What Are You Looking For?

Palm Sunday Scripture Readings

God and humankind seem always to be at cross-purposes. God is forever reaching out to show himself to us, to tell us about himself, and to lift us up out of the messes we’ve gotten ourselves into. Moreover, he provides the moral support we need to keep us from succumbing to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Shakespeare so eloquently put it. Meanwhile, we’re forever searching for God, calling out to him in prayer, crying and begging him for help. You’d think that since we’re working for the same ends, God and humanity might be in perfect sync. Yet, we’re not. The problem lies in the immense gap between the divine nature and the limits of our human understanding. We look to try to understand God when the essence of God’s communications with us exceeds our power to grasp it. Since we receive God’s communications in a human manner, so much is lost in translation. God’s communication is beyond human understanding since the content of God’s communication is nothing less than God himself.

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus enters into Jerusalem one final time, and the crowds are there waiting for him. What brought them there? It seems that Jesus came to Jerusalem from Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives. Bethany, you may recall, was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. In fact, Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead after three days in the tomb in front of a crowd of mourners. News of the miracle quickly spread across the countryside, causing great excitement, especially when news arrived that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. People turned out in great numbers with palm branches to greet the man who was obviously the Messiah—the anointed king in the line of David—singing Psalm 118 as they did for the festival of Succoth, the Feast of Booths, crying “Hosanna!” that is, “Save us!” and “Hosanna in the highest!” or “Save us, O Almighty God!”

But they were mistaken. The Messiah had come to them, all right, just as God had promised. Yet the Messiah they got wasn’t the Messiah they expected. They misunderstood the promise. They wanted a great and powerful king who would save Israel from its enemies and lead the nation to greatness. What they got was a humble Messiah, meek and riding on the foal of a donkey. Although Mark doesn’t mention it, Matthew and Luke point out that therefore he fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah [9:9]. God had been trying to warn them that their political expectations were off-base but their hopes and dreams kept them from getting the message.

Here’s our lesson for today on this Palm Sunday. The people of Israel thought that their God had not heard them but had abandoned them to suffer their fate. And, when they saw Jesus, he who had raised Lazarus from the dead, they imagined that God had answered their prayer—until they got a good look at him. Then, their disappointment took over. They turned their shouts of joy and victory into shouts of anger and resentment. Yet, it wasn’t that God hadn’t heard them or refused to answer their cries for help, “Hosanna! Save us!” God heard and answered all right, but the answer God gave wasn’t the answer they were expecting. They missed God’s saving action on their behalf because it didn’t fit their preconceived notions of what God’s answer should look like.

How about us? We can look at the sufferings of the Messiah we are about to hear and, from our human perspective, we could see failure. We might wonder why a loving God would subject the Messiah, the Savior, his own beloved Son to such a fate. Our humanity cries out, “God, how can you be so cruel?” And, like the Israelites, we miss the point. What God has done is to refuse to take the easy way out and wreak havoc on his creation. He won’t perform some magic trick to make everything all better. Instead, God shows us that he will go to any lengths to show us in his own flesh the way through suffering and death and into something entirely new on the other side. Instead of voiding our humanity, God chooses to be our intimate companion and guide.

So, next time you call out in anguish, “Hosanna in the highest! Almighty God, save us!” and you’re tempted in despair to throw down the palm branches of victory because God seems silent and unconcerned, look instead with the eyes of faith and a trusting heart because, just maybe, God’s answer has been there, staring you in the face the whole time … just not the answer you were expecting.

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