Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sermon: Palm/Passion Sunday (5 April 2009)

Sermon: Palm/Passion Sunday (5 April 2009)
(Mark 11:1-11)
The Battle Begins

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 10:34-39, NKJV).

A battle is coming, Jesus says, a battle which will test and strain all loyalties, a battle in which lives will be lost and lives will be found. And Jesus has come to engage that battle, to wield the very sword of God.

It is an ancient battle, one begun near the dawn of time, one begun in heaven and pursued on earth – a battle of angels.

And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him (Rev 12:7-9, NKJV).

Into the Garden the battle raged: quietly, unobtrusively, deceptively – a battle of hints and innuendos and lies. And man became its casualty, the entire race of man taken prisoner of war by the serpent, bound over to death and sin by our ancient foe Satan.

Not willing or desiring that man should cease to be, not willing that His own image in man be forever lost, the Creator mounted a counter offensive, fielding an army of patriarchs, priests, kings, prophets, a whole nation – a patient general campaigning over the millennia, all the while preparing a people, preparing the world, for a Champion – a Champion to wage the battle to end all battles. And so, in the fullness of the times, that Champion comes.

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn (Lk 2:1-7, NRSV).

The enemy loses no time, but conspires with the powers of this age – with Herod – to slaughter the innocents of Bethlehem in a vain attempt to destroy God’s Champion. From there, but for one brief episode in the temple, the record goes silent; for thirty years the battle rages unobtrusively, hidden from public sight. We can only imagine its intensity.

It breaks into view again at a river in Aenon near Salim where the Champion comes to be baptized by a wilderness prophet. From there it moves directly into the surrounding wilderness, a frontal attack of the enemy this time, an attack repulsed by the Champion with prayer and fasting and the Word of God his Father. Some three years of skirmishes follow: sickness, death, demons, storms, politicians and clergy – all pawns in the conflict, a conflict moving inexorably toward a climactic battle.

Today it begins; today the final assault begins.

Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it. And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:

‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple (Mk 11:7-10, NKJV).

Jesus casts down the gauntlet. Riding at the head of a coronation procession, he comes as King to an occupied city, occupied by the world-striding, world-conquering power of Rome. Hailed as the one who comes in the name of the LORD, he comes as Lord to an occupied temple, occupied by thieving merchants and power hungry priests.

The climactic battle is coming and the Triumphal Entry is the opening volley – Jesus on the offensive. But is the battle really to be waged against such would-be powers of the world as those arrayed against Jesus – a battle waged against priests and Sadducees, scribes and Pharisees, Herodians and Roman soldiers? Surely these are no match for Very God from Very God incarnate. Surely, Jesus came not to destroy these, or even to conquer them, but to save them. No, the coming battle is not against flesh and blood – even though the cross makes it seem so – but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12, NIV). Though many of the “enemy” foot soldiers are indeed flesh and blood, the true battle is the ancient one begun in heaven, pursued in the Garden, and waged across the pages of history – a spiritual battle with the dragon. The battlefield is the heart of man, conquered by the enemy and guarded by his demon soldiers of barrenness, hypocrisy, and rebellion.

Now the next day [the day following the Triumphal Entry], when they had come out from Bethany, He [Jesus] was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.”
And his disciples heard it.

Now in the morning [of the next day], as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away” (Mk 11:12-14, 20-21, NKJV).

Jesus has come to battle barrenness in Israel and in the human heart. To Israel belongs “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen” (Rom 9:4-5, NRSV). And yet, when Jesus looks for the fruit born from these incomparable blessings he finds only a tree in full foliage, leaves concealing its utter barrenness. What is this? In the presence of Jesus fish miraculously school into nets, water turns into wine, bread is multiplied, storms are stilled. Creation knows its Creator and bends the knee before him. But this tree, this Israel? It refuses to bear fruit for its Creator, for its Messiah. And so, Jesus wields the sword, condemning its barrenness.

From his battle with the barren fig tree Jesus comes to Jerusalem.

Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”
And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching (Mk 11:15-18, NKJV).

What is a priest, if not a servant, a shepherd to lead his flock to God? But these priests act not as good shepherds, but as hirelings who care nothing for the sheep. They break into God’s house to steal; they have made it a den of thieves and have become thieves themselves. All the while wearing their robes and turbans, lifting their hands in prayer, offering the appointed sacrifices – now these “shepherds of Israel” plot how they might destroy the Good Shepherd. They are the worst kind of hypocrites: those who pretend to honor God and speak for him, but who know him not and have never heard his voice. The glory they should direct toward God they divert toward themselves. Jesus has come to battle this hypocrisy in Israel’s priests and in the human heart. And so he wields the whip, driving out the merchants – the priests’ lackeys – freeing the sacrificial doves before their blood is spilled in empty ritual, disrupting the priests’ vain worship. Yes, Jesus wields the whip, condemning hypocrisy.

The following day Jesus is accosted by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders while walking in the temple. “And they said to Him, ‘By what authority are You doing these things: And who gave You this authority to do these things’” (Mk 11:28, NKJV)? Jesus answered in a parable.

A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 2At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. 5He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
6He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, 'They will respect my son.'
7But the tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' 8So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
9What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10Haven't you read this scripture: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; 11the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?
12Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away (Mk 12:1-12, NIV).

Jesus has come as the faithful Son to reclaim the vineyard for God his Father; he has come knowing full well the tenants will kill him and throw him out of the vineyard. He has come to battle the rebellion in the leadership of Israel and in the human heart. And so, he wields the power of the word against this rebellion, the power of a parable which will either break hearts and bend knees or harden hearts and stiffen necks. Yes, Jesus wields the word, condemning rebellion.

The Triumphal Entry – and the ensuing battle – had profound historical and spiritual significance for Israel. For its barrenness, hypocrisy, and rebellion – particularly of the religious establishment – Israel was judged by God and, in only forty years, destroyed by the Romans. Though Israel never was and is not now excluded from God’s redemptive work, the thrust of that redemptive work in the world shifted to the nations – to the Gentiles, though St. Paul holds out hope, as do we all, for a great awakening of his people. For Israel, the Triumphal Entry was the beginning of judgment, though the hope of restoration remains.

But the Triumphal Entry marks the beginning of another battle, as well – and, pray God, not a battle unto judgment. Having conquered sin and death, having defeated our ancient foe Satan – having risen from the dead, trampling down death by death – our Champion Jesus makes triumphal entry into every human heart and wields the sword against the barrenness, hypocrisy, and rebellion he finds there. Let us make no mistake: if we are his, if we have surrendered the vineyard of our lives to him, Jesus will have us fruitful; he will have us genuine; he will have us humble. He is a mighty warrior and wields the sword to great effect. The cuts are deep and painful. The wounds are mortal wounds; none survive his onslaught. Every old man, old woman, old child must die – every vestige of barrenness and hypocrisy and rebellion must be destroyed – so that a new man, a new woman, a new child may be born and may press on toward maturity. The sword in the hands of the Warrior proves to be the scalpel in the hands of the Healer – a healer who battles our human hearts not for their destruction but for their perfection.

This is not a battle in which we can remain neutral: we are both battleground and combatant – we are engaged. We may choose to fight with Jesus for the deliverance of our hearts or against him for – What? – to remain barren, to live in hypocrisy, to rebel against the one who loves us and longs to free us from our corruption and slavery? But if we choose to fight with him, our Champion equips us, arms us for battle and assures us of victory.

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10:4-5, NIV).

13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints (Eph 6:13-18, NIV).

Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, the Word of God, and prayer – continual prayer in the Spirit – these are our weapons. Add to this arsenal humility, obedience, self-sacrifice, service, and love – above all, love – and the victory for our hearts and our very lives is certain.

There is a battle raging, not only in the world, but in our hearts. May Jesus truly come to us in Triumphal Entry. May we truly cry out,

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!


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