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God Will Not Be Silenced

Sermon - 3/16/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

 

Today is Palm Sunday, a day of festivity, waving palm branches, hosannas and more. Next Sunday is Easter, a day of even more festivity, spring flowers, hallelujahs and more.  It is a wonderful season, but therein lies a danger, for it is all too easy to move from one festive Sunday to the next, filled with exuberance and joy, forgetting that between these two celebrations is agony, tears, bloodlike sweat and shouts of “Crucify him!”  Thus Palm Sunday is often remembered as Passion Sunday as well, a day that anticipates the darkness, fear and pain of Golgotha. 

And so this morning you will note that the worship service is designed to take us through Holy Week, not from Sunday to Sunday, but Sunday to Friday, from shouts of jubilation to shouts of anger.  What is striking when we combine the two is the role of the crowd in the story.  On Palm Sunday they are filled with jubilation, excitement, anticipation.  But on Passion Sunday the mood is different, the crowd becomes an ugly mob, the shouts of exclamation and praise are replaced with taunts of hatred and ridicule. 


Palm Sunday symbols:  The naked cross, palm branches symbolizing the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, money bag for the betrayal of a trusted friend, basin and towel representing Jesus' service and concern for others, grapes and wheat symbolizing His continuing presence with us, and the crown of thorns used to mock Jesus as the "King of the Jews".

 

To make matters even worse, Matthew tells us that Pilate gives this festive crowd turned ugly a choice, a choice between two prisoners, one of which he will set free as a gesture of goodwill.  Will it be the notorious Jesus also known as Barabbas, or Jesus some call the Christ?  I notice more than a few of you with a little puzzled look, because you don’t remember any “Jesus Barabbas”.  But that is what my Bible says, I did not make this up, honest.  Look it up in your pew Bible, 27:16.  At the end of that verse you will see “Jesus Barabbas” with a little footnote after the “Jesus”.  Look at the bottom of the page and you will read, “Other ancient authorities lack ‘Jesus’”.  I know some modern authorities who lack Jesus, but that is another matter.  “Ancient authorities” here simply means manuscripts, some say simply “Barabbas” and some “Jesus Barabbas.”

Don’t worry if you did not remember the story this way, because Mark, Luke and John don’t either.  In their story, it is just plain “Barabbas.” The phrase “Jesus Barabbas” only appears in a few ancient copies of Matthew, however, because it is easier to explain how “Jesus” would have been omitted by scribes who were offended by this criminal with the same name as our Lord than it would be to explain how any scribe could have added the name “Jesus” to Barabbas, the translators for the CEV, NEB and NRSV have decided that the greatest probability is that “Jesus Barabbas” is authentic, in other words, the gospel writer we know as Matthew intentionally called him Jesus Barabbas.

Note that the name Barabbas contains a very familiar word used often by Jesus:  abba, father or possibly, as some suggest, daddy.  Bar means “son” hence the name Barabbas means “son of his father”.  Thus Matthew seems to be saying that the crowd was given a choice between two Jesuses:  Jesus, son of his father and Jesus, Son of God.  Which will they choose?  It is not just a question of history, it is a question of faith, a way of Matthew asking us, which will we choose?

We face a dilemma on this Palm Sunday: who does not want to be a part of the crowd, to join in the celebration, to be standing along the parade route with waving flag in hand as Jesus passes be, shouting in excitement, “Hey Jesus, I’m with you, Jesus!  Go get ‘em Jesus!”  We are filled with all that contagious enthusiasm, and we join in as the crowd falls in line behind Jesus, filling the narrow streets with a sea of humanity in search of divinity.  Having just returned from Jerusalem last week, I can tell you that those streets indeed are very narrow.  Winding your way through the store front merchants, shoppers and pilgrims of various sorts, it does not take a large number of people to create the sense of a crowd.  In fact, we have all we need right here this morning to fill several Jerusalem blocks.

So imagine, winding our way down the Jerusalem streets, trampling on a carpet of palms, pass the temple and into the courtyard where the whole crowd gathers.  And in the distance we see Jesus, high above the crowd on the palace promenade with the governor, Jesus and the governor together!  And next to them is the other Jesus, Jesus Barabbas, the insurrectionist, terrorist to the Romans, freedom fighter to the Palestinian Jews.  And the crowds are shouting for Jesus, but not our Jesus, no they are shouting for the one Jesus, Jesus Barabbas, to be set free and for the other, our Jesus, to be crucified.  And we are right there.

Have you ever said to your children, or did your parents ever say to you, “be careful that you don’t get mixed up with the wrong crowd?”  Guess what?  Here we are folks, in the wrong crowd.  How did it happen?  It was a friendly enough crowd back there at the city gates.  What went wrong?  How did this friendly crowd become so unfriendly so quickly?  Jesus does not live up to their expectations and so they want to kill him?  Of course we would never do that, would we? It is nice to think that we can participate with the first crowd but not in the second, but the gospel does not give us that luxury.  The voices that shout Hosanna on Sunday are the same ones that shout “Crucify” on Friday.  Thus when we read the whole story, and not just the parts we like, it makes us just a little bit nervous about our eagerness to join in with the crowd.

Tim Diebel, a D/C pastor, describes this dilemma in an article in our Disciple magazine a few years ago.  He writes:

I am caught somewhere between the two.  Somewhere between my praise and my folly, somewhere between my adoration and my desecration, between faithfulness and sin.... I am here among them all, waving a palm branch in one hand as I quietly, embarrassingly, clumsily try to wipe the blood off the other.   Yes, here I am, with all the rest.  Caught somewhere between these two crowds, between obedience and selfishness, between loyalty and murder, between palms and thorns.

I think that sums up where most of us are, caught somewhere between these two crowds.  We who are so concerned about doing the right thing, like to think that we are following Jesus, but we need to be reminded that those crowds were also following Jesus, right in to Pilate’s courtyard.  If we are honest, completely honest with ourselves, we will count ourselves among that crowd, praising Jesus one moment, cursing the demands he places on us the next.  Proclaiming absolute allegiance to our Lord while weighing what we might do with that portion of our money we know we should give back to God.  Promising to serve God with all of our heart, soul, might, but always too busy when God asks instead for just some of our time. 

So folks, here we are, humbled to find ourselves in that crowd.  But look around. Peter is here too. Peter who said, “Lord I’ll be with you always, I’ll stand by you no matter what”, and then denied that very night that he ever knew Jesus.  Peter is in this crowd.  And so is Abraham, founder of the Jewish nation who, just in case God’s promise did not materialize, had a son by his wife’s handmaiden.  David is here too, the model king of Israel, caught in adultery and murder.  And Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of our church, a slave owner.  MLK, Jr., greatest prophet of modern times, by many accounts unfaithful to his wife.  Mother Theresa too, soon to be saint, with all of her private doubts on whether or not God cares or exists.  They are all part of the Friday crowd.

It is reassuring to know that we are not alone, that while doubt, denial and unfaithfulness is not to be admired, it does not condemn us either.  Thus, as one in the crowd, we are given a choice.  A choice between two Jesuses, Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Christ.  But I am afraid, I am fearful that if I make that choice I might chose the wrong Jesus.  I might discover that I have chosen the popular Jesus, the Jesus who thinks like I do.  I might chose the best looking Jesus who will give me the answers I want to hear.  I might chose the pleasing Jesus who won’t disturb me in my comfortable lifestyle or question the choices I make.  What if I chose and I make the wrong choice?  What if I just go along with the crowd? 

Standing there in the midst of this hostile crowd, afraid to speak and shamed by my silence, I see Pilate’s wife whisper into Pilate’s ear and I hear her say, “Do not harm him, he is a righteous man.”  I am struck, that among all of us in the crowd that day, only Pilate’s wife will say a good word for Jesus.  We who think that the church offers the only hope for the world, that salvation depends on the message we bring, need to be reminded that when all of God’s people turned against God’s son or were silent, God was not.  Indeed, this story reminds us that God will not be silenced, even when we fail to speak out, the voice of God is still heard.  Rome tried for three centuries to silence the church and failed.  The church establishment tried to silence the 16th century reformers and failed.   Stalin tried to stamp out Christianity in Soviet Russia.  Hitler tried to co-op the church’s proclamation to match his program of Nazification.  Many in this country would like to silence the church because they find its message embarrassing, meaningless, upsetting, or worse, political.

For 2,000 years, 3,000, even 4,000, the powers that be have tried to silence the voice of God, but it does not work.  For even when the church has been silent, God’s voice is still heard, in our statehouses, in the palaces, and God willing, even in the church. 

From the crowds we watch helplessly as the only one to speak out and defend our Lord at his trial is a pagan woman.  We watch in despair as the powers of this world strip him bare, mock him, spit on him and place a crown upon his head.  Not a crown of honor, not a crown of glory, but a crown of thorns, a crown of shame.  We watch in agony as they torture him, whip him and drive nails through his hands and feet.  We watch in horror as they lift our King high, not on a throne, but on a cross.  And we desperately ask, what can we do?  When the child of God is being crucified, what can we do besides cry out in our pain and agony, my God, my God why?  From the crowd we watch as Simon carries the cross for Jesus, we watch as soldiers offer him bitter wine to drink, we watch as John puts his arm around Mary and leads her gently away.  Is this all anyone can do? Is there not more we can do?

Note this: even when the dream killers persist, even when the dreamer is killed, the dream does not die.  Even when we fail to speak out, God still finds others who will.  That so-called woman of ill repute anoints the head and feet of Jesus to prepare him for the burial to come when none of the “good” followers of Jesus will be anywhere to be found.  Is it anyone wonder that Jesus says the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the Kingdom of God before the so-called “righteous”? When the Messiah, God’s anointed one, hangs lifeless on the cross, Matthew tells us that the earth came alive, shaking the very foundations of the world.  And of all the people who knew Jesus, of all those who walked with him, ate with him, sat at his feet, were healed and fed by him, who do you think would be the first to profess their faith in Jesus now crucified?  A centurion, a Roman soldier, a foreigner keeping watch over the crucifixion, proclaims “Surely this was God’s son.”  God will not be silenced.

What about us?  Should we not at least say something?  A wise man, one of my professors, James Sanders, often admonished his students to quit worrying about what we are supposed to do and to ask instead, what is it that God is doing?  If we can answer that question, the rest will become clear.  Holy Week, you see, is not the time to fight the crowds, to go against the tide, to combat the forces of evil, to save the world.  Rather Holy Week is the one time of the year, one week out of 52, that we are called to watch and to listen as the cries of jubilee change to taunts of ridicule, to experience the passion story for ourselves, to watch God’s chosen one bleed, to hear God’s child cry out and to ask ourselves, what is it that God is doing?  If, like the fearful disciples, we do not find an answer at the foot of the cross, if we are so overcome with the suffering and the pain and the agony that we lose all hope, do not despair.  Be patient and remember that God will not be silenced, not by hate, not by violence and not even by death.  The answer, the hope, the voice of God will come.  It will come.  God will not be silenced. 

When the shout of "hosanna" and "crucify" all die out, and only the silence of the tomb remains, wait, watch, listen.  

It will not last long.

 


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