Note: this sermon makes several references to a chapter from “Learning to Speak God from Scratch” by Jonathan Merritt. The bulk of that chapter can be found as an article here
No PR firm could put together a better event for a potential Messiah entering Jerusalem than what Jesus had that day. Presidential candidates would give anything to have a kick-off event that went this well. As Merritt says, by the time Jesus entered the city it felt as if the ground itself was shaking. Maybe you’ve been in a crowd that got that loud and excited and experienced that phenomenon, I have been to a One Direction concert so I have an idea of what it is to hear the roar and wonder for a second how the building is going to take it. If you’ve spent much time in church you’ve heard the symbolism of Palm Sunday a lot I’d guess, you know about the donkey and how riding it fulfills prophecy and perhaps how palms were a symbol of victory in the ancient near east, maybe you even know that “Hosanna to the son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” references Psalm 118, a Psalm about God’s deliverance, but there’s even more. Luke tells us that Jesus pauses and sets ups camp on the Mount of Olives, a hill that overlooks Jerusalem. That may not mean anything to us, what’s so special about a hill? This hill is significant because it was the high ground to the east of Jerusalem which is the direction every conquering army came from. Every army that ever came after Jerusalem would have camped at that hill. We don’t know how big a crowd Jesus had with him at this point, it probably wasn’t army sized but people in the city who had heard the stories and were starting to wonder what was coming next would have, if it was clear, seen evidence of the group setting up camp like an army. As he went down the hill Jesus would have passed through the Kidron Valley, also known as the Garden or Valley of Kings. The Old Testament kings had owned that land. Jehosophat, one of those kings, won a major battle there to save Jerusalem when destruction seemed certain. The prophet Joel said that it was in that valley that God would gather the nations for judgement. Jesus, a descendant of David, a person who could trace his (earthly) lineage back to the kings, passed through the Valley of the Kings on his way into the city. If you’re looking for signs that’s a pretty good one, the potential king reclaiming his valley on the way to taking back God’s city.
Then he comes into the city. He marches straight to the temple with the crowd behind him. He kicks the money lenders out, purifying this holy place. He’s at the most important place in terms of the nation’s identity, the crowd is with him, Luke reports nearly 50,000 ready to fight, and Jesus proceeds to…talk. For three days. And if you’ve been here on Wednesday nights you know he doesn’t exactly talk about the things the crowd wants to hear. He gets into complex theological arguments. He tells people to pay their taxes to Rome. He spends a lot of time talking about how the temple is going to be destroyed and the city conquered and the people are going to suffer and some of them die.
There’s a psychological concept officially called “reward-expectation failure,” and anecdotally the “dopamine rollercoaster.” Here’s how it works, dopamine is the chemical released during positive life experience, its what makes you feel happy. Happiness and pleasure come from high levels, disappointment and sadness come from low levels. Here’s the thing about the dopamine systems in your brain: they don’t just react to experience, they also try to predict what you’re going to want or need based on expectations. If your expectations are that an experience is going to be pleasurable those centers start to send out dopamine beforehand which gets you even more excited. Which is great if things go the way you’re expecting, but that’s not always how it works, is it? People hurt us. People fail us. Interviews go poorly. Rain cancels an event we were looking forward to, the HBO servers go down during the premiere of Game of Thrones. And then our dopamine levels drop, except the crash is worse because they started from a higher point. So, instead of a double shot of dopamine from the expectation and the experience we get nothing. Not only do we not get what we wanted, we also feel the affects of being wrong.
Jesus camped his followers on the hill where conquerors prepared to take Jerusalem. Dopamine hit. He marched through the Valley of the Kings, reclaiming ancestral ground. Dopamine hit. The crowd greeted him like a hero and he didn’t stop them. Dopamine hit. He marched into the temple and ran out the people who were corrupting it. Dopamine hit. And then he wasn’t interested in overthrowing the powers that be and returning the nation to glory. Crash.
Why set it all up that way not to let it go through? Why build them up just to let them crash? Is Jesus’ goal to disappoint the people. Jonathan Merritt says no. He argues that Jesus doesn’t want to disappoint them, he wants to disillusion them. Disillusionment, you may be able to figure out, is the loss of an illusion. Its what happens when we discover that what we believe is wrong and are introduced to the truth. Its what happened when I went from coaches pitch (where they wanted me to hit the ball) to players pitch (where they didn’t) and I realized I wasn’t going to play for the Atlanta Braves. Its what happened when my middle school principal, the first adult I remember treating me like I wasn’t just a kid, had to resign after an affair. Its what happened when I heard one of my Sunday School teachers call President Obama the n word in the middle of a grocery store like it was nothing. Its what happened the first time I prayed for a sick person to get better and they didn’t.
Barbara Brown Taylor, and Episcopal preacher and writer, describes disillusionment as the sacred experience that cut us down to size and remind us of our smallness in this expansive universe. “Disillusioned,” she says, “we find out what is not true and we are free to seek what is—if we dare—to turn away from the God who was supposed to be in order to seek the God who is.”
As long as the crowd in Jerusalem was waiting for a conquering hero they could never recognize a savior. As long as they were worried about being saved from Rome they could never be saved from sin and death. Merritt says “this story is not about donkeys and palm branches at all. It’s a reminder that placing expectations on God (or people) based on our wants is a recipe for disaster. But nurturing openness to divine mystery is a framework for faith.”
All my moments of disillusion (and that wasn’t anywhere near a full list) have taught me something. I learned to focus on the gifts I had instead of the ones I didn’t. I learned that good people and flawed people overlap, and its possible to love both. I learned the amazing truth of a God whose love and presence doesn’t disappear in difficult moments. Some of those lessons were hard. All them were needed. And none of them of them would have happened without my idols of disillusionment being torn down.
People disappoint us. Sometimes God does too. When the crowd turned on Jesus their disappointment was really with God for not working how they wanted. They had a choice in that moment. They chose to reject what was in front of them and cling to what they had convinced themselves of. We have a choice in similar moments. We can hold tight to what we wish was true or want to be true or we can learn what is true. We can stop trying to cast God in our image and let God be who God is, not who we wish God be. We can learn the hard truths and be better for it. We can see something about God, and be drawn to Him all over again.