During one of our Thursday evening bible studies, someone mentioned that Palm Sunday reminded them of the Queen’s Annual Death Rehearsal. Have you ever heard of this practice? I had not. Queen Elizabeth is the longest reigning monarch in British history, and she stands for stability and order in her kingdom. Her passing will be a very sad and vulnerable moment, so the plan of what to do has been processed in infinite detail. The phrase “London Bridge is down” will put into motion a design that has been in place since the 1960’s and is updated several times per year. The Prime Minister will be notified, and a footman will place a black-edged notice on the gates of Buckingham Palace. Following twelve days of national mourning, two thousand guests will be invited to the funeral. Flags will fly at half-mast and then Prince Charles will be crowned King. The piece you are probably still wondering about, however, is how any of this would be connected to Palm Sunday.
I have always thought of Palm Sunday as a kind of first century party for Jesus, riding into town at the crescendo of his career to the roar of an adoring crowd. Maybe a little Jesus Christ Superstar music playing in the background. Hosanna, Heysanna, hosanna. This echoes the tradition of victorious Roman generals parading triumphantly through cities holding high the armaments of war, because they had divinely escaped death. Because the generals could be tempted by the adulation of the crowd to believe they were a god, typically the general was a servant rode in his chariot whispering repeatedly in his ear, “Remember that you are but human.” Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a parody of a Roman parade.
When Ashley Gitchell shared a painting called The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem by Louis Felix Leullier from the 19th Century, I had a visceral reaction to the painter’s vision of Christ as a sitting duck, exposed in a way I hadn’t seen depicted before. The perspective of the painting is through the shoulders of the crowd, with Jesus in the misty midground riding a donkey is so small that his robes cover all but the colt’s head. Christ looks very vulnerable and alone in Leullier’s painting. This more closely follows scripture because, as soon as Christ openly raised Lazarus, a price was placed on his head which makes this open ride illogically risky. Jesus is allowing himself to be seen and tracked by those who will kill him.
The rehearsal of Jesus’ death week is called The Passion and was laid out by the prophets in scripture. Instead of “London Bridge is Down,” it is called “The Cross Going Up.” Jesus had been sharing the details with his disciples for years, but they were disbelieving that the Messiah would die for his enemies rather than crush them with his right-handed power. It is an upside-down kingdom. His kingdom comes in death, rather than in life. Jesus has the opposite experience of the Queen or Roman general—no chariot, or legions of soldiers, and He is the servant whispering to us, “Remember that you are but human,” as he rides to his death, not away from it, for us.
Jesus exposes his vulnerability in order to be with us in our vulnerability. This struck me so clearly this week. Jesus came for those who love him or ignore him, those who demand more from him or demand nothing, for those who think his life and death hopelessly idealistic, and for those who think of him as a wise but tragic figure of history. There is much irony and paradox in this acted out parable of how God comes to us in vulnerability and weakness, in death and infamy. It is so unexpected.
Two stories came to mind when I was contemplating the unexpectedness and vulnerability of God’s way of intervening for us.
The first is a personal story. I was about 12 years old and was on my first babysitting job for a family in our neighborhood. I wasn’t a very good babysitter because I was timid and scared. On this particular night, there was a loud and dark thunderstorm raging and then the lights flickered and went out completely. In those days, it also meant that the phones went out when the electricity was out. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t leave the two kids sleeping to go to my house. I couldn’t call the parents to let them know. And I was terrifically afraid of the dark on top it all. As I was starting to cry from fear, I could see a large, dark figure walking across the open garage space. I couldn’t even scream because I was so scared. Then I heard my father’s voice say, “Mary? Are you ok? I’ve come to sit with you until they get home.” My soaking wet Dad had come for me, knowing that I would be scared in the dark and thunder and wouldn’t know what to do. My Dad came for me in my most vulnerable moment because he knew me and loved me.
The second is a story about a man named Petrelle Gilmore. He is a convicted felon drug dealer, who has been shot and has shot people in his hometown of Charlottesville. In late December 2020, a young man named Buck was shot and killed in Charlottesville and Petrelle felt compelled to form a group of men who dub themselves the BUCK Squad, or Brothers United to Cease the Killing. These former felons who have been transformed by the gift of sobriety through the power of the love of God, volunteer to be conflict mediators for gun violence. Petrelle described their new street weapons.
“The first thing we do with a gang leader or gun fighter is tell him, ‘We love you.’ They usually cry and say no one has ever told them that. We lead with love. We empathize with them because we were them; we don’t judge. Most killings are because of Ego, and we can speak to that.” When asked about the possibility of being killed in a gun fight, Petrelle said they know it could happen, but they created the problem and they love these guys, so they are willing to do it, quoting Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” The Buck Squad’s vulnerability in love is palpable and powerful.
We think of vulnerability as weakness. There are mass shootings, killer storms, savage viruses, screaming children, limping marriages, and demanding jobs to be juggled. We feel vulnerable enough. We don’t want a vulnerable God who would come as a man riding on a donkey instead of in a blazing chariot. The disappointment of the Holy Week people is ours, too. We would prefer Jesus Christ strong arm our lives into order and predictability, instead of arriving in humble love. But God chooses this way because his compassion and love are infinite, not finite. As David Lose reminds us, “God chooses to meet us in our vulnerability, to accept us in our weakness, to love us in our unlovability, to redeem us amid our sin. If we take Jesus’ words about God and God’s kingdom seriously, then we might grow more accustomed to God doing the unexpected. God just forgiving us out of love rather than demanding satisfaction first. God acting more like a desperate parent than an angry monarch. God reaching out again and again in love and mercy rather than exacting retribution.”
Jesus does not die, in other words, to make it possible for God to forgive us, but rather to show us that God already has forgiven us because God loves us.
My granddaughter asked me last month what the world would be like if Jesus Christ had never come. If there were no New Testament, No Christmas, No Palm Sunday, No Good Friday, No Cross, No Resurrection. What would we not know? What would our lives be like? The most obvious and jarring answer is that we would not know God because Jesus is the revelation of God—a walking, talking, loving revelation of God letting Himself be seen and experienced. Eugene Peterson calls Christ, The God Revealer. And the reason for his death is clear—God rides to his death on that little donkey so that YOU would know that he loves you like that. God made Himself vulnerable to the judgement of the world to prove that He loves you. The world cannot judge you. Only Christ can. The buck stops here—literally—at the Cross.