Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sermon: Palm Sunday ( 28 March 2010)

Palm Sunday: 1 April 2007
(Luke 19:28-48)
Symbols and Triumph

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

Symbols are powerful and evocative. Burn an American flag as a protected expression of free speech if you will. Burn an American flag in front of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post and you might pay dearly for your freedom, as indeed many of them have.

Like many Hebrew prophets Jesus was a master of symbols, using them in deed and in word to enlighten, to challenge, and, especially in today’s gospel text, to provoke. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone present – either Jesus’ disciples, the ordinary crowds, the Scribes and Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests, or the various Roman officials – could have missed the symbolic intent of Jesus’ actions. Misunderstand them, yes. Miss them, no.

The Triumphal Entry all starts about a thousand years earlier with David – now king of all Israel – with his desire and plan to build a temple for God, an everlasting house for the glory of the LORD.

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’

Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever (2 Sam 7:1-7, 11b-16, NRSV).

God rejects David’s offer of a house and promises instead to establish a house for David – a dynasty of kings in which one of David’s sons, though burdened with iniquity and sorely punished, will nevertheless possess an everlasting kingdom and be called the son of God.

Some two or three decades later David lies dying. His son Adonijah takes advantage of this moment of weakness and uncertainty to stage a coup. With the support of some of his younger brothers; Joab, the commander of David’s army; and Abiathar the priest; he declares himself king of Israel. But David, alerted by the prophet Nathan and his wife Bathsheba, has a different plan.

King David said, ‘Summon to me the priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada.’ When they came before the king, the king said to them, ‘Take with you the servants of your lord, and have my son Solomon ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. There let the priest Zadok and the prophet Nathan anoint him king over Israel; then blow the trumpet, and say, “Long live King Solomon!” You shall go up following him. Let him enter and sit on my throne; he shall be king in my place; for I have appointed him to be ruler over Israel and over Judah’ (1 Ki 1:32-35, NRSV).

All was done as David commanded. Solomon rode into Jerusalem on a mule – a royal beast of burden – where he was anointed king and acclaimed by all the people. It was Solomon, and not Adonijah, who would fulfill God’s promise to David of a royal dynasty. And what of Adonijah? That pretender to the throne was immediately deposed, though later he once again tried to wrest the kingdom from Solomon.

It is now Sunday morning some thousand years later. Jesus, poised to enter Jerusalem, awaits the return of his disciples whom he sent on a mission.

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!Hosanna in the highest heaven’ (Mt 21:6-9, NRSV).

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!” the crowds cried, for they saw the symbols and understood. Jesus, descendant of David, on a royal beast of burden, riding into Jerusalem to depose the pretenders to the everlasting throne, a new Solomon: this is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David. David’s son has come, the one who will reign for ever, the one to be called the son of God.

Yes, the people saw the symbols and understood. So, too, did the Pharisees. Hearing the peoples’ chant, “some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop’” (Luke 19:39, NRSV). The Pharisees understood the symbols, understood these actions and these words as a royal proclamation, understood the march of the crowd as a coronation parade. And they were having none of it, none of a troublesome Galilean peasant turned would-be king.

And Rome? Yes, Rome understood also, understood the symbols so clearly that within the week they would crucify this Jesus under the placard “King of the Jews.” Rome knew just how to handle Jewish kings.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed by the crowds as the son of David, like Solomon, he declared every other ruler to be Adonijah, a usurper, a fraud, no king at all. Herod, Pilate, Caesar – all deposed by the son of David, the son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the one true Lord. Well did the psalmist speak of them, of this moment.

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us” (Ps 2:1-3, NRSV).

Symbols are powerful and evocative. Ride a donkey in the fields if you will. Ride a donkey into Jerusalem at the head of a coronation parade and you might pay with your life. The kings of the earth and the rulers do not abdicate their thrones willingly.

David was not allowed to build God’s temple; that task fell to his son, Solomon. With all the people assembled before the new altar Solomon ended his dedicatory prayer with an invocation of God’s presence.

Now rise up, O Lord God, and go to your resting-place, you and the ark of your might.Let your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let your faithful rejoice in your goodness. O Lord God, do not reject your anointed one. Remember your steadfast love for your servant David’ (2 Ch 6:41-42, NRSV).

And God appeared; his glory filled the temple.

When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt-offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’s house (2 Ch 7:1-2, NRSV).

The temple became the most powerful symbol of God’s presence with his people for nearly four centuries. Until the people forgot the LORD their God. Until they filled the temple with vain worship and, even more detestably, with the worship of false gods. Unable to bring the people to repentance and unwilling to endure their blasphemy any longer, the glory of the LORD departed the temple (cf Eze 10). Shortly afterwards, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and carried Judah into exile.

Some seventy years later the returning exiles rebuilt the temple, though a much more modest version. But never does scripture record a return of God’s glory to that temple. It was a place of worship, yes, but not a place where God dwelt as before. So the Old Testament closes with Malachi’s prophetic longing and hope for the return of the LORD to his temple.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts (Mal 3:1, NRSV).

But the hope is tinged with warning. Yes, the LORD will come, but as a righteous judge who will convict and purify.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts (Mal 3:2-5, NRSV).

It is now Sunday morning, some four hundred years since Malachi penned these words. Jesus of Nazareth, at the head of the coronation procession, enters Jerusalem.

Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written,“My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’
Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard (Luke 19:45-48, NRSV).

The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people understood Jesus’ powerful and provocative use of the temple as symbol: this is Malachi’s prophecy. This rabble-rousing peasant rabbi from Galilee is acting as God returning to the temple in judgment. “My temple,” he dares to say. “You have made it a den of robbers,” he pronounces in judgment. They understood his symbolic claim, though they rejected it and plotted to kill him. Symbols are powerful and evocative. Worship in the temple if you will. Enter it as God in judgment, purify it with a whip of cords, smash tables, drive out the money changers, fulfill Malachi’s prophecy, and you might pay with your life. The false prophets of God do not acknowledge the true God readily.

So, in the account of the Triumphal Entry we find Jesus using the powerful symbols of his culture in provocative ways to proclaim himself king and Lord. And that presents us with a question and a challenge: How are we to use the powerful symbols of our culture – perhaps even in provocative ways – to proclaim Jesus as king and Lord?

We must begin, of course, by identifying the most potent symbols of our culture. I suggest we need look no further than the tragic and evil events of 9/11. The terrorists got it right in one regard. They correctly identified and attacked several of the most powerful and evocative symbols of American culture – the Trade Towers, the Pentagon and Washington D.C. (in the failed attack by Pan Am 93): conspicuous wealth, violent power, and domineering control. Our challenge as disciples of Jesus, is to subvert these cultural symbols, to use them to proclaim Jesus as king and Lord.

Jesus had much to say about wealth, and none of it good. How we approach wealth, how we value and use money, will either proclaim Jesus as Lord or Mammon – the demonic personification of wealth – as Lord. Jesus was clear: you cannot serve both God and money. So, how can we use the symbol of money to reject the demonic hold it has over our culture and to proclaim Jesus as Lord?

St. Francis in the 12th century and Shane Claiborne in the 20th century subverted the symbol of money by rejecting it, by renouncing the hold and importance of money and by embracing gospel poverty. Bono, lead singer of U2 took another route altogether. In partnership with famous brands such as Apple’s iPod, Armani, and American Express, Bono launched a line of RED products. A portion of each sale goes to combat poverty and disease in Africa. He is using consumerism to combat poverty – an ironic subversion of the symbol of money.

What about us – you and me? This you must work out in your own life story, but some obvious general ideas come to mind.

Pray and work for the contentment that comes only from God and not from possessions, the contentment that Paul found in Jesus alone.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Phil 4:11b-13, NIV).

Be generous. Share. Give. There is perhaps no better way to loosen money’s hold over you than to loosen your hold over money.

Practice trust – trust that God will provide your needs so that you need no longer worry about what you will eat or drink or about what you will wear – and the list could go on. Revel in the Father’s love for you and his desire to provide all you need, most especially himself.

In these ways, and many others that you will think of, we can powerfully and provocatively use our cultural symbol of wealth to proclaim Jesus as king and Lord.

Violence and abuse of power pervade our society and our world and have no place in the lives of those who proclaim Jesus as king and Lord. Our rejection of all coercion, threat, anger, violence, and force is a powerful testimony and a powerful symbol of our commitment to him. In little ways and large we must wage peace. How?

Start with those who should be easiest to love – your family and friends. Determine to treat them kindly, always – as you would like to be treated – and, when you fail, ask their forgiveness. And when they fail and ask your forgiveness, forgive. Even before they ask, forgive. Once you’ve mastered this with family and friends then you can move on to strangers and even enemies.

Forego violent entertainment. Why should we fill our minds and hearts with war and murder and torture? Why should we derive pleasure from what is opposed to the Lordship of Jesus?

In the name of Christ, support and work for an end to violence in all its forms – not just the obvious and overt forms like war and genocide and abortion and capital punishment, but also the more subtle forms like local poverty and third world debt and discrimination and neglect.

Throughout the world the United States is considered domineering and controlling, bent solely on its own self-interest. Our flag, the Capitol, the White House – all symbols of domination and control. I won’t debate the truth of these impressions; I’m interested in how we, as disciples of Christ, might be seen differently and thus witness to Jesus as king and Lord. How might we subvert the symbols of power and domination of our culture?

It is well passed time that we embrace Jesus’ teaching of greatness – that the one who would be great must be the servant of all. Domination and control are foreign to the culture of faith. That is why it is so destructive to our witness when, in Jesus’ name, Christian groups use the same coercive political tactics as everyone else to get a candidate elected or a bill passed, or when individual Christians use heavy-handed business or legal tactics to win regardless of the ethical cost. It is well passed time to serve someone other than ourselves, to relinquish control to Jesus, to stand with and bear the burdens of the weakest in our midst – to become weak with them if need be. In our very weakness, in our submission, in our servitude, we subvert all symbols of power and proclaim Jesus as king and Lord.

Jesus had his Triumphal Entry in which he provocatively used and challenged the symbols of his culture to proclaim himself as king and Lord. As his disciples we are called to do no less. Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!


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