“And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem…”
God is so unexpected, and God shows up in the unexpected. And these times are so unexpected. In the midst of this pandemic, I’ve had the chance and the space to connect with God more than I have in a long time, and I’m still trying to figure out what God is doing. God definitely didn’t cause this crisis, and this pandemic is not God’s judgment upon the earth. I don’t want anyone to think that. But in these times, God is absolutely present in the midst of COVID-19. This Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I of course am thinking of the ways that Jesus threw off human expectations. Jesus wasn’t the type of King that the crowds expected him to be, and I feel like God is inviting me to see God in the unexpected.
Whoever has ears to hear let them hear.
This entire season is unexpected. Churches all over the world are trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do next week: Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday (Spy Wednesday), Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday), Good Friday (Holy Friday), Holy Saturday, and then Easter. Churches, historically, have used Easter Sunday as the opportunity to tell people the good news about Jesus, about his love and mercy, and the ways in which he offers salvation. But I think it’s time for the church to learn, again, that Jesus is an unexpected King. He doesn’t move and operate in the ways we might expect him to act.
Palm Sunday is such an interesting Sunday from a preaching perspective. On this side of history, we easily side with those who “got it” about Jesus. We think that we’re special, and if we were alive back then that we would have understood Jesus’ mission. But more than likely, we would have been part of the crowds shouting, “Hosanna, Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” We all have expectations about who we think Jesus is, but if we’re honest with ourselves, our expectations are wrong.
Jesus is an unexpected King.
Even though Christians know the stories of Jesus and how he acted unexpectedly (ate with tax collectors, healed lepers, drank with a Samaritan woman), we are surprised when Jesus shows up unexpectedly. This entire COVID-19 situation is unexpected, but God is still in it (as God is in all things).
Let’s take a look at the Palm Sunday story once more.
Imagine with me the scene: thousands of people crowd into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Many are there to see Jesus, and many are there to see Pontius Pilate (Borg and Crossan’s book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem is a fascinating read on this). Jesus comes in from the east, and Pilate from the west. Two very different types of rulers. Pontius Pilate comes into town expecting the love and adoration of the people. Because I just finished Tiger King, I imagine Pilate looking a lot like Joe Exotic. There’s a scene in that show where Joe’s running for a government position. He’s riding all over town on top of his Hummer limo, and I feel like that’s a good image of what Pilate was like.
The contrast is so evident, it’s surprising that many of us still don’t get it. Jesus arrives into Jerusalem riding a donkey (cf. Zech 9:9). Sure, the crowds shout and cheer saying things that are very true about him. He is a King. And he is worthy of this praise (cf. Psalm 118), but he’s about to do something completely unexpected (though he had just told his disciples in Luke 18 that he’s going into Jerusalem specifically to die…).
The wisdom of God is foolishness to us (cf. 1st Corinthians 1:18-31), and this should be something that most of us get. But sometimes we have to learn and re-learn this truth: God doesn’t work the way we expect God to work. This season is uncomfortable and foreign and painful. People are losing their lives, their jobs, their livelihoods, and their stabilities. But God is in the midst of the unexpected.
Jesus is the King of the Cosmos, and yet he did not consider his rights and privileges as something to be held onto. Instead he emptied himself to take on the form of a servant. And being found in human likeness, he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. And he did it for us. He did it for all of humanity. This is how Jesus shows his love for us. He’s the type of King that’s willing to sacrifice himself for us.
God works through and in the unexpected to bring about something beautiful. God is a redemptive God.
God doesn’t fit within our own preconceived notions. God acts how God wants to act, and God is free to be the God that God chooses to be. God doesn’t fit within our expectations. Never has. Never will.
So as I approach Palm Sunday, I’m asking God to show me my own blind-spots. Do I have a King that I’ve formed in my own image? Have I boxed God in?
I want to be surprised again.
I feel like this entire situation is chipping and stripping away a lot of unnecessary things in my life. For many years, I’ve complained about being too busy to pray, and now I have so much time to do that. I’ve lost my job. I’ve lost my activities. And now I’m spending so much time with Jesus. I’m excited for the seed that is being sown in people during this season. There are, obviously, really painful things happening, and I am not dismissing that. But what I know about the Easter story is that God always brings life out of death. God alone can do that.
As we all prepare for this new thing that God is doing, let us continue to be amazed at what God can do in the unexpectedness. There is hope in the midst of this season.