One week a year when God is supposed to get a fighting chance for our attention. Because that is what the old story is all about – God. Not whether he exists. Everybody, but everybody in town on that Palm Sunday knew he existed. About that there was no question. Atheism is rather new to the human scene. Some psychological studies indicate that it stems from an adolescent difficulty with authority, that some people never get over.
But belief that God is, a kind of natural sense that this incredible and mysterious creation is not self-explanatory, that it points beyond itself to a reason, a power that is its foundation and future, this is almost universal. We teach our children about God in Sunday School but they seem to arrive even very young with a native talent for trust. Basic trust, Erikson called it. One little guy exclaims, “What does God look like? How am I supposed to know? You gott’a use your imagination. He’s indivisible.”
So, no, the question of God is not the issue of that early Sunday of the Palms. Rather the question is: what kind of reality are we chattering about and dealing with? How does God relate to us? Where is he in this kind of sad and sorry world? What is he up to, if anything? Why doesn’t he do something, rescue us, fix things?
I suspect that here is where we get serious about him, these are the questions we ask when we run up against our limits in life, our frailty and vulnerability, when we encounter enemies who get in our way, physical or personal. Where is he? How could he let this happen? I remember a woman who lost a son in his twenties, able, handsome, intelligent with his whole life before him, struck down by a sudden illness. Angry that God would do this to him, to her, she never entered the church again.
So how did she picture God? How do we? It can make all the difference in the world. Impersonal fate, vague blur, angry judge, warrior king, Dutch uncle. It makes all the difference in the world. And it was their pictures he rode into town to challenge on that ride down the mount so long ago. And he still challenges them.
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The shops that lined the narrow streets of the old city opened early that holiday season. As the merchants bellowed their wares, out-of-towners jostled each other as they crowded along the narrow passageways. Josephus tells us that at Passover over three million of them camped in and around this town of hardly one hundred thousand. The natives would look at each other with a kind of ambivalent resignation. The tourists in town for the holiday turned their usually quiet and orderly days into bedlam, but they brought the shekels in their leather pouches that would spell prosperity for a few days.
Bearded men in high hats moved through the throng, hands folded over their ample fronts, phylactories strapped to their wrists, the blue fringe from their robes trailing in the dust, their faces bearing a faint smile of superiority.
Little children ran in and around playing their eternal games of tag or hide and seek. Their faces dark and dirty and delighted at all the excitement and noise and revelry. Off in the distance they began to hear a rhythmic, staccato chant, carried on the morning breeze from the southern gate. Voices dropped as faces wondered at the word that echoed and echoed through the stone corridors. Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna.
A young man came running with the word that a procession was coming. Entry processions were a familiar ceremony in the first century. Many anointed Kings and conquering generals had entered Rome, Athens, Jerusalem over the years, but never had they seen a king like this one. A triumphal entry, staged on a donkey, is a prophetic sign. Jesus is acting out a parable. Jesus is a king, but no ordinary one – the king of fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, harlots, blind men, demoniacs and cripples. Those who followed and cheered were a ragtag bunch, pathetically unfit for the grand hopes that danced in their imaginations. That’s the people who were cheering. Jesus from the north country, the prophet who heals, and he is riding on a little white donkey, but just like King Solomon did long ago when at his coronation he rode from the Gihon spring up through the city gates to the Temple.
Now they came to march with him into the holy city, God’s city. Hosanna. That meant, God saves. That meant now we are going to get some action. At last somebody is going to have the courage to lead us into a New Deal, a New Frontier, a New World Order, a revolt against everything disgusting and disillusioning about this life of ours. The oppression of the Roman bureaucracy. The depletion of the high taxes. The misery of poverty and pain. The jealous rivalries that are tearing the community apart. At last change. Only a few days later, on their way home, they would say to one another, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
For he didn’t do it. He rode in like a hero, like a ruler of old. Yet five days later he gets himself strung up by the Romans, pathetic, helpless figure who can only hang there and mutter something about forgiving the people because they don’t know what they are doing. Who would ever think that getting killed on a cross would change anything.
Life is filled with such moments, is it not, moments of what might have been – moments when everything seems right, but then it just doesn’t work out as we hoped. It can be so hard to go on believing in God when life doesn’t give us what matters so dearly to us, but the point of the story is this. There is always danger when we attempt to chart the course as to what God is like and what he is about in our world.
It is so easy to project false images of God, construct cults to the god who is always on our side and looks after our interests rather than those of our adversaries and enemies. We desire a God who promises health and prosperity, and so we join the train of those whose worship is false because their God is the creation of their own wishes and dreams.
So they all missed him when he made his move. Put simply they missed him because in mind’s eye and heart of hearts they equated God with something very different from this Jesus on his donkey. For them the God of their fathers was power and glory. The wealthy priestly families who ran the temple and ruled the populous by arrangement with Rome, they expected God to protect their privilege and their power, maintain stability and status quo. Isn’t that what rulers still hope for today, religious regimentation. The Pharisees, the fundamentalists of their time, sought control over the consciences of the common by dictating the hoops they had to jump through to have some hope for eternity. That is power. And are they not still around today. And the rabble, the people who tagged along on that parade, they hoped only for some relief from their misery, some rescue from their oppressors. But at bottom they all alike saw God as the power to answer all their prayers.
And this Messiah, this Son of God, this embodiment of the Eternal, rides into the Beltway on a borrowed donkey to get himself lynched, and so a danger he posed to those who ruled and a disappointment to those who were ruled. Why? To change the face of God. This God, the true God, creator of heaven and earth, does not relate to his world through power, does not enter our lives to confirm our prejudices, coerce our conscience, does not rescue and control.
Because power never does it, coerce mind or body, the power of the sword, or magic, or money. Power never changes anything or anyone fundamentally. The little girl had been misbehaving. Her mother told her to sit in the corner until her father came home. The little girl went to the corner but refused to sit. Whereupon the mother literally forced her to sit. When the father arrived on the scene, he asked his daughter what she was doing in the corner. She replied, “On the outside I’m sitting, but on the inside I’m still standing.”
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Power is important. Power is useful to restrain and keep order, to organize civil existence and keep enemies at bay, to set limits on the immature so that they may survive, to generate industrial empires and supply goods and toys. Power is not without its utility or attractiveness. It can even be fun. But it never really changes anything, because real change has to happen at the heart of all this world’s troubles and that is the human heart. The suffering, the misery, the oppression, the troubles of this world in Jesus’ day or ours are not finally a technical problem, they are a heart problem and that is why he goes for the heart even at cost of his life. Hangs there in sacrificial love to shake us loose from our fears and pride and propensity to put survival first. Hangs there in self-forgetful love to convince us that this is the way God is with our world and so wins our trust in him and his way.
And it worked. Whatever we may say about it with our addiction to the power way, our cynicism about the softness of love, we must admit that he did more with that cross to shake human history that he ever would have if he had played the two-bit revolutionary calling his people to arms.
And it still works as we open ourselves to this Jesus and his kind of love as the very love of God. Then God becomes near. Then God becomes real, present in the midst of our sufferings and trouble to grant us the faith of Jesus, the faith that enabled him to bear, believe, hope, endure all things, even that ugly cross. Then God works even measures of health that otherwise we would not know. Margaret Prescott Montague, undergoing surgery lost her faith in God, that he would allow such a thing to happen to her, had no power to intervene. Then one March day another vision began to assert itself, a vision of her earlier youthful God, the vision of the cross, and faith came anew.
“The vision of an uncaring reality would hardly have melted me to happiness. But the vision of a God that cares enough to share my suffering made a difference. That the Creator is a loving creator I now believe with all my heart; but this is belief, not sight. What I saw that day was an unspeakable joy and loveliness and a value to all life beyond anything that we have knowledge of. I knew a wider happiness than I ever had before experienced.”
That’s the way he rules. That’s the way he changes things with his cross. And countless souls down through the centuries witness that he does it, transforms the heart, as no other power could ever do, not that of the politician or psychiatrist, not that of wealth or weapons. God rules the world, changes us, however slowly, subtly, imperceptibly, by self-forgetting love. That’s his face. That’s his name.
And he calls us to join him in the endeavor. “The man who loves himself is lost, but he who leaves self behind will be kept safe for eternity.” “He who would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” What is that all about?
We finally are the conduits through which the transforming love of God is made present in this world. For most of us the word “God loves” has little power unless we experience it in and through the self-forgetful love of one another. That’s where we come closest to him and his reality.
There is a retreat house called “Dayspring.” And when a retreat ends there the participants follow the custom of making their own bed and leaving a note for the next occupant. Usually a prayer or word of encouragement. One visitor found the following note under his pillow when he arrived. “Observations of a skeptic. I don’t want to be told that God loves me. I want to feel that the people who call themselves Christian, love. Then perhaps I can believe. I want to see God’s love in eyes that are unafraid to look into mine, and say, “I love you right where you are.” Then, maybe, I can begin to believe in that love of God through this strange Jesus that you Christians talk so much about. Peace. Bob.
Some challenge. Love like Jesus loved, on that road, on that cross. Sacrificially. Self-forgetting. Then maybe the world will change. Albert Schweitzer said it, “What Christianity needs is that it shall be filled to overflowing with the spirit of Jesus. If persons can be found who revolt against the spirit of thoughtlessness, and who are personalities sound enough and profound enough to let his ideals radiate from them as a force, there will start an activity of the spirit strong enough to evoke a new mental and spiritual disposition in humankind.”
In her little volume, Go Out In Joy, Nina Hermann tells of her experience working in the children’s ward of a hospital. She tells of her pain in her love of these unfortunates. She tells of Riann, the nine-year-old in 383, the little girl with a brain tumor. It is difficult to describe Riann. She was slender like her mother and had huge blue eyes. In the year I knew her, her face matured. She was no longer a little girl. Yet her love remained as innocent as a child, saying prayers and tucking into bed. “Dear God, I hope Mommy has a good sleep and Daddy has a good sleep. Thank you for a nice day. Please don’t let me have any more headaches.”
Not painful to love her. Nina tells of going to the grave. I knew I had to go..I sat on Riann’s tombstone for an hour and a half. I had a wrestling match with God. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t rational. It wasn’t answerable. And I guess I’ll never be satisfied until I get my unanswerable answered. But of course, on this earth I won’t. So as I see it, the choice is up to me. Today I choose God. Today I choose to go on loving.”
But you see that means we get closest to God as we love as he loves up there on his tree, loving in hurt, the reversal, the rejection, loving in the loneliness, loving the unlovely gathered round. Not many of us will ever quite muster love like that, but we can learn to move in that direction. Some one once said, “When we meet him, God will not look us over for medals, diplomas or degrees, he will look us over for scars …. like His.”
Copyright 2003, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.