Sermon for April 10, 2022

Passion and Palm Sunday, Luke 23:1-49

Preaching week after week on passages from Luke, I’ve been struck by how Jesus consistently is found amidst the crowds in Luke’s telling. I’ve called attention to this repeatedly in my sermons in the past months. Beginning from Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, where Jesus was one among many in the crowd to be baptized, Jesus always seems to end up amidst the teeming throngs of people.

In short, Jesus in Luke loves to be amidst the crowds, and he does his best work right in the thick of things. This proclivity continues to be true in the Passion according to Luke, much of which you just heard read.

Here’s a summary of how the crowds appear in connection with Jesus in Luke’s Passion:

  • At the time of Jesus’ grand entry into Jerusalem, crowds of people spread their cloaks on the road, and the multitude of the disciples praised God with a loud voice, saying “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:36-40) Thus, the crowds begin with great enthusiasm, echoing the song of the angels announcing Jesus’ birth.
  • Later at night, the mood turns darker as a crowd suddenly showed up at the Mount of Olives when Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. (Luke 22:47ff.)
  • Then the assembly of the elders of the people were akin to a crowd when Jesus was on trial before the religious council. (Luke 22:66ff.) The religious authorities took a lead in turning public opinion against Jesus.
  • Those crowds clamored saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor.” (Luke 23:2)
  • Then the crowd insisted, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.” (Luke 23:5) The crowds begin to take on the manner of a mob.
  • After Pilate called together the crowd of chief priests, the leaders and the people (Luke 23:13) shouted all together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (Luke 23:18ff.)
  • And the crowds kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:21)
  • Despite Pilate’s pleas, they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that Jesus should be crucified; and their voices prevailed” (Luke 23:23) That is to say, the mob ruled.
  • As Jesus was crucified, the crowds of people stood by, watching (Luke 23:35), a passive stance with no one taking any lead in trying to prevent this travesty. Evil triumphs when otherwise good people do nothing….
  • Finally, after Jesus died and the show was over, Luke reports that “when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48). They were there for the spectacle, a perverse form of entertainment, not unlike the crowds of onlookers who were present for lynchings in the history of our own country. All the throngs had to show for their participation was stirred emotions – anger, fear, grievance, a spirit of violence – all indicated by their going home beating their breasts.

In short, the Passion according to Luke reveals the fickleness of the crowds, how they blew hot and cold, starting with great enthusiasm, but then quickly turning on Jesus and ending up with a mob mentality, all riled up with no place for that emotional energy to go except to cause grave damage, ultimately Jesus’ death at the hands of Roman authorities who caved to the mob’s wishes.

Crowds of human beings are like that. We are given to a mob mentality all too easily, as we have been seeing in our own nation and world of late.

But Jesus, true to form in Luke, remains in the crowd, remains for the crowd. The prophet Isaiah, in his suffering servant song in today’s first reading, points us to how Jesus, in public ministry long after Isaiah prophesied, responded to the throngs. Isaiah’s words could be those of Jesus: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:6)

Indeed, here’s the gospel truth: even if the crowds turn on Jesus, Jesus does not turn on the crowds, but stays right in the midst of the throngs, even the mobs.

The bad news is that crowds are fickle and embody communally some of the most extreme features of human sin, the crowds giving people the permission to act their worst.

The good news is that Jesus is steadfast in his love for the throngs even when they violently betray him in a way which ended up with him being put to death. Jesus simply would not turn on or abandon the crowds to which he was drawn since the first moments of his public ministry at his baptism amidst the throngs of people.

Indeed, for the sake of the crowds, Jesus emptied himself. As the Apostle Paul puts it in the great Christ hymn that is the focus of today’s reading from Philippians, Christ Jesus “relinquished it all, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, Christ humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8)

And there from the cross, Jesus forgave the crowds: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Still, the crowds forsook Jesus, leaving the spectacle and returning home, again, beating their breasts.

But that’s not the end of the story. In the absence of the crowds, so much more was accomplished in these last hours of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and in the three days beyond. In short, life and death contended, again suggested by the suffering servant song in Isaiah: “Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” (Isaiah 50:8) Jesus’ most real, cosmic adversaries with whom he contended were ultimately the mob-like forces of sin and death expressed in the violent energies of the throngs, who were captivated by the powers and principalities of this world about which Paul writes elsewhere.

And when that battle stupendous was over, when God raised Jesus victorious from the grave, then other crowds and throngs would return, drawn by the Spirit of the living Christ, suggested in the Philippians Christ hymn: “Therefore God also highly exalted [Jesus] and gave him the name that is above very name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11) Every knee bending, every tongue confessing is indication of the assembling of another crowd, in this case, of believers.

We are such a crowd gathered here today. We are among the billions over the centuries and now in our current day whose tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord as we bend our knees in worshipful adoration to the glory of God.

And in our usual routine, we are sent from this place and this weekly time together, having been fed in word and sacrament, and with our faith thus renewed and strengthened, we go back into the crowds, the teeming throngs, and even mobs of people, with the confession on our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord, expressed not just in our words, but in our deeds of loving, thankful service in Jesus’ name right in the thick of things, where Jesus continues to do his best work. Thanks be to God for the wonder of it all. Amen.