Holy Week | Carrying the Cross
You could hear them coming from a mile away. The steady clicking of the horses' hooves along the well-traveled road to the gates of the city. The constant thud of soldiers' feet as they marched together in perfect unison. The continuous beat of drummers drumming keeping the whole procession in rhythm. The noise alone was enough to draw people from every walk of life in the city away from their routine – but the noise was only the beginning of this spectacle.
As the crowds began lining the streets of the city, craning their necks and straining their eyes to get a glimpse of the army's arrival, they were forced to cover their eyes to protect them from the sun reflecting back at them. For the sun truly glinted off the golden eagles mounted on top of poles, the freshly polished shields and swords, the armor and other accouterments that this army carried. But through it all--the seemingly endless parade of cavalry mounted on horses, the foot soldiers causing the dust beneath their feet to swirl, the sounds of the drums ringing in their ears, and the smell of the leather armor overwhelming their noses--nothing could compare to the true star of this show, nothing could compare to the real reason for this procession in the first place. And who was the star of this show? What was the reason for this procession? The governor appointed over this land by Caesar himself had just arrived in Jerusalem. So all of this pomp and all of this circumstance was to celebrate the awaited arrival of Pontius Pilate.
And even though Pilate had only been appointed as the governor over Israel a few years earlier, his procession into the city of Jerusalem had already become a fairly regular sight. Whenever the people of Israel celebrated a festival, Pilate was there. But Pilate wasn’t showing up to be just another tourist in the crowd. And Pilate wasn’t showing up because he was a devout Jew practicing his faith. Pilate wasn't even showing up because he was a curious spectator who simply wanted to be part of the party. No, Pilate came to Jerusalem whenever there was a festival because he was on official business. Pilate was there to maintain law and order. Pilate was there to remind all of Israel of the power and might of Rome, and he was there to squelch any dreams of rebellion before they even began.
And that's what had brought Pilate to Jerusalem on this particular day. He had come during the time of year when tensions between Israel and Rome always ran their highest. He had come when the Jews prepared to celebrate a festival that reminded them of a previous end to their ancestor's captivity. He had come as the people began counting down the days to Passover--the official beginning of Israel's exodus from Egypt. But Pilate was here to make sure there were no Moses's in the midst of this festival trying to set their people free.
But little did Pilate know, as he processed through the western gate of the city, that one greater than Moses was coming into the city from the east. But this man’s procession lacked the pomp and circumstance of the Roman governor's. Instead of magnificent stallions marching into the city, this man rode into town on the back of a borrowed donkey. Instead of glimmering gold and shining silver, this man’s procession was marked by branches cut from nearby palm trees and clothing pulled from people's backs that were in the crowd. Instead of coming from the west where all eyes could see him, this man entered from the east--coming down from the Mount of Olives. But instead of remembering the opulent arrival of an important political figure, it is this other man’s arrival that we remember just before Easter year after year.
Of course, I'm talking about the arrival of Jesus Christ in the city of Jerusalem--the triumphal entry as we like to call it. And, yes, we just talked about this story a few weeks ago when we started talking about the events of Holy Week. But here we are on the anniversary of when Jesus’ triumphal entry actually occurred, so I think it’s well worth our time to revisit this story.
But today, I want us to listen to a different version of this story. Rather than turning to Mark’s account, I want us to turn to another one of the Gospels. Today, I want us to revisit this story through Luke’s account. And, like I just mentioned, Luke is another one of the Gospels. And we call the book of Luke a gospel because the word “gospel” means good news. And the book of Luke is going to share with us the good news of Jesus. So just like the book of Mark (and the books of Matthew and John for that matter), Luke is essentially a biography of Jesus.
So let's listen today to the story of Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem as it's recorded in Luke 19:29-38. This is what Luke writes:
29 As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. 30 He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’” 32 Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said.
33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34 They replied, “Its master needs it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. 36 As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.
37 As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. 38 They said, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”
Luke 19:29-38 (Common English Bible)
Although it’s been nearly 2,000 years since this scene unfolded, this scene was nearly a thousand years in the making. The entire nation of Israel had collectively awaited the arrival of the heir to David's throne--the one who could fill the shoes of their greatest king--for almost a millennia. And here he came, just like the prophet Zechariah had predicted when he wrote:
Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—riding on a donkey’s colt.
Zechariah 9:9b (New Living Translation)
Now, that must have been quite a sight to see. And it was also the type of history that we all wish we could be a part of. And it apparently drew a crowd. Of course, it should’ve drawn a crowd. I mean, the people of Israel had been waiting almost a thousand years for this exact event to happen. They had been waiting a thousand years for this son of David to claim his throne. They had been waiting a thousand years for things to get back to the way they were.
The people of Israel had longed for the days of their united kingdom to return. They longed for life to be like it was when all twelve tribes of Israel stood together. They longed for the return of their once-great military that could defeat their Roman emperors once and for all. They longed for the day when they would be free, and their nation would prosper.
And now it looked like those days had finally arrived. So, in the passage we just read, the people of Israel celebrated. They celebrated the pending victory of their new king by waving palm branches, just like the Greeks and Romans waved palm branches to celebrate their military victories. The people of Israel celebrated by singing a song of thanksgiving that their ancestors would have sung for David himself when he returned from battle. And the people of Israel celebrated by doing one of the strangest things I've ever heard of, they celebrated by taking their coats off and laying them down before Jesus as he rode into town.
But why in the world would they do that? I mean the only time we see anyone laying their coats down on the ground in our world today is in some cheesy Hallmark movie where a chivalrous gentleman covers a puddle for his beloved. But that isn't what's happening here. Instead what the people of Israel are doing is reliving an age-old story, a story recorded in 2 Kings 9, where the leaders of Israel pledge their loyalty and service to Jehu--the king who was newly anointed by the prophet Elisha. And the leaders of Israel pledged their loyalty to Jehu by taking off their cloaks and laying them on the steps before their new king.
So in these few short verses from Luke's gospel, we see the people of Israel offering thanksgiving for the arrival of their long-awaited Messiah. We see them celebrate the future victory that the Messiah will surely bring to their people. And we see them pledge their loyalty and service to their new king.
But that’s just what happens at the beginning of Holy Week. We’ve already seen what will happen just five days later, we kind of talked about it last week. And it is a completely different scene that the story we just read from Luke 19. But if you skip ahead a few chapters, to Luke 23, we’ll see this scene unfolding. Here’s how Luke describes it, he writes:
13 Then Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers, and the people. 14 He said to them, “You brought this man before me as one who was misleading the people. I have questioned him in your presence and found nothing in this man’s conduct that provides a legal basis for the charges you have brought against him. 15 Neither did Herod, because Herod returned him to us. He’s done nothing that deserves death. 16 Therefore, I’ll have him whipped, then let him go.”
18 But with one voice they shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us.” (19 Barabbas had been thrown into prison because of a riot that had occurred in the city, and for murder.)
20 Pilate addressed them again because he wanted to release Jesus.
21 They kept shouting out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
22 For the third time, Pilate said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done? I’ve found no legal basis for the death penalty in his case. Therefore, I will have him whipped, then let him go.”
23 But they were adamant, shouting their demand that Jesus be crucified. Their voices won out. 24 Pilate issued his decision to grant their request. 25 He released the one they asked for, who had been thrown into prison because of a riot and murder. But he handed Jesus over to their will.
Luke 23:13-25 (Common English Bible)
So what on earth could have happened in only five days time to cause a crowd that shouted “Hosanna” for Jesus on Sunday, to cry out “Crucify him!” on Friday? What could have happened that would cause palm branches waving through the air on Sunday to be replaced by a whip slicing through the air on Friday? What could have caused a crowd that laid down their coats for their Messiah on Sunday to demand that the same man lay down his life for them on Friday? What could have caused this crowd that treated Jesus like a king on Sunday to treat him like a criminal on Friday?
Well, we’ve spent the last few weeks talking about some of the things that happened over the course of those five days. And some of the things that Jesus did during those five days was enough to convince the crowd that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah they had been expecting.
Jesus wasn’t the Messiah they had been expecting.
The people of Israel thought their Messiah would run Rome out of Jerusalem for good but instead, Jesus only ran the people of Israel out of their own Temple. The people of Israel thought their Messiah would demand Rome be overthrown, but when Jesus was asked about taxes he told them to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's.” The people of Israel thought their Messiah would challenge them to give their lives for the kingdom of Israel but instead, Jesu told them to give their all for the kingdom of God. The people of Israel thought their Messiah would come to end their suffering and give them a new life but instead, Jesus only talked about further abuse and alluded to his own death.
So the man the people of Israel once celebrated became their scapegoat. The man who was supposed to be their next great king became an ordinary criminal. The man who was supposed to save them would be sentenced to death by them.
And it was all because the people didn't understand that God's kingdom is different than the kingdoms of this world.
God’s kingdom is different than the kingdoms of this world.
But there was at least one man in the crowds that understood the true kingdom of God, one person who seems to know it was all about God and not all about him, one person who realized that God gave him everything and demanded that he give his all back to God. A man named Simon. Here’s what Luke tells us about him. Luke writes:
26 As they led Jesus away, they grabbed Simon, a man from Cyrene, who was coming in from the countryside. They put the cross on his back and made him carry it behind Jesus.
Luke 23:26 (Common English Bible)
The truth is we don't know a whole lot about this man named Simon. As a matter of fact there are only a few things we know for sure about this man. First, we know that Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell us in their gospels that Simon helped carry Jesus' cross. And in this action alone, we see Simon's willingness to do something the rest of the crowds never would. The rest of the crowd turned away when Jesus spoke of suffering, death, and sacrifice. But Simon fulfills the criteria Jesus has set for all disciples, that anyone who wants to follow him will put aside their selfish ambition and take up their cross daily to follow him.
We also know that Simon is from a place called Cyrene, but why does that matter? Remember these city names would have meant something to the people who first told and heard these stories. Just like mentioning New York City might make you think of the Empire State Building, or mentioning Nashville might make you think of country music, or mentioning Bowling Green might make you think of Corvettes; mentioning Cyrene would have made people think of something. Specifically, they would have been reminded of the fertile soil of this town, a soil that helped produce abundant grain, olive oil, vegetables, herbs, dates, and thriving livestock.
Why does that matter? Well, if you remember back only a few weeks ago, we heard a parable about a vineyard owner who was furious that his fig tree was not producing fruit. The crowds in our stories today were like this fig tree, they weren't producing anything. But Simon was like the land he came from, he was a fertile soil that would produce great fruit for the kingdom of God.
This leads to the third thing we know about Simon, we know he had two sons--named Alexander and Rufus--who were well known to the community Mark wrote his gospel for and seemingly to the church in Rome as well. Which leads us to assume that Simon was so transformed by this event--carrying Jesus' cross--that he becomes a follower of Jesus and leads his family to follow Jesus as well.
So in this story, we have two different ways to follow Jesus. The first way is shown by the crowds. The crowds celebrate Jesus' arrival. They praise him as a king. They pledge their loyalty to him. But as soon as they figure out who Jesus really is, they turn their backs on him. As soon as they learn that much is required to follow this Messiah, they turn him over to be killed.
But then you have the way shown by Simon. Simon never says a word. There is no lavish praise. There is no huge celebration. There is no promise or pledge. But what there is for Simon is action. Simon takes up that cross and follows Jesus. Simon gives his all for the one who gave his all for Simon.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at some of the events that took place during Holy Week--one of the most difficult times in the history of our faith--to see what they can teach us about following Jesus in the difficult times in our lives today. Well, I decided to end this series by talking about Simon of Cyrene, because today you have a decision to make. Today you have the chance to be like Simon or to be like the rest of the crowd.
As soon as the going got tough, the rest of the crowd got going. They turned their backs on Jesus. They did not follow Jesus in difficult times. But Simon did. Simon took up Jesus’ cross and followed him to Golgotha. Simon followed Jesus through the most difficult journey Jesus ever took.
So who do you want to be like? Do you want to be like the crowds and give up on Jesus in difficult times? Or do you want to be like Simon and follow Jesus no matter what? Because, ultimately, the biggest thing that you can do to keep following God in difficult times is to commit to follow God no matter what. So all I have to ask you is are you ready to commit?