Jesus v. Pilate

Where do you place your trust?

Jesus is famous for marching into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But Pilate, the same Pilate who will sit in judgment of Jesus in five days, marches into Jerusalem on probably the same day as Jesus. Every year, at the start of Passover, Pilate would march into Jerusalem from his headquarters on the coast. He’d bring a legion with him: Rome’s best soldiers, lined up expertly marching, carrying their banners and signs of empire and power. If you need a mental image, think of the videos and pictures of Nazi soldiers marching during one of Hitler’s rallies. Hitler modeled the banners, the marching style, the symbols, the whole thing on how the Romans paraded around. 

At the head of this parade there’s Pilate, riding a huge white stallion as he enters Jerusalem from the opposite gate Jesus enters. He is the personification of power, one of the most important and powerful people in the Roman Empire. And this is the world’s mightiest power; this is the big kid on the block. You don’t mess with Rome. They are the greatest support to their citizens and the biggest bully to outsiders. Everything about Pilate’s entry screams power; screams survival of the fittest. 

For Rome is the fittest. They will survive. And not just that; they will continue to thrive, as they have been for a while now. This moment, with Jesus in the backwater colony of Palestine, is near the apex of Rome’s power. They are ascendent. No one can match them. 

Rome is power. Pilate is power. And they show up in power as Pilate marches into Jerusalem.

Knowing this about Pilate changes how we see Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. Let’s hear that famous story now, recorded for us today in the Gospel of Mark:

Scripture

Where do you place your trust?

Juxtaposing Pilate against Jesus, we get two very different pictures. 

Jesus’s arrival is beautiful, it’s poetic, the people love him and throng to him. They throw their clothes on the ground in a makeshift red carpet. They proclaim him King!

But Tiberius, the emperor of Rome, is the King! 

They shout, “blessed is the one who comes…” 

But that’s a phrase reserved for someone like Pilate, of whom the crowd would shout, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the emperor!” 

They wave palm branches, a traditional sign of peace!

But that’s what Rome stands for. They have a phrase: the Pax Romana; literally the peace of Rome in Latin. Peace is what Rome creates, through strength, through having the mightiest army, through enforcing its borders, through being a bully, through waging war on its enemies and suppressing colonized populations, like those living in Jerusalem.

The people shout “Hosanna!” Which is a difficult word to translate from the Hebrew. But, basically, it’s a compound word that means “Save us!” The people cry out to King Jesus to save them. 

But that’s what Rome is supposed to do. When they conquer a people, they save them from their barbaric ways and from threats beyond their borders. When Rome comes to town, they set up order and peace, that Pax Romana. When they show up, they’re the saviors, for they have provided a nice, tidy, orderly, peaceful, society in which commerce can thrive, people can generate wealth, and live in safety. 

The Romans, for the life of them, can’t understand why this people, the Jews, won’t accept Roman salvation! 

Add to this a finishing touch, a coup de gras: Jesus, in other translations, rides a donkey, the lowest of the equine family in terms of prestige, the opposite of Pilate’s mighty stallion.

All of this, seen this way, makes a mockery of Pilate’s entry. Jesus isn’t just riding into Jerusalem and experiencing a treasonous mob who loves him. Jesus is engaging in political theatre. He knows Pilate rides in with his army at about this time, a sign of power, stating symbolically to the people of Jerusalem: “I know passover makes you rowdy. Keep calm or else experience my power.” 

Jesus rides in and, without saying a word, states, “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD.”

Where do you place your trust?

This reality, contrasting Jesus’s humility with Pilate’s arrogance; contrasting Godly power with human power, makes us ask a tough question: where do we put our trust? In the powers around us, those things that convey strength? Or do we put our trust in Jesus, whose power we know to be greater, but whose ways defy our expectations? Do we place trust in might, in power, or in God’s spirit?

It’s a good question considering our sermon series during this Lenten season. Where do we put our trust? In the promises of God? Or in the promises of the world? In the seeming weakness of God’s ways that defy our expectations and imaginations? Or in the seeming strength of the world’s ways that meet our expectations and conform to our imaginations?

Where do you place your trust? We might be quick to answer Jesus! But let’s take time to be self-reflective on this holy day. Even as I stand up here and preach to you about this, I know that it’s a struggle of mine to not place trust in worldly powers. Perhaps it is for many of us. So let’s examine this together:

We, like the Romans, value a society that is orderly and provides space for commerce to thrive, people to generate wealth, and live in relative safety. We value those things, and who wouldn’t? For all our current problems, most of us continue to thrive, experience peace, and know stability in our lives because we live in America. 

So, it’s easy to put our trust worldly powers because we desire for our society to be more orderly, more peaceful, and more stable. It’s easy to put our trust in the world, in the powers of the world, even without really meaning to. 

Then, think about the past week: where did you spend more time: with God or with the news? How often did news alerts ping your phone or how often was your attention called to your favorite news channel left on in the background? We keep an eye on the news because it’s important to stay informed. But quite often, for many of us, including me, we spend more time, much more time, than what’s necessary to stay informed. 

When we spend time beyond what’s necessary to stay informed, we are attempting to give ourselves a false sense of control over events, especially over events that threaten the peace, stability, and order that we cherish.

Which is ironic because the reality is this: the more time we spend with the news, trying to feel a sense of control over events, the more we feel out of control. That’s because the more we feed ourselves a steady diet of all that’s wrong with the world and with our country the more we come away with the sense that our society is disorderly, under threat, and full of strife, and there’s little anyone can seem to do about it.

And yet, we continue to read the news, watch the news, stay on top of the news, trying in a vain attempt to feel a sense of control, all the while feeling more out of control. It’s a vicious cycle. I wonder if you can relate? 

That vicious cycle, of trying to gain a sense of control only to find ourselves more out of control, is the opposite of what happens when we spend time with God. The more we pray, the more we spend time in spiritual practice, the more we find ourselves feeling at peace and able to see the world around us through the eyes of Christ. 

Spending more time with God, instead of the news, isn’t escapism. It’s also not denial. Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, speaks directly to this point: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” To spend more time with God instead of the news is not to try and ignore what’s happening in the world. No, it’s to learn to see what’s happening in the world through God’s eyes instead of the world’s eyes. 

When see see strife, war, hunger, and the like through the world’s eyes, we see problems worthy of panic and fear, just as the news shows us. When we see the same through God’s eyes, we see the consequences of evil in the world, and we see how God is moving, working against those evils. 

Specifically, what we see is where war exists, we discover pockets of peace; where hunger exists, we see people being fed; where disease thrives, we discover healing; where division and factionalism rule the day, we discover unity that defies imagination. 

That’s what happens when we spend more time with God than the news, when we hold the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other, and interpret the news through scripture. We see the world through God’s eyes, and we discover that Micah 6:8 is happening all around us: people are doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

God is still moving, active, bring goodness and righteousness into the world. But when God comes, and brings that goodness, God’s power looks nothing like Pilate’s triumphal march into Jerusalem and looks everything like Jesus’s humble parade into Jerusalem. 

Jesus’s triumphal entry defies our imaginations. The great God of the universe coming to town in a very humble fashion, on his way to die on a cross; that defies our expectations. But that’s what God does: God’s exercise of power looks like Jesus, on a donkey, with palm branches, making a fool of Pilate’s massive military parade; God’s exercise of power looks nothing like worldly exercises of power.

And the more we spend time with God, the more we’re able to place our trust where it should be: in the God who said not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD.

To see the world through the eyes of Christ, placing your trust there, spend less time on the news and more time with God.

Where do you place your trust? 

I come to you today not as one who has all this figured out and not as one who does not struggle with this very issue. As I wrote this sermon, I asked myself that question I posed earlier: where did I spend more time, with the news or with God? I’m not sure. But that tells me that, on the first Palm Sunday, I might have been just as likely to be in the crowd watching Jesus as in the crowd cheering on Pilate. 

And that’s tough to swallow. 

It speaks to how easy it is to be sucked into the promises of the world, born by the news media and the pontifications of those with power, and how challenging it is to believe instead in the promises of God.

In his book Letters from the Desert, Carlo Carretto, an Italian social worker turned monk, speaks directly to this. He says, “We…believe in God. But then we put our trust in men of power, believe their advice, and in the end think that the affairs of this world are safe in their hands, and that it is to them we must make our petitions.” (Carretto, 20). We declare that we trust God but then place trust in worldly powers. I know that can be all too true for me. I wonder if you can relate? 

Where do you place your trust? If you’re like me, it depends on the day. 

So let’s do something to address that, to change that, beginning this week. 

I have a challenge for us. Every year, it’s easy to allow Holy Week to fly by us, full of the usual business of the week, the usual stressors, the usual crunches on our time. So, let’s free up some time this week. Let’s keep a fast from the news. 

Remember that a fast isn’t just about food, nor is it just about the absence of something from our lives. A fast calls upon us to replace something that’s habitual, something whose absence we notice, with prayer. 

A fast from the news means when you feel the impulse to turn on cable news or open your favorite news app on your phone, don’t; instead, pray or engage in a spiritual practice like reading your Bible.

Specifically, pray this prayer: God, where around me are you moving in power? 

This will be hard, challenging, for the news sucks us in. I would recommend deleting news apps off your phone. Even if you don’t open them, many of them will still send alerts to your phone. If you keep the news on in the background at home, turn off the TV or choose a different channel so that you can’t be tempted by the frequent breaking news alerts, which are hardly ever true breaking news anyway. In your car, reprogram the button on the radio saved to your favorite news station so that you can’t habitually turn it on. 

We engage in the fast not to tune out the world, but to tune our hearts away from those things that reinforce our trust in worldly powers so that we can tune ourselves to the one who actually has power: God. 

We engage in the fast to reset our minds to believe that God will provide order, stability, and peace, not worldly powers. 

We engage in the fast to take ourselves away from the temptation to be in the crowd cheering on Pilate to, instead, to cheer on the humble Jesus, whose power and might look nothing like we’d expect. 

We engage in the fast so that we can learn, truly, that God’s movement for order, stability, and peace, are “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.” 

In front of you now, I am deleting the news apps on my phone. If you’re willing to engage in this fast, let’s all take a moment to do that.

Now that we have, let’s move forward this week, praying when we feel the impulse to check the news, “where around me are you, God, moving in power?” 

Allow this week to reveal to you how God is moving in power; a power that defies human power, a power that looks less like Pilate and more like Jesus. 

Discover that, too, by attending Holy Week services. Come to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. It might be a challenge to schedule the time, in the midst of all we have going on, but with time freed up by not following the news, we can utilize some of that time by attending these services. There, we will feel more and more drawn in to God’s presence and there, we will see how God is active and working in the world. 

We have a choice on this Palm Sunday; a choice of where we place our trust: in worldly power or in divine power. We have a choice of whom we will trust to provide order, stability, and peace: worldly power, or God’s power. We have a choice of whether or not we really, truly, believe God when he says, “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD.”

Where do you place your trust?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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