Scripture Readings: Luke 19:28-40
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
At the heart of the Christian faith is a great story. For the content of our faith is not a list of abstract doctrines, or list of do’s and don’ts. It’s a story- the story Bible tells of God’s dealings with human beings. It is a story on an epic scale, which jumps around different locations- mostly what we call ‘the Holy Land’, but beginning somewhere in modern Iraq, and taking us to Egypt, Sinai, Arabia, Cyprus, modern Turkey, Greece and Rome. There is war, famine, disaster, as well as joy. All human life is here- friendship, betrayal, love and adultery, politics, deaths and births. All kinds of people are in it- there are acts of barbarity, cunning and evil, as well as acts of kindness and of love. There is faith, and there is faithlessness.
And the climax of this story is one week in Jerusalem. That’s why the Church traditionally makes much of Holy Week, when our thoughts turn to those events in Jerusalem. It’s been called ‘the longest week in history’. A week that begins with crowds welcoming their saviour, and ends with the same crowds turning against him. All played out in a seething cauldron of national and religious passions. For this is an occupied city, ruled by a superpower, but whose people have a staunch sense of their own identity, bolstered by their unique religion- although there are different sects to contend with. Perhaps it wasn’t so different from Jerusalem today.
And into this cauldron Jesus rides on a donkey. And since people in complicated situations very often like simple solutions, they greet him. Surely he’s the Messiah, promised by the prophets. Surely this is God intervening decisively in favour of his chosen people, getting ready to free Israel from Roman rule?
Yes, God is involved- but not in the way they thought. God’s story is not the story the crowds would like to have. By Friday, the sense of disappointment is palpable. He’s not the Messiah they waited for. He’s not done what they expected of him. And behind the scenes, powerful men- their religious elite- have swung the will of the crowd in another direction. Those who on Sunday shouted ‘Hosanna’ will by Friday cry ‘Crucify him!’
It’s one of the great turnarounds in history- how the Jerusalem crowd changed its mind. And it’s frightening story- for we know that this story is true. Not simply historically true- that it happened back then. But true of any crowd of people, in any age. We love to build up heroes, and knock them down. And whereas a few priests and scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees could manipulate the first-century Jerusalem crowd, today our modern media takes these things into a new dimension. Now millions can be swayed to love or hate a public figure by journalists and publicists, or by even by otherwise ordinary people getting caught up in a social media frenzy.
When Jesus stood before Pilate, on trial for his life, he would have known that his public who once loved him had now turned against him. But he was not motivated by some need to be loved by the crowd, like a modern showbiz star. Much more important for Jesus was that he did God’s will. That wasn’t easy- before his arrest, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed that God would take away the fate awaiting him. But in the end, he stuck to his principles. God came before the crowd. The passion of Jesus is, above all, the story of man who did what was right, regardless of what the public thought of him, regardless of the cost to him.
We Christians have thought a lot about Christ’s death over the centuries. The Bible itself, and preachers and theologians since, have seen all sorts of meaning in this death of Jesus. Hymn writers have been inspired by it- Isaac Watts wrote about surveying ‘the wondrous cross’, Thomas Kelly called it, ‘the balm of life, the cure of woe’. Graham Kendrick says that Jesus gave his life ‘that we might live’. The cross, an instrument of his execution- has become the symbol of Christianity. We call the day he died ‘Good Friday’. What can be good about the cross? How can we say anything positive about the spectacle of an innocent man put to death for preaching about the love of God? For surely it’s disturbing to spend so much time reflecting on death, as Christians do? Surely we could find a cheerier story than this to live by?
But I think the story of the cross is a realistic story, for we live in a disturbing world. And when you think about the story of Christ’s journey to the cross, it brings you face to face with how the world really is if you look at the cross, you’re forced to look at the world as it really is. The political machinations which put Jesus on the cross are revealed for what they really are. For the Roman Empire was built, not on noble ideas, but on slavery, oppression and terror. The religious leaders who put Jesus on the cross are revealed for what they are- not noble guardians of God’s word, but small-minded bigots who would rather an innocent man died than they lost their power over the people.
The cross tells us the truth about power, and corruption, and the depths to which people will sink. The cross tells us the truth about humanity, and so it tells us the truth about ourselves. People who know the story of Christ, and how he came to die on the cross, should not be surprised that people are persecuted for their faith. We who know the story of Holy Week should not be surprised by the kind of persecution which is happening to our Christian brothers and sisters in places such as Iraq and Syria. We who know the story of Holy Week should not be surprised to hear politicians use religion as an excuse to discriminate against others because they are of a different faith, race, or nationality, for the Holy Week story is a great example of the misuse of religion to whip up hatred. And we who know the story of Holy Week know, in our heart of hearts, that it’s not just other people who are sinners. We know that we, too could so easily have been in the crowd that shouts ‘Hosanna’ on Sunday and ‘Crucify him’ on Friday.
Holy Week is a dark tale of religion being used for terrible ends. And we are all too aware that that still happens today- almost every day we hear on the news of atrocities carried out or prejudices justified by an appeal to one religion or another. As you know, I take an interest in American politics, and the good and negative effects of religion on American public life. Perhaps you too have been taking more of an interest in American politics recently, following the fascinating rise of the reality TV show billionaire, Donald Trump.
For me, what has been especially interesting is the way that Trump has managed to convince a section of what we might call the conservative evangelical sector of the American public that he will stand up for Christian values. He is getting their votes, and has even been endorsed by some church leaders. Yet Donald Trump appears to be greedy bully, who has made money from casinos, whose relationships with women are marked by faithlessness and misogyny, and who appears not to know the meaning of the word ‘humility’. To you and me, and, it has to be said, to the majority of American Christians, it seems completely absurd for Trump to paints himself as a champion of Christianity. But he has managed to convince many of them that it is so. I believe we have to say that the Trump phenomenon is a sign that there is a deep sickness, a darkness, in parts of American politics- and in parts of American religion.
Trump claims to be a Christian of Presbyterian heritage. Yet perhaps the most telling thing about his faith which Trump ever said was,
‘Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?’
That, I have to tell you, is a point of view so far from normal Christianity as to be off the scale. It’s a red light indicator that Trump has really no idea of what Christian faith is about, and no personal experience of the Christian life. For virtually all Christians, of all shades of opinion down the centuries, know that we all make mistakes, and that we therefore need forgiveness, and that we must to turn to God in repentance. When Trump said that he never makes mistakes, never needs repentance, his support among Christians should have evaporated overnight. The fact that it didn’t tells us that there a lot of American so-called Christians who, like Trump, simply don’t understand basic Christianity. Yet Christians who know the story of Holy Week should remember that it is a story of religious and political leaders manipulating public opinion to make it possible for Jesus to be put to death. And we who know the story of Holy Week should shudder, for we know that it is still possible, and that even we can be manipulated for evil ends.
And so repentance is necessary- and forgiveness is possible. In Luke’s account of the death of Jesus, there is one person- an unlikely person- who understands the need for turning to God:
One of the criminals hanging there hurled insults at [Jesus]: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
The other one, however, rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God? You received the same sentence he did. Ours, however, is only right, because we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong.”
And he said to Jesus, “Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!”
Jesus said to him, “I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.”
That second criminal understood that the death of Jesus had meaning for him. And if we can admit that the story of the cross tells us the truth about ourselves- that we are all broken, that none of us is perfect, that we are all make mistakes- terrible mistakes- then we begin to see that the cross tells us the truth about God as well.
For the cross of Christ shows us a God who does not side with powerful people who think they’ve no need to repent. The God we meet on the cross is a God who stands alongside the weak and powerless and humble. The kingship of Christ is represented by him riding on the humblest of animals, a donkey. The God we find in the story of Jesus is a God who aligns himself with others who suffer. And so even as he dies, he can promise a criminal, another condemned man, ‘Today you will be in Paradise with me’. That’s his promise to anyone who turns to him, in faith and in humility.
The story of Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter is full of truth about our world, and about ourselves, and about our God. For the cross convinces us of our need for repentance. And it also shows us the means of forgiveness. For we can all pray, ‘Remember me, Jesus’, and know the promises he offers.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo
 CH4 392, 405, 374