Sunday, March 24, 2013

FOLLOWING THE CROWD AT THE CROSS


A Sermon Based Upon Luke 23: 33-48
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Palm Sunday, March 24th, 2013

And the people stood by, watching;…. (Luk 23:35 NRS).

One Sunday morning an elderly Lutheran pastor stepped into the pulpit ready to preach.    Normally, the pastor would begin his message with the words, “The Lord be with you,” and the congregation would answer,  “and also with you.”  Most of you know that ritual.   Well, on this particular Sunday, the pastor first tapped the microphone to make sure that it was on .   But this time he heard nothing, so he leaned closer to the microphone and said, “There is something wrong with this thing.” The congregation, being well trained church people immediately responded, “And also with you.” 

This story perfectly illustrates the danger of the familiar.   We can be so deeply steeped in routine that at times we stop paying attention to what we are really doing or saying.
This is also the danger we face as we enter the heart of the Easter season. The accounts of the Triumphal Entry, the cross, and Easter are so familiar to us that we can easily go through the motions of a celebration without ever allowing the message of these events to touch us.  So the challenge every year for all of us is to look at these familiar passion stories and learn something new from them.   What does the cross and Easter have to teach us this year?

Dusan Tillinger, a Lutheran minister, says that a few years ago he was walking down Prague´s Wenceslaus Square when he, without realizing it, found himself in the middle of a protest.  It was so easy to blend with them, he said, to get into their middle and march with them, but once he tried to leave that mob, step out and continue on his way, he couldn´t.  Bodies around him prevented him from getting out of the way despite all of his efforts.  He had to go with the flow, or risk getting trampled.  

After Tillinger was finally able to separate himself from the crowd of protestors, he says that it was then that he realized just how powerful and influential even a small group can be, and how ‘easy is to follow the crowd without thinking about where it might lead’ (As told in a sermon “Crowd Behavior”, at sermoncentral.com).  

Most of us, have already discovered, one way or another, just how easy it can be to get caught up in the excitement, emotion, and passion of a crowd.   Crowd behavior can be intoxicating.  It can give you an adrenaline rush you can’t manufacture on your own.    Why do you think people love to go crazy at ball games?   It’s so easy to lose yourself in a crowd.

Sociologists today still find crowd behavior fascinating.  Old theorists, like Sigmund Freud, noticed depersonalizing effects--the stripping of inhibitions--maybe even reverting to animal behavior, when and individual gets ‘lost’ in a crowd.   Most theorists today can’t distinguish much difference between a crowd celebrating a nail-biting win at a sports event from the religious fervor of a charismatic revival meeting.   Both crowds can be exhilarating and may become dangerous.   Only a couple of months ago, when N.C. State had a surprising win over Duke,  a fan in a wheelchair was almost trampled in the crowd frenzy, had he not been saved by star player C.J. Leslie (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/hoop-star-saves-wheelchair-bound-fan-victory-celebration-trampling-article-1.1240623).  This reminds us again, that the most basic behavior of the crowd is that it is most always unstable, uncontrollable, creative, fluid and chaotic.   And the most important warning---crowds can be very easy to follow and very difficult to escape as a power of influence, both good and bad.

The story of Jesus includes many stories about crowds.   The New Testament has over 150 references to the “crowd” or “crowds”, most of which are found in the gospels.   Unfortunately,  those of you who still carry the King James version will miss this, because the King James translates the Greek word ochlos, as “people” or ‘press’ and misses this important connection.   In a newer translation, you will also see that the crowd or crowds sometimes has a negative connotation. For instance, the gospel of Mark opens with a story of 4 friends trying to a paralyzed man to Jesus, but it is made more difficult due to the ‘crowd’  (Mark 2.4).   Jesus was nearly ‘crushed’ by the press of the ‘crowd’ (Mark 3.9), constant ‘crowds’ make it difficult for Jesus and the disciples to eat (Mark 3.20), and that Jesus often must leave town (Mark 3.9, 6.5) or preach from a boat (Mark 4.1ff) due to the crowds (Mark, 3.9, 6.5).  

But this image of the ‘crowd’ is not always negative.  It is sometimes neutral and often positive.   We are also told that Jesus had ‘compassion’ on the ‘crowds’ because they were like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6.34), or that he addressed the ‘crowds’ with sermons (Mark 7.14).  When the ‘crowds’ following Jesus found themselves without food, again we read how Jesus had ‘compassion’ on them and worked a miracle of feeding with loaves and fishes (Mark 8.1).   One of the most positive aspects was that religious leaders were kept from killing Jesus sooner than they wished, because they were much “afraid of the crowd” (Mark 11:13).

However, it is in this final week we call holy week, the week Jesus was crucified, that we see both aspects of the crowd portrayed in the most dramatic contrast.   It is a week that begins with a ‘multitude of disciples’ (19:37) along the road, shouting his praises saying, “Blessed Be the King who comes in the name of the Lord”, and then tragically ends with the people shouting in union for their governor to “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him! (Luke 23.21).   How did this change in the temperament of the people happen so quickly?  How did the religious leaders get the crowd to make the switch?  Why did Pilate end up following the crowd instead of following through on his own desire to ‘release’ him (23:16)?  Everything that happened points us to the power and influence of the crowd.

The moral and spiritual lessons from this final week are legendary and limitless.  There is no way to cover all the angles of the cross in one sermon.   But I want us to briefly focus on just three specific instances of this ‘crowd behavior’ that surround the death of Jesus on the cross.  

THE GOD THEY WANTED
First, the very optimistic crowd welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem reminds us of the “God” they wanted, and the “God” everyone wants.    They wanted a “king” who would come “in the name of the Lord”  (quoting Psalm 118).   They wanted a savior, who would rescue them, deliver them, and save them.   Along with Luke’s image of people ‘spreading their cloaks along the road’  (19:36), in the other three gospels we have the crowd shouting, “Hosanna”, which means, “God save us, now!” (Mark 11.10; Matt. 21.9, John 12:13).   What good is a savior if he doesn’t save us, and save us right now, just the way we want?

There were all kinds of ‘high’ expectations at the beginning of this week.  Even Jesus gets caught up in the enthusiasm as responding to those trying to squelch the excitement, saying: “….if these were silent, the stones would shout out." (Luk 19:40 NRS).   However you want to open up your mind and heart to ‘holy week’, at the center of everything is real human need trying to find help, hope and salvation in the power of this one who comes ‘in the name of the Lord’.

By coming to church today, you have made yourselves part of that crowd too.   You would not be here if you did not want, expect, hope, and believe that you could get something from God that you can’t get anywhere else.   You come here today because you know that your politics, your money, your health, and your own dreams of what makes for a happy life can only take you so far.  You come here today, for the same reason the crowd surrounded Jesus; you think you might just need what Jesus brings.

A couple of years ago, academy award winning director Genghis Blues made a documentary with the simple title, “Happy”.   After discovering that the United States ranks 23rd on a list of happy nations, he wanted to discover just what really makes people happy and how Americans might learn to be happier people.   The documentary tours the world, interviewing people like an Indian rickshaw driver, a family of crab-fishing Cajuns in the Louisiana bayou, to an aging Brazilian surfer.   It leads you to make the discovery that after food and shelter needs are satisfied, economics has little to do with finding happiness and satisfaction with life.   The film attempts to bring one simple message: that “Happy” is not about getting everything we want when we want it, but it much more about appreciating, enjoying and being thankful for what we have.  (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865550146/Happy-documentary-argues-that-everyone-can-become-happier.html?pg=all).

We all hope that happy comes to us now and then, but the greatest fulfillment in life does not come from getting what we want.   Most often ‘happy’ is bigger than we can now see, and is some distance away from where we are currently sitting.  That’s part of the reason the word “salvation” does not come from the word ‘happy’, but it comes from the idea of ‘wholeness’.   Finding God’s salvation is not about getting the world to be what you want it to be, or getting Jesus to do what you want him to do, but salvation is more about learning how to be who you need to be, and how to have faith, hope, and love in this ‘world’ find yourselves struggling in right now.   One thing for sure; you won’t be happy or know salvation, if you only go after what you want and the ‘god’ you want.

THE GOD THEY GOT
While the crowd in Jerusalem can help ask the right question, it does not lead us to the right answer.   By the time we get from Sunday to Friday, the attitude of the crowd has changed drastically; become negative, even down-right hostile.  Even governor Pilate can’t sway the crowd away from their disappointment with and their anger at Jesus.  What is it that made the crowd angry enough to demand Jesus dead?   

There is a lot that happens between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.   There are many things that Jesus did that week that would make any people mad.    He opened the week telling them it’s too late: “If you, had only recognized on this day the things that made for peace!  But now, they are hid from your eyes.   Indeed, your enemies will… surround you…hem you in on every side…will crush you…because YOU DID NOT RECOGNIZE THE TIME OF YOUR VISITATION FROM GOD. (Lk. 19:41-44)Who wants a leader who tells you the truth?  Everything goes downhill from here.   Then, he takes action, overturning the money-changer tables at the temple, reminding them how the temple was not doing what it was supposed to be doing (Luke 19:45-48).   All this happens in the same chapter as Palm Sunday, and we still have two more chapters until the cross.

Only hitting the high spots, tells us a lot more of why Jesus got under their skin.   From turning over the tables (19 45-48), Jesus refuses to answer all their questions (20:8) and Jesus teaches in parables (20: 9-19) not all can understand (especially when they don’t want to understand).   Jesus also outsmarts the current religious leaders, making them all look clueless, foolish and useless (20:20- 47).   Then, in his final sermon, Jesus preaches that the end of their world has come (21: 5-36) and that salvation will come not when they get the kingdom they want, but he declares that the redemption they seek will only come only as they discover that God’s kingdom is all they have (21: 27-28, 31-33). 

By the time we get to the Passover Meal (22: 7-38) and to Judas’ betrayal (22:39-53), it becomes very clear what is about to happen: the ‘God’ they got in Jesus, was not the God they wanted.   Even the disciples can’t stop arguing over who will be the greatest when the kingdom comes (22:24), and Jesus can’t stop associating even his best man, Simon Peter, with the work of Satan, both in his misunderstanding about the cross and in his denial (22: 31-34).   Everything falls apart in Jerusalem because Jesus was not ‘the one’ people wanted. 

One last thing that needs to be said about the ‘crowd’ that finally turned against Jesus.  It is probably not the same ‘crowd’ that marched alongside him on Psalm Sunday.   We are told that those who came out on Palm Sunday were ‘a multitude of disciples’, but these who cry out for his crucifixion in the crowd are identified simply and tragically, as the “voices who prevailed” (Luke 23:23)---that is ‘prevailed’ when the disciples of Jesus went silent.    Surely, there was enough ‘disappointment’ with Jesus to go around for everyone, from Judas who betrayed him, to Peter who denied him, to the religious leaders who hated him, and to those who did not understand him.  But at the center of all that happened to Jesus is the truth about the God nobody wants.   It is this God, who still tells us the truth we don’t want to hear and is reminding us of what us none of us really want to do.   Isn’t this why the world keeps trying to kill God off?   Isn’t this why it’s always easy to draw a crowd, but it’s much harder to keep one?   Who wants a God who is truly God; who will never let us set on the throne of our own lives?  

THE GOD WE ALL NEED
There is so much more that could be said about why people killed Jesus.  But there is one final message the crowd can teach us, and it’s a hopeful one.  It happened while Jesus was still on the cross, after the crowd realized what they have done---that they had demanded the death of an innocent man!   It is then, that we read how “the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts” (23: 48).   Here, in this graphic visual display, Luke leaves nothing to our imagination.  The crowd went home ‘beating their breasts’ because they knew they were wrong.   The most needed people in our world are not those who will do anything to prove themselves to be right, but who will sincerely look within themselves and realize how ‘wrong’ any of us can be.  Such hard-earned self-knowledge is at the heart of the saving power of the cross.

In a powerful story, Fred Craddock tells about speaking at a president’s prayer breakfast.  They were held around the world in places where the military was serving.  This one was in Seoul, Korea.    The General in charge was General Stilwell, a four star general.  All the officers and enlisted people gathered in a large room and they held the breakfast---and then had prayers.   Real prayers, even sentence prayers, like a Wednesday night prayer meeting.   They prayed for mothers, fathers, sisters, wives and babies back home and for peace in the world.  They were serious, moving prayers, Craddock said.   A man played Amazing Grace on a bagpipe right before Craddock spoke.   The general had tears in his eyes from the music as he said, “I love that song.”

After Craddock spoke, they had the benediction and the room began to empty.  Craddock shook hands with the general and thanked him for his gracious hospitality.  Then the general spoke: “I want you to remember us in prayer.”   Craddock acknowledged that he would.  Then the general continued, ‘Not for more power, we have the power.  We could just one afternoon destroy this whole place.’   ‘Instead,’ he said, ‘pray that we have restraint.”   

That general knew something.  He knew that this is why the United States has an Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches, so that we will have restraint.  This is why we make sure the president is  civilian and not a general.  Restraint.  The general knew that it’s not power, but the restraint of power the makes us civilized and humane.   Haven’t you what happens when a parent shakes a little baby too hard?  We all need restraint?
Craddock said that when he left the room, the only one left in it was the general and the colonel, who asked, “General, shall I bring the car around?”  “Not now,” the general answered.  “I want to sit here awhile.  Then he asked a private from Formosa with the Bagpipe to stay around.  When Craddock looked back, he saw the general seated alone in the big room.  There was a private sitting in front of him playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipe.  Here’s the picture, Four Stars shining, listening to the song of restraint, admitting, as we all must, that we need restraint, because more often than being right, we are WRONG  (From  Craddock’s Sermon, “He Could Have, But He Didn’t, p 101-102, Westminister/John Knox, 2011).  

What should we consider?  What’s is the music of restraint we should hear around the cross, if we want to cross to keep saving us?   It is this, says Craddock: “For God so loved the world that he sent his son into the world, not to destroy the world, but to offer salvation through the cross.”   Now that’s restraint! 

Poet Ann Weems wrote about understanding the cross and it’s saving effect on us.   I end with a portion of her poem titled “Holy Week:”
Holy is the week…Holy, consecrated, belonging to God…
We move from hosannas to horror with the predictable ease of those who know not what they do.
Our hosannas sung, our palms waved, let us go with passion into this week.
It is a time to curse fig trees that do not yield fruit.   It is a time to cleanse our temples of any blasphemy.
It is a time to greet Jesus as the Lord’s Anointed One, to lavishly break our alabaster and pour out perfume for him without counting the cost.   It is a time for preparation… the time to give thanks and break bread is upon us.  The time to give thanks and drink of the cup is imminent.  Eat, drink, remember:   On this night of nights, each one must ask, as we dip our bread in the wine,  “Is it I?”  And on that darkest of days, each of us must stand beneath the tree and watch the dying if we are to be there when the stone is rolled away.”   Amen.

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