9th April 2017
Matthew chapter 27 verses 11 – 54
Maggie Cogan - Reader
Lord, we pray, speak to us in this place, in the calming of our minds and in the longing of our hearts, and by the words of my lips
Crowds they're sometimes scary - sometimes supportive. There are cheering crowds. And there are jeering crowds. And there is a "crowd mentality".
We've all heard of "mob rule". That's the mentality of a crowd. There is no space for individual thoughtfulness. No time for reflection just immediate and mass response.
One thing that's been true, from the very moment the first crowd gathered. And that is this: There are usually two sides in a crowd. Whether it’s a packed stadium for rugby or football, or a political rally, there are those for, and those against. There are the cheerers and the jeerers.
And sometimes one side or the other takes over and sometimes you get a crowd that becomes either supportive or hostile and often - the balance is delicate and fragile. A crowd can turn on you.
The crowd that Jesus faced in these days at Jerusalem was both. It started off as a cheering and supportive crowd and that's the crowd we meet today on Palm Sunday.
In a very few days - these same people are going to be a very different sort of a crowd for us! These cheering ones - are going to turn into jeering ones. Jesus attracted crowds.
He was a most charismatic person, this One who called himself the "Son of Man". People came from far and away to hear him - to see him - to witness the amazing things he was doing. The great and inclusive and loving addresses he gave. The miracles he was known to perform.
But in any crowd - then and now - you get two kinds of people- the believers, and the doubters.
And we see this quite often in the Bible - when we are told of the reaction of the crowds, the behaviour of the onlookers.
For example: When Jesus healed the man born blind, by making mud with dirt and spit and anointing his eyes with it - some of the Pharisees believed it to be a great miracle. Some believed that indeed Jesus was the Messiah.
But many more did not believe - some for, some against - the cheerers - and the jeerers.
But we know as a crowd takes shape, as "mob rule" comes into effect the sentiment of the crowd solidifies. The mind of the crowd moves to one side - or the other - of an issue. It can be very frightening. And if we're in such a crowd - there's only a couple of "safe" ways to behave.
Either go along with the crowd, or keep quiet.
If we don't agree, it’s better to stay silent, or leave - inconspicuously.
Some interesting experiments have been conducted by an American psychologist to understand crowds. And these experiments show how readily people will change their opinion to match the crowd. And I don't mean pretend to change their opinion, to fake it. I mean - really change their mind.
One experiment was simple. A group of people were seated in a dimly lit room. Onto a screen at the front of the room two straight lines were projected. One was obviously longer than the other.
The task was simple. To say which line was longer, however unknown to one person of this experiment - all of the other people in the room were involved in trickery. They had been told to lie. So - you had twenty or so other people around you saying that line A was the longer one everybody else in agreement. And you can see clearly that line B is longer.
What happens? Well, the experiment showed that we can change our opinion. Pure and simple and - even after the experiment is finished, and we are told what was going on we still hold to our changed opinion. That line "B" was longer. That's how persuasive the effect of a crowd is. It will even sway us to an obviously wrong opinion - and keep us there.
There was a big crowd in Jerusalem that day and lots of people who didn't even know who Jesus was - even though he'd been the talk of the city in recent weeks. It was at Passover time, when many Jews from the countryside would be there - celebrating this special feast.
There would be Jews from faraway places too. Honouring their religious beliefs by travelling the great distances to Jerusalem, perhaps only once in their lifetime were going to the Holy City for the most Holy of Feasts- the Passover. And this crowd – on this day – were in a good mood. They're ready for a parade! They are ready to celebrate.
And Jesus - knowing the mood of the city just before Passover - knowing the prophecies concerning how the Messiah would enter Jerusalem - and knowing what would come later - rides into the city on a donkey - his disciples beside him.
For those who have eyes to see - it is significant this choice of animals. Conquering heroes - generals and kings ride into town on horses – on stallions. The Messiah comes in a more humble fashion - on a donkey. Just as predicted by the prophets.
And on this day - and on this crowd - the Spirit of God had descended.
"Hosanna" they shouted "Hosanna in the highest Heaven".
"Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord".
The disciples must have thought they had it made. Success - at last! Where are those arrogant Pharisees now? We've got it made - with Jesus!
The people are all for him. They recognize that he is the promised one - the Son of David - it won't be long now - everything is going to go our way. But Jesus knew what was to come.
He knew even as the people shouted on this day “Hosanna in the highest - Hosanna to the Son of David - Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” What was to come later on in the week
He knew what the same crowd would shout out when Pilate asked them "What should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" He knew that they would shout out "Let him be crucified!"
And when Pilate asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" they would shout all the more, "Let him be crucified!"
And so Pilate released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. How quickly things can change. One week a hero, the next just another victim, a person, an object, to be spat upon and scorned - to be beaten and killed
And yet here we are today - the Sunday before Good Friday. With our palms - singing praises to Jesus. We have cheered with the crowd that cheered for Jesus - and rightly so - for Jesus deserves all our cheers. But we have also -if we have understood - cheered with a heart heavy with the knowledge of what is to come.
In that - we are closer to Christ and his knowledge of the real situation- than the disciples were. Jesus knew who he was dying for - he knew that Judas would betray him, that Peter would deny him that the disciples would abandon him and that crowd would call for his death.
He knew what was to come - and yet he ate and drank with Judas
He knew and yet he prayed with Peter
He knew and yet he called all the disciples his friends
He knew and yet he taught in the marketplace and healed those who came to him.
Jesus knew - and we know. We know his part - and we know our part - and knowing - we have celebrated -and I say to you we must celebrate.
We must cheer for life, knowing that death follows. We must praise Jesus and call him Lord even knowing that we - like all the others - have failed him, and may yet fail him.
We must cheer, and we must remember that Jesus knows who we were - and who we are and what we have done and will yet do - and he still lay down his life for us.
Today we handed out palms so that we might celebrate a token memory of the cheering crowd on Palm Sunday when they lovingly spread palms and cloaks and branches into the roadway ahead of our Saviour. And we have handed out palms shaped into crosses.
Look at what we hold -perhaps we have placed it on a seat beside us. The palms of "hosanna"!
The palms of this "day of acceptance" of our Lord are woven into the cross of rejection.
And yet, it is an empty cross - this cross we hold - a cross which says resurrection - cross which says forgiveness. It is a very holy mystery - this cross that we hold - this cross upon which Jesus died.
It is a mystery which the crowd can never quite accept - a mystery which we cannot truly understand - but which, when we accept it in faith - in our heart of hearts - turns earthly despair into heavenly triumph.
As we journey together through Holy week – as we walk hand in hand with Jesus towards the cross – let us make that journey with heartfelt thanks that he died for every single one of us and rose again on that Glorious day
Jesus knew as he was entered Jerusalem to the welcoming shouts and prayers of his people that he would be rejected and killed within the week.
He knew it because from the beginning of time his death was written upon the heart of God, - it was written upon God's heart from even before Eve reached for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - it was written before Isaiah spoke of the one who would be despised and rejected by men - it was written before Mary conceived and the word was made flesh by the power of God's Spirit- indeed, it was written before our lives were etched on the palms of his hands as they stretched out upon the cross.
Jesus knew as his people called out to him for salvation on Palm Sunday that they would also call out for his death within the week and that despised and rejected he would suffer death upon the cross he knew - he knew from the very beginning - and he gave himself over to that death anyway
He died that we might be forgiven
He died to make us good
That we might go at last to heaven
Saved by his precious blood