April 17, 2011

Triumph of Christ

Palm Sunday seemed to be the ultimate triumph of Jesus of Nazareth. He entered the city of Jerusalem to shouts of acclaim. “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord,” the crowds shouted. Jesus was welcomed as a conquering King. Many churches will re-enact the Palm Sunday procession today. Some with palms in church, others with an actual donkey and costumed actors. It is a vivid reminder of the way the people of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus. The event has been replayed since at least the 4th century and depicted in art in many ways, including this Russian icon from the 15th century.
The crowds expect God to act in a mighty way. God is victorious and will overcome the Romans, like the Egyptians generations before. But, wait, his triumphal entry is on a donkey, not a warrior’s horse. Thus Jesus fulfills the prophecy from Zechariah 9:9 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jesusalem! Lo, your king comes to you: triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.”

Jerusalem, capital and religious center of Israel welcomes Jesus as conqueror and Messiah. Within the city walls, and above the city homes stood the Temple. This was not Solomon’s Temple, destroyed by the Assyrians. This was the Temple of limestone built by Herod the Great. He doubled the size of the edifice and according to John 2:20 “took 46 years to build [it].” The Jewish priests were forced to live with the Fortress of Antonia on the north side of the Temple. This housed the Roman cohert and overlooked the holy precincts. They worked hard to maintain a working relationship with the Roman authorities, in order to preserve the status quo and safety of the nation.

Just as there is a Palm Sunday procession on Palm Sunday, many churches also read one of the Passion Gospel accounts during the service. This reminds us that there is but a short step from the triumphal entry to betrayal, conviction, and the Cross.
Jesus threatened the balance of power. As Caiphas prophecied “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:49-50) He was articulating the concerns of the Sanhedrin. The leaders found a traitor in Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver.”

Jesus is arrested, tried by the Sanhedrin, Herod, and finally sent to Pilate for judgement. Trumped up charges are presented: “They began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribut to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king.’” (Luke 23:2. Pilate bows to the political necessity and orders Jesus put to death when the crowds cry out to “crucify him.”

The Roman government used crucificion as a punishment for notorious crimes and deterent to criminals. Outside of most large cities were places for crucificion. North of Jerusalem, on a small hill called Golgotha the uprights for this punishment stood. Criminals were forced to carry their own cross bar to their place of execution. Jesus, too, after he was whipped and beaten and mocked (Matthew 27:27-31), had to shoulder the cross and carry it to Golgotha (Calvary). Crucificion is a slow and painful process as death gradually comes from suffocation when the victim is unable to lift himself up to breathe. In order to hasten death, the legs were sometimes broken. Those crucified with Jesus had their legs broken, but his were not. (John 19:31-37)

After he died, Joseph of Arimathea “took courage” went to Pilate and asked for the body. He and Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his tomb in a Garden. (John 19:38-42). It is probable that as a wealthy trader, as well as member of the Jewish council, Joseph was known to Pilate. In class we discussed whether it took more courage for Joseph to go to Pilate or to take a stand against the Sanhedrin. What do you think?

It would seem that the triumph of Jesus of Nazareth was short lived and that he was doomed to be forgotten as were the other would-be Messiahs of the era. Think about these questions from the class.

Jesus fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. In what ways are we blind to the prophets among us?
The priests hand Jesus over to the Roman authorities. Pilate tries to pass the blame back to the people who respond ‘Crucify him’. Would you have shouted with the crowd or not?

We know the rest of the story, but his disciples did not. They were devastated. Next Sunday we celebrate the real Triumph of Jesus, the Christ of God. However, before we get to Easter, we have to walk the events of Holy Week. If your church has services during the week commemorating Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, you may want to take advantage of the opportunity to walk with Jesus the last few days of his life. Or maybe you can find time yourself to read through the Passion in each of the four Gospels. Meditate on the mighty acts of God who turned the world upside down.

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