Scripture Readings: Luke 19:28-40
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
This week, an American asked my why our Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh is known as ‘Holyrood’. He said he could see that it was something holy, but what was a ‘rood’? I explained that the Parliament stood near the ruins of the Abbey of the Holy Rood- the word ‘rood’ is an old word, from German or Scandinavian, for a gallows or a cross. In modern English, the area would be called ‘Holy Cross’. Our Parliament’s name reminds us of the central sign and symbol of the Christian faith. A place of political power has a name which reminds us of a powerful religious symbol: the cross upon which Jesus of Nazareth died.
The cross stands at the heart of the Christian 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, Malta 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 Jesus’ death cross is a realistic story. For 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 beliefs. For the story of Christ is the story of a good man who spoke the truth, and was killed for doing so. 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 a story about powerful people using 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. In many parts of the world, there are people who rise to power claiming to defend their particular religions community from “non-believers”. This has happened in Islam, it happened in India with Hinduism. The Rohingya people of Burma have been pushed out of their homes in Burma because their Muslim religion is seen as a threat to the Buddhist culture of Burma. Extreme nationalism and bigotry are too often made respectable by claims to be defending religion.
It has also happened many times in Christian history. Leaders love to claim that they have God in their side. Right wing politicians in America have long claimed that their Christian culture is under attack. They use religious language, and stir up people by playing to their religious feelings. We are also starting to see that happen across Europe, too. We hear people talking about how ‘Christian Europe’ is being undermined by various dark forces. Sometimes they blame secularism. Sometimes they blame immigrants, especially Muslims. And sometimes these people who talk about defending ‘Christian culture’ give the game away, when they blame the Jews. For the Nazis, too, used to like to try to use religion to justify what they were getting up to.
Whenever we hear people saying they are trying defend a Christian culture, we should be very, very suspicious. For the chanced are that, like the leaders of Jesus day, they are trying to sway the crowd for their own ends. Holy Week 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 in our own age, people can use religion to manipulate the crowd 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.
We like power, we are attracted by power, but the power of the cross is a strange power. The power of the cross is in its powerlessness. 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. It reminds us how religion can be misused for evil ends. 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
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 CH4 392, 405, 374