They knelt before him and mocked him, saying, 'Hail, King of the Jews!'
Matthew 27:29 +INPFSS+
We have heard Jesus addressed as a King three times already this morning, between our two Gospel readings.
We hear it pronounced by the sign that hung over his head when he was hanging from the cross:
“This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
We hear it on the lips of the soldiers who beat him, scourged him, mocked him, and gave him a crown made of thorns, who with the most horrible derision in the verse just quoted, say “Hail, King of the Jews”
and we hear it on the lips of the crowd, one week before Jesus was crucified, as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, on Palm Sunday, the day we are remembering this morning. That crowd, having laid down their cloaks on the road for his entry, cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Which is another way of saying, “Hosanna to our true King!”
“This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
“Hail, King of the Jews”
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
The Sign, the Soldiers, and the By-standers all are saying pretty much the same words.
They're actually all saying the right words. They are speaking truly, because Jesus really is the King.
But the great difference in HOW the words are said, we see makes all the difference.
And what we see in these three different professions are three different ways in which WE can be saying the right things with our lips, but yet ourselves be still very far away from salvation.
Let's look at them one by one:
The sign above our Lord's head states the truth about Christ as a fact, but as a fact that someone else really believes. It was written by Pontius Pilate, as we learn from St. John's Gospel. That is, it was written by someone who didn't believe it. Pilate didn't reverence Jesus as one would a King, he handed him over to be scourged and crucified. Pilate was stating the fact as being true for someone else, in this case the believing Jews, but not for himself.
His profession is nothing more than the faith of an encyclopedia entry: This man Jesus did this and this, and he said this and this, and he is a King.
There's no heart, no real belief in the words. They are stated as cold facts, rather than as a life-giving reality.
Pilate said the truth, or in this case wrote the truth, but he wasn't saved by it.
And here we see the first danger for ourselves. Of reducing the faith to a cold assertion of fact. Of being little more than walking encyclopedia entries ABOUT Christianity, rather than actual Christians.
Do not be like the sign.
The Soldiers who beat and tortured Jesus with their horrible whips, were not content merely to carry out their brutal orders on their subject, but like school-yard bullies mocked and derided our Lord, making a sick joke by making imitation symbols of Kingship.
Kings have crowns, so the soldiers harangued our Lord by making a crown out of thick thorns and driving it into his head. Kings wear fine clothing, so they put a scarlet robe around him. Kings always carry golden scepters – symbols of their reign – and so the soldiers put a river reed in his hand, as a scoff at his Lordship.
The Scripture tells us that they spat on him, and hit him on the head, and mocked him callously.
That they feigned like he really was a king, getting down on a knee and saying,
“Hail, King of the Jews!”
Again, they are saying the right thing, with their lips. But their hearts obviously a far from it. They do not mean what they say. They are pretending. Play-acting. Bullying. They are mocking Christ.
And in this we have a warning for ourselves:
Do we claim Christ with our lips, but mock him with our lives?
our day to day actions and thoughts – are they so dissonant with the Christian faith that really, our very claiming of Christ with our lips is a mockery, As it was for the soldiers?
Do not be like the soldiers.
Third we turn to the By-Standers, the Palm-Sunday crowd.
The great throng that 2000 years ago lined the road heading up to Jerusalem, waving their palms, and putting their clothes down on the ground for Jesus' donkey to walk on. Crying out powerfully, “Hosanna to the King!”
Now here the problem is more subtle. It's a problem of inconstancy. A problem of feebleness.
The crowd had SOME faith, certainly, but it was too little, and too shallow.
They were cheering for Jesus, claiming him as their king. They weren't a sign, or a soldier. They were sincere. But as we see when our two Gospels are placed side by side this morning: the Triumphal Entry Gospel and the Passion Gospel – the same crowd who one week is praising, “Hosanna!”, one week later is shouting, “Let him be crucified!!”
What happened to this crowd? How could they be so bi-polar?
Because they didn't get what they wanted. Jesus wasn't the kind of King they were hoping for. And moreover, when they saw that he chose the way of suffering and death, for fear of their own skin, they wanted nothing to do with him.
Their true profession: Jesus is King! Was made empty by inconstancy.
They didn't stick with it.
And it was made false by their feebleness – at the first sign of trial, of difficulty, of hardship.
The first time Jesus asked them to do something they didn't want to do, they dropped him as their King.
They stopped saying Hosanna.
And this is their fault: That they didn't keep professing Jesus as their Lord beyond that first week. They didn't hold true in the face of the cross.
And the warning here is clear isn't it.
So, don't be like the By-standers.
Or The Sign.
Or The Soldiers.
Who All said the right words, but to no avail.
So where does that leave us?
Because if we're honest, from time to time in our lives, a real and lively faith often attrifies and shrinks down to one of these three imposters.
So here's the good news: this Holy Week is a chance to repent of this. To come back to sincere, constant, and hearty faith. This is why it's customary to come to Confession this week, to have a fresh start, as it were. This is why as a Church we are always remembering our frailty and confessing our need for the Lord's mercy. We need HIS help, to believe in HIM.
We need His help to mean the words we say, and the words we pray.
We need his help to avoid these three false professions.
But if we repent, if we seek his help, we know that he will give it.
And we see this on the edges of the Gospel reading this morning, in fact, and with this hope I'll end.
The scourging and the mocking of Christ – it happened inside the soldier's praetorium, where no disciple would have been allowed. So how do we know what happened? What is the eye-witness source for this event in the life of Jesus? The answer almost has to be: from a soldier who was there. And why would a soldier ever tell this story? Unless the experience of it had changed him. If he had repented. Perhaps it was the same centurion who when Jesus died exclaimed, “Truly this man was God's son!”
We don't know who exactly, but one of those soldiers must have had a change of heart. One of the soldiers who once mockingly said, “Hail, King!”, repented, and from the depths of his soul, said the same words but this time meant them, “Hail, King!”.
Jesus, you ARE our King. Save us from a false confession. Give us grace to make it true. Amen.