Caught Up in the Whirlwind – a sermon

Sunday, March 29th, 2015 – Palm Sunday
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Mark 11:1-11, Mark 15:1-15
Hymns: “Ride On, Ride On, O Savior King”, “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna”, “Your Love, O Lord”, “I Love You, Lord”, “All Glory, Laud and Honor”, “Come, Share the Lord”, “What Wondrous Love Is This”
Special Music, by JYF & Church Mice: “Clap Your Hands”, “Give Me Oil in My Lamp”

“Caught Up in the Whirlwind”
Have you ever stood in the center of an intense, raging storm? And when I say “in the center”, I mean you were completely enveloped by it.
By now, everybody in America has seen the pictures of the insane dust storms that have rolled through Arizona’s desert cities the last few summers.
haboob
In Arabic, they’re called haboob. Even the word sounds menacing. Just look at it – a mile high wall of dirt coming toward you like a relentless tidal wave.
One time, many years ago, I was caught in the center of one. As I drove home to my parents’ house from my part-time job at the YMCA one afternoon, I realized it was getting windy, and the air was growing thick with dust. Looking east, where one could normally see the mountains, I could see only a wall of brown marching across the city.
I really did not want to find myself on the list of “really stupid people who thought they could drive through a maelstrom”. I was just about to pass by my high school, so when I reached it, I pulled over into the parking lot to wait out the storm.
A moment later, it struck. A whirlwind of dirt surrounded the car, pelting its windows with tiny flecks of silt and stone. My little Chevy Corsica was buffeted by gale force winds, rocking back and forth on its wheels. The stoplight only a block down the road was identifiable only by the dim red and green glows penetrating the cloud of dirt.
But then, maybe five minutes later, it was gone. The cold blast of downward air that had penetrated the August afternoon and caused the storm had passed, and the heat and humidity had become still once more. And in that calm, I pulled the car back out onto the road and continued home.
It’s always in the calm that follows that you begin to rationalize what just happened. That storm wasn’t THAT bad, you think to yourself. Surely it could’ve been far worse. Heck, I’ve seen worse!
What you allow yourself to forget, however, is how bad it would’ve been if you’d kept driving, or if you’d been outside during the storm. Then, the next time a storm rolls in, you’re stunned by the ferocity and find yourself caught up in it once more.
I wonder what it is about such an experience that allows us to forget it so quickly. Is it that it’s so heady, so intense, that our mind cannot adequately process it? Are we so overwhelmed by the maelstrom that our intellects simply cannot believe the scope and enormity of what we have just experienced?
It seems to me that such an explanation is the only possible reason for how, in the span of five days, the people of Jerusalem went from proclaiming, “Hosanna in the highest!” to screaming, “Crucify him!” The cognitive dissonance alone of such an about-face is so mind-boggling as to be nearly inexplicable.
There are those, of course, who dismiss the about-face as being “the way it had to be.” Both things were prophesied, they say, so of course both had to happen. But consider this: those two prophecies were completely separate parts of Scripture. The prophecy of the people hailing king entering Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey came from the ninth chapter of Zechariah, believed to have been written in in the sixth century BC, whereas the prophecy of the people pouring out their hatred on the Chosen One came from the sixty-ninth Psalm, which is traditionally attributed to King David, who lived four centuries earlier.
So, to be sure, these prophecies were indeed fulfilled, but that does not explain how a crowd of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands could turn from glorifying to hating in a mere five day span. What was it that caused this radical reversal?
Maybe it was nothing more complicated than the depth of the experience itself. Just how deeply did this exaltation of Jesus penetrate into their souls? Did the seed of the teachings of Christ indeed fall on rich, fertile soil, or were these people the rocky soil found in the parable of the sower? Did the seed last for but a day, only to wither and fall away when the sun rose and scorched it?
Last month, in my sermon on the Transfiguration, I spoke of mountaintop experiences. While the ones I spoke of were those that deeply embed themselves and change us for the better, I offered up as comparison what we so often think of as a mountaintop experience – a momentary, intense and overwhelming feeling of joy, happiness, dedication, excitement that we think will last but fades oh so very quickly.
When I began writing that sermon, I had in mind the experience of Winter Jam. Two months ago, the CYF and Chi-Rho youth attended Winter Jam at the Sprint Center, and at Zack and Tabatha’s request, I had gone along. I was mildly skeptical going to the event, as my initial perception of it was simply that – a mountaintop experience, one that would have no real, lasting impact. To Winter Jam’s credit, they do offer opportunities to those in attendance that give them the chance to hold onto the meaning of that concert long after you leave – but how many take advantage of them?
I can tell you that during the last few songs of the closing set, by Christian alternative rock band Skillet, the energy in the Sprint Center had become so intense it was almost suffocating. Even I, the master’s degree holding skeptic, had allowed myself to be caught up in it, shouting along to the songs of a band I’ve been listening to since I was in middle school. By the time we left, even though it was well after 10:30 (which is ordinarily my bedtime), and even though it was rather cold that night in Kansas City, I found myself highly energized and alert.
But here’s the thing: by the following Friday, that energy and alertness was gone. By then, my attention had moved to other things – in the intervening week, I had received a new US Navy Reserve billet, I had had my now infamous encounter with the Captain Road Rage on Highway 169 (so there I was), and the weather forecast with its threats of snow had caught my attention, as I knew it meant another weekend where Caitie spent Saturday night in Kansas City and Sunday attendance would likely be low. The waning moments of Winter Jam couldn’t have been further from my mind.
Why was that? What about those intervening five days had caused me to so quickly forget such an intense experience and move on? Was it that, like the maelstrom, I simply could not process the intensity, the overwhelming nature of the moment? Or was it, perhaps, how much I was willing to personally take it in?
You see, I think that that is our key when it comes to how the Jerusalem crowds made such an abrupt change, going from one extreme to the other. Many in those crowds were likely just going along with the crowd, thinking, “If I follow this person, surely they know what they’re doing,” not realizing that 99 out of 100 people in the crowd were thinking the same thing. Indeed, on the Sunday of Jesus’ triumphal entry, we can be almost assured that the people were just following the example set by the true believers and followers of Christ, and that on the Friday of his condemnation, they were just following the example set by the Pharisaical brood of vipers.
The seed fell on the shallow soil, and sprang up quickly, but when the sun rose, it was scorched, and withered.
This, to me, is what Palm Sunday has become about – not the acclamation of Jesus Christ as King, but the commitment of mind and spirit that must accompany that acclamation. How deep are we willing to let Christ go? Are we willing to truly let the Word penetrate our lives, reshaping our inmost being? Or is this just something we proclaim with our lips, and then turn, and go about our business?
Throughout Lent, we’ve heard time and time again about the ways that Jesus worked on the people of God in an attempt to get them to follow the ways of the Lord not just on the surface of their lives, but in the depths of their souls. When he chastised Peter for focusing on the things of earth rather than the things of heaven, it was a message that carries down to us today – when we focus on the things of earth, we make a shallow commitment to transitive, impermanent things. They will pass away, and if we do not have a deeper commitment to the things of heaven, surely our commitment will go with them.
When Jesus drove the moneychangers and the merchants from the temple, he did so to push the same message through to the greater population – the ceremonies and rituals that he moved to push out of the house of God were focused too much on the matters of the flesh, and not enough on the matters of the soul. Those traditions that had come to matter more than God had to be torn down so that a deeper relationship could be realized.
The call to love, and not condemnation, also becomes even more important. We’ve already discussed how easy it can be to condemn, and how difficult it can be to love. Condemnation is easy because it is a shallow matter – we can toss it off like so much refuse, be done with the matter, and move on. Love, though, requires us to commit ourselves. We must open our soul to the possibility, even the likelihood, of hurt and betrayal – just as Jesus did before us.
And the call to die to one’s own self – perhaps that is the most difficult thing of all. Each of us, as a person, has hopes and dreams that we wish to carry out. But so often, those hopes and dreams are the things of this earth, and not of heaven. They are the shallow, transitive parts of our being, and sometimes, we have to let them go, to let them die, in order to reach a deeper understanding and meaning in our lives.
This deep commitment requires us to be far open than we are often willing to be. We must allow ourselves not to just hear the words of Christ and to proclaim His name, but we must allow ourselves to be cut open to the very essence of our souls, and have our lives reshaped. When we encounter the maelstrom of God, we must not just ride it out, but we must allow ourselves to be absorbed into it, drinking in the torrential outpouring of the Holy Spirit that comes with it. We must not just go along with the crowd, shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna!”, we must be one of those who LEADS the crowd, and we must be one of those who helps them to understand WHY they’re shouting “Hosanna.”
And we must do that because if we don’t, then we run the very real risk of having Sunday’s “Hosanna” become Friday’s “Crucify him.”
In one week, we will celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. Between now and then, many of us will go to services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and attend prayer vigils. May those times be a chance for us to open ourselves more deeply to the Lord, and be renewed by the presence of the Spirit. May we not only encounter the storm, but take it into our inmost beings. And may the hand of God touch us each, changing our hearts and our souls deep within, as we look toward the cross and say, “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Amen.

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