We are witnesses. Our worship this morning began with a procession. About ___ of us walked, palms in hand, from our church’s Loder Avenue door down Main Street; and then, we processed around the church, singing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna.” Jesus rode into Jerusalem roughly two thousand years ago, to the sounds of his followers singing that same Passover psalm, Psalm 118, also singing “Hosanna,” which means, “Save Us!” He rode in as a king, but what a strange king he was. Most kings would ride into the city on a warhorse—an animal of power and speed, bred for battle. But Jesus the king rode in on a donkey, a beast of burden.
We are witnesses: this king came, not to rule, but to serve.
And the people cheered for him. They too carried palm branches, and they waved them as they sang. They laid down their cloaks so that the hooves of the animal he rode on would not touch the bare ground. They acknowledged him as a king, their king, a true king. And as he passed by the path that came down from the Mount of Olives, they became almost delirious with joy, because, according to the prophet Zechariah, that is the place where they could expect to encounter the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one.
In truth, Jesus’ ride paled in comparison to the military parade that, just about at the same time, was taking place on the other side of town. That’s where the warhorses were, as the governor, Pontius Pilate, along with his legions of Roman soldiers, came into Jerusalem to oversee the Passover Festival. Passover is the great and ancient Jewish celebration of freedom from oppression and captivity.
Passover was a tricky time for the Romans, for their commanders and administrators in what we think of as the Holy Land. They knew, and the people knew, that Passover was a celebration of escape from a brutal regime. They knew, and the people knew, that this particular celebration stirred up hope in the people, stirred up dreams of tasting freedom once again.
Pilate’s job was to squash, entirely, any such notions.
Two leaders rode into town, coming from opposite directions. One leader rode in to rule; and one rode in to die. One rode in as part of a military parade; and one, as leader of what was really a protest march, a group of people proclaiming, joyfully, there is a better way, the Way of Jesus.
We are witnesses.
And then, six days passed. And we have shared the story of that long night of trial, and questioning, and suffering that Jesus underwent on the night when he was betrayed. The one who came as a servant, the one who came to die, knows what is coming. He’s been telling his closest followers about it for weeks. He knows that he is the target of the predictable crackdown of Rome on anyone who dared to dream of, speak of, or even hope for freedom. He knows that pain and death lie at the end of this night.
Pontius Pilate, the leader who came to rule, thinks he has things well in hand, but actually, events are spinning out of control. At first, he doesn’t understand what his own presence, what the brutal crackdown, what the arrest of Jesus, has done to the people who cheered him on just six days ago. It has terrified them. And in their terror, all they can think to do is run themselves from Jesus—to say, “No, no, not him. We didn’t mean it. He isn’t our king at all.” The instinct to survive… the most primal drive in every creature. And so, they called for his death, they denied him, they ran from him, and they hid.
Pilate strikes the tone of the reasonable one. As if, if everyone would just listen to him, everything would work out just fine. But don’t be fooled by his cool veneer. He does everything he can to avoid responsibility for what is going to happen. Pilate, too, is terrified. He’s terrified of the people. First, he gives his opinion that Jesus isn’t guilty of anything. When the people object, he sends Jesus to Herod, hoping he’ll take him on. But when Jesus is returned to him, and he can’t avoid responsibility, he decides to have Jesus flogged. This is true to form, and it is no cursory slap on the hands. It’s torture, and it is used to weaken the prisoner, to cause extreme injuries and loss of blood, so that he will die quickly, when he is finally crucified. The moment Pilate decided to have Jesus flogged, no matter what words he said, he had decided that Jesus would die on the cross.
We are witnesses.
But this strange servant king rode in to die. He came to perform the ultimate service, to endure his Passion, the ultimate act of love: to take in the violence; to be the scapegoat that Rome, needed, in that moment; to die, so that others would live.
When at last Jesus is nailed to the cross, he is left to die between two criminals, who, as it turns out, are actually guilty of the crime Jesus is charged with: sedition. Treason.
As death approaches, we hear his words from the cross.
He speaks to God, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
And we are witnesses: Jesus, the one who comes, bringing forgiveness.
He speaks to one of the criminals, dying alongside him, saying. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
And we are witnesses: The power of God, in and through this dying servant-king, brings redemption.
And with his dying breath, Jesus turns to God again, crying out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
And we are witnesses: God, our Maker, the One who is our Source, as well as our goal. And Jesus is our companion in all of it, in the living, in the suffering, and in the dying.
And then, silence.
Today, we are witnesses.
We are witnesses to Jesus’ Passion, a word that means “suffering,” but also, “love.”
Love that pours itself out, whatever the cost.
Love that endures beyond the grave.
Thanks be to God. Amen.