Text: Mark 15:1-32 Palmarum (6th Sunday in Lent)
“Behold, Your King!”
In the name of our one true King, dear friends in Christ: If you are seeking to convey to others the drastic nature of a change that has taken place, one of the best ways to do it is with a pair of before and after pictures. Makers of cosmetics and diet pills do this all the time in their advertising. You get picture one in which the person looks horrible, flabby, and depressed; and then picture two, in which the person is attractive, slender, and obviously very happy. But not all changes are for the better. Sometimes on the news after a natural disaster they’ll show you before and after pictures so you’ll understand the extent of the devastation that’s taken place. You know, here’s the run down slums of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, and here’s what they look like under twenty feet of water. Oh, wait … maybe I should have included that particular snapshot with changes for the better; but I’m sure you know what I mean.
The reason I mention it is that’s what we have in front of us today. On one hand it’s Palm Sunday. And so the before picture is the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. He’s riding a high wave of popularity among the crowd – a crowd that has even higher expectations for him. They are hailing him as the promised king: great David’s greater son; and they are giving him a reception of the kind that folks in the ancient world would use to honor a hero who’s just achieved a great military victory. They cry out, “Hosanna! Save us now, son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Their shouting is in part to honor him as the one they believe will save them from their enemies, free them from Roman rule, and usher in a new golden age for Israel. But it serves another purpose too. It’s to alert the population of Jerusalem that he’s here. They’re telling the city, “Behold, your king! Take a good hard look. He’s right here.”
The after picture is taken just five days later at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. And what a difference five days makes. Now he’s been stripped naked. He’s been beaten black and blue, his face is smashed in, and his eyes are swollen nearly shut. A twisted crown of sharp two inch thorns has been pressed down hard upon his brow. His skin and much of his flesh has been torn away from his backside by a whip of multiple strands that had shards of glass and angular fragments of iron woven into the fibers, so that now from the nape of his neck to the tops of his ankles it’s just one raw, bleeding mass. He hangs on a wooden cross from which he is suspended only by nails driven into his wrists and through the insteps of his feet. Most of the time he hangs there more or less motionless; but every couple of minutes he twists and turns in frantic agony as he struggles to pull himself up high enough to catch another breath of air. And then, as soon as he does manage to inhale, his body goes limp as drops down hard again against the nails in his wrists. It’s a horrific sight. He looks nothing like he did in the before picture. If you didn’t know it was the same person, you’d never be able to tell. But one thing remains unchanged. He is still repeatedly being proclaimed the king; first by Pilate, then by the Roman soldiers, and finally even by the high priest and his cohorts. They all mean it as sick joke, of course. They don’t believe it even for a second. Only the placard above his head states the truth neutrally: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. It tells everyone who passes by – and us – “Behold, your king! Take a good hard look. He’s right here.”
It would seem at first glace that the title “king” is the only thing that’s the same in the before and after pictures. But actually, if we look a little closer at some of the more subtle images, the two pictures have more in common than we might think. Just for example, in both pictures is Jesus labeled the “righteous one”. In the first picture Jesus claims the title for himself. He understands quite well that this impromptu parade meant to honor him is in fulfillment of the prophecy from Zechariah in which he is called “righteous”; that is, without sin or guilt of any kind. In the second picture it’s the judgment of Pontius Pilate, who is the highest legal authority in the land, who makes the same determination: “I find no fault in him.”
In both pictures too is Christ clearly portrayed as the king who comes in humility. In the first picture Jesus is mounted on a borrowed donkey, not a proud war charger. His “army” is a ragtag group of Galilean fishermen and peasant farmers – which is not much of a military threat to anyone. Instead of wearing a king’s fine robes or the armor and plumes of a battlefield commander, he’s dressed quite simply as an itinerant rabbi. Nothing about him speaks of earthly pride and glory. Obviously in the second picture is Christ’s humility even more pronounced as he humbles himself to the point of death on a cross.
Perhaps a little less apparent is that in both pictures is Christ portrayed as the sacrifice. I think I’ve mentioned before that Jesus had to come into Jerusalem on this particular Sunday. Why? Because it was exactly four days before the Festival of the Passover, and according to the Law of Moses, the sacrificial Passover lambs were to be selected and set aside on that day. During the winter, the yearling lambs would have been gathered and kept in the nearby village of Bethlehem. And on this Sunday – either before Jesus made his entry into the city or afterward (I would have chosen to go before because the streets would have been cleaner) – the lambs would have been brought through the gates and paraded up through the city to the Temple stockyards. The point is that by coming in on this day, Jesus is identifying himself as the sacrificial Lamb of God.
The same thing is shown in the second picture. Note who it is that accuses Jesus before Pilate: it’s the high priests. It’s their job to offer sacrifices at the Temple for the people’s sins. And the way they do that is by transferring the guilt of the sins that people confess to the heads of the lambs and goats they bring for sacrifice. The animals are charged with the sins of people and then die in their place because the law demands death for sin. So that’s what’s going on during the trial. The high priests are accusing Jesus of having done every sin under the sun. Pilate is astonished that Jesus doesn’t defend himself. He knows that the charges are a bunch of lies born of jealousy. But the point is that Jesus is accepting the blame for himself. He’s taking responsibility for the sins of the whole world. The irony is that his accusers are actually performing their priestly function, and they don’t know it.
And that leads to another consistency in the before and after pictures. In the first picture, the people call upon Jesus to save them. In the second picture, though they do not recognize it, that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s answering their prayer—our prayer, to be delivered from mankind’s greatest enemies: sin, death, and the power of the devil. And he does it, ironically enough, by denying the priests’ demands that he prove his identity by saving himself. Behold your king indeed; righteous and having salvation is he.
But there are other people in the before and after pictures that it would be good for us to consider. In both pictures are the priests and religious authorities. In the first frame they are angry and upset. They don’t like to see Jesus being hailed as the king. In the after picture they are filled with wicked delight at watching him suffer. Now they don’t mind calling him “king”.
And then there’s the crowd. In the before picture they are filed with joy and hope. This Jesus seems to be the answer to all their problems. But it’s important to note that their concerns are entirely temporal and worldly rather than spiritual and eternal. To them, Jesus is the guy who will get rid of Roman oppression and taxes. He’s going to usher in the age of peace and prosperity in which God’s people, the Jews, rule the world. We’ll have foreigners as our servants doing all the heavy and dirty work. There’s going to be good times and plenty of food for all. And if any one of us gets sick, Jesus will heal the person. Oh yes, life is going to be grand with Jesus as our king.
In the after picture they are calling for his death. They’d rather have a murderer who was basically an anti-Roman terrorist released to them than Jesus. At least, they think, this Barabbas character tried to do something positive to rid the country of the Roman curse – never mind that his attempt failed miserably. No, Jesus has turned out to be a big disappointment. He didn’t bring us the life we’d hoped for. Instead he talks about suffering for the sake of righteousness and his name, and carrying our crosses, and serving each other, and loving our enemies, and dutifully paying our taxes to Caesar. That isn’t the kind of kingdom we want. Jesus isn’t the king we want. Take him away. Crucify him.
I’m aware that some theologians have trouble with the idea that the crowd could be so fickle, welcoming Jesus as their king one day and calling for his death just five days later. The assumption they make is that the crowds must be made up of two entirely different groups of people. Personally, though I’d allow that there could be some folks in the first frame that aren’t in the second and vice versa, it’s no stretch for me to imagine that the vast majority of them are waving palm branches and chanting hymns of praise to Jesus in the before picture and shaking their fists in fury at him the after picture. After all, he wasn’t behaving at all the way they wanted him to. Why wasn’t he dealing tough with the Romans? Where were the miracles we’ve heard so much about? Why are our religious and political leaders rejecting him?
For goodness sake, even his disciples were baffled that Jesus wasn’t doing what they thought he should. In fact, it’s probably that more than anything which turned Judas against him. Since Jesus wasn’t the kind of king he wanted, he figured he’d make a little money on the deal so that the last couple years wouldn’t be a total loss for him. No, I don’t have any trouble at all imagining that it’s the same people in the crowd in the before and after pictures.
And if you have any doubts about it, ask yourself if they are a whole lot different than you and me. What I mean is this: we come here week after week and we sing his praises. We tell Jesus what a great king he is. We sing our hosannas to him. We receive the gifts of his grace and forgiveness. And off we go to pursue our lives with Jesus as our king. Let’s see, it took the crowd in Jerusalem five days to turn on him … how long does it usually take you? How long will it be before you complain about the way he’s doing his job because things aren’t going the way you want them to? How long before you give yourself an excuse not to do what he commands? How long will it be before you by your deliberate sins add more accusations to be heaped upon his thorn crowned head? What are these things except to say, “He’s no king of mine. Take him away. Crucify him.” Yes, I definitely think we need to see ourselves in the before and after pictures.
Because if we do we’ll see in Jesus exactly the kind of king we need: one who comes in humility, willing to give himself to suffering and death, righteous and having salvation. And receiving to ourselves once again his blood bought forgiveness, we’ll be empowered by his Spirit to act more like he really is our king, that is, the one with the authority to tell us what to do, and how to serve, and whom to love, and what we must suffer for his name’s sake. And in this way we’ll show ourselves to be his subjects in the before picture, taking up our crosses and following him in humility throughout this life, so that in the after picture we may also share in his kingdom when we behold our king in his glory. May God our Father grant it to us for Jesus our king’s sake. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!