“A Perfect Storm” (Sermon 4/9/17)

 Matthew 21:1-11

A few words about Palm Sunday to set the scene: Palm Sunday is like Thanksgiving to Christmas. Next week is Easter. The Easter bunnies, decorations, and all that chocolate have been out for weeks. The Cadbury Easter bunny contest has been running on television. Back in the day, cities had Easter parades. Some folks call what happened on Palm Sunday a parade, but that is a fabrication that belies the seriousness of Jesus’ dramatic act.

Palm Sunday makes me nervous. It is so easy to go from waving palm branches and praising God to murderous thoughts of crucifying Jesus. I get the symbolism of the palm branches and I gladly wave my branch this morning, but have we any idea what we are saying? It is always Palm Sunday I American politics. We are with the crowd that wanted Jesus to be a military king, a new emperor to defeat Rome. This crowd presents Jesus with one of his last temptations. They will crown him king and he can skip the cross. Jesus, having already set his face toward the cross, doesn’t fall for the crowd’s adoration and praise. He knows the power they offer is fake power and he rejects it. This is why they would crucify Jesus on Friday: “He embodied a politidcs that threatened all worldly regimes based on the fear of death.” This crowd was the devil’s crowd, pawns in the hands of the powers and principalities. So it is right that we wave the palm branches so that we will remember that we too are capable of trying to use Jesus for our own selfish purposes.

This is the same crowd that days later would go from shouting acclamations of praise to screaming blood-curdling words, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” This crowd seems to have appeared out of nowhere, a sort of New Testament “flash mob.” Well, I’ve seen flash mobs singing and dancing and having a good time, but there’s something about these palm branch wavers that makes me nervous. This crowd doesn’t get Jesus at all. They have completely missed the point of his teaching. And that makes Palm Sunday matter to us because I am not at all confident that we get Jesus either.

Palm Sunday is no parade; it is prelude to Good Friday. This is Jesus taking on the powers that would kill him. Palm Sunday gathers the forces of good and evil for a climatic onslaught, a perfect storm, and the religious people are decked out in the clothes of the devil and waving palm branches.

Our text is about a perfect storm. Organized religious power and organized political power converged on Jerusalem on Passover A.D. 30 and Jesus arrived in the middle of it all – riding on a donkey. This always makes me laugh because this is comedy in its highest form. Nobody saw this coming – a king on a donkey coming through the back gate. Scholars tell us that Jesus entered Jerusalem through the sheep gate and that meant he had to bow and stoop close to the ground in order to squeeze through the entrance. The Lamb of God enters Jerusalem through the sheep gate. Is this beginning to dawn on us? Political power comes through the front gate – all gussied up, all pomp and circumstance; King Jesus comes through the back door – the lowly sheep’s gate, the servant’s entrance. Political power rides a powerful white stallion trailed by his legions of troops; King Jesus rides a donkey trailed by a motley crowd. Political power rules over; Jesus power serves under others. Political power insists on being right; Jesus power on justice. Political power coerces; Jesus power has compassion. Political power is pushy; Jesus power is patient. Political power is envious, boastful, arrogant, rude; Jesus power is poor in spirit, meek, peaceable; political power will do whatever it takes to win; Jesus power rejoices in the truth. If offered power we should reject it.

In many ways this was a savvy crowd, but they were oblivious to the approaching storm. Knowledge of religion and politics is always a mixture of half-truths, outright lies, prejudices, and rumors. The crowd is armed with pieces of religious knowledge – scattered Bible verses. They sing a bit of Psalm 118: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! A preacher with a few verses of Scripture gathered from here and there is a scary creature. This crowd wants a king and they will do anything to make Jesus King du jour. This crowd will follow any old promise-maker. Scripture names at least two such false messiahs: Theudas and Judas. They sound like twins. The crowd wanted the lion of Judah; they got the Lamb of God. And the church still struggles with whether or not we want a lion or a lamb on the throne.    

One political party, working the crowd that day, represented all the crazy, wacked-out hate groups, violent groups, and nationalistic groups – the Zealot Party. Here is the violent mixture of just enough religion and a lot of politics to create a perfect storm. The Zealots have just enough religion to justify hatred. Does any of this sound familiar to you? We know all about Jesus giving the Pharisees down the river, but we seem to overlook that Jesus warned the people not to follow the Zealots. Do you know what a pine knot is? The stump (and tap root) of a longleaf pine, left in the ground after a tree has fallen or has been cut, becomes hard and rot-resistant. It’s nature’s lighter fluid in solid form. The Zealots were the pine knots of Jerusalem. Particularly stubborn children in my home would be called “knotheads” – a reference to a pine knot. Rodney the Knothead. Knotheads and Rednecks are a metaphorical couplet. A redneck refers to someone who gets hot around the collar, aka, a Zealot. Jesus makes this startling prophecy to the wives and mothers of Jerusalem: “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Now for the irony. The crowd and the Zealots who cooked up this little protest didn’t have a clue about Scripture or real power (Matthew 22:29). In Jesus Christ Superstar, Simon the Zealot urges Jesus to lead a real revolution. Jesus turns and sings: “[None of you] understand what power is! Understand what glory is! Understand at all!” Turns out the crowd knew neither Scripture nor the power of God (Matthew 22:29). It is a scary idea that a nation that loudly proclaims that it is Christian knows neither Scripture nor the power of God. Now, this can be a problem, especially in a country that so loudly claims to be Christian. I worry about people spouting off about truth without any prior knowledge of the Bible or promoting power without any understanding of the meaning of power.

Jesus would have nothing to do with these ignoramuses. He tells them flat out: “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” Sometimes when people are wrong, they actually know they are wrong, but can’t admit it so they keep repeating the mantra in the desperate hope that repeating it will make it so. There are no hypotheses for true believers. Evidence that goes against Received Truth is simply discarded as false. Blind faith wouldn’t be blind if it could see the facts. They prefer saying “the evidence be damned” to being damned by the evidence. This strategy, worked out tragically in history, is always directed by one form of Zealot or another: “Take the Method (there is only one method) and try it. If it fails, deny its failure, and try it again – and again . . . . and again . . . . But, above all, keep trying the same thing” (Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression, xxii).

Nationally, we face our own version of the perfect storm. Jesus’ primary enemies were not godless communists, socialists, or atheists of any stripe; rather they were the religious leaders of his own nation – a sobering thought for all of us Reverends. Those who now lord it over Christians with their holy pronouncements, their assertions of certainty, their confident and belligerent insistence that they have the inside track on exactly what God wills, these preachers may turn out to be the real enemies of Jesus in our day.

Why is it so hard to get it through our heads that our religious establishment can be as out of kilter as the Temple authorities? I stand before the judgment seat of God, and can only mumble, “Is it I, Lord?”   

We know that we have a widening gap between the very, very, very rich and the poor. We know that we are trashing and polluting our planet with our garbage, chemicals, and poisons, but no one can resolve the pollution versus profit problem. One group shouts, “Profits and jobs!” The other group shouts “Environment and safety!” We know that we can’t spend money forever, but we act as if we have a money machine that cranks out the dollars to infinity. Our problem is that we only wish for solutions, we don’t will them. Like the Pharisees, we’re too self-righteous; like the lawyers, too ambitious.

If that palm branch represents your love and loyalty to Jesus, then you are ready for the next step. Put down the palm branch and pick up the cross. It is time for the church to be the alternative to the politics of America. It is our time to rise and shine and give God the glory.

It may seem crazy but I’m going to follow the man on the donkey. He knows his stuff and he knows how to bring peace. Palm Sunday can still be a compelling way to give us a glimpse of what a wonderful life we have been given through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior!