“A Face Among the Crowd”

angry crowd2Pastor Russell Edwards

April 9th 2017

Psalm 118:19-29         Matthew 21:1-11

This past Monday was an exciting day for some, it was the NCAA basketball championship game the culmination of March Madness basketball.  But I’ve never been a basketball fan – I am a baseball fan; for me (and others like me) the excitement was that Monday was opening day of the 2017 Major League Baseball season.  I make no secret (nor apology), even when confronted by the masses of NY Yankee fans, that I am a fan of the “other” NY team, the one from the borough of Queens, the New York Metropolitans.  Over the past few years the Mets’ prospects have looked very promising, only to disappoint late each season.  Two years ago in 2015, hoping to avoid another “close-but-no-cigar” season, on July 31st, to reinforce their offensive, the Mets acquired home-run slugger Yoenis Céspedes from the Detroit Tigers.  Exploding out of the gate, Céspedes quickly made the Mets front office look golden; paired with teammates Curtis Granderson, Travis d’Arnaud, and Juan Lagares, his hitting helped the team steam-roll through the playoffs to the World Series… where once again, they collapsed – due in no small part to Céspedes’ inauspicious play.  It was a heart-breaking disappointment for the team, but especially for the fans; but Met fans are known for optimistically consoling one another with the hopeful call to, “Wait ‘til next year.”

The following year (2016), with no guarantees but with Céspedes re-signed, a repeat appearance in the World Championship looked likely… until a marked absence of offense (the big swingers just were not hitting), compounded by an inordinate number injuries caused fans to question.  To address the concerns another multi-million dollar mid-season deal was struck, this time bringing home-run slugger Jay Bruce to Citi Field.  But the “bruuuu’s” (for Bruce) quickly turned to “boooo’s” when he slumped so terribly he had to be platooned.  It would turn out the fans concerns were justified; the team squeaked into the playoffs and was immediately eliminated.  The cheers had become jeers, and once again we were waiting for another “next year”.

(The reigning World Champion Chicago Cubs organization should take note, and not expect their fans, even those who’ve waited 108 years for a World Series victory, to wait that long to express their dissatisfaction should they not live up to expectations.)

The crowd’s affection dissolves quickly.

In every crowd there are the devoted, those who truly believe, and have long before Tug McGraw ever coined the phrase “Ya gotta believe!!!”  They are the ones for which nothing could ever cause them to desert – no matter what.  Their numbers will never be the majority because that kind of commitment is not easy.  Also within that crowed will be the more casual supporters, not quite as committed – the ones whose support is not as consistent, not as obvious, they’re there when it’s convenient, when the challenges are not too great.  And then there are the fair-weather friends, the band-wagon fans… as long as you are on top and things are going well, as long as the rest of the crowd is behind you, they are right there on your side; but given the slightest cause for concern, the smallest seed of doubt, they will turn on you quick as mayonnaise left out on a hot summer afternoon.   And of course in every crowd, there will be the nay-sayers, the ones who never have a positive thing to say, and it is they who frequently create the doubt that influence and sway the opinions of casual and fair-weather friends.

As I was growing up this day, this Sunday used to be called Palm Sunday, plain and simple.  It was the Sunday when we recalled the shouts of “Hosanna” as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem astride a donkey, streets swollen with cheering crowds, waving palms and laying their cloaks in the road as he approached.  Liturgically it was the culmination of Jesus’ ministry and the recognition by the crowd that this rabbi from Galilee was possibly the Messiah they had been waiting so long for.  But that has all changed, and quite a while ago, actually.

Today many churches, maybe even a majority, celebrate this day as Palm & Passion or simply Passion Sunday.  The “outer wrapping” of pomp and circumstance and the distribution of palms is retained, but the focus of the day’s message is no longer the recognition of Christ as Messiah, but a concise summary the Holy Week events.  This has both positive as well as negative effects.  It is difficult to ignore the validity of the thinking which brought about this shift in liturgy; it was the direct result of the realization that many people in our modern culture, for a variety of reasons, no longer attend and participate in the churches’ observances of the Holy Week.  To address this reality, the inclusion of the week’s events into Sunday’s worship avoids, for them, the leap directly from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the celebration of Resurrection Sunday, and the relegation of the crucial events which frame and define the resurrection to near obscurity.

The more traditional perspective is two-fold and suggests that the danger of squeezing the events of a full week into a single Sunday worship diminishes the lessons inherent in Palm Sunday, limiting our opportunity to understand how Jesus’ ministry had finally come to be recognized by the Jewish population, and how relevant their recognition of his divinity is to our own.  It also suggests that, while the events of Holy Week are once again shared by a greater number of worshipers, we risk diminishing them so greatly it is impossible to fully appreciate the ramifications of everything that occurred.

The Gospels have carefully led us to this day… the revelations in scriptures we’ve talked about over many weeks: the man whose blindness was healed when Jesus touched his eyes;[1] the Samaritan woman’s epiphany “Could this be the Messiah?”[2]; and Jesus’ repeated declaration, in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said… but I say”[3], and even the reference in this morning’s text to the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming” have all have been laying the groundwork and pointing us to the streets of Jerusalem where the Gospel authors record the crowds cheering wildly, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna to the Son of David!” There’s no misunderstanding the exuberance in their words, their cries can mean only one thing – the promise of a Messiah is fulfilled in this man!   They saw him, quite literally, as the answer to their prayers for deliverance.  It’s no wonder they were out marching in the streets, they had waited far longer than 108 years for the fulfillment of this promise.

And despite this dramatic welcome, within a matter of days, incomprehensibly, he is categorically rejected.  What changed?  What drove these very same people, who on Sunday had lined the streets of Jerusalem, shouting and cheering that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, to suddenly and absolutely turn against him, and by Friday morning prefer the rebel Barabbas, demanding his death, and as he carried his cross to the place of crucifixion, jeered and spit upon him?

Matthew may provide a clue that not all were as committed as we might have presumed.  He uses the word “crowd” when he said they cheered and paraded wildly, but uses the word “city” when he describes Jerusalem as being in an uproar, wondering who was at the center of all the excitement.  Matthew’s words seem to suggest that while there were devoted followers who would never desert him, there were also those who were less committed, and likely many who were simply followers of the excitement of the moment, joining in because everyone else was, because it was the popular thing at the moment, or because there might be something in it for them.

In their excitement, the crowds followed him into the outer courts of the Temple, where at least some witnessed the confrontation that took place with the money changers when he overturned their tables, and accused them of making a mockery of the Temple.  There had been nothing to suggest the Jewish citizens were so loyal to the Temple, nor should they have been; it was a corrupt system and his anger toward the leadership had been justified.  Granted it seemed out of character for the rabbi, but was that scene so unsettling they suddenly change their opinion of the man, they only moments earlier were extolling?   Or maybe his inference, when he quoted the scriptures, saying “‘my’ house shall be called a house of prayer” rubbed them wrong.

He returned to the Temple the following day (which would have been Monday) and as he was teaching and healing people, there was again a confrontation.  This time with the chief priests, it was not as violent but it was even more heated.  It was his attitude that angered them most, he taught with and implied authority that incensed the priests… he called the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees hypocrites but still, he had done nothing to offend the people, they stood with him.

The Temple leaders knew he threatened their corrupt ‘kingdom’ and that he could never be silenced as long as the people remained with him.  But they also knew how easily people can be manipulated by lies and greed; so they had to appeal to the nay-sayers, and through the nay-sayers they could sway the fair-weather followers, and as Jesus’ followers began to dwindle they could throw doubt into the minds of his casual supporters, and within days they would be calling for his death.

I do cling to that separation, where Palm Sunday is the preamble to the events of Holy Week.  On Monday I am intrigued by his humanness, as his righteous anger overcame his normal serenity, and watch in awe, his teachings in the temple in the face of unjust authority.  On Thursday I love being invited to the Passover table and listening to him say those words we repeat so often; and I am so encouraged and emboldened that at the very moment of his arrest he renounced the human tendency to retaliate and strike back with violence.  And then on Friday my heart breaks, as I sit quietly as he suffers, for me.

But I need to visit all these events on this Sunday, the day I enjoy the excitement and jubilation of following him through the streets of Jerusalem singing Hosanna… to learn if I am among those in the city, not sure what the excitement is all about; or if I am a face among the crowds of nay-sayers or the fair-weather or casual followers?  Or, if he will find me among the devoted – those who truly believe and for whom nothing could ever cause us to desert.

—  Amen  ―


[1] Matthew 7

[2] John 4

[3] Matthew 5

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