I’d like you all to join me in a little experiment this morning. Take your hand – right hand or left hand, it doesn’t matter – and point at someone. Just like this (display finger pointing). It’s something we’ve all done pretty much for as long as we have lived. Who talked in class? He did. Who broke Grandma’s vase? She did. We’ve all done it and we all do it.
Now take your hand and point at someone again. And while you are pointing, look at your hand. Yes, your index finger and probably your thumb are pointing at someone else. But where are the other three fingers pointing? Where are the other three fingers pointing? They are pointing back at you. Yes – you.
This is something you will want to remember as we ponder this morning’s Gospel lesson. It covers a lot of territory – but woven throughout are a lot of accusations. A lot of finger pointing.
As Jesus stands before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, all kinds of people come forward to point their fingers and accuse Jesus of all kinds of wrongs. Meanwhile, in that cold courtyard outside the high priest’s home, the disciple Peter is standing – trying to stay out of trouble, trying to see what is taking place and trying to keep warm.
Good old Peter. Good old open-mouth-and-insert-foot Simon Peter. A servant points a finger at Peter and accuses him of being one of them – a follower of this Jesus who is on trial. Peter uses curses and oaths to deny the accusations and even claims that he doesn’t even know Jesus. And this is where – mentally at least – we all find ourselves pointing fingers at Peter. We mentally hear ourselves saying things like “You braggart! You boasted in front of everyone that others might fall away but you would never fall away. Not you, you said. Never. Well, take a look at yourself now, Peter the so-called rock!”
Or what about Judas? Judas Iscariot. One of the twelve. One of the handpicked disciples. It’s easy to point fingers at Judas, isn’t it? “How could you betray Jesus?” you might ask him. “How could you casually walk up to the man who called you ‘Friend’ and kiss him, knowing that you were giving Him the kiss of death? Are you happy now with your blood money – those 30 pieces of silver?”
Since this is Palm Sunday, let’s widen the picture to include all of those people who sang and waved their palms when Jesus rode that donkey into Jerusalem. How could they be so fickle that their joyful hosannas on one day could turn into bloodthirsty screams for crucifixion just a few days later?
We could point our self-righteous fingers at just about every person mentioned in today’s Gospel lesson. The disciples – who were so afraid for their own lives that they ran away and hid. The Chief Priest and all of the other holier-than-thou religious officials who abused their power and let their jealousy and pride turn them into murderers. The so-called good people who looked the other way because – well, they just didn’t want to get involved. Pontius Pilate, a political lightweight who really wanted to let Jesus go – he knew that Jesus had not committed any kind of crime – but he caved in to the pressure of the mob and gave them what they wanted. Those who came to Golgotha to gawk at and taunt the dying man. Is there anyone in this whole sordid story who remains innocent and unaccused?
Remember – every accusing finger leaves three fingers pointing back at you. You, Peter, denied Jesus – but so have we, every time we have laid aside our crosses and either shamefully or fearfully – or both – hid our identities as Lutheran Christians, refusing to speak up for our beliefs and our faith because other people just might turn against us.
You, Judas, betrayed Jesus – as have we every time we have taken the things of this world – even the wealth of the 30 pieces of silver that we covet – and made them more important than our Savior.
You, faithless priests, accuse of Jesus of threatening the temple while you endeavor to make the worship of God nothing but a farce – a hollow, worthless set of rules and regulations – just as we have done we every time we have trashed God’s house by turning our worship into something that is all about us rather than all about God.
You, howling and fickle crowds, become a raging mob – as have we all, every time we create heroes who disappoint us because they cannot save us from ourselves. Just go with the flow – do what everybody else is doing – and you won’t get hurt.
And we even point the finger at God, claiming that He has deserted us – when the truth is that we have repeatedly forsaken Him every day of our lives.
All of this finger pointing tears up our families and our communities and, yes, even our churches. We are cut off from one another and cut off from God. The result is that we end up in the company of Peter – out in the cold night air, weeping bitterly while our betrayal assaults our consciences. We find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with Judas – sick with shame and regret. Unable to find forgiveness for what we have done. Left alone – utterly alone – to handle our despair. Asking how God could possibly take us back – and coming up with no answer.
No matter where you turn or how hard you try, the fingers point back at you. Always point back at you. For hundreds of years – as far back as over 1,800 years ago – Christians were taught by the church that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Nonsense! We are responsible for nailing Jesus to the cross. You are responsible for nailing Jesus to the cross. Your sins put Him there. Your fingers – all of the fingers in the world – rightly point back at you for the suffering and death of that innocent Man.
As you may have read in both your bulletin and your bulletin insert, this Sunday – as far as the Church liturgical calendar is concerned – has two official titles. The first official title is “Palm Sunday.” Our opening hymn, our sermon hymn and our closing hymn are all Palm Sunday hymns – hymns celebrating Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The first Palm Sunday was a day of great joy and celebration – and we share that joy and celebration in those three hymns this morning.
But today is also known as the “Sunday of the Passion,” a reality that we will confess in our Communion hymn. The tradition of the Church on this Sunday is to look ahead to the events – all of the events – that took place following Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The institution of the Lord’s Supper in the upper room. The Garden of Gethsemane – where Jesus was betrayed by Judas and was arrested. The trial – with all of the false charges and malicious finger pointing – at the house of Caiaphas the high priest. The betrayal of Peter. The death of Judas. The trial before Pilate. The flogging and the mocking and the bloody procession Golgotha. More mocking. More taunts. More suffering. Finally, the death of Jesus. His burial. And a guard placed at the tomb to make sure that the dead and buried body of Jesus was not stolen so that His followers could falsely claim that He had been resurrected from the dead.
It’s the kind of day that makes you want to take your pointing fingers and hide them. Sit on them. Put them where no one – not someone else and certainly not you – can see them.
Now I’d like you to do one more experiment with me. Take your hands again – both hands – and hold them together in the ancient manner of hands lifted in prayer. Your fingers aren’t pointed at anyone else, now, are they? Your fingers are not pointing back at you, either. They point, instead and only, to God.
They point to the God we have selfishly accused of abandoning us – Who instead, as our Good Shepherd, relentlessly searches until He has every sheep safely returned to His fold.
We point to the Messiah who was betrayed, abandoned and slain so that His blood could wash us clean from all sin and unrighteousness.
We point to the Savior whose blood was shed on the cross and whose lifeless body was placed in that tomb that on the third day witnessed the miracle of His resurrection.
We point to the Son of God who gives us His own precious body and blood in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins.
We point to the Triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit who created us … who redeemed us … who brings us to faith … and who keeps us in the one true faith.
We now prepare to share again in His Holy Meal, that we may once again receive the life giving, forgiving, cleansing body and blood of Jesus Christ. As we move into the coming days of Holy Week, let us remember how today’s loud hosannas will become Friday’s even louder curses – and how our finger pointing always turns back in countless ways upon ourselves. Let us remember even more how our gracious God refuses to let anything cut us off from Him … using the very blood we shed to cleanse us … to restore us … and to save us.
Note: I did not originate the idea of the finger-pointing exercise … but most of the writing in this sermon is original.