Monday, March 29, 2010

The Sin of Idolatry (Psalm 118, John 12.12-19)

March 28, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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Today is Palm Sunday, in which we remember Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. We are right to take up the words of that day, quoted from Psalm 118: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” We are right to celebrate Jesus as King and have a celebration service.

But if you are reading the Gospel story, and particularly if you are following the events of Passion week – which run from today through Easter, you realize something is “off” in the story. If it were a movie, you’d be watching the Palm Sunday procession, perhaps in slow motion, and everyone would be cheering and waving palms, but the music in the background might have something discordant in it. A good director would somehow signal you that all is not quite right in this scene.

And surely later in the week you’d look back on this day and ask questions. How could so many in Jerusalem call for Jesus’ execution when only days earlier they were welcoming him and shouting hosannas and blessings? How could things change so dramatically, so quickly?

I want to look with you today at Palm Sunday and the “triumphal entry” and consider the discordant motif running through it. I see it as an expression of one of the chief sins of humanity: idolatry. I then want to look with you at a parallel and modern expression of that Palm Sunday idolatry, and then at the very right ways in which Jesus is worthy of our hosannas and blessings.

A Discordant Motif: Idolatry

Reading the Palm Sunday story can be confusing. It seems so positive and supportive of Jesus, then the crowds turn on him days later. What’s going on?

The most important thing to know is the crowd’s expectation. They were looking for a political savior. As you may know, in the Hebrew scriptures God had promised to send His “anointed one” or Messiah. A number of Old Testament prophecies tied into this promise, not the least of which was that he would be a descendant and heir of King David. It was not too long ago that we talked about God’s covenant with King David, which promised to maintain and establish his line forever. Part of the Jewish hope was that King David’s heir would one day return to power and throw off the heavy yoke of oppression from the Roman Empire.

Note the distinction there. God had promised to maintain David’s line, but the people understood that in a particular way that had to do with the politics of their day. Many in Jesus’ day were looking for a Messiah to take on Rome. In fact, political groups existed in Jesus’ day for just that purpose. The Zealots were one such political group, and at least one of Jesus’ disciples belonged to the Zealots or revolutionary party. Jesus was not the first public figure on whom the Jewish people pinned their hopes.

As you read through the Gospels and even the first chapter of Acts (after the Resurrection!), you will see that those around Jesus continued to ask him things like, “Is now the time for you to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Many seemed to be waiting for him to give the word to raise the rebellion.

So it was on Palm Sunday. Riding through the gate into Jerusalem was a specific fulfillment of one of the Messiah prophecies, and the people greeted him with the words to Psalm 118, also tied to the Messianic hope. In Psalm 118 and during Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the people shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” That one who comes in the Lord’s name is the Messiah. We often think the word “Hosanna” means something like “Halleluiah!” but you can see its actual translation there in Psalm 118:25. It’s there after “O Lord” – hosanna is the Hebrew underlying, “Do save; we beseech you!” The “hosa-“ part means “save us” and the “na!” part is a word of pleading – something like, “right now” or “please!” This is what you would shout in Hebrew if you were drowning or choking: “Help! Save me!”

And so it is also what one would cry out to the Messiah, the anointed one of God. And you can imagine, then, how one’s emotions could turn if the one to whom you were crying for salvation seemed to offer anything but. How could Jesus be the political/military hero once he was arrested by the Romans?

For the last six weeks we have been talking about sin, and I believe there is a sin underlying the Palm Sunday scene. It was not, perhaps, conscious and intentional, but nonetheless significant and powerful. And that is the sin of idolatry. Now, we think of idolatry as purposefully creating and worshiping a false god, but this is an example of what I think is a far more common and insidious form of this sin. That form of idolatry is making the God of the Scripture into the god we think we need. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day believed their greatest need was political freedom from Rome, so over a period of years and generations they made the Messiah God promised into the Messiah they wanted… and then were disheartened and even angry when Jesus wasn’t the Savior they imagined.

Don’t think that is a sin? I understand… call it unwitting idolatry then. What I want you to see and understand is the danger of it, particularly for us today.

Remaking God Today

Maybe you’ve already seen the connection all too clearly. If anything, responses to last Sunday’s vote on health care provides a pointed demonstration in how we can fall prey to this kind of idolatrous thinking. Whether you are in favor of the health care bill or strongly opposed, can you believe the rhetoric surrounding it? And it is precisely when self-identified Christians start weighing in with cries of “Antichrist” and God’s will (for or against the plan) that I begin to see the specter of Palm Sunday. Will this bill save us? Will it ruin us? Is our eternal salvation or security really that insecure? Will we really reduce the God of the universe to a political party or platform?

And that’s just the most recent example. A rampant prosperity gospel – teaching that God will grant riches, security, and happiness to those who serve Him in just the right way – is a Palm Sunday phenomenon and a false promise to the poor and suffering if ever I’ve seen one. In fact, shaping the God who was, is, and shall be into the god we want is a practice that goes back a long way. When Moses was gone too long on the mountain receiving the very words of God, his people were in the valley cooking up a god they could see and touch.

I’m not saying a Christian can’t or shouldn’t have political or other opinions. But be wary of worshiping a god who looks too Republican, Democrat, white, or black. On Palm Sunday, all of Jerusalem (and probably many disciples) shouted “save us” to a caricature of the Messiah even as the very real one rode in front of them.

In order to guard against our own idolatry, we must be willing to submit our understanding of God to His self-revelation in Scripture and worship Him on His own terms. Easier said than done, I know. But that’s the challenge Palm Sunday puts before us.

Everything Right With Hosannas and Blessings

Having said all that, why would we celebrate Palm Sunday? We do because the words and the celebration are the right words and celebration, they were just not offered to the Messiah Jesus was.

We do sing and celebrate the one who came and comes in the name of the Lord – Jesus, our Lord. And we do rightly cry, “Hosanna!” – “Please, save us!” – to Jesus, our Savior.

The challenge of Palm Sunday, then, is to indeed look to Jesus as Lord and Savior, but on his own terms as the one who died to reconcile us to God, to offer that miraculous intervention we’ve been talking about for several weeks.

We can and should be concerned about health care, government, poverty, suffering, and everything else that makes up our world. We can and should make our needs and wants known to God, who has invited those prayers. But we ultimately deceive ourselves if we remake the God who was, is, and will always be into the god we want. Further, we risk becoming disillusioned and even angry at such a god, when in reality we’ve become disappointed in the god of our own making.

Palm Sunday is a caution against idolatry. It is also an invitation to recognize, call out to, and worship Jesus as Lord and Savior, sent into the world to bring the spiritually dead to life through the loving power of the God who was, who is, and who will always be. Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This articulates so well what I have been wrestling with about Palm Sunday for a while. Many celebrate Him today looking back as the Eternal Savior, but on that day, sadly, He was worshiped in their misunderstanding and even blindness as an earthly ruler only. It is a form of idolatry. Thanks for sharing!