April 02, 2023*
By Pastor John Partridge
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Matthew 21:1-11 John 11:45-57
Last week we read the story of Lazarus together. It is an amazing story. Jesus returns to the house of his friends, Mary and Martha, four days after their brother, and Jesus’s friend, had died and was sealed inside of his burial tomb. At Jesus’ request, despite warnings that, after four days, the smell is going to be bad, they roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb and Jesus calls out to his friend and commands him to come out. At Jesus’ command, Lazarus climbs out of the tomb still wrapped from head to toe in his grave clothes.
As I said, it is an amazing story.
But as we follow the recommended readings for Lent, these readings often seem to tell a happier story than the scriptures do. Following the recommended lectionary readings would have us jump directly from Lazarus’ resurrection to Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. The alternative reading would have us jump from Lazarus’ story directly to the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. But, as I mentioned at the end of last week’s service, there is an important part of the story that gets skipped over. And so, today we’re going to begin right where we left off last week, with the story of Lazarus, and then follow Jesus into Jerusalem because both of these pieces are important to our understanding of how things were set in motion for the events that lead up to Good Friday and Easter.
So, let us rejoin Lazarus’ story right where we stopped last week. Lazarus rises from the dead, climbs out of his tomb, Jesus asks folks to help Lazarus’ take off his grave clothes, everybody is amazed, and our scripture said, “45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”
That’s nice, but that isn’t the end of the story because if we continue reading, this is what we hear in John 11:45-57.
45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.
54 Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.
55 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. 56 They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” 57 But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.
Sometimes, when we read the story of Jesus entry into Jerusalem, we wonder if anyone really noticed all the cheering, and shouting, and waving palm branches and this is especially true when we skip over the end of Lazarus’ story. But when we read the second half of the Lazarus story, we see that the chief priests and the Pharisees were waiting and watching for Jesus’ arrival. They had already decided that Jesus needed to die, and all the waving palm branches, and the shouts of Hosanna, only confirmed their decision and cemented their determination.
But, from the point of view of the disciples and other followers, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem was a joyous occasion. They had a completely different perspective. So different in fact, that it almost seems like different story. The people saw Jesus as a prophet, and they hoped that he would be the military messiah that would overthrow the Roman occupation and lead Israel to a renewed greatness, prominence, and notoriety. We hear this story in Matthew 21:1-11.
21:1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosannato the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosannain the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
These acclamations tell us two things, first, they tell us about the expectations of the people and who they thought Jesus was, and second, they explain to us why the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other members of the ruling council saw Jesus as both a problem and a threat.
“Hosanna,” means “Save” or perhaps “Save us.” It is the kind of thing that you would shout to a military or political leader in order to praise them, but also to express your hope in their leadership. “Son of David” was often used as the title for the kings of Israel, and was used both figuratively for leaders that were not related to David, and literally for Kings that were genetically descended from David. Waving palm branches may have also made a political statement. Again, this was something that you did to welcome kings, royalty, conquering heroes, or other important persons. Palm branches, in particular, may have been seen as a nationalistic symbol of Israel. These sorts of demonstrations were sometimes specifically organized by local leaders to welcome Roman generals, Senators, or Caesars so that they were appropriately welcomed and would see that subjugated nations loved Rome and were obedient to Caesar.
Taken together, this probably looked like the sort of thing that could start a popular uprising against Roman authority, and the potential for that sort of uprising was exactly why a Roman fortress, the Fortress Antonia, was physically attached to the Temple courts. Worse, the Romans stored the vestments of the high priest in that fortress, and if they were sufficiently perturbed, they would withhold access to the high priest, and there would be no holy day sacrifice.
And just in case you needed confirmation that the Sanhedrin knew about all of the shouting and the palm branches, Luke’s description of this event in Luke 19:39-40 includes this conversation:
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
It’s a little odd that the selected scriptures that we read during each season of Lent always include the story of Lazarus, but skip the part where we hear the angry voices of Jerusalem’s leaders. It is precisely because the resurrection of Lazarus, and the way in which that causes even more people to follow Jesus… it is precisely because this angers the Sanhedrin, and spurs them into action, that the story of Lazarus become a vital element of the Easter story. In the minds of Jerusalem’s leaders, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, and what is often described as his “triumphal entry,” only confirmed and solidified the decision that they had already made.
If they were going to keep the peace…
If they were going to keep the Romans from using violence to insure peace…
If they were going to maintain the status quo…
If they were going to keep their jobs, their positions, their influence, and their power…
If they were going to retain control of their temple and their nation…
Jesus must die.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.comThe “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™