Sunday, April 9, 2017

Deceitful Above All Things: Sermon for Palm Sunday 2017

What a thrilling scene it was. Excitement filled the air. Pilgrims thronged the road up to Jerusalem, flowing through on foot. It was time for all Judea and all Galilee to flood into the city for the Passover feast. On everyone's mind this time of year was the age-old story, how the LORD their God had taken them from Egyptian slavery, sending his mercy to save through sacrifice every household that lived by faith, while the avenging angel stole life from every faithless Egyptian house.

Yes, this time of year, the songs of salvation were in the air. But this was no ordinary Passover. The crowds of pilgrims had been electrified by rumors, and then by sight, that Jesus of Nazareth, widely suspected to be the answer to centuries of the people's prayers, reported to have healed the sick, raised the dead, trounced demons, announced that God was restoring the kingdom through him – well, if all that's true, then Jesus is the Messiah, the King, the long-foretold Son of David. He's the One who will free our people! He'll restore our dignity! He'll fight our fight, he'll win our war! He'll make good all that's been lost, he'll bring every exile home!

And look, there he is! They could see him through the crowd – those lining the streets jostled for better positions, trying to get a glimpse. Those blocking the path stepped aside or tried to synchronize their movements with his. There he is, his face shining beneath the warm sun, the breeze gently blowing his beard to one side – and everyone can see him, because he's not walking on foot! No, with his disciples leading the way and following up behind, he's riding the meekest little donkey anybody's ever laid eyes on.

And as the crowd gathers 'round in anticipation, someone whispers words every learned Jew knows from the synagogue: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (Zechariah 9:9-12).

There he is! The King is coming, the King is coming, bringing salvation and restoration and freedom and life! All prayers are answered, all hope is reborn! So is it any wonder when someone in the crowd gets the bright idea to take their cloak and toss it on the ground in his path? Is it any wonder when the craze catches on, and everyone's doing it (Matthew 21:8)? That's how you treat an arriving king. It's what they did so long ago for Jehu when Elisha anointed him king of Israel (2 Kings 9:13). And is it any wonder the crowd is waving their palm branches in victory? That's what their forefathers did when Simon, the triumphant leader of the Maccabean revolt, drove the pagan Greeks out and entered to restore the city (1 Maccabees 13:51).

Or is it any wonder the song they take up, the chants from the Songs of Ascent? “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9; cf. Psalm 118:25-26). They're crying out, “Save us now, Jesus! Save us now, Messiah, Son of David! Blessings to you, our promised king, the One sent by God to set us free!” Some Pharisees object to all the racket; they want to pour cold water on all this rejoicing. They shout to Jesus, asking him to make the crowd shut up.

But he shoots back that the celebration is too contagious today – it has to fill the air, and if they weren't doing it, joy would infect even the rocks on the ground and the stones in the wall, and the architecture of Jerusalem would let loose a hymn of praise (Luke 19:39-40). No, this crowd has to celebrate. They feel refreshed, invigorated, fruitful, like a tree that's tapped its roots into rich soil by a gushing stream – with their Promised King, they can handle all the dryness of the Pharisees' scorn (Jeremiah 17:7-8). And so with Jesus, the crowd throngs through “the gate of the LORD which “the righteous shall enter through” (Psalm 118:20).

And so five days pass. It's a busy five days. The crowd is back. The Gospels often treat 'the crowd' like a character all its own, whether it's the same individual people in it or not – what matters is, it's the crowd, the voice and vehicle of popular opinion. And this time, the crowd isn't lining the path down the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem's gates. The crowd is filling the plaza outside the governor's praetorium. The One they hailed as King of Israel is held now for trial. It was a very different kind of morning.

Pontius Pilate made his appearance from the balcony, calling down and giving them a choice. Would they rather have this popular preacher Jesus – no threat, in Pilate's eyes, to Roman rule – released back to them, or would they prefer to have the release of the terrorist Barabbas, caught with his two henchmen and scheduled for execution that day? Surely they'd never dare to pick Barabbas – no one liked him much. Some of those in the crowd had lost loved ones to his violence; they themselves had informed on his whereabouts, testified against him, urged his conviction.

And Pilate certainly didn't want to crucify this Galilean preacher, whose quiet words and silent gaze unsettled him to the core. Pilate's own wife had warned him that her dreams foretold great suffering if he meddled with this righteous man (Matthew 27:19). This preacher may be unsettling, but given some of the so-called messiahs who'd led revolts against Roman rule in this city before, Pilate saw this Jesus as a healthier object for the people's devotion, if the masses needed somebody to fixate on. Pilate would much rather give Jesus a slap on the wrist and send him back out to quietly keep the people busy and away from him.

So imagine Pilate's surprise when disgust and bloodlust passed through the crowd. They were done with Jesus. Long gone were the days of cloaks and palm branches. Silent were the loud hosannas. Someone yelled out, “Set Barabbas free!” Another, “We want Barabbas!” And the crowd as a whole cheered. Up above, Pilate was shocked; his heart skipped a beat. Surely they couldn't be serious! He asked them to think it over, to give him a straight answer. So they did – Barabbas (Matthew 27:21). And just what did they expect him to do with Jesus, if not set him free?

And there came then the fateful cry: “Crucify!” “Crucify!” Set the murderer free, and put the peaceful prophet on his cross. “We have no king but Caesar!” they cry – though they've set free a Rome-hating terrorist. The crowd cares nothing for consistency. They only thirst to see the celebrity preacher, their erstwhile king, dethroned with lethal violence – a revolution against a rule not yet begun. “Crucify, crucify!” grew the enraged cry to its crescendo. They would rather trust in human strength – be it Caesar, Barabbas, the priests, or another – and live in the desert of exile; and so their hearts veered away from the LORD (Jeremiah 17:5-6). “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:9), better to beg Jesus for salvation than to call on Caesar or Barabbas or the priests – but they forsake the one who offered them steadfast love.

How can the crowd do that? In five days, how can they go from singing to damning, from loyalty to betrayal, from victory to surrender, from adoration to anger, from Hosanna to Crucify? How can they trust in the LORD one moment and turn their trust to mere mortal flesh the next? How can they abandon the living water and go to salt land where nothing thrives? How can they change directions so fast?

Sad to say, it isn't so surprising. Such is the nature of a mob, because such is the nature of us. Long before our time, long before Palm Sunday or Good Friday, the prophet Jeremiah was meditating on the blessing and curse that the LORD held out to Judah in his day – they could have one, or they could have the other, depending on where they put their faith and trust, whether in him (for blessing) or anything else (for a curse), to either thrive or starve as they saw fit (Jeremiah 17:5-8). And yet he looked around at this nation supposed to be a light for all other nations, and he saw nothing but idolatry and failure and the wrath of God. It was like their hearts had been mutilated, etched deep with a diamond-tipped pen, chiseled with sinfulness through-and-through, so that even their worship was tainted and marred (Jeremiah 17:1).

It all comes back to what was inside them. It's a matter of the heart. Now, when we read the word 'heart,' we're used to assuming that it's talking about emotions, passions. You ever hear anybody use the phrase, “Missing heaven by eighteen inches,” for somebody who understands the gospel intellectually but doesn't feel the gospel, isn't quite committed to it with personal passion? Well, that's only half-right. We think of the heart as where emotions are – it's why we cut out little hearts for Valentine's Day, it's why we talk about people putting their heart into something when they're emotionally invested.

To the Hebrews back then, back in the days of Jeremiah, when they wanted to locate emotions in the human body, they didn't use the heart. They said 'kidneys.' Your emotions were in your kidneys; you could feel them in your gut. No, your heart was more like what today we'd call the brain – it was where you thought, where you had attitudes, where you made decisions. It was the seat of the mind and the will. They didn't talk about the feelings of the heart but the “thoughts of the heart” (Genesis 6:5). The heart was the thing that could learn knowledge (Proverbs 18:15), the thing that could understand (Isaiah 6:10). It was where your whole outlook came from, how you oriented your life – it might believe and point to God (Romans 10:9-10), it might misplace faith and point away from God (Hebrews 3:12), it could spin round and round, and where it stops, nobody knows.

And that's the problem. That's what explains the crowd in its mob mentality. That's what explains us. We know that emotions are unsteady, but so is everything else about us. They're unclear, even to us. Jeremiah puts it like this: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). When he surveys Judah in his day, seeing their hearts chiseled with sin and constantly wavering between the blessing and the curse, that's what he realizes. Our heart – our thinking, our deciding, our whole orientation for or against God – is just constantly unsettled. The word he uses is what's used elsewhere in the Bible for a road full of potholes and debris and twists and turns, like a road badly in need of maintenance. Your heart is twisted. Your heart is uneven. Your heart is bumpy and lumpy and all bent out of shape.

You could paraphrase Jeremiah like this: “The heart is the roughest, bumpiest, most inconsistent thing in all the world. It's so incurably sick, it's terminally ill. So who can figure the thing out?” Forget all the hot-and-cold emotionalism of the kidneys; even the heart, with its supposedly steady and life-giving beat, is full of deathly illness and misshapen lumps; and so are all your thoughts, all your attitudes, all your desires and decisions, all your intentions and promises. All of them are bumpy and lumpy and bent out of shape.

The whole thing is just one big mystery, hopelessly beyond our discernment, ultimately unpredictable from one day to the next. The crowd thought they had a King to give them life, until the next twisty path on their heart said, “Kill him.” Peter thought his heart was smooth and steady to love Jesus forever, until he cussed Jesus out and denied having ever met him (Mark 14:71). So much for “Follow your heart!” – that's a recipe for dying in a ditch.

Like Peter and the crowd, we would love to think we'll always sing Hosanna. But the problem is, inside you is a heart that's fatally flawed. It's sick, it's weak, it's bumpy and lumpy and bent out of shape. It's twisty and uneven. One moment you might hail the Son of David, the next you might say you've got no king but Caesar. One moment you might adore Jesus, the next you might cheer on Barabbas. One moment you might toss your cloaks beneath Christ's path, the next you might try to block his path or just get into the Holy City a different way.

One moment you might wave palm branches, the next moment you might shake a fist instead. One moment you might lift your hands and call out Hosanna, the next you might be in the mood to watch an execution. One moment you might be committed to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; but the next moment, you might be telling lies by a campfire. One moment you might reach out for living water, the next you might long to be alone in the desert or domesticated in Egypt. One moment we might sing praise to the LORD, and the next moment we might decide to forsake him – and “all who forsake [him] shall be put to shame” (Jeremiah 17:13).

And that's just the problem. The heart is deceitful above all things, and we don't understand it. One moment we face God, but then circumstances vary, our heart rotates a little bit, and we careen out of God's orbit and fly off to the cold reaches of outer darkness. And we just can't figure it out. We are so hopelessly fickle, and we are so clueless about it, and our hearts are etched in sin, and the lumps and bumps of our stony hearts crucified our Messiah, the Son of David... the Son of God. That's the nature of the crowd, because that's the nature of each of us – capable of taking any unseen twist and spiraling off, capable of hitting a pothole and crashing who-knows-where, and just utterly clueless about it all. And Jeremiah despairs of unraveling the mystery. Who can know it?

If that were the end of today's sermon, if that were the end of Jeremiah's reflections, it would not be so much of an encouragement, would it? But Jeremiah's question doesn't go unanswered. He asks who could possibly get a grip on this lumpy, bumpy heart of ours. And then he hears an answer: “I, the LORD, search the heart and test the kidneys, to give to each according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:10). We may be utterly lost, but the LORD God who spoke to Jeremiah presents himself as the Divine Mapmaker, the only One up to the challenge of charting – and reshaping – the hopeless topography of the human heart.

And here, amid all our cacophany of 'Hosanna!', 'Blessed!', 'Barabbas!', 'Crucify!', he came – Jesus himself is the God of Jeremiah, “the One who examines kidneys and hearts” (Revelation 2:23; cf. Jeremiah 11:20). He has an eye on our emotions. He surveys our thoughts and decisions. He knows where we stand in our shifting sand, and not a lump nor a bump, no pothole or twist, catches him off his guard. He's mapped it all in detail, and he gives us his word to make a way through the depths of our fickleness and cluelessness. But that way leads inexorably to the cross. And it plunges into the grave, where all is lost and dead in the parched lands beneath the earth. But the road he charts does not stop there. Oh yes – it winds its way to the great feast of life, past a rolled-away stone and stupefied guards, and onward to a new world in the making.

Jesus offers to carry us on that journey. He offers to rip us up from the salty earth where we're planted and to put us back in a lush field. He offers to pump his streams of living water right through our hearts (John 7:38), irrigating and terraforming the broken landscape of our hearts and kidneys, our wills and desires, by his Spirit. But first his body must become a broken landscape, bruised and scarred and torn, bumpy and lumpy and bent to the shape of a cross. For in no other way can he be the Stone rejected by builders but raised up as Chief Cornerstone of the Temple of the LORD (Psalm 118:22).

And so his cross-shaped throne would become “the place of our sanctuary” (Jeremiah 17:12). His heart would be pierced by a Roman spear from our hands, etching our sins, our fickleness, onto him (cf. Jeremiah 17:1). He'll speak peace to the restless mob and peace to the prison pits of our craggy hearts (cf. Zechariah 9:10-11). He'll submit to our cries of “Crucify!”, because it's the only way to be our “Hosanna!”, our salvation now – salvation, yes, from our fickle kidneys and our clueless, hopeless hearts. Thanks be to God for his Son, who has “answered [us] and [has] become our salvation” (Psalm 118:21), because unlike our deceitful hearts, “his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 118:29). Amen.

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