Saturday, March 28, 2015

Words Matter - Mark 15:6-15

Zechariah 9:9-10

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.  

Mark 15:6-15

Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

"Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

"What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked them.

"Crucify him!" they shouted.

"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"

Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

               On Palm Sunday we celebrate the day that Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem.  There was a festive atmosphere in the city.  The out of towners had arrived, and all the pilgrims were there to worship God in the Temple.  Jesus rode a donkey into town, and everyone knew what that meant.  He was acting out the prophecy of Zechariah, who described the Messiah coming into the city in a particular way:

See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The people watching Jesus live out this prophecy by riding into town on a donkey began to grab branches from the trees and wave them in the air.  They took their coats and robes and placed them on the road so the donkey would have something to walk upon.

And they shouted at the top of their lungs – “Hosanna.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

It was a word of praise.

It was a word of celebration.

It was a word of affirmation.

It was a word that disappeared quickly.

In its place a phrase of hatred was spoken – ‘crucify him.’

Days after this triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Christ was tied and bound and led to face the authorities.  A politician felt “stuck” with this unwelcome case.  He wanted to get rid of this case and wash his hands of the whole affair. 

There was a prevailing Passover custom in Jerusalem that allowed or required Pilate, the governor of Judaea, to commute one prisoner's death sentence by popular acclaim.  Pilate offered them a choice – Jesus or Barabbas.  They picked Barabbas.  Pilate asked what he was to do with Jesus, and the crowd yelled out ‘crucify him.’

We have not changed a bit.  We speak words of love and support one moment, and the next moment we shout words of hate and anger.

We throw words around as if they have no meaning – but they have so much meaning. 

               “I have a dream…

               “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…

               “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

               Words matter.  Whether we say “hosanna” or “crucify” the words matter a great deal.

               And we, like those of ancient Jerusalem, are as quick to speak words of hate, as we are to say words of love.

               In the New Testament book of James, the writer talks about how a small spark can set off a great forest fire, and he says that the words we speak are like such fire, capable of setting off great evil with a small spark.  James goes onto say, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in God's likeness.   Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”  (James 3:4-11)

               In our culture today we no longer hear debate and discussion, we hear insults and angry words of hate.

               We hear it all over the place. 

               Young people smart mouth their teachers.

               Husbands and wives stab each other with painful words.

               Customers speak rudely to store clerks and store clerks speak rudely to their customers.

               We toss words around as if they have little meaning – but they have tremendous weight.

               Words have power.  And we can either shout words of praise and joy with “Hosanna” or we can shout words of hate as with “crucify him.”

Jesus says in Matthew 15, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions....”

Reflecting on those words, John Wimberly, pastor of the Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, has said that the insight of Jesus come like “a spiritual lightning bolt.  Hurtful words we utter are not slips of the tongue.  They are expressions of a heart ready, willing and able to hurt somebody.  When we fail to speak a word for justice, it isn’t an oversight.  It is a heart afraid or unwilling to speak up for injustice.”[1]

Often times, when I am with a couple preparing for marriage, I caution the bride and groom to be careful how they speak to one another.  Once certain words are spoken, it is impossible to take them back.  We may be sorry later, but the other person may not be in a very forgiving mood later. 

You’ve probably have heard me say more than once that I’ve never found any truth in that old saying we teach children.  “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never harm me.”

That is nonsense.  Just the opposite is true. 

The wounds from sticks and stones usually heal. 

But what survives is the wound from the words we hear.

Few of you who were beaten up by some bully on the playground are still in pain from the blows of a fist. 

But what survives are the wounds from the words you heard - the hateful words spoken that were addressed to you or said about you.

Our bodies usually recover from the wounds inflicted by sticks and stones. 

But inflict a wound with words that are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, divisive, hateful, violent, or otherwise hurtful and the wound may well last a lifetime.  Call a kid ugly, stupid or clumsy and the kid may well weave those words into the fabric of his or her soul and those hurtful words survive.

If words are what will survive for so long – let us make them words of peace, and love, and justice.  Let our words be helpful, and healing, and able to make the kind of changes we desire.
The sad thing is, I believe, most of the people on that Palm Sunday and later in the week were shouting words without thinking.  They were just words, and people did not think about the power of words.

            I suspect that many people who shouted “Hosanna” on that first Palm Sunday did so with very little commitment to Christ in their hearts.

            They were just getting in the mood of the party atmosphere that was sweeping through Jerusalem that day.

            And the same must have been true of those who shouted “Crucify him.”  They were just being swept away by that crowd mentality that so often infects us.

We live in an angry time.  And everyone has a right be angry.  There is injustice in this world.  There is unfairness.  There uncertainty.

And in these angry times, it is easy for us to speak – not just angry words – but hate filled words. 

The Old Testament book of Proverbs said it well in chapter 17:  “A person of knowledge uses words with restraint, a person of understanding is even-tempered.”

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

[1] John W. Wimberly, Jr.  “Words Matter.”  Western Presbyterian Church, Washington DC.  August 17, 2008.