“Spellbound by what they heard” (Luke 19.41-48)
As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
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.
“Spellbound by what they heard”
The most striking feature of Palm Sunday is how quickly we go from triumphal entry to the dark terror of the Cross. How could the crowd so quickly go from being “Spellbound by what they heard” to baying for his death?
Ordinarily on Palm Sunday we read the full passion narrative, exaggerating the contrast by condensing the happenings of a week into a few minutes. This year we will be following the passion narrative of Luke in real time, so the trial and execution still await us later in the week. But even confining ourselves to the events of Palm Sunday takes us on a rollercoaster journey from hope to foreboding and we are left wondering “how did it all change so quickly?”
Well, perhaps the best place to look for an answer is in our own hearts.
What do we look for in Jesus? Do we seek a great political hero, someone who guides our politics and offers a commentary on social justice? Do we look for an expert who can tell us the answers, sort out what’s wrong and return things to a comfortable normal? Do we want an interesting philosopher to wrestle with, picking the things we agree with and resisting the rest?
Our approach to Jesus has not really changed in 2,000 years. Then, as now, there was a search for a hero, a great statesman, a social reformer, a philosopher, an expert – all the things we instinctively expect from the saviour of the world.
Perhaps above all, Palm Sunday challenges our unreasonable expectations. Imagine, if you will, a group of people with an urgent need to find a common path to a more hopeful future, but unable to reach any kind of agreement because they can’t let go of their cherished ideas of what the solution is. No, I’m not referring to Parliament debating Brexit. I’m referring to us, to human society – Parliament, after all, only reflects us. And Palm Sunday challenges us over our cherished solutions, the belief systems we hold which we have never challenged, our ambitions and our hopes.
The pattern of hero to zero is well-trodden. It’s been the experience of countless politicians, partisans, football managers and even vicars down the centuries. Each were learned and accomplished in their own arts. But their downfall, in most cases, was that they failed to meet expectations.
It was those expectations that Jesus overturned in the Temple. He himself interprets what he is doing when he says:
“It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.”
Where is it written? Well, in Jeremiah Chapter 7. It comes from the period just leading up to the great catastrophe of Israel’s history, the exile in Babylon. The people were relying on God dwelling in his Temple to protect them from invasion. It was a tactic that seemed to have worked in the past, but which would fail them disastrously. Yet, crucially, it was a tactic they were trying again in Jesus’ day by rebuilding the Temple and offering sacrifices in the hope of persuading God to return to his Temple, to re-establish his kingdom and (best of all) kick out the Romans and set up his own king instead: the kind of hero, statesman and all-round expert on everything they were hoping for.
But it would fail just as disastrously in Jesus’ time as it did in Jeremiah. And Jesus wept over their failure to see how the same old story was playing out again, how the people were carrying on the same old path, and somehow expecting a different outcome. “If only you had recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” But instead your enemies will crush you. And they did!
The trouble was that Temple wasn’t built for protection from the world around us. It was built as a place where God could dwell with his people, but their hearts were in a different place, set on another agenda. And if we want to get a deeper insight into what was running through Jesus’ mind, perhaps we should read a little more of that passage from Jeremiah he was quoting:
‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place…Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods … 10and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.’
What was he saying? He was saying, don’t think you can carry on living the way you are and expect a different outcome. Don’t expect me to override the consequences of the way you are living and magic up a better world for you. The better world that God is bringing requires our participation. We can only be part of his kingdom if we choose it for ourselves, as our way of life, something different to the way we’ve been living, as a place where we will dwell with God. And that requires us to set aside our own cherished solutions, the belief systems we hold which we have never challenged, our ambitions and hopes, our false gods.
In overturning the tables of the Temple, Jesus was overturning the false gods and setting up a rival claim: to be the only true God. That claim, which was not lost on the Jewish authorities, was what led to the accusation of blasphemy and the sentence of death.
Palm Sunday invites us to pronounce a sentence of death on our own blasphemy, the ideas we have about God, which are not from God. Let me throw out a few for starters: the idea that God has a responsibility to make us happy, regardless of how we choose to live; the idea that the solution to the world’s problems lies in everyone agreeing with us; the idea that there is some kind of comfortable normal to which an expert could return us; the idea that we can speak ill of our neighbour our opinions matter more than the value of our neighbours’ lives; the idea that unending economic growth can cover up all the mistakes and mismanagement of the past, or the present; the idea that we can go on consuming our planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate and not pay the price; the idea that we are not our brother’s keeper and that God helps those who help themselves…I could go on…and on…
The trouble with the Temple was that it was ascribed to God’s name, but he did not dwell in it. What ideas do we ascribe to God’s name, but which he does not dwell in?
You see, faith is not blind, unquestioning belief. Faith in this God is to question constantly what we have come to believe, to allow him to overturn the Temples we have ascribed to his name, but in which he does not dwell, to set aside our unreasonable expectations of what the saviour of the world should be and allow him to re-shape our vision, to transform our lives, to be “spellbound” by him. For if Jesus is the true God, then he is also the place where God truly dwells with his people. He is the real Temple. And, whether we recognise it or not, our souls’ deepest need to dwell with him, profoundly, discovering a dimension to life we have never experienced before. Each day this week we will come to the true Temple and seek to dwell more deeply with him, being “spellbound by what we hear”. It is a journey into a love unknown which has, is and will change everything for us. I invite you to join us for every step of the journey.