Monday, March 28, 2016

Feel the Tension - Palm Sunday sermon

I had the opportunity to preach at my home church on Palm Sunday. We are in the midst of a broader series and a sub-series called Feel. This week we wanted to feel the tension of Palm Sunday. To do this I wrote three monologues from the perspective of three different people who were in town that day and delivered the majority of the message in character. I drew on a number of resources to weave together the background and a plausible narrative to provide a backdrop to the Gospel accounts. You can listen to the entire message here and I've provided the text of the monologues below. As I say in the sermon introduction, all off these monologues are written from the person's perspective on Palm Sunday, not knowing, as we do, what the days ahead would hold.

Pontius Pilate

Well here I am back in Jerusalem again. How I despise having to come here. Clearly not a place for a civilized person. If fact this whole province of Judea is a god forsaken place. It is so hot, so dry and so dusty and the people here are among the most troublesome in the empire. It is in this place and these pesky jews that I’m to be governor over. Coming from a house as powerful and influential as the Pontii family a governorship was always in my future. I just wish I knew who thought so little of me that it was decided to send me here.

The province of Judea has always been problematic. Ever since the Persians decided to let these people come back they have been a thorn to the power of the day. The greeks kept them in line for a while but they rose up and gained their independence. Of course they couldn’t manage themselves and we Romans had to come in and take over. You see us Romans believe in Law and Order and we make life simple. Obey our law or we’ll put you in order.

When I first came here I tried to show them who was in charge and I had my troops come into Jerusalem bearing the ensign of the emperor. I did it quietly at night and the ensigns never left the garrison but those Jews found out and before I knew it a multitude of Jews were pounding at the gate in protest. For 5 days I refused to hear their petition and when I finally agreed to see the leaders on the sixth day I laid a trap. They came in, I had the guards lock the doors and then told the Jewish leadership they were surrounded and if they did not drop this matter and leave I would kill them where they stood. I was the authority of Rome and I wasn’t going to bend to this conquered people.

Well, that’s when I learned just how stubborn these people were. These crazy kooks got down on their knees and literally stuck their necks out to my soldiers’ swords. It was a gamble and it paid off. As troublesome as these people were I just couldn’t afford to have word get back to Rome that one of my first acts as prefect was to slaughter their religious leaders and incite a rebellion. They people needed to be put in their place but I realized that wasn’t the day and relented to their demands to remove our ensigns, and a bit of roman honour from their precious Jerusalem.

As time went on I learned to work with their leadership. It turned out their high priest Caiaphas and his cohorts were more political savvy than I first gave them credit for. We eventually came to an understanding where I stayed mostly in Caesarea Maritima, where my main administrative offices were, and the high priest and company would largely keep things under control. It really was an arrangement of mutual benefit because if this place blew up again, it would be both our heads on the block.

This arrangement worked and we kept an uneasy peace for many years. We even were able to get things done, like that new aqueduct to Jerusalem. We all knew it was needed but the money had to come from somewhere. We decided that I would “steal” money from the temple to finance the project. Caiaphas and I agreed that he would plead innocence to the people but would keep them in line. It was a win - win. The people saw that I was in charge and could take what I wanted, and Caiaphas was able to save face before the people.

Once Caiaphas and I had learned to work together we managed to keep the peace. Of course it helped that back in Rome my good friend Sejanus was Emperor Tiberius’ number two and was left in charge of the empire while Tiberius tried to retire. Sejenus and I were on the same page about these pesky Jews, they needed to submit to Roman law, Roman culture and Roman gods. These people needed civilization and order whether they knew it or not. That such a tiny, insignificant people should be granted such broad concessions was beyond us. As long as Sejanus was running things I knew I could go a long way before raising the ire of Rome.

At least until now, I could. The problem now is that Sejanus was a little too ambitious was about to try to overthrow Tiberius. Well Tiberius found out and was not pleased. Sejanus was executed. Now all of us who had been his allies are at risk. Tiberius is suspect of anyone who was close with Sejanus and the Jews know it. Tiberius is far too understanding and lenient when it comes to these people, if things get out of control on my watch it’ll be me having to bear my neck to a Roman sword!

Though my position is not nearly as secure as it once was I am still in control. I recently showed this when I took the authority to carry out capital punishment from the Jewish leaders. They’ve always had the freedom to punish their own people for religious crimes, taking away their ability to execute someone because he’s run afoul of their religious laws was a carefully calculated move. I took away just enough authority to show I’m still in charge but not so much as to really warrant them complaining to Tiberius. I figured that I execute criminals all the time, how much trouble could it cause if they have to get my approval to execute the occasional blasphemer? It’s probably a good thing Caiaphas and his cronies can’t execute anyone they deem worthy of death anyway. These jews can’t even get along among themselves, if Caiaphas wasn’t at least partially reigned in, he’d likely start executing his opponents just because he could and start a revolt all on his own.

So here I am in Jerusalem. It’s one of their great annual Passover feast and there will be Jews converging on the city from all over the empire. It’s one of the times I have to be in the city to make sure peace and order are maintained as this is a feast where they celebrate their God freeing them from slavery. I’ve also heard rumors that there’s a popular teacher from Galilee in town and he has Caiaphas and the other religious leaders concerned, apparently he’s been causing quite a stir. There was some kind of commotion when he came into town but I'm sure he won't amount to a thing. These Jews have had their share of such trouble makers who the people believe will deliver them from the might of Rome. Between me and Caiaphas we’ll keep the peace because as much as he frustrates me our necks are in this one together.


What a day. This was exactly the kind of start to Passover I wanted to avoid. It started this morning when Jesus, a rabbi from Nazareth of all places, showed up here in Jerusalem. Until now he's mostly stayed up in Galilee and mostly out of my hair but he's been gathering a frightening amount of support among the people and there have been whispers that he's about to start a revolt.

Those whispers became a shout today. You see it wasn't enough that he came to town, he came to town riding on a colt with the people shouting Hosanna! and waving palm branches. He came in like a king and people loved it and were openly declaring their desire to overthrow Rome and make this Jesus their king. Oh, the last thing I need is this kind of trouble. All that will happen is the Romans will finally have had enough and they'll send a legion and put down any rebellion. People just don't understand how precarious our situation is here. Yes, we're under Roman occupation but we are in the land. We have our temple and we can worship our God!

Truthfully we have it better under these occupiers than we've had under others, and we've had our share of occupiers over the years.

At least the Romans have come to understand we will not bend to their every whim. The Romans were smart when they conquered our land and put Herod in charge. Now Herod was a smart one. He knew how to play both sides. Though he wasn't terribly devout he at least paid lip service to being one of us. Being a close friend of the emperor certainly didn't hurt in his ambitions. Whatever his motivation, he kept the Romans out of our Temple and kept a semblance of peace.

Unfortunately, Herod's son was a disaster and we ended up with direct Roman rule. Rome sent prefects here to keep us in line. The prefect has the full authority of Rome and thus he does as he sees fit. One of the things these prefects have been doing is deciding who is the high priest each year. This of course goes right against the teaching of Moses that said the high priest was installed for life. I guess a little political interference is better than losing everything though. Of course not everyone sees it that way and many see me as just an illegitimate pawn of Rome and my father in law Annis is the true high priest. The thing is he, and my brothers in law didn't know how to work with the the Romans and the last prefect went through all four them in three years. I've been able to make it work for nearly 15 years now. Legitimate or not obviously I know how to get things done, even if I have to bend the rules a bit from time to time.

I had already been high priest for over a decade when Pilate was installed as governor. As it is anytime there is a change of leadership he tried to assert his authority over us early on. He underestimated me and the other jewish leaders and thought we’d easily bend to him. Oh the look on his face when we bared our necks to their swords. It was a calculated move of course. We knew that if he followed through word would get back to Rome and there was no guarantee that the emperor would look kindly on such an action. I think he and I both knew one of us had to blink, I’m just glad it was him.

Such has been the relationship between Pilate and I. We’ve learned where each other’s buttons are and how to push them. At the end of the day though we know that our fates are tied together. Recently however it would seem that his position is weaker than it has been. From what I hear, he hitched his chariot to the wrong horse in Rome and his closest ally has been executed. I wonder how much of a commotion I’d have to make to see that Pilate shared his fate. The trouble is you never know who would be sent in his place…

Anyway back to today and this troublesome Jesus of Nazareth. He really hadn’t been much more than another inconvenience and had largely stayed up in Galilee and out in the countryside. He had plenty of run ins with the teachers of the law, the Pharisees and priests. He had even come to Jerusalem a few times and caused some trouble but I figured he’d go away eventually, they all do. Then last week he pulled something no one has done. People are saying he raised a man from the dead down in Bethany, just a few miles outside of Jerusalem. I don’t know how he did it but word has spread fast. This guy, Lazarus had been dead four days and Jesus just told him to come out of the grave and he did.

I had to call a meeting of the Sanhedrin, our religious leadership council. The trouble was so many people were believing in him and the signs and wonders he was performing were undeniable. If people continued to believe in him, we could lose our authority because he clearly was not one of us. If we couldn’t control the people, the Romans would come and wipe us all out. I had to tell the council that we had no choice, we had to see to it that Jesus was killed. It was better that one man die, than a whole nation perish. We just had to find the right time and place.

We weren’t sure where or when that would be but we figured he would come sometime during Passover. None of us expected he would come into the city like he did today. The donkey, the procession, the waving of the palm branches. He made the task of plotting against him both easier and vastly more difficult at the same time. On the one hand, it could be easier to convince Pilate that Jesus is guilty of treason against Rome. People want to make Him King after all, and of course, we have no king but caesar. On the other hand, so many people are enamoured with him and it will be hard to arrest and try him without a revolt. This is something that must be done with cunning and stealth.

No one understands the pressures I’m facing here. I’ve got thousands of pilgrims here, many of whom are just looking for a reason to rise up again Rome. I’ve got Pilate in town to make sure I keep the people in line and if I don’t, he’s got troops ready to put us in line and this time if he and I face off, I don’t think he will blink. We’ve got to deal with this Jesus before he causes any more disruption.


Wow! What a day! What… a… day. So Jesus came into Jerusalem today and things went crazy. He’s been teaching around Galilee for a few years now and he’s come down here to Jerusalem a few times but never like this. Things really started picking up in recent days. Jesus went to Bethany, just down the road and raised a guy named Lazarus from dead. Now He’s performed many signs and tons of people have been healed but raising a guy from the dead that’s something you just can’t explain away. Ever since that happened everyone is talking about Jesus. He seemed to be laying low for a while but word got out yesterday that he was staying with Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany and so people bee lined it down there to see him and see if Lazarus had really been risen from the dead. Rumor is the priests were already planning to take Jesus out of the picture but after yesterday’s commotion I hear they want to put Lazarus back in that tomb and make sure he never comes out again.

Jesus had to know what he was doing when he came into the city. He had to have known the people would rally like they did. As he approached the villages of Bethany and Bethphage just outside of the city he sent two disciples to retrieve a colt. When someone asked what they were doing taking this colt he told them to say The Lord needs it. The Lord, not the teacher, not the rabbi, not Jesus, simply The Lord. The request carried an authority people rarely see. Few people would be so bold as to call themselves Lord. After his disciples retrieved the colt he sat on it and began riding toward the city. Of course everyone knew the prophecy of Zechariah when he told of the future restoration of our nation, that God would one day punish our enemies and bless Jerusalem again. He said

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

And here he was, this Jesus who had performed so many signs and wonders was riding into Jerusalem. Would it be now, at this Passover when we celebrate God’s great deliverance of our people from their oppressors in Egypt? Could it be now that God would now deliver us from the oppression of Rome? Oh I hope so! Oh how I hope God will finally deliver our people again.

You see it's been hard growing up here in Jerusalem in this age. I’ve always felt torn. Torn between living under Rome and living for God. Torn because I see the rules of the Pharisees, the compromises of the High Priest and the Sadducees, the extremism of the zealots each of them trying to live out how they believe we need to live to be God’s people. To me they all come up short.

I think a lot of people feel as I do. We’ve lived under oppression for much of our people’s history constantly subject to the powers of the day. Even when we were free, it never has really felt free.

There are lots of people who have their ideas of how we should carry on. There are those who believe we should just embrace the Roman way of life, or at least learn to live within it. The Romans haven’t been that bad in the grand scheme of things. They mostly let us worship our God and keep our way of life. They keep the peace and are good for trade. For some living in peace and being able to make a living is enough.

Others, like the Pharisees’ believe we just need to keep God’s law and he will be good to us. Of course in order to keep God’s law we need to keep all of their extra laws just to be sure we stay onside with God. I get the need to obey God’s law, it has been taught to me since before I could speak, but it seems these guys just keep piling rules upon rules. Its been funny to hear about Jesus’ interactions with these guys. Jesus seems to outwit them at every turn. Every time they try to trap him in their rules, he flips it around and shows just how out of line their hearts are.

Jesus’ teaching is always pointing to heart matters. Like one day, they brought a woman caught in adultery before Jesus. According to our law she should have been stoned to death. Everyone knew it was a setup but everyone knew what must be done. Sin was sin and it had to be dealt with. But Jesus just sat there and wrote in the sand and said “whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” Well that’s not what they were expecting and one by one, they dropped their rock and walked away ashamed. To the woman Jesus said “go and sin no more.” It was like Jesus looked right into her heart and saw what really mattered. Its like he sees in all of us what’s in our hearts and who we really are.

To the weary and broken, he brings healing and rest. To the arrogant and proud he brings correction and humility. He is continually re-framing things in ways I have never heard before and it resonates with me. In some ways it also terrifies me. He is using frightening language like whoever follows me will have to take up their cross. That following him will cost everything. That he will pit brother against brother. He doesn’t pull any punches, whatever he is going to do is going to be costly to follow. Whatever it is that is coming, it is sure to come to blows with the Romans and the High priest. If Jesus is really here to free us, He is going to have to go through them first and it won’t be pretty for any of them, or, any of us caught in the middle.

I don’t know if I’m ready to give up the peace that Rome brings or the identity I have as a Jew but if Jesus is truly the one we’ve been waiting for; it will be worth the cost.

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