We are about to celebrate perhaps the most important of events in history. As we head into one of the most familiar stories of the Christian faith, I wanted to look at some of the events that perhaps we have simply skimmed over in the past, or perhaps even pre-judged following years of assuming things about the story.
We live in days of 24/7 news. There are frequently reports of things that are due to be said, before they ever cross the lips of those who are going to say them, and endless analysis it is difficult to look at this story with anything other than the lens of familiarity. When the news actually happens, we almost don’t hear it because it has already been reported as being about to happen. Nothing is new anymore.
It is very easy to view the Easter story with the same lens. We know how the Easter story ends, and therefore, even with the best of intentions our minds can skip quickly to the resurrection and the barbecue by the seaside. Part of that may well be that whilst we want to appreciate all that Christ went through for us on His way to the cross, we would rather not be bothered with the gruesome (and gruesome they are) details.
I wonder, if we have ever considered the crowd that gathered on Palm Sunday as anything but fickle and two faced? One week they were shouting “Hosanna”, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” There was a huge celebration. They recognised who Jesus was and what He had come to do.
It is true that they were there for “the Feast”, but how had they found out about Jesus? Did they just suddenly appear, or had they been following Him around for a while? We are familiar and comfortable with the disciples travelling around with Jesus. A nice relatively small group of men, following their Rabbi wherever He went, learning from Him, and trying to do what their Rabbi did. If we look a little further back in the gospel of John however, we find Jesus at the home of His friend Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha. Lazarus had died four days previously, and the Jewish period of mourning had well and truly begun. Extended family, friends and probably professional mourners had gathered to help the sisters in their time of grief.
As Jesus stopped at the tomb of Lazarus, a large group had gathered, primarily to support Mary and Martha. They were only too aware of what was behind the stone of the tomb. When the man who they knew had died walked out, they were now very aware of who Jesus was, and the power that He had. A miracle, and they became followers of Jesus too. That isn’t something we should be surprised about really. Jesus himself taught that a demonstration of heaven was to be expected. Show them, then explain to them what its all about was his modus operandi. This crowd (for that is what John records it was) followed Jesus to Jerusalem, and freely and excitedly called to all who were in earshot “Hosanna – He saves”
A week later, we are expected to believe that they were crying for His blood? That is what I read and accepted for decades, without question. The more I think about it though, the more I wonder if it was the same crowd.
Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. This feast was to commemorate the meal that was eaten just before the Israelites left Egypt. It reminded them that the Angel of the Lord had passed over their dwellings. When one looks in details at this feast and all it involves, one can start to appreciate what actually happened on that first ‘Good Friday’.
The meal follows lots of readings from the Torah, and many prayers. For most of these proceedings, those taking part have had nothing to eat, save some bitter herbs dipped in horseradish. Towards the end, as the candlelight begins to dim, a meat or fish course is served, with bread, and at least (because there are still prayers and scriptures) four cups of wine. I know how I feel after a large meal, and especially if I have consumed even one glass of wine, let alone four. All I want is to slip of to the sofa and close my eyes. Even more so if the meal doesn’t finish until well into the small hours of the next day.
And this is where we meet another group of people who get a bad press at Easter. Peter, James and John were asked by Jesus to stay awake and keep guard, yet they fell asleep, not once but three times. If you consider that they too had just finished the Passover meal with Jesus, and were full tired, perhaps it is a little more understandable why they were struggling.
We know the next part of the story well. A night-time trial, and sentence followed. A crowd baying for Jesus to be crucified, and for Barabbas to be freed. Could this really be the same crowd that were shouting Hosanna?
I want to suggest that it wasn’t. The chances are that this crowd was made up of the Sadducees, and their followers. Those that had heralded the entry of Jesus a week before, were still in bed, following the Passover meal. They were shocked to see Jesus, beaten and bloodied, carrying a cross towards a hill outside the city. Those who had cried for His death, had no desire to keep the law in this instance. All they were concerned with was getting rid of the man who was threatening to challenge their status as leaders.
I think this raises an important question about the crowds who saw the miracle of Lazarus and believed and followed Jesus. Just a chapter later, in John 12, we read that even after Jesus had done “all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in Him”. What was the difference in the two groups of people? Why did one group see and believe, and one see and still not believe? I think that certainly with the second group, they had already made up their minds about what was acceptable. They had very clear ideas about how the Messiah was going to appear, what He was going to do, and how He was going to act. Jesus challenged all of these convictions with both His actions and speech. They were so convinced that they were right, that nothing other than that could possibly be from God. Have we so boxed God up that we are not prepared to allow Him space to be God? That may be in our church meetings, our homes or in our lives individually. We need to remember that He is God and we are not. As a friend of mine once said “It is God’s house, He is allowed to move the furniture if He wants to.” Bill Johnson once said that “God will never contradict His word, but He has no problem at all with contradicting our interpretation of His Word.” Let’s not be the ones who get in the way of others believing because of our preconceptions.
Finally, may I challenge you to read the story again, and consider the bits that you usually skim over. Try and put yourself in the story, as if you were there. What was it like for those that were there? How would you react, knowing what you do about the facts?