Tonight we will hear three reading from the Gospel according to Matthew. We began with the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, and then quickly moved to the story of the last supper. At the end of tonight’s liturgy we will hear the story of Gethsemane, and the stage will then be set for the reading of the Passion story on Good Friday. That’s the hardest story—the bleakest story—but it must be heard before we can dare to proclaim the Easter gospel.
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Beginning tonight, we enter a week marked by heartbreak and by disappointed hopes and dashed dreams. It is there even in the story of the entry into Jerusalem. The section heading in many bibles names that passage something like “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” Triumphal? Only in an upside down sort of way; only in retrospect, and only when all of the usual notions of triumph, victory, and power have been overturned.
In the narrative flow set out by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ ministry has all taken place outside of the city of Jerusalem, mostly up north in Galilee. His twelve disciples and the others who have traveled the countryside with him have listened to his teaching, borne witness as he restored people to health in both body and spirit, seen amazing things happen through his presence, and then heard him begin speak of the need to go to Jerusalem. In the early days they’d recognized him to be a teacher—a rabbi—of compelling authority. He’d said, “Follow me,” and they had. Leaving the security of home and family and familiar work, they’d followed. As days and weeks on the road turned to months and years, it had slowly dawned on them that he was more than a teacher, and they began to whisper words like “Christos”—anointed one—Son of David, Messiah. Yes… but. Careful with your assumptions about what a Messiah is meant to bring. He began to speak about his having to die, but they wanted to hear none of that. They were increasingly sure that he was going to bring in a new kingdom, and even jockeyed over who would get positions of honour when the victory was won and the new order established.
“Hosanna,” they cried out as they approached the city gates. Hosanna, which means “save us”.
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
Never mind his talk of dying and rising—that must be a metaphor, a symbol, some sort of little parable. We’re on the last stretch of road into Jerusalem, and we can taste the promise of a new beginning. And it is not just the disciples, either, but crowds. They knew what they’d been living with under the Roman Empire; pax Romana—Roman peace, administered with an iron fist—and Pontius Pilate, the prefect for the province of Judea, was a particularly ruthless dispenser of Roman justice. The Son of David? Save us!
They had a collective memory, too, of another empire being thrown off by a peoples’ movement. Less than two hundred years earlier and against all reasonable odds, Judas Maccabeus had led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire, taking Jerusalem and its grand temple back from the oppressors. And when those Maccabean rebels had marched in victory into Jerusalem, they had waved palm branches as a sign of their victory.
Now here, a “very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” It is happening again!
Or not. As the days unfolded, Jesus showed no sign of mounting a revolt. The closest thing to a rebellious act was to chase the merchants and moneychangers from the temple, but that had nothing to do with the machinery of the Empire. Day after day he taught in the market and by the temple, and day after day he debated with the priests and the scribes, the Pharisees and Sadducees. He wasn’t drawing the people together, and in fact if anything he was alienating those who wielded the most clout within the Judean establishment. But he must know what he is doing… mustn’t he? Yet what if he doesn’t?
Then came the night that he sat down to share that meal with them, and his words became even more enigmatic. Taking the familiar symbolic foods of a Passover meal—the bread and the wine—he spoke strange words about his blood and his body. Here the heartbreak becomes most vivid, for who is at that meal with him, and who shares in that bread and wine? It is a company of disciples who will vow to stand strong with him, but who in just a little while will flee in fear into the darkness of the night. Peter—oh Peter, the most enthusiastic of all of the company—who will not only flee, but deny ever even knowing him. And Judas. Judas is there, taking that bread and wine and hearing those words, all the time quite deeply aware of what he had set in motion.
It isn’t altogether clear what has motivated Judas. In John’s gospel he is presented as greedy and self-serving; elsewhere it is suggested that he has surrendered to a spirit of evil. Maybe he was just disappointed that this wasn’t looking like a rebellion after all, and just wanted to cut his losses, take the thirty pieces of silver, and head home to restart his life. Maybe he thought that by bringing about the arrest he’d actually spark the revolution into life. Maybe he didn’t have a clue.
But Jesus knew. And looking at him across the food and drink that had been set out for their meal, that can only have been heart breaking. Three years we spent together, Judas. Three years, and it is going to end in this. Looking at all of them, wide-eyed and wondering and still thinking about who was going to sit where in the Kingdom no matter what he tried to say about his broken body and spilled blood. Three years, and you still can’t see it.
And then it is out into the darkness of Gethsemane, where he will voice his agonizing prayer. O my God, if this could only end differently. Isn’t there another way? Silence. Tears. I will. I will because I believe that it is your will. Silence. Agonizingly dark, cold, heart rending silence.
“Get up,” he says to his sleeping disciples. “Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”