Finding Your Purpose
Parades are meant to be fun, but Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on the day we now call Palm Sunday has never felt fun to me. I find it bewildering. And not just because Jesus is apparently riding both a donkey and a colt. Matthew 21 says, “When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’”
I’ll be honest. I’ve never really “gotten” Palm Sunday. I have always had a hard time getting excited about the day that Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. I’d much prefer we all tell him to run and hide than to celebrate the ascent into the city of his imminent death. These friends and followers who today shout “hosanna” will soon weep as they watch Jesus suffer the indignity and violence of a state-sanctioned execution. I also assume that for Jesus it was annoying, at best (and devasting at its worst) that when people ask “Who is this?” the people of the city and perhaps even the crowds who greeted Jesus clearly don’t actually understand who he is. They reply, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Jesus, who Peter previously identified as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” who has healed, and taught, who has been referred to as the King, the Son of David, is reduced again to a simple prophet from a backwater town. The people don’t know who Jesus is, and they don’t understand what he is here to do. And yet, they cry out “Hosanna!” along the way.
“Hosanna” means “save us.” We imagine this joyful celebration of cloaks along the road and branches waving, but it’s hard to reconcile a cheery crowd yelling “save us, please save us.” So, I see one of two things happening here- either the triumphal entry was a worshipful movement of people who didn’t totally understand Jesus but believed he could somehow save them anyway or the triumphal entry was silliness, the farcical playacting of religious people who pretended everything and believed nothing. After another week of horrific violence in schools, when I think of the church’s tradition of having children standing in the sanctuary waving palms and singing “please, save us” it brings tears to my eyes. “Save us” we cry, over and over again as we see the pain and suffering all around us. Save us, from the hardship, from the threat, from the deep pools of fear that threaten to drown us. And we, like the crowds who welcome Jesus into Jerusalem- either we are genuinely asking God to be present here, to save us from the tyranny of violence and death, or we are also just actors, pretending everything and believing nothing.
And either way, we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane days later, pouring his heart out to God, asking to be saved. It’s a gripping, terrible story. One not typically preached on. We prefer Jesus to be a little more confident, more certain of his purpose and mission. But in Gethsemane, we meet Jesus as he was- fully God, and yet, very, very like us in our suffering and fear. Lonely, panicked, even. Unsure of his purpose and calling.
Jesus takes James, John, and Peter with him into the garden, but he seems to leave them while he goes off to pray alone, seeking privacy. Jesus needs to know they are with him, awake, keeping watch, loving him still, even in a moment where he seeks space and solitude. He’s agitated and “[throws] himself on the ground.” And he prays for relief. “Hosanna, save me, please.” Your will be done, O God. He returns to his disciples and is disappointed to find them asleep.
We generally prefer to think of Jesus as confident and sure. We can remember back to the beginning of his public ministry when he stood at the front of the synagogue audaciously proclaiming “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…” We can almost picture him finishing his reading, rolling up the scroll and sitting down. It’s a “mic drop moment” and then he takes it a step more when he says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is so sure of himself, understanding what God has called him to do, who he is called to be. His unwavering sense of purpose holds steady throughout his ministry, even when he faces ridicule and violence.
But that was three years ago. And now Jesus is alone in the garden, unsure of what comes next, wondering isn’t there some other way? You can imagine what he was thinking, probably. How did we get here? People were just celebrating me, saying that I come in the name of the Lord. How did this happen to me? Perhaps you can imagine it because you have been there yourself. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to all work out. How did this happen to me? Fix it, God.” In the garden, one faces the failed expectations of life. We hope for a life that is simple and lovely, where all goes as planned. But anyone who has journeyed into the garden of Gethsemane with Jesus knows otherwise. Perhaps your words were different, but the concern is the same- God, take this burden from me. Please don’t make me have to go through this.
Jesus faces the disappointment of his expectations for his friends. He thought perhaps they would have the strength to make it through the night; they did not. He thought, perhaps God would “let this cup pass” and that rather than drinking the cup of death, he would experience relief; God did not. He thought, perhaps the same power he used to heal others, even to bring them back from death, could help him avoid it; it did not. Jesus experiences what many of us have experienced- to be disappointed by our hopes and expectations for our life is to be human.
But we also see in Jesus a turn towards something else. Acceptance. “Yet not what I want but what you want,” Jesus prays. And a second and third time, “your will be done.” Jesus still wants to be rescued. He prays for relief, but he is also accepting that it isn’t going to happen the way he expected, the way he hoped. It is the hardest thing in the world, accepting that which comes whether we want it or not. Praying earnestly that God’s will be done when the outcome is outside the bounds of our control, is a very scary thing. And acceptance is the best, most awful gift you will ever accept. Madeleine L'Engle writes about “God’s no” in her book The Irrational Season. It is God’s no to Jesus in the garden she explains, that gives way to God’s yes to resurrection. Saying no to Jesus’ plea was “the essential prelude to the Yes of the Resurrection. This No was necessary for the defeat of death.” Had God removed the cup of death from Jesus’ lips, there would be no resurrection story.
And in Jesus’ acceptance, he finds the courage then to do what must be done. Even though he may not be able to see how the story ends, he finds the courage to step into it anyway. He rouses the disciples again, preparing them, for he sees the crowd of priests and elders, armed with glinting swords and heavy clubs, Judas leading group. In his acceptance, Jesus shifts from begging God to telling Judas “Friend, do what you are here to do.” He shifts from pleading for his life to once again speaking audaciously to the priests, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen this way?” What was once suffering is now acceptance is now also courage. I doubt the fear was gone, but it was no longer the only voice speaking.
Some of us have been reading Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak together. He so beautifully articulates this transformation, writing "’Be not afraid’ does not mean we cannot not have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thereby engendering a world in which fear is multiplied. We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well-places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. As we stand in one of those places, fear may remain close at hand and our spirits may still tremble. But now we stand on ground that will support us, ground from which we can lead others toward a more trustworthy, more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world.”
Jesus embraces that call to leadership, that call to purpose. Of course he is still fearful- people are coming at him with swords and clubs. But he is no longer living in fear or leading from that place. He is leading from solid ground. He is leading from the truth of his identity. “Hosanna, save us,” the people cry out to Jesus. “Save me,” Jesus cries out to God. And in so doing Jesus is reminded that he is the one who saves. He has everything he needs to live and die and be resurrected.
Friends, you too have everything you need to live the life God has called you to live. Even in these darkest moments of Jesus’ life, he becomes for us an example of how to live. There is a world out there that calls out “save us!” We have only to accept that God is calling us. We have only to listen to the voices crying out, to listen to God inviting us to act, to accept our calling to respond, and to summon the courage to get to work. Hosanna! We cry out. Hosanna! God save us! And give us the grace to follow in Jesus’ path of courage. May we walk with Jesus, not simply into the city, but all the way to the garden. All the way to the tomb, all the way to new life. Amen.