We celebrate Palm Sunday this week to remember what seems like the pinnacle of Jesus' ministry.
He is at the height of popularity, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, symbolizing that he is a king who will bring peace. But we know that even as the crowds wave palm branches in salute, they will soon jeer and demand his execution. We also know that Jesus was well aware of what awaited him. He was not duped by adulation. And so we call it Passion Sunday as well, because we anticipate along with Jesus the crucifixion to come.
Things of God often are that way. In describing God, we sometimes use the language of exclusion: God is neither male nor female, neither African, nor Asian, nor European. Sometimes we use the language of inclusion: God is both near and far, both natural and supernatural. Sometimes only the language of paradox will do: God is merciful yet just; God is imminent yet transcendent; God is immovable yet tender hearted; God is historical yet timeless.
Such is the case with Jesus as his days on earth draw to a close. Jesus is exalted yet put down, loved yet betrayed, hailed as the Messiah, yet reviled as a fraud. These things do not follow one after the other in sequence, but seem to happen at once. We must hold contradictory images together in tension to grasp the impact of God in human form. Thus we celebrate the glory of the palms and the anguish of the cross together. Jesus is the crucified king, the triumphant sacrifice.
Ironically, the soldiers who mocked him and called him the King of the Jews actually got it right. They did not realize how close their derision came to hitting the mark. They were the first ones to crown him, but the crown was made of thorns. One of their own, standing at the cross, would finally realize the awesome truth: "Truly this man was the son of God!"
Jesus' last days tell us much about how God relates to us. There is the judgment and anger seen in Jesus as he overturned the tables in the temple. Yet there is also the promise of paradise offered to the undeserving thief on the cross. There is the prayer of the advocate which is offered for us all: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." There is the intimacy of communion among friends.
But more telling, his last days also offer a window into how we relate to God. Peter is ready to fight to the death, yet ultimately cowers at the accusing voice of a servant girl. Judas betrays Jesus when it becomes evident that Jesus has a warped view of messiahship. Pilate manipulates the system to accomplish what he wants without taking responsibility. These are metaphors for our broken relationship with God. Like Peter, we vow to take up our cross and follow Jesus, but in the moment of truth, our knees buckle and we take the easy way out. Like Judas, we set Jesus up in a fashion of our own liking, then betray him if he disappoints us. Like Pilate, we would love to wash our hands of any culpability. We want the palms of royal adulation, and would rather skip the passion and go right to Easter's resurrection.
The better practice is to trudge through the week and face each story without flinching. It is hard to watch, I know, but there is grace at every turn. We can face our own failings and limitations more honestly if we know God is ready to forgive. And we can face our own mortality with hope knowing that death has been swallowed up in victory. Hosanna!
Brian Dale is pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.