… And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things…. (Read the whole passage)
There is something about an angry crowd that makes the hair on the back of your neck tingle.
If you have ever been near to a group of angry protestors or near a mob you would know that the kind of tension an angry group of people create is unique. Because of this, an angry mob is always something that makes the news. The protests and violence in Charlottesville this summer commanded world wide attention. As did the angry riots in Vancouver a few years ago after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. Tense and sometimes violent groups stick our in a memory. Those protesting violence police violence in Ferguson, Syrian refugees and migrants clamouring to cross European boarders, people gathered outside Trump rallies last year, people marching in the streets of the Arab Spring, and on and on. The reasons that incite a crowd are varied and complex and certainly some are more trivial than others.
Today, both Moses and the chief priest are worried about the crowds. They are worried that the very people that they lead, that they have authority over, that they have been entrusted with caring for, will revolt in anger. The Israelites wandering in the wilderness are complaining again, this time for something to drink… and Moses, fearing the crowds more than the God who appeared in burning bush, sent the 10 plagues and parted the Red Sea asks for God’s help lest he be stoned.
The chief priests know that the crowds are watching the interaction between them and Jesus, and the wrong answer can provoke violence.
It is easy to call the grumbling of the Israelites and the frustrations of the temple crowds mere complaining, but clearly there is something more to it than just a bunch of whining.
Moses is genuinely fearful… and the constant grumbling of the wandering and restless crowds will soon lead Moses up a mountain to meet with God. And God will provide ten commandments to temper the growing tension and discontentment among the Israelites so that their grumbling doesn’t turn into violence.
And yet, hundreds of years later, long after the law had been given, the same leaders of the people – the chief priests – are fearful of what the people might do if they are provoked.
There is something about an angry crowd or mob that puts everyone on edge… that sparks a fear in leaders and authorities.
There is something about an angry crowd or mob that reveals something primal and dangerous within us. The instinct to protect ourselves, to lash out at those who can be easily blamed for our problems, to coalesce around anger and rage… these things reveal and show the dark side of us, that potential for evil that is somehow multiplied when a group of individuals all pull back the veil on sin simultaneously.
An angry crowd or mob reveals what original sin looks like at its clearest. What it looks like when our selfish desires to protect ourselves at all costs, to blame others for our problems, to seek vengeance for the grudges that we carry is put out into the open. When a group of people tries to be God in God’s place, and exercise ultimate power and control over their world you get a terrifying scene.
And of course, we too know about the discontentment of a crowd in the 21st century. Whether it is the violent crowds we see in the news or a lesser discontentment that can brew in any group or community, we know the power of collective rage and grumbling. We know that in our communities, even in our church communities, that when frustration and anger hits a tipping point, blaming particular people or other groups for our problems can brew a toxic storm. And it is a storm that that most leaders fear and avoid, and few others, (like a certain big league president to our south) incite in order to exploit.
And so as the temple authorities and Jesus debate in front of the crowds today, the temple authorities watch their words for fear of the crowds, even though they believe that Jesus is not the one sent by God.
And while the rage might have been directed towards the temple priests today… it is not long after this that the rage of the crowds will be redirected towards Jesus. The shouts of Hosanna for a king riding into Jerusalem will turn to crucify him.
And Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that the questions about his authority will not die down. And that for only a little longer, he will only get away with parables that suggest the temple priests do not know the will of God.
But what Jesus does in the face of the violent crowd, what Jesus comes to say about God and about God’s kingdom, even when the crowds turn into violent mobs hell bent on taking out their anger on someone.
And Jesus does what neither Moses nor the temple priests are able to do. Jesus does what no King or Queen, what no Emperor, what no President or Prime Minister is able to do.
In the face of original sin, in the face of a crowd determined to be God in God’s place and take control of their world, Jesus stands firm.
Jesus doesn’t avoid the anger and nor does he incite the crowd, he doesn’t appease the crowds or try to control them. Jesus doesn’t respond to their violence with violence.
Instead Jesus stands firm, Jesus continues to declare that the Kingdom of God has come near. Jesus continues to bring close the love and mercy and grace of God. Jesus continues to meet a fallen humanity with the intimacy of God come to us in flesh
Even as the anger and rage filled crowds convince Pilate, Herod and the other earthly authorities to bend to their need to violence, even as they drag Jesus to Golgotha, even as they nail him to a cross, even as they put Jesus, God in flesh to death… Jesus stand firms. Jesus continues to bring the love and grace and mercy of God near to us.
And unlike all other responses to Original Sin made manifest in angry crowds, in crowds that shout “Crucify him”, as Jesus stands firm knowing that the crowd will take his life… God’s unwillingness to bend and react to the crowd changes everything.
The crowd’s power, the power of death is overcome… self-righteous anger and rage become impotent. Death is no longer final and instead resurrection and new life are the new reality. Original Sin is no longer a terrible and fear inspiring power, but soft whimper next to God’s love and grace and mercy.
And we know this because we live it. Yes, original sin takes control of us collectively from time to time. We still see it in the news and in our lives.
Yet, as we gather here, and as Christians all over the world gather together…
There is no angry mob that meets God’s word of forgiveness.
There is no rage that can overshadow the life that is given in the waters of baptism.
There is no discontent that the gospel word does not cure.
There is no selfish anger that does not melt away as we come and kneel to receive bread and wine at God’s table.
Because Jesus stood firm in the face of the angry crowd, original sin has no claim in the body of Christ.
Moses and the temple priests are fearful of the crowds today. They are afraid of what the rage of the original sin might to do them if left unchecked… it is a very real fear known by any leader, known by any bystander in front of an angry mob…
But it is in that hair raising fear of the angry crowd where Jesus stands his ground. Where God incarnate, God in flesh insists on preaching God’s love, mercy and grace.
And it is there, standing in front of the mobs of original sin that God’s love prevails…
That God’s grace is present and manifest in the world…
That God’s mercy is given …
There that the Kingdom of God comes near.
And there is no angry crowd that will make Jesus back down… because God has come to stand in front of our sin, and God does not bend or react… but instead insistently shows us new life.