The Surprisingly Short Trip from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

This year, more than most, it actually shocks me to realize that Easter is now less than two weeks away.

Easter? Really?! It seems like only yesterday that I was shoveling snow off the front sidewalk…and yet, today, I walk past shop displays filled with bunnies, chocolate eggs and jellybeans while on my way to pick up a bag of coffee. Huh! Perhaps it was that final, late-season snowfall that somehow tricked my brain into thinking that Spring was still several weeks away. Whatever the reason, I find to my chagrin that I have, most definitely, not yet been able to appropriately wrap my heart and mind around the impending celebration of the historical, bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

Truth be told, the entire story of Passion Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter, has always been something of a mystery to me (and it still is). I can vividly recall being perplexed as a child when I finally grasped the sequence of events that led up to the crucifixion and resurrection: “You mean to tell me that the same crowd that was waving palm branches less than a week ago would be out in force on Friday morning screaming for Jesus’ blood?” That equation never made sense to me as a kid attending Sunday school; it just didn’t add up somehow.

In 1968, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series; I was seven years old at the time. My parents, whipped up into a celebratory froth along with thousands of other suburbanites, thought it would be a great idea to drive down to Metropolitan Airport to welcome the champion baseball team back home. Well, it turned out that this was a really horrible idea; the plane carrying the team had been diverted to another airport and the mob scene down at Metro was an absolute nightmare. But this event, unlike any I have witnessed since, did impress upon me a sense of “celebratory scale” that I would always maintain as an internal yardstick: “Oh, yeah, you think this is insane? You should have seen Detroit Metro airport on the night the Tigers won the series!”

Witnessing that event in 1968 has always helped me to understand just how deeply we all rejoice to shower a returning, triumphant hero with adoration and praise. As a young child, that night greatly informed my view of how Christ might have been greeted as He very purposefully rode into Jerusalem: Detroit Tiger pennants morph into palm branches, business suits are transformed into long, flowing robes, lose the aircraft, and that just about sets the scene, right?

Well, not quite. What’s missing from this childlike analogy to Christ’s procession into Jerusalem is the all-important element of the crowd’s expectations for their returning hero. Back in 1968, the Detroit Tigers had already fulfilled the expectations of the frenzied crowd; they merely needed to show up and be showered with praise. In first-century Palestine, however, the waving of the palm branch was itself a very clear indicator of the nationalistic wish-fulfillment that was running rampant through the onlookers, a plan of their own devising that they were very excitedly expecting Jesus to fulfill in the days and weeks to come. When He failed to fulfill their expectations of instantly toppling the Roman government and re-establishing the Throne of David over Judea, things got really ugly, really fast. Amazingly fast.

It is breathtaking to consider that it only took five days for the palm-branch wavers to become a sadistic, bloodthirsty rabble, whipped up by some of the Pharisees and goading Pilate into condemning and killing a man he himself knew to be innocent (Matthew 27:24). One might be able to process the events a bit better if the transition period was numbered in weeks or months, but seriously…five days? I’ve heard good, faithful Bible scholars attempt to explain away the stark contrast between the jubilant Palm Sunday crowd and the Good Friday antagonists by insisting that “they were different crowds,” and of course it makes perfect sense that not everyone who greeted Jesus on Sunday was on hand for the “trial” that took place on Friday. But it seems equally unlikely to suggest that none of the Sunday welcoming crew made it out for the Friday morning travesty of justice.

I guess I would like to suggest that my personal distaste for the idea that at least some hands carrying palm branches transformed themselves into clenched fists within the space of 120 hours is less about doubting the veracity of Scripture (I don’t) and more about revealing how quickly I recoil at the idea that someone – anyone! – would be so quick to turn on Jesus, especially as word of His unprecedented miracles and authoritive teaching had reached fever pitch in and around Jerusalem. Would the clenched fist relax somewhat – even just a fraction – if those same people had taken a moment to reflect upon Who it was they were now seeking to brutalize and kill?

Probably not. As a young child, I was perplexed at how quickly the crowds turned on Jesus. Now, as a not-so-young man, the reverse is true: I am more surprised that they did not turn on Him sooner, perhaps even attempt to kill Him as He entered the city. As I read the Gospel accounts repeatedly and listen to what Jesus had to say to the masses – and the ruling elders in particular – I am surprised more and more often that His public ministry was able to run the course of approximately three years. In short, I have zero doubt about the truthfulness of the account that the crowd in Nazareth tried to kill Him after His inaugural “Welcome Back, Jesus!” sermon; the only thing that kept Him breathing after that disastrous hometown gig was the fact that God was actively protecting Him, as His time had not yet come (Luke 4:16-30).

There has been much said about humanity’s desire to welcome Jesus as Savior (or Conquering King) but then give Him the heave-ho when He asserts His “outrageous” claim to be our Lord. Anyone can have Him as both, certainly, but the simple fact is that we don’t get to treat Jesus as though Christian discipleship was a buffet line at a restaurant. You are either having the “Savior and Lord” combo…or else you are living a mythical “Christian life” that does not appear anywhere on the biblical menu.

I suppose that some level of biblical maturity emerges whenever we stop condemning the fickle crowds that alternately loved Jesus and then sought to have Him killed in the most monstrous way known to man. We furiously wave the palm branch whenever Jesus brings us through a life-threatening surgery, rescues us from financial ruin or blesses our marriage with the exact number of healthy, happy children we had hoped for. The question we all need to wrestle with, though, is how quick we are to drop the palm branch and grab the pitchfork when He “intrudes” on our life with any form of uncomfortable truth. “You should pay your workers a fair wage.” (James 5:1-6) “You should not date a non-Christian.” (2 Corinthians 6:14-18) “What you said about that person was hurtful and unnecessary.” (James 3:1-12) “Maintain your sexual purity.” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8) Confronted with uncomfortable truths of Scripture, all of which Jesus affirms (Matthew 5:17-18), are we still in the jubilant Sunday crowd…or have we begun to sharpen our axes for the Friday showdown?

We should be shocked at how quickly the city of Jerusalem turned on Jesus. Yes, absolutely. But I think we should take at least a few moments during Holy Week to be equally shocked at how rapidly our own hearts turn against Christ when the faith we profess begins to exact its pesky demands on our inner attitudes and outward behaviors.

The entire world would have been shocked to its core back in 1968 had a violent mob of Detroit baseball fans rounded up the Tigers five days after their triumphal return, pushed them all into a barn and then set it ablaze. No one would have been able to explain how such a thing were even possible in light of their recent accomplishments on behalf of Motown. And yet, it seems to me that living in deliberate disobedience to the revealed will of God should appropriately be placed at least in the same neighborhood as that kind of murderous behavior. We all have a propensity to throw Jesus under the bus whenever His Lordship doesn’t look exactly the way we think it should, and we should all – contrary to what we would prefer to believe about ourselves – identify much more closely with those in Jerusalem who shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday, followed by “Crucify!” five days later.

John 6:60-67: (ESV)
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?”

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