No Defense

No Defense

Matthew 27:11-26

by Daniel Harrell

Tough loss last night. I watched it, though I’m not sure I followed all that was happening. I’m from North Carolina. Most of my ice comes in iced tea. People play hockey down south, there are even pro teams, but nobody knows why. Sadly, your number one Golden Gophers are now number two. Tiny Union College from Schenectady defeated Minnesota 7-4 to win their first Division I National Championship in their first-ever appearance, despite being outnumbered 14-1 in NHL draft picks. Union’s lone draft pick finished the game at a mind-boggling plus-7, though I have no idea what that means. I just copied it from Sports Illustrated this morning. I’m sure somebody will explain.

My interest in college hockey last night, aside from my being a sports fan in general and my ongoing effort to adapt to Minnesota culture, came after reading about the craziness in Dinkeytown following the U’s miraculous last-second victory over North Dakota on Thursday. Nine students were arrested during a wild street celebration sparked by the Gophers’ win. A jubilant throng climbed light poles, clambered on top of a police cruiser, threw bottles and otherwise pushed the patience of police sent to quell the scene. Social media lit up with videos and pictures of the ruckus. Officers responded by firing tear gas and paintball guns into the crowds.

I imagine it was something like the first Palm Sunday. A wild street celebration ushered Jesus into Jerusalem sparked by his numerous last-second miracles—restoring sight, exorcising demons, calming storms, walking on water, feeding thousands from a single bag lunch. Palm Sunday’s jubilant throng climbed palm trees and brought down branches as pompoms; they threw their clothes in Jesus’ path and shouted “Hosanna!” and “You da king” as they anticipated Jesus’ certain defeat of the evil Roman empire in the championship game. Officials on the scene—religious leaders envious of Jesus’ superstar status—responded with scolding as they ordered the crowds to cool it. They warned they’d pull out their own tear gas and paintballs if everybody didn’t calm down. But Jesus said it wouldn’t do any good. “If these people kept silent, the stones would shout out.” All creation was created to worship the one who is true Lord of all.

That Jesus welcomed praise is surprising given last Sunday’s gag order. In Mark’s gospel, we read how the disciples finally understood Jesus to be the Messiah God promised would come to save the world, only to have Jesus order them not to tell anybody. Strange. If God so loved the world that he sent his Son to save it, why keep it quiet? This was supposed to be good news. However, Jesus soon explained what his salvation game plan looked like—effectively throwing the championship even though he was ranked number one. The frustrated disciples tried to talk Jesus into changing his mind and coming up with a better strategy; you know, unleash a few fireballs from heaven. But Jesus fiercely shot back that they had their priorities out of whack. “You’re thinking only about yourselves and not about the way God works.”

Palm Sunday, called Passion Sunday in some churches, presents quite the contradiction. Coming in Jesus gets hailed as King of the Jews. By the end he gets nailed as King of the Jews and does nothing to stop it. What kind of God works like this? It’s one thing to lose a good game—to shame in that. But to throw the game on purpose and squander everything for no reason? The hosannas quickly sour into hatred. Palm Sunday’s laudatory horde becomes Good Friday’s lynch mob. Disappointment demands a scapegoat. They want him dead for dashing their hopes and ruining their dream season. It was in inexcusable loss. Though Jesus embodies God’s word on earth, he never says a word in defense of himself. We’ve spent our Lent speaking of silence in Scripture. Nowhere is the silence so loud as here.

That Jesus was hailed with hosannas as king fulfilled ancient prophecy about the Messiah to come. Zechariah foretold a humble king riding on a donkey, which Jesus staged just right by having his disciples sequester a donkey to ride into the city. Psalm 118 predicted the palm branches and hosannas. Anybody who’d read their Old Testaments understood what was happening. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has given us light. The LORD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation!” Jesus arranged the scene so they’d make no mistake.

The problem, of course, as with all Bible-reading, is people tend to skip over parts they don’t like. Zechariah promised a humble king on a colt, who in Isaiah gets humiliated as God’s suffering servant with “no form or Majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Psalm 118 has the hosannas, and Psalm 39 has the silence: “I do not open my mouth, for you, O Lord, are the one who has scourged me; I am overcome by the blows of your hand.”

That Jesus stays silent in self-defense before Pilate is deliberate. Just as saddling up that donkey cued the crowd to sing hosanna, so being led as a lamb to the slaughter signaled his role as crucified king. Pilate asked Jesus point-blank whether he truly was King, to which Jesus replied with a sort of snarky, “you say so.” This admission would be the charge hung above his head on the cross. Pilate didn’t really believe it; but as a politician to the core, he was concerned more for political expediency than justice. He viewed Jesus as essentially harmless and his accusers as spiteful, but viewing his poll numbers, he let the whole matter go up for a vote. Employing a custom of prisoner release for Passover, he presented the people what should have been no-brainer: a choice between Jesus Barabbas—a notorious murderer—or Jesus Christ—the famous do-gooder. Ancient historians depict Pilate as a petty tyrant, but the gospels give the sense that he knows the right thing to do. Instead, swayed by the crowd, he caves and washes his hands of any responsibility. Matthew has the vicious mob taking it all on themselves: “His blood be on us and on our children!” they screamed. This verse led to centuries of vicious anti-Semitic revenge by Christians, forgetting, on purpose, that Jesus was Jewish.

Jesus’ deliberate, self-conscious silence conveyed his awareness of himself as the kind of Messiah God had always intended to send. As Isaiah prophesied, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Jesus’ followers, looking back, would connect the paradoxical dots: The Great High Priest is the sacrifice. The Good Shepherd is the slaughtered sheep. The Lion of Judah is the Lamb of God who conquers not by inflicting death, but by dying. Crucifixion is not some passing, one-and-done occurrence in the saga of salvation. Crucifixion indelibly stamps its mark on the eternal identity of Jesus as the crucified God.

The problem, of course, as with all Bible-reading, is we tend to skip over parts we don’t like. How to make sense of senseless death? Why suffer for the sins of the world? Why not pardon and obliterate with a sweep of your hand? Dominate and win the game in a rout with a mind-boggling plus-7. The best testimonies are told by the winners: the prize-winning athlete, the accomplished scholar, the money-making businessman, the award-winning author, the soul-winning missionary, the popular preacher, the parent of behaving children, the recovered addict, the patient restored to health. These are the models of faith we prefer. We don’t want to hear about the losers or the outcasts, the relapsed addict or the patient whose cancer kills them anyway. Why would we? Who wants to spend life unhappy and depressed?

Columnist David Brooks observed this week how Amazon released more than 1000 books about being happy over the course of three months last year. And yet when you ask people to tell their stories, the stories they tell, the events that shaped their souls are always the harder tales of the times they suffered. This is what changes us. Brooks writes,“Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. People don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.”

Think of the horror story out of Willmar. 19-year-old Brok Junkermeier conspired with a friend to rob his grandmother. Once in the house, Junkermeier brutally murdered the petite Lila Warwick. At the trial, Junkermeier stunned his attorney by pleading guilty and got life life in prison with no possibility of parole. He recounted how the 79-year-old woman he strangled and stabbed, a devoted Christian and churchgoer, gave him grace just before. Lila Warwick told him that God loved him and could help him. Last Wednesday, Junkermeier confessed in the teary courtroom that he regrets not accepting. “If I had listened to her kind voice and loving words,” he said, “I would not be sitting before you today.”

Warwick’s own daughter replied how “the battle of hatred versus mercy is one that has played out often in my mind in these days. Hatred and revenge come easily, and I tell myself I am justified in doing so. Since my mom’s death, I have had a compass to guide me. Quite simply, it’s been a compass to honor her. Despite every graphic and appalling word I’ve heard and witnessed, I do not hate. Returning hatred for hatred and evil for evil: She would not, nor will I. In this, I will honor her.”

The murderer’s attorney admitted he had never witnessed such grace and generosity as was shown by the victim’s family. “It’s unbelievable. It’s commendable. And it’s not something I would have within me.”

Skeptics wonder what kind of God would allow such horrific evil to happen in the first place. Some say Jesus wondered the same. Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ dying last words as a cry of lament: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The silence of Jesus gives way to the silence of God. To this day, the awful response of God to evil remains his silence. Luke substitutes “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” as Jesus’ last words, which sound initially like a statement of calm resignation, putting God the Father in more favorable light. But like Jesus’ last words in Matthew and Mark, taken verbatim from Psalm 22, readers who refuse to skip pages will recognize Jesus’ last words in Luke to be from Psalm 31, another desperate appeal for God’s intervention: “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow,  and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.”

Jesus deliberately stays silent before Pilate and brings Isaiah to fulfillment. When he finally speaks from the cross he speaks from the Psalms of lament. God stays silent and allows the evil, further prodding skeptics to malign a heavenly Father who would commit what looks like savage child abandonment and abuse. However, in the mystery of trinity, the Jesus who silently suffered and died was God the Father himself, crucified for sin and suffering with those whose voices never get heard. Moreover, in the mystery of incarnation, the Son of God who suffered and died did so as a human being. Jesus who is one with God is also one with us. What happened to Him happened to us. Jesus died and took our sin and sorrow down with him. And then on Easter he rose to bring us back up. The apostle Paul realized this first hand: “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The new life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me.” And yet even in resurrection victory, Jesus still wears the telltale scars of his slaughter. He refuses to hide the evidence of his hurt. The Christ who lives in us is the crucified God.

Christ’s death and resurrection is not simply about turning a sad thing into a happy thing. Such a view of crucifixion is trivial and patronizing. Jesus’ crucifixion was a horrible and appalling injustice. And it’s never saved anybody from suffering and dying. Instead, Jesus deliberately and willfully saves through suffering, through death, turning a horrible thing somehow into a holy thing—holy in that terrible, awesome way God’s grace both overwhelms and silences us. Unjust suffering somehow is redeemed as sacred, a scandalous idea to so many, as offensive as the cross itself.

This is a very difficult teaching.

One of the commenters to the David Brooks column recalled a quote made famous by Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis on the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Informing the huge crowd of King’s murder—just a few months before his own—Kennedy tried to make some sense of it with words taken and re-contextualized from the ancient Greek tragedian, Aeschylus: “He who learns must suffer,” Kennedy intoned, “And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” Cities all across America erupted in racial violence that night—but not Indianapolis.

This is a very difficult teaching. Better to pick and choose happy passages to preach, skipping over pages too disturbing and distressing to read. We should keep Palm Sunday festive and fun! Don’t dredge up all the solemn and silent doom and gloom of Holy Week! Forget the gore of Good Friday, for Christ’s sake! Jesus died and rose already! Let’s just do brunch on Easter!