Today is Palm Sunday, the day we remember the joyous and triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Today is the day that we dip our toes into this Holy Week in which we walk through the final days of Jesus’ life: we celebrate Tenebrae on Wednesday, then Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then, yes, finally, sweet, sweet Easter. But before we get to all of that, we begin today with Palm Sunday, the day when we catch a glimpse of God’s world, the day when all our expectations are reversed, and we see a world that’s turned upside down. On Palm Sunday we remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem through beautiful gates, over discarded cloaks and scattered palm branches. We imagine the royal entrance of Jesus, the Messiah come to set us free. But the scene is flipped upside when, rather than seeing him on the back of a warrior’s glorious stallion, we see him with his feet dragging in the dust as he rides atop a simple, small, dirty donkey.
GK Chesterton captures this wonderful surprise in his beautiful poem entitled “Donkey”:
When fishes flew and forests walked,
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood,
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry,
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
Of all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient, crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
This may have been the donkey’s first and only moment in the spotlight, but it wasn’t the first time that Jesus flipped the script on us. Born in a stable, calling a dozen fishermen to be his closest advisors, preaching from high atop a mountain—but with a message for the meek, the grieving and the poor, and Jesus concludes his hero’s welcome into the capital by kneeling down on Thursday and washing feet. Jesus always seems to be giving us what we need rather than what we want or what we expect.
And when the praise of Palm Sunday turned to the jeers and Good Friday cries of “crucify him”, and when we called out to Jesus on the Cross in our doubting, mocking tones for him to save himself, in that moment the world was turned upside down forever when Jesus breathed his last and instead saved us all. When the blood of the Prince of Peace was shed for the sins of the whole world.
So, if you’re feeling alone, broken and abandoned; if you’re feeling pain today, or you’re afraid and helpless to heal yourself or someone you love; if you’re feeling tired, like a failure, or as if your life lost or incomplete—well, then you’re in the right place to hear this simple Gospel truth: Jesus has come, and he’s come for you. Jesus has died, and he’s died for you. Jesus is risen, and so will you. Because when your own world feels like it’s been turned upside down, then that is the place where Jesus is and that is the place where his transforming power is at work. When the façade of our controlling grip on our lives has slipped away, it’s then that the darkness of Christ’s death transforms us into new life.
This great reversal of expectations shows us two important things:
- Thankfully God’s ways are not our ways. We think and act in ways that are conditional—we seek perfection and strength in order to verify success and goodness, while God shows us strength in weakness and wisdom in foolishness. God’s ways are not ways, which is good news for a bunch of fools like you and me.
- With what we expected and even clung to as our hope for victory and freedom from embarrassment and worthlessness cast aside; with our reliance upon the feats of the great and mighty performers among us overturned by today’s image of Jesus on a donkey and Friday’s image of Christ on a cross; with the image of a warrior replaced with that of a slave and all of our conditional hopes and dreams shattered upon the rocks of the weak and dirty realities of life, then all we are left with to place our hope upon is he who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
It’s taken a great act of humility for me to wait all this time before bringing up Tony Bennett and our NCAA Champion Virginia Cavaliers. I wish I had the time to walk us through every nail biting second and every cardiac arresting play that led us to that final moment when De’Andre Hunter hurled the ball up into the air and confetti and streamers literally and metaphorically poured down upon us all. And I have very little doubt that it would have tasted so sweet if UVA hadn’t gone through what it had, tasting the lowest of lows for a basketball team last year, and if they hadn’t been led by the grace and faith of Tony Bennett all along the way. After Virginia won the national championship, Tony was asked about that painful defeat, and whether the stain had been washed away or not. Tony said that the scars remain and he’s thankful for that, because “when you’re in those spots when the world is telling you you’re a loser, you’re a failure and you’re the worst thing going, then you get drawn closer to the unconditional things in your life. That pain drew me closer to my family, but most importantly to my faith in the Lord.”
Today begins our descent into Jesus’ last days, culminating in the story of his Passion, of his death. Just like the donkey, which the world sees as weak and foolish, we see the flogging and stripping and murdering of a man as the epitome of failure, foolishness and weakness. But what we see as weakness and brokenness, God sees as strength. What we see as our world being painfully turned upside down, God shows us that those humbling moments are drawing us closer to the unconditional things of our lives. Closer to the Cross. Closer to God. Closer to His love and His grace.