Scripture: Mark 11:1-11, Mark 15:1-47
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am? Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”] And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” – Mark 8:27-30
One of my favourite bands when I got into listening to music, was the British band started in the 1960’s known as The Who. I know I was a little late to the party when I fell in love with their music in the early 2000s, but as an eager teenager I lapped up their music along with other Classic Rock favourites – you can blame my mother for my taste in music since she still loves classic rock to this day!
One of the most famous songs that The Who, ever recorded was the title track to their 1978 album, Who Are You. The song’s chorus repeats the question over and over again. Who are you? Who who, who who? Tell me who are yoooooooou are you, who?”
As I was preparing to preach this week, it struck me that this song would be an appropriate theme song for Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday which we mark today, because questions of who Jesus is, of his identity are at the heart of the two different readings from the Gospel of Mark that we heard today.
In fact questions of identity are central to Mark’s Gospel, constantly throughout the early chapters Jesus’ stops the demons from telling people who he is, he tells people who have benefited from his miracles – often sternly – to not reveal the truth about who he is, and when his disciples finally begin to understand the truth about who he really is – like in the quotation I read from Mark, chapter 8 at the beginning of the sermon – Jesus orders them not to tell anyone!
The question of ‘Who are you?’ lingers in the background as we travel the journey today with Jesus at his triumphant entry into Jerusalem all the way through his betrayal, his conviction, and his shameful march to his death on that torturous tree, the Cross.
In our first reading for Palm Sunday, the question of ‘who are you’ hung in the air as palm branches bristled back and forth, as loud hosannas rang out through the streets of Jerusalem, through the frenzied crowd – The crowds anticipated the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the one who promised, the one who would bring about their liberation from the oppressive power of Rome, the one who would restore Israel. And it seemed that Jesus fit the bill, he had performed miraculous deeds, he spoke with authority and now he was seemingly fulfilling the prophecy that the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, as prophesied by the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9). Who are you Jesus? Are you our Messiah? Have you come to save us?
The disciples had been asking themselves, ‘Who are you’ all along. Never quite able to grasp what Jesus was about, always seeming to miss the mark about what Jesus meant about God’s Kingdom and his part in all of it. Even when they did start to get it, like Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, was quickly followed by Jesus’ rebuke ‘get behind me Satan’. Jesus was there friend, their teacher, their Lord – but even that wasn’t enough to stop them from abandoning him in Gethsemane. Who are you Jesus, our friend? Our teacher? Our Lord?
The religious leaders, the chief priests and scribes, saw the question of ‘who are you’ differently. For them Jesus was a threat, someone who was overturning the religious status quo, someone who threatened their status as religious elite and the whole religio-political structure that they benefited from and wanted to maintain. Jesus and his radical proclamation of God Kingdom and his call to repentance threatened to bring about Roman retaliation upon all of Israel. Who are you Jesus? Are you a threat? Should we be worried?
To Pilate and the Romans, Jesus was a curiosity, a nuisance at best – Pilate’s question of ‘Who are you’ was a formality – in the eyes of Rome Palestine was a backwater with little impact on the grand plan of imperial domination. Pilate’s question ‘Are you the King of the Jews’, is not a grand statement of political concern, but rather a mighty empire squashing a petty criminal irritation. After all Jesus was a criminal in the eyes of Rome – anyone who was thought to be claiming authority as King, was in direct opposition to Caesar and therefore deserved a criminals death – that’s how empires maintain power after all. Who are you Jesus? Are you a criminal, someone who challenged the powers of empires, someone who was hanged between two criminals on hill outside of Jerusalem?
Who are you Jesus? This is the question which hangs before us as we begin this momentous week of the Christian Calendar. It is the question which wafted through the palm branches and the hosannas as Jesus entered into Jerusalem; it is the question that was on the tip of the disciples’ minds as they shared the Passover meal; it was the question which spurred the scribes and chief priests to plot Jesus’ murder; it was the question of a mighty empire as it brushed aside a colonial nuisance; it was the question which hung upon the gnarled wood of the Cross as Jesus breathed his last.
And it is the question which we are confronted with. Who is Jesus? Is he our saviour, our Messiah? Is Jesus our friend, our Lord? Is he a threat to the status quo, will he turn the world upside down? Is he a criminal, someone who deserved a shameful, godless death, hanging in utter disgrace amidst the lowlifes of the world? The answer we discover this week, is yes to each one.
Jesus is the one who identifies with the lowest of society, we find him in the gutters so to speak – with the poor and the ungodly, with the outcasts of society. Jesus reveals that God’s love and mercy extend to the furthest, darkest depths of the world, the furthest, darkest depths of the human heart. This week may you come to know Jesus in this way, may you follow him where he goes, identifying with the poor the ungodly, the outcasts.
Jesus is a threat to the status quo, to the way of the world. The chief priests and scribes were right to be worried – Jesus does turn the world topsy-turvy – he challenges the ways of self-interest, the ways that oppress others, the ways of injustice, the ways of sin and death. Jesus challenges the sin and death in our life, he defeats its power over us. This week may you come to know Jesus in this way, may you be ready for your world to be turned upside down, may you be ready for him to deal with the darkness and sin in your life and in the world around you.
Jesus is our friend, he is our Lord. Like the disciples we can sometimes be muddled in our faith, in our walk of discipleship – one minute we can be unwavering in our trust of Jesus, we can feel like Peter must have felt when he declared Jesus as Messiah. The next minute our faith wavers and we flee from Jesus like the disciples at Gethsemane. Throughout all of it, Jesus is unwavering in his commitment to us. This week may you know Jesus more deeply as your friend and Lord, may you know his unwavering commitment to you.
Jesus is the Messiah. Unknown to the crowds we remember on Palm Sunday, their Hosannas (which literally means God Save us) were prophetic words of truth. Jesus saved them, Jesus saves us – he frees us from the snare of sin, he opens a path of reconciliation with God, he wins for us eternal and abundant life – both in this life and in the world to come. This week may you come to know Jesus as the Messiah, as your Saviour.
Who are you Jesus? Perhaps the answer is best articulated at the end of our second Gospel reading by the Centurion guarding the temple “Truly this man was God’s Son”. May you meet the Son of God this week – the Son of God betrayed, the Son of God condemned, the Son of God executed and by next Sunday the Son of God alive and vindicated.
Let us Pray.