Tramping Feet

Pastor Emile J. Burgess Sermon—John 18:1-6
Midweek Lent 2015 Sounds of the Passion

Tramping Feet
Mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance. Jude 2

There’s something fascinating about the sound of feet stepping in unison. Whether it’s tap dancers, Irish Step dancers, modern Stomp dancers, you can’t help but marvel at their dedication to their craft, at the tight precision of footfalls resounding as one! It is a sight to see, and hear!

There’s something about military marching too that can be fascinating and admirable. It’s a powerful sight and sound to watch a company of soldiers march and chant as if one man. They march, they chant, they fight with singular purpose, singular focus, unified for a common cause. It can be an awe inspiring thing.

The tramp of soldiers’ feet can also be a dreadful thing, if you happen to be on the wrong side of their common cause. Throughout the passion of our Lord Jesus, the tightly timed tramp of soldiers’ feet is heard again and again as Jesus is shuttled from one place to another. There are guards, armies, sentries, and centurions taking our Lord from Gethsemane to trial, from Caiaphas to Pilate, from judgment to the cross. Had we been there, it would have been a dreadful sound. But can we learn to hear it differently? Can we hear it in ways that harken to more than just the dread of our Savior’s passion? Can we hear the sound of tramping feet and detect the movement of the Father’s hand?

We first hear the sound of armed men marching in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night. Jesus had just finished his agonizing time in prayer. He rose to his feet having fully entrusted himself to the Father’s will, to drink the cup of his passion. His disciples rose sleepy-eyed to their feet at his rebuke and at his news that his betrayer was here. Right on cue, the heavy footfalls of an army swelled and then stopped at the garden gate. Jesus didn’t wait for them, but himself went out to meet them. At the front of this crowd was Judas. With him were the Jewish temple guard and a contingent of Roman soldiers. The Jewish priests were not taking any chances. Anyone wanting to raise a ruckus would be answered with Roman steel. It was the dead of night. Were the non-existent crowds really going to rise up at the sight of Jesus’ arrest?

Jesus squared himself to the armed crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion,” he asked them, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me” (Mk 14:48–49a).

Then Jesus said two other important things. The first:  “But the Scriptures must be fulfilled” (Mk 14:49b). The coming of the crowd, the timed precision of their feet marching in perfect order, wasn’t a random event. The Father was using this army ultimately to carry out his divine purposes. You see, Jesus heard something more in those tramping feet. Jesus knew where those tramping feet would ultimately lead him, to the cross. Yes, they moved of their own volition and will, but unbeknownst to them, they were being used by the Father to carry out his marching orders. Scripture had to be fulfilled. God’s Son had to die for our sin. And so at the Supreme Heavenly Commander’s consent, they would take Jesus before the kangaroo court that would find him guilty, then to Pilate for sentencing, and eventually to the cross. But make no mistake about it. Pure evil hung in the dust-filled air of those tramping feet. That we learn from the second thing Jesus said.

“But this is your hour—when darkness reigns” (Lk 22:53b). Jesus saw this small army for what it really was, not just a ragtag group thrown together by the chief priests and the Sanhedrin at the last minute. Nor was this merely a group of professional soldiers on a brief mission. This group was in reality part of the army of darkness arrayed against Jesus that night.

For Satan himself had entered into Judas, and his dark power was guiding the crowd. This was the time when darkness would reign. This was the night when the powers of sin and darkness would give Jesus what he had coming to him, or should we say what the sinful world had coming to it. In this army, Jesus saw what others didn’t. In the tramp of feet, he heard what others didn’t. He meekly went with them.

They marched down the mountainside, swords clanging in time with their feet—down the Mount of Olives, across the ravine, into the city of Jerusalem, up the temple mount, onto the Court of Gentiles! The Romans were dismissed to their barracks at the Fortress Antonia on the north side of the temple. The temple guard took over from there and took Jesus into the council chambers. The trial proceeded in almost perfect precision. There were some missteps along the way, but they marched to their preplanned verdict of guilty. That was all anyone really cared about, condemning this Jesus. Then the temple guards took Jesus back outside. Once again, Jesus marched in step with the soldiers: across the court, down the steps, through the city, to the fortress, stopping at Pilate’s judgment hall, where they transferred Jesus back to the control of the Roman army. The soldiers stayed outside as Jesus was tried before Pilate. After some shouts and heated haggling, the sentence was handed down: Jesus would die by crucifixion.

Jesus was then marched crisply to the barracks, each of the soldiers itching for what would come next. At last, they broke ranks. The strict discipline that had so far held them together disintegrated abruptly as they began acting like barbarians. They blindfolded Jesus and struck him in the face, daring him to say who had hit him. They dressed him in an ornate robe, placed a crown of thorns on his head, and gave him a stick for a scepter. They bowed down in ridicule, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then they ripped the stick from his hand and struck him with it, driving the thorns into his skin. Heavy boots that had earlier marched across the ground kicked Jesus, bruising him, knocking the wind out of him, causing blood to flow freely from his wounds.

Then the command came. “Get the prisoner and march to the place of execution!” Picking up their prisoner, they put the cross bar on his back and led him out to the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows. Then the song of tramping feet resumed. Assembling in formation, with Jesus in front of them, the soldiers marched out. But the formation broke once again when Jesus fell. The centurion drew his sword to cut the ropes holding the cross bar. Scanning the crowd, he saw a Cyrenian and made him carry it. The marching continued, out of the city, across the dry riverbed, to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Once again, the order came to halt. There they crucified Jesus.

Throughout his passion, Jesus has heard something more, something different in the sound of tramping feet. That is how, that is why, the sound of these words come from his lips. They are surprising words. No, they are no cry for vengeance, no word of hatred for the Romans who nailed him there. Simply a word of grace: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34a).

What a powerful word! He could call down legions of marching angels to destroy all who were hurting him, but no, he calls down a word of forgiveness. In fact, Jesus didn’t just speak a word of forgiveness. He earned a verdict of forgiveness for the soldiers whose feet had taken him to his death. He died for the very men who put him on the cross. The same ones who kicked him, beat him, and caused him such pain were the ones for whom he now hung on the cross. Jesus took their sins—even the sins of their cruelty to him—and died for them.

But then, Jesus had given himself no choice but to die. For Scripture, the Scriptures he had inspired, had to be fulfilled. Someone had to end the power of death and sin. That one was Jesus. His march took him from heaven to Bethlehem to Jerusalem, to the cross. There Jesus gave up his life for those who nailed him to the tree, so that all people would be declared forgiven, innocent, atoned for. But he didn’t just do that for those soldiers. He did it for us too.  

He did that for us, who miserably failed to march in step with God’s Word and commands, who tromped off on our own way, who wanted nothing to do with him. We who were determined to march to the beat of a different drummer—ourselves. We who shut our ears to the cadence of God’s will and followed the beat of our own heart of sin. But really, sin has no rhythm. Sin has no cadence, no order. Sin is irrational and sin only further confuses. Sin only leads people to being more lost than before, sheep without a shepherd.

In our sinful natures, we still know how to play the game. Like the Roman soldiers, we can hide behind a veneer of civility, hide behind a perfunctory discipline of the head but not the heart. But we have our moments of breaking rank too, when the barbarian shows himself. Yes, sin no better than that of those who nailed the Son of God to a Roman cross still lives in my heart.

But through his death on the cross, Jesus came to set us free from sin. He took our sin away and granted us full forgiveness. He now brings us into step with his commands and bids us to march with him. Freed from sin and death, we walk in step with him and the Spirit. We walk in the way of forgiveness, peace, mercy, and love. Our path is clearly marked out before us. We walk in the way that Jesus as he did. We walk alongside him.

Listen! Hear the sound of tramping feet—the sound of God’s people following the way of Jesus! “Onward, Christian soldiers, Marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus Going on before” (CW 537:1). Amen.


May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. 2 Thessalonians 3:5

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