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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Good Friday 4/3/2015

How quickly the story moves from shouts of “Hosanna!” as Jesus entered Jerusalem, to “Crucify him!” just a few days later. That’s how the story is told; it happens fast. That’s how we remember it liturgically too as we move quickly from the triumph of last Sunday’s Palm Sunday procession to last night with the symbolic stripping of the altar and then today as we remember the hours Jesus spent on the cross and we reflect on how he got there. There had been hints along the way of the noose tightening around Jesus; there always were those opposed to him, those threatened by him, those who wanted him out of the way; they were always part of the crowd, keeping a suspicious eye on things. You have to figure though, that in the end it wasn’t just them, it wasn’t just the opponents. Some of the same people who had been shouting “Hosanna!” must have been among those shouting “Crucify him.”

In a way it seems unbelievable, unbelievable that things could change that fast. It seems unbelievable except that we all know the reality and power of mob psychology or crowd psychology. It works both ways, positively and negatively. You know how easy it is to jump on the bandwagon of a winner. The crowds at Ishpeming football games get a lot bigger when the playoffs roll around; people who may not have gone to a game all year want to be part of it. Everyone loves a winner and for awhile Jesus looked like just that. For those looking and hoping for a Messiah, for someone who could challenge Roman rule, Jesus looked pretty good. The crowd wanted to be with him on the ride to glory.

You know how that feels, you know how good it is, but you also know the other side of it. You know how hard it is to stand against the mob. Even if you think they’re wrong, even if you know they’re wrong, it’s hard. It’s hard because fear enters the picture. You want to fight it, you try to fight it, you want to overcome it, but fear is powerful. It takes over and for any of us, fear can turn us into someone we don’t want to be. Fear is what can turn “Hosanna” into “Crucify him.” That’s the power of the mob.

By the time Jesus was on trial, the mob had turned, the celebration as Jesus entered Jerusalem was forgotten and for Jesus’ followers anticipation of a ride to glory had become fear that what was about to happen to him might happen to them. They went into survival mode and survival instinct is pretty strong. They’d seen rows of crosses along the road, crosses with decaying bodies on them so they knew the Roman authorities weren’t shy about executing people. Such displays create fear and creating fear has always been an effective way to keep people in line and the Romans were good at it. With fear at work and survival at stake, even those who had placed their hope in Jesus must have joined in the shouts of “Crucify him” at the trial.

But it wasn’t just the trial. That just got things going, further fueling and encouraging the mob. The soldiers, the chief priests and the scribes, they were the leaders, humiliating Jesus, stripping him and putting a royal, purple robe around him, mocking him and spitting on him saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” as he was led to the place of crucifixion. They set the tone and the crowd chimed in: “He saved others, let him save himself!” “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” The psychology of the mob had taken over. At that point even those closest to Jesus wouldn’t dare to raise a defense or offer comfort. They might feel bad about it later, but for the moment, fear was the deciding factor.

None of this is surprising, but our lesson in human psychology isn’t over. Jesus was crucified between two thieves. The only surprise there might be that there were only two others as the Romans frequently did engage in mass crucifixions; such spectacles did make an impression. With Jesus though, there were only two others and their response to the mob and to what was happening to them and to Jesus was quite different.

The two thieves were both in the same situation, guilty, or at least one of them acknowledged guilt, both of them minutes or hours from death, both with nothing left to lose. One though, even in this situation of desperation, is swayed by the mob so that he joins in mocking and taunting Jesus: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” In his defense you could say that he was just clinging to the hope that Jesus was the one who would free them from Roman rule, the same hope the Palm Sunday crowd had, so he’s thinking, why not start now, with me. You could say that. More likely though, he was just joining the rest of the crowd, in his final moments holding on to a desire to want to feel like he was better than someone or at least no worse.

The other thief though, the good thief as he is called, was not swayed by the crowd. He saw something, something in Jesus, something in this apparent defeat and humiliation that gave him hope even as life was draining out of him. He knew he was guilty, and while he knew he had no good reason to ask for it, and at that point, seeing Jesus on the cross, having no logical reason to expect it, he said, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Under the circumstances it appears to be an absurd statement an absurd request made to a dying man. But the good thief saw something and so his request received that most hopeful response, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

With this story of the two thieves Luke sets up the paradox of Good Friday. On the surface of things, the fact that this day is called “good” seems as absurd as the request of the good thief. To an outsider looking in Jesus’ crucifixion seems to be anything but good, it seems like a devastating and conclusive ending to the story. That’s the view of the bad thief and with that view there’s nothing but despair and a desperate, kind of pathetic effort to join the mob in mocking Jesus. For the bad thief the only reality was Roman reality and according to that, this story was over, his story was over. From his perspective, life would go on, not his, but life for others, but the rules wouldn’t change. The powers of this world would remain in control.

As we share in the vision of the good thief though, as we see through his eyes we begin to see things differently. We begin to see that out of this apparent devastation there is hope, hope that is articulated in the words of Jesus, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” What that says, is that the story isn’t over. It too says that life will go on, but because of this event of the cross, the rules will be different. Somehow, we don’t know exactly how, but somehow the good thief was able to see that the old rules died with Jesus but compassion and forgiveness would not die. Because of that, he wasn’t resigned to despair like his partner in crime, but instead there was hope.

Because of Jesus, the good thief saw reality differently. He saw that the despair and hopelessness created by the powers of this world could be broken. He saw that on the cross, Jesus was doing just that, defeating the powers of this world. The good thief knew that he was getting what he deserved, but somehow, he also knew that through Jesus there was more to life than what you deserve. There was hope, even for him. Even for him, paradise was part of reality. Even for him; even for you.

Lord Jesus, in ways that we can’t fully understand, the events that we remember today are the source of our hope and for that we give you thanks. Help us to see what the good thief saw, that in and through you the powers of the this world including the power and finality of death have been overcome. Give us a vision of the new reality that is your reality. Give us the hope of Paradise.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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