says, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven!” Blessed is Jesus Christ, crucified for us. As Luther said in the old hymn, “Here might I stay and sing, No story so divine! . . . This is my friend, In whose sweet praise I all my days Could gladly spend!” (LW 91:7).
Spend a while at the cross this day. Listen to the shout of the crowd! See which crowd noise is resonating with you at the moment and ask why. Ask the Spirit to help you find the Hosanna crowd and stay with that. Ask the Lord to help you shout aloud with them, from the heart, and in that find peace and freedom and joy this Easter for whatever is troubling, binding or scaring you.
In repentance and faith we shout, “Hosanna!” Yes, all praise to God our Father, who sent forth his Son, who now receives the praises of countless angels and of the innumerable saints in heaven. Praise Jesus for his willingness and ability to return us to the hosanna crowd where there is some joy and some hope for our relationship with him and each other. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!