The Ashes of Our Idols

A sermon for Ash Wednesday delivered at NorthHaven Church, Norman, OK on February 10, 2016.

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:25-26)

Every year, a scene is portrayed in churches around the world. Sometimes the choir processes in, sometimes not; but one thing will very likely happen — children will march in waving palm branches, as these words are either sung or shouted, “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The day, of course, is Palm Sunday, the day that we commemorate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. John records the incident in chapter 12 of his Gospel: the crowd had heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So, John tells us, they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Jesus, shouting the very same things that we will hear the children shout in a few weeks. In response, the text says that Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, a fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9.

Then the story takes a puzzling turn. See verse 20:

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

Over the next thirteen verses, Jesus talks about how his hour to be glorified has come, and it will be by his death. The scene closes in verse 36, “After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.”

Jesus is asked about some Greeks that want to see him. He doesn’t say, “Bring them to me,” or “Not now, I have other things on my mind.” He doesn’t say anything about the Greeks at all! What’s puzzling about this passage is not what Jesus said, but how John introduced it. Why not just say something simple, like “Jesus turned to his disciples and said….” Why talk about the Greeks at all?

Of course, there’s another puzzle that we don’t really talk about. Why do the people go get palm branches? None of the Gospels bother to explain the significance of the branches. Finally, there’s the greatest puzzle of all: how can shouts of praises on Sunday so quickly turn to calls for crucifixion on Friday?

The Gospels treat these matters as if they were obvious. Well, they were obvious, at least to their original readers, for they knew their Jewish history.

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, his vast empire was divided between his Greek generals. The Ptolemies ruled the south from Egypt, and the Seleucids ruled the east from Persia. At first, Judea was under the control of the Ptolemies, who gave the Jews a great deal of religious and cultural freedom. In 198 BCE, the Seleucids defeated the Ptolemies, and took control of Judea. Part of the Seleucid agenda was the Hellenization of the empire, that is, extending Greek culture throughout the empire. This reached a climax in Israel during the reign of Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes when a statue of Zeus was erected in the temple at Jerusalem, and a pig was sacrificed on the altar of God.

Soldiers were sent to the towns and villages to enforce the Hellenization. In one town, they were met by a country priest named Mattathias, who was ordered to sacrifice an animal to the altar of an idol. Mattathias refused, killing first a Jewish man who volunteered to perform the sacrifice, then killing the officer who gave the order, and then, with his five sons, rallied the people to revolt. The family became known as the Maccabees, or “hammer.” Under the leadership of one of the sons, Judas Maccabees, the Jews defeated the Seleucids against overwhelming odds. They then cleansed the temple in 164 BCE, an event which is commemorated by the celebration of Hanukkah.

Chapter 13 of the apocryphal book 1 Maccabees records the victorious entrance of the Jews into Jerusalem:

On the twenty- third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy- first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.

Judas Maccabees was praised as “the savior of Israel.”

Just 100 years later, Pompey the Great took Jerusalem, and Israel was once again subject to foreign rule, not by Greeks this time, but by Romans. So, it is really no surprise that the people waved palm branches and shouted, for they saw in Jesus a new Judas Maccabees, another hammer to pound the enemies of God. Just in case the reader might miss the point, John brought in some Greeks to make it clear. The people wanted a new savior who would drive out the hated foreign tyrant and restore Israel to its glory, someone to fulfill Zechariah 9:13,

For I have bent Judah as my bow;
I have made Ephraim its arrow.
I will arouse your sons, O Zion,
against your sons, O Greece,
and wield you like a warrior’s sword.

They wanted a warrior king who would ride victoriously into Jerusalem on that great symbol of Ancient Near Eastern power, a chariot pulled by a giant warhorse, a messiah bearing the weapons of destruction.

Instead, Jesus chose a donkey.

You see, Jesus had this unsettling habit of fulfilling all of the Scriptures, not just the ones that we wanted fulfilled. By choosing the donkey, Jesus forces us to look up from Zechariah 9:13 and see verses 9-10:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war- horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

The people wanted a warrior, but instead they got a servant. They dreamt of armies and chariots, instead, they got the cross. The cries of hosanna were not praises to the messiah who was in their midst, but acts of worship to an idol of their own creation. The palm branches that they waved were symbols of their idolatrous devotion to the god that they wanted, a god that could be manipulated to achieve their own goals and satisfy their own desires.

Jesus, though, refused to be manipulated. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that, just like the Maccabean revolt, the first thing that Jesus did after entering the city was to cleanse the temple. Unlike the time of the Maccabees, though, the temple had not been defiled by foreigners, but by those who claimed, and probably sincerely believed, that they were doing the work of God.

The most dangerous idols, like the most dangerous lies, have an element of truth. Sometimes the most destructive idolatry is the idolatry of our own religion.

The Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday confront us again and again with this question: who is the true object of our worship? Is it God, or is ourselves?

Does your Jesus want the very same things you want? Does your Jesus love the same people you love? Does your Jesus hate the same people you hate? Does your Jesus have an agenda that fits easily into your own agenda? Does your Jesus never say anything that makes you uncomfortable? If so, then you may well be following the god you created, not the God who created you.

Ezekiel’s diagnosis is clear — our true idols are ourselves. The people waved their palm branches, not because they wanted to serve Jesus, but because they wanted Jesus to serve them. The objects of our worship are our own hearts, hearts of stone that are cold, hard, dry, brittle, and dead.

The ashes that we use on Ash Wednesday were, just a few hours before, the palm branches from the previous year. Once vibrant and green, but after nearly a year, they are cold, hard, dry, brittle, and dead, perfect symbols of our hearts. The good news of the gospel, though, is that the hard heart can be made soft, dry eyes can again be filled with tears, and a dead faith can certainly be made alive. John’s vision in Revelation 7 gives us hope:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

God will redeem the palm branches, and God will redeem our hearts.

So, we come to this place, this evening, to ask God to change our hearts. We come, not with palm branches, but with the ashes of last year’s palm branches. We come, not to shout hosannas, but to hear that we are but dust. We come with the ashes of our idols, and we leave bearing the mark of the Cross — a visible testimony that there is nothing that God cannot transform, not even this heart of stone.