It’s Palm Sunday. Earlier this morning our children waved palm branches and threw symbolic clothing at the feet of a donkey. The banners above me and the first songs we sang called out “hosanna” all to remember and celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. For many churches the sole story of the day will be the hosannas. For many the songs of this morning will soon give way to the grand Easter songs of resurrection. But, I worry that in our rush from the joy of Palm Sunday to the Easter celebration we miss what happens in-between. If we are going to move past the Jesus of the old church pictures where we see him in white flowing robes, a lily complexion, a pleasant smile and a hallow floating just behind his head and follow the Jesus of Scripture, then we must follow him into the streets and ultimately to the cross.
If we want to get so close to Jesus that we can see the sweat on his brow and feel his breath on our flesh that we must follow him and witness the struggle of Holy week. As we walk beside him, we watch as he clears the temple of the moneychangers. We listen as he responds to the challenges of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and religious elders. We stand at his side as he teaches his disciples in the Upper Room. We walk beside him through a series of ridiculous trails trying to find guilt in the midst of innocence. Our heart breaks as we listen to the cries of the crowd yell “crucify him!” We walk with Jesus as he makes his way from Pilate to Calvary. In the journey we have seen him beaten and a piercing crown of thrones forced down upon his head. We walk with Jesus as he bares the weight of the cross and makes his way through the streets toward the hill at a distance. We are there as cross timber is connected to the central beam and Jesus is nailed to the cross. The Romans did not invent the cross, but they had perfected its use as a tool of humiliation, torture, agony and death. We can feel the jolt of Jesus’ bones as the cross drops into the hole. Two are being crucified along with Jesus. Above Jesus we see the mocking placard placed by Pilate that reads “King of the Jews.”
Along the hill’s edge we listen as Mary, the mother of Jesus and a collection of other woman weep aloud, brokenhearted by what they see. The soldiers are just a few feet away from the foot of Jesus’ cross gambling for the last remaining possessions of the three. The crowd that once shouted songs of celebration had turned on Jesus and joined in the chorus of “crucify him!” Now they stand and watch as bystanders to a moment that changed everything. The religious rulers sneered at him. They called out, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers joined their mocking; “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
As we draw closer to the cross we listen to a conversation play out that is all too often a forgotten part of the story we tell. One of the criminals joins the chorus. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” These words drip with sarcasm. The criminal is not looking for a way out. He knows that death awaits him. But, for a moment he does not have to focus on his own pain. For a moment he does not have to deal with his own crimes and failures. For a moment he can add to the agony of another. In our era this is the voice of the sarcastic skeptic that has no room for faith in their lives. In our era, this is the voice of rejection of God’s great love for us.
Listen again to his words; “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” If I close my eyes and try to picture this moment, the face of the criminal seems to change in nature, taking on the face of evil. His words so eerily echo Satan’s words of temptation to Jesus at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.” (Luke 4:9) This is the call for Jesus to choose a different path, to use a dramatic act that would endear him to the crowds instantly. If he would choose to fall to the temptation he would instantly have throngs of followers coming to his feet. If he chose to respond, the pain and the agony would be over. If he would throw himself off the cross he would be free and famous without the suffering and death that is his Father’s will? “[i] How many of us would have looked for a way, anyway, out of the pain and suffering? But fame and freedom from pain and suffering is not why Jesus left the glory of heaven and came to earth to do. The sarcastic voice of evil cannot define the day.
A second voice cries out. The gospels of Matthew and John tell us that both the bandits at Jesus’ side mocked him. But as we listen to Luke’s account something has happened. It seems one has had a change of heart. Maybe it was because of what he witnessed. Maybe it was because of what he saw on Jesus’ face. Maybe it was the moment when he heard Jesus prays out loud for those around him, praying “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) I do not know that triggered the change, but his words and his heart changes and he calls out to the one that continued to mock Jesus. Luke tells us; 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” LaJuanda Speegle introduced me to a different take on these words. They are from the Amplified Bible, a translation that gives us words that help cast additional light on what the passage is trying to communicate. The Amplified Bible offers depicts this other criminal words this way; 40 But the other one reproved him, saying, Do you not even fear God, seeing you yourself are under the same sentence of condemnation and suffering the same penalty? 41 And we indeed suffer it justly, receiving the due reward of our actions; but this Man has done nothing out of the way [nothing strange or eccentric or perverse or unreasonable]. Eugene Peterson’s interpretative translation, The Message, offers it this way; But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.”
I offer so many different ways to hear the words of this second criminal hanging on the cross next to Jesus because we have to understand the power of what he is say and what it means for us. The two hang on the cross in punishment for what they have done. While the cross is a horrible barbaric tool for justice, the two criminals hang on the cross because it is just for them to die there. But Jesus has done nothing to deserve death by the cross. He has not broken the law. He has not sinned. He has only loved and pointed people to the way of God. My heart broke last week in worship when as a part of the musical drama Celebrate Life Bruce voiced the pain of Jesus’ disciple, John, crying out; “Is love so horrible to look at that we kill it?” Even the Roman Centurion that witnessed Jesus on the cross proclaimed Jesus’ innocents and righteousness. But clearly something is happening for an innocent man to pay such an incredible price. This is more than an act of injustice. This is more than an act of religious or political intrigue. This hard and horrible moment is an act of God on our behalf.
At the top of the worship guide you find Romans 8:1-4. Look at it and hear it while I read it for us.Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
The early church used this passage as a critical tool of instruction to explain the necessity of the cross. This was not an act to fulfill some blood lust God demanded. This was not an act of divine brutality. The picture of Jesus dying on cross broke the heart of God. The sky grew dark and the earth shook at its very foundation. The curtain in the Temple that was supposed to define God’s place on earth was ripped from seam to seam. In this moment the one who had not sinned took on our sin. In the moment the very presence of God takes on what is worst and ugliest about us and takes it to the grave with him. Jesus could take no short cut. Our sin and the way of redemption required the cross. In this moment Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In this moment Jesus does for us what only God can do. In this moment Jesus takes on condemnation that is rightly ours that we might be redeemed. He makes the way for salvation for us. Jesus is God’s compassionate love, born not in law – in religious rules and regulations, but a love that overcomes the law. Jesus is the face of God’s loving grace.
That criminal on the cross next to Jesus is like all of us. In the face of Jesus we see the face of God. In the face of Jesus we find our way to become children of God. His faith, like our faith, is embraced by Jesus. Listen closely. 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Soon we will come to Easter and will celebrate that our walk with God is not defined by death but by life and life eternal. Soon we will sing out to the world that “he is risen, just as he said.” Soon we will come to Easter, but first we must find ourselves at the foot of cross. We belong here because we are responsible. We belong here because God grand act of grace is unfolding before us. Listen to the voices of witnesses of the cross. Their story is our story. God is at work. Salvation awaits us. How will we respond?