BystanderThere were really two parades that Sunday: did you know that? There were two parades coming into Jerusalem – and one of them was this prophet from Nazareth, Jesus. That’s the one you all probably know about. The other parade was Pontius Pilate: you’ve heard of him, I suppose — we can’t HELP but hear of him. He’s here even when he isn’t here – telling us what we can and cannot do, telling who we are, telling who we belong to. He always comes to town right before the Passover. He wants to make sure the celebrations didn’t get out of hand, you know. Everybody remembering when we were slaves in Egypt, and how God set us free: it might be dangerous you know. You never know what might happen when we start telling those old stories from the Scriptures. So he or someone like him always came to Jerusalem right before the Passover. They came with soldiers and with weapons and with great display of power and might. It sends a message doesn’t it? It’s supposed to: just like all of the crosses that are always lined up along the roads. They send a message, too.
(Based on the gospel of Matthew)
(Based on the gospel of Matthew)
But I didn’t go to Pilate’s parade. I went to see Jesus, that prophet from Nazareth. I had heard stories about him – never met the man, you understand – but I was curious, and – I’ll admit – a little hopeful, too. Now, I just want to be clear about one thing: I’m not one of his followers, not one of those disciples form Galilee who came to Jerusalem with him. They’re a little too – oh – enthusiastic for me, a little too radical, if that’s the right word. They really believe in him, and perhaps if I had seen the things they have seen, I’d feel the way they do. Perhaps if I had really seen the healings that they talk about, heard the sermons that they talk about, if I had really sat down to eat and drink with him, I’d feel differently. But I had just heard stories, and, like I said, I was curious. Anyway, that’s more in my nature: observer, not follower. I don’t like to get too involved. But I did go to the parade, and I saw him: Jesus of Nazareth, riding in on a colt, just like the prophet said the Messiah would. And even though I am an observer by nature, a bystander, some might say, I found myself shouting along with everyone else, "Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord!" Hosanna! Hosanna!" I’m sure you know how I feel. The excitement, the hope, it was contagious. We were all waving palm branches. People were putting their coats on the ground. There was shouting, and a buzz of excitement, people asking, "Who is this? Who is this?" Somehow I found myself just – lifted up – by the hope, the possibilities: could it really be? Could it be our time again? Could Jerusalem be great again? That’s what I was thinking – and perhaps other people too. Here we are – we are occupied people – we’re small, and insignificant, and we’re ruled by others. But maybe – maybe – we can be great again. That’s what I was thinking. I’ll bet that’s what a lot of people were thinking.
It was sort of a shock then when Jesus went right into the temple, and drove out the money changers, and turned over the tables. We were shouting and singing and feeling good, and then – then came crashing and shouting. Jesus was saying, "My house will be called a house of prayer – but you have made it a den of thieves!" I could tell the religious leaders were very upset then. I had stopped shouting myself, and I was back to being a bystander, an observer. I was watching, again. And I had an ominous feeling then, that this would come to no good end. Something bad is going to happen. Maybe not right away, but soon. Something bad is going to happen.
For several days then Jesus stayed in Jerusalem, and I was a bystander, an observer then. I listened to stories that – I’ll be honest with you – I didn’t understand – stories about banquet tables and unfaithful servants and a wedding banquet where some of the guests were prepared and some weren’t. He told terrible stories about times of tribulation and how people might suffer, and how we should be prepared. He told a story about the sheep and the goats, and how the King, the real king, would be found with the poor and the hungry and the suffering, and those in prison. I have to admit, that one got me, especially after the two parades on Sunday. I had to think about that. Well, I hung around in the distance all week, watching and listening and mostly not understanding. I leaned against the corners of buildings, so I could walk away if I had to. I’m a bystander, like I said. But I was curious.
And on Friday... well, I have to admit, though I am ashamed to now, that I was there as well on Friday. I was a bystander on that terrible Friday, when he walked through the streets on the way to the cross. I was there. And I’ll tell you: there were no followers then, no one waving palms, no one helping him. There were a few women, but all those followers? Where were they? They were gone. Instead there were soldiers, mockers – and bystanders. Me. You know what a bystander is, don’t you? It’s someone who doesn’t want to get involved. Well, there was that one man – Simon, I think his name was – they made him carry Jesus’ cross for a little while – but they made him do it. He didn’t volunteer. By Friday, all the followers had turned into bystanders. Some of us had even shouted, "Let him be crucified!" with the same enthusiasm that we had shouted "Hosanna!" earlier. We did. I don’t know exactly why. Except that maybe we were scared. Thinking about him throwing people out of the temple, and thinking about the stories that I didn’t understand, and thinking about how angry he made certain people, powerful people: I got scared. So I was there. As a bystander.
I wasn’t one of the religious leaders, I want you to know that. I wasn’t one of the mockers. And I wasn’t one of the soldiers either. I thought: maybe Elijah will rescue him. Maybe at the last minute an angel will come, like it did in the Scriptures when Abraham was supposed to sacrifice his son Isaac. You know the story? Abraham takes his son up to the mountain, and he is just about to raise a knife to him, when suddenly an angel says: "Stop!" I thought there might be an angel – but there wasn’t. Just that terrible cry, and then he died. That’s what I saw, and that’s what I heard. And I heard the earthquake, and I felt the ground shaking beneath my feet, and I got a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. And I couldn’t help thinking: What have we done? What have we done?
But that’s not the only question I ask myself, since that Friday. I also ask myself, and wonder: What has God done? I wonder about that, having heard the cry from the cross, and having felt the earth move beneath my feet. What has God done? For somehow I know that God was there that Friday, in some strange way – and not in the earthquake, even though that seems the likeliest place. No, it wasn’t in the earthquake, or in the darkness that covered the earth, that I felt God’s presence. It was in the man – that prophet Jesus from Nazareth – the one who died – the one who told those stories I didn’t understand, who got so angry in the temple. It was in the man who died. Didn’t he say once that the true King would be found among the poor and the homeless, the sick and the prisoners, in the least likely places? Could the true King even be on the cross?
I am just a bystander. But I am wondering about these things. What do you think? Are you bystanders too? Or are you his followers? Was he the true King? Is he still? And if that's so: What did God do? What did God do -- for us? And what do we do -- now?