Sermon Palm Sunday 2019

“May Hosannas Still Ring”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Luke 23:1-49
April 14, 2019

Palm Sunday

When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ — Luke 23:47i

We know the sordid details. It started with “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” By Friday they will be shouting, “Crucify him.” Long ago and far away the tide of public opinion turned against Jesus. What began as a day filled with Messianic hope became a week of unrealized expectations. They had greeted Jesus as a conquering hero. They would send Him away defeated, despised and a criminal who had been convicted of thinking himself to be a king.

Why this shift in the crowds mood? What had taken them from exuberance to exasperation? Was it because Jesus failed to live up to their expectations? No rebellion was forthcoming. No change in the power elite of the day. Only a kingdom spoken of that no one could see, a borderless theory with no army to impose its law or enforce order. This is not the stuff victory is made of.

And the crowd – how do people move from songs of praise to curses of hate? How could the German nation turn against the Jews? How could America hang people of color? “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” Oh we, too, say our modern “Hosannas” and sing songs that praise our land of liberty while people who seek to escape the violence that threatens their children are denied entry to a land where the lady in the harbor proclaims: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

It is a troubling truth that just below our genteel appearance lurks a darker side of human nature, one that is given over to the power of a crowd and is all too eager to bend to the mandate of those in authority.

In 1971, a Stanford University psychology professor conducted an experiment with twenty-four undergraduates—all volunteers who were compensated, all mentally and physically healthy, none with any previous criminal record. The students were randomly assigned to play roles of prisoner or prison guard for what was to be a two-week stretch. The professor terminated the experiment after six days because by this point, the “guards” were systematically abusing the “prisoners”: yelling obscenities at them, making them simulate intercourse with each other, depriving them of sleep, etc. The professor concludes: Group pressures, authority symbols, dehumanization of others, imposed anonymity, dominant ideologies that enable spurious ends to justify immoral means, lack of surveillance, and other situational forces can work to transform even some of the best of us into Mr. Hyde monsters, without the benefit of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical elixir. . . . we must . . . be aware that veiled behind the power of the situation is the greater power of the system . . . .

The experiment is a warning to us: we take up the power of the sword, the power of empire, with the very great probability that it will change us much more than we think possible. Well-meaning people long to use the power of the throne for good, to be a terror to bad conduct and the wrath of God against the wicked. We should think again:

You had to be there to believe that human character could be so swiftly transformed in a matter of days—not only the traits of the students, but of me, a well-seasoned adult. Most of the visitors to our prison also fell under the spell. For example, individual sets of parents observing their son’s haggard appearance after a few days of hard labor and long nights of disrupted sleep said they “did not want to make trouble” by taking their kid home or challenging the system. Instead, they obeyed our authority and let some of their sons experience full-blown emotional meltdowns later on. We had created a dominating behavioral context whose power insidiously frayed the seemingly impervious values of compassion, fair play, and belief in a just world. The situation won; humanity lost.1

This kingdom of which Christ speaks is not of this world but threatens it to its core. The first are last and the last first. The strong are brought low and the poor exulted. The measure of one’s worth has nothing to do with what one has. The outcast is brought in. The privileged are called to justice. The contours of Christ’s kingdom do not match the accepted standards of this world. What happened on that Holy Week long ago is hardly surprising. Jesus sought to overturn the principles of the kingdom of this world. The crowd sought to be those who ruled. Jesus wanted an end to empire. The crowd wanted to be emperor. Our task as Christians this day is to still sing Hosanna. Sing it when Judas betrays and Peter denies. Sing it when Jesus is mocked and carries His cross. The task this day is not to lament the survival of the empire but to proclaim its ultimate defeat. So let Hosannas ring knowing that the darkness of your present moment has given way to the dawning of unquenchable light. Let the forces that seek to crush you know that they are doomed, love wins over hate, light overcomes the night, and what was rejected by the powers of this world has been blessed by the King of heaven. “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Let us pray…

1 Vinson, Richard B. Smyth, Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke. Macon, GA: Smyth, Helwys, 2008, p. 610.

i Luke 23:1-49

1Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. 2They began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ 3Then Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ He answered, ‘You say so.’ 4Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, ‘I find no basis for an accusation against this man.’ 5But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.’

When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. 9He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.

13 Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, 14and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16I will therefore have him flogged and release him.’

18 Then they all shouted out together, ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!’ 19(This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) 20Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; 21but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ 22A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’ 23But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. 24So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. 25He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” 30Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” 31For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’

32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. 47When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’* 48And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.