In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The gospels don’t make clear what Jesus thought he was doing when he went up to Jerusalem in the last week of his earthly life. John’s Gospel suggests that Jesus had a master plan from God and knew exactly what was going to happen, but the other gospels are more ambiguous. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, which seems to signify peaceful intentions. Does he think, as many of his followers apparently did, that God would use this moment to sweep away the current power structure and bring in God’s kingdom? When Jesus makes his prophetic assault on the temple, does he anticipate that it will inspire the ruling elite to plot his death? It’s hard to know.
If we step back a moment and contemplate what actually happens in the days leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, it looks a lot like utter chaos. Picture the scene: Jerusalem is packed with the faithful come to celebrate Passover, Pilate and the Romans are nervous about popular unrest, and Jewish leaders are nervous about the Romans’ tendency to use violence to solve problems.
Enter Jesus: he’s initially hailed by many as a powerful prophet but within days is scorned as a pathetic fraud by the Passover crowd. He hides outside of town to avoid the authorities, only to be betrayed by one of his closest lieutenants. Jewish leaders scramble to find a way to get rid of this troublemaker in order to protect the city. Pilate is uncertain who this man is, initially quarrels with Jewish leaders about what to do, but finally gives in to their demands just to be on the safe side. Jesus’s followers, confused and fearful, don’t understand why things are unfolding as they are.
Experts on the human mind tell us – as if we really needed to be told – that we humans, for all our intelligence and rational capacity, are really terrible at predicting the future, of seeing what’s going to happen, even though we often think we’re good at it.
Think back to this time a year ago: I thought, well, there’s a new virus, it’s problematic, we’ll shut things down for a few weeks, maybe a month or so, then things will get better.
Did any of you anticipate – I certainly did not – that in a year’s time a half million of our fellow Americans would have died of the virus, that tens of millions of people would have lost their jobs and businesses, that schools would be mostly shut down for a year, that wearing or not wearing face masks would become a political issue, that we would now be busily trying to vaccinate the entire population against the new virus, or that thousands of Americans would have physically stormed the U.S. Capitol trying to overturn a national election? It’s almost like a script for a science fiction movie. And yet, here we are.
Paul, in the Letter to the Philippians, writes that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, … emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (2:5-7) In other words, he wasn’t like one of the Greek gods with supernatural powers who could appear in human form; he was truly and completely human, subject to all of the weaknesses of humans, including doubt, pain and mortality. And, I would say, unable to accurately predict the future.
When I think of Jesus on that donkey entering Jerusalem about to face the Passover crowds, the nervous Roman authorities, the city leaders who just want to maintain the peace, I think he couldn’t have known what was going to happen. To my mind, it’s the moment at which he is most human, most like us, not being able to see the future but still holding on to what he knows is God’s call to him, set on the actions he feels compelled to take, no matter what. Like his friends and followers, he is determined and hopeful – but the future is unknown territory.
When I retired from teaching a couple of years ago, I didn’t have a very clear idea what retirement would look like for me. I did have some modest plans: I was going to do some volunteering, I was going to take some classes, I was going to continue to be engaged with folks at church, I was going to do some traveling with my wife, spend time with my kids. I was hopeful everything would fall into place.
HA! There’s a Yiddish saying that I love: “Mann tracht un Gott lacht.” Man plans and God laughs. Or if you prefer a Scottish version, courtesy of Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”
Man, have my plans “gang aft agley.” There have been moments this past year when my life, and the lives of so many others, have seemed like utter chaos: things happening over which we had no control, little choice, events that threatened not just our plans but our work, our education, our families, our very lives. Our streets and our civil life in turmoil. My anxiety has sometimes frozen me in place. Perhaps yours has as well. We have asked ourselves questions: What is the path forward? How can we make it? How do we get out of this? What’s next? Why?
By the end of that chaotic week in Jerusalem, it’s easy to sense the despair in Jesus’ friends, as whatever hopes they had, have been buried in the tomb with their leader. But then at the dawn of a new week, they rediscover hope in the empty tomb. Now they can begin to look back and to reframe the terrible events of the week. Now they can begin to make meaning out of them. To find a new purpose. They still don’t know what lies ahead, but they know just enough to move forward.
In a sense, this is what we do every Holy Week as we retrace the events of Jesus’ last days in our worship together. We take the chaos of these events and use them all – the fear and suffering and pain and despair and then the vision of Jesus alive again – all of it, to make meaning. And we can use this week as a template for our own lives and experience, to take the chaos and suffering we have experienced and, through the lens of Holy Week, rediscover meaning and purpose for ourselves. And we can do that because the paradox of the Cross is that it is not the final word but actually the sign of God’s promise to transform suffering and death into new life and new hope.
Jesus’s death scatters his friends into hiding, until they receive the call to come together again, to return to Galilee, to find new community and new purpose together.
When we are able to emerge from our own hiding, to come back together as a community, we don’t know what that will look like. Like the disciples, we will discover that it’s not just a return to our old lives, but an invitation to transformation, to move forward on new roads, new ways of worshipping and being in community, to new ministries and ways of serving God and God’s people.