Moments of Arrival

Today is what’s known as Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the day that Jesus returns to Jerusalem, riding on the back of a donkey. It is a colorful scene, full of symbolism, with the people cheering and celebrating, waving palm fronds, and spreading their cloaks on the road as though they are preparing the way for a great king, a great leader, the Messiah they’ve been waiting for, who their ancestors foretold.

We heard the story from the Gospel of Mark. Interestingly, all four Gospel writers tell about Jesus’s return to Jerusalem. We don’t often have that kind of consistency across the Gospels. This is an important scene—a pinnacle moment—in Jesus’s ministry and life and also in the life of Jewish faith and tradition. Everything was about to change, although few would have understood that at the time.

As this story unfolds, Jesus’s time in the spotlight has been brief; for only three years now, he’s been talking with people, teaching in the synagogue, answering the pointed questions of Pharisees and scribes. But during this time, he has done so much—miraculous things–and word about him spread as people shared stories about his demeanor, his message, and his actions. The crowds continued to grow.

During this brief period, Jesus astounded and perplexed and challenged his hearers with straightforward, honest teaching. He spoke truth to those in power and challenged the existing social order of his time. He healed those they said were unhealable, loved those who were said to be unlovable, found good in those who society wanted to abandon; fed the hungry, cared for the poor, encouraged those who were despairing, and he even raised Lazarus from the dead. In three short years, Jesus taught the world—and is teaching still—what it means to truly love and to love truly.

John’s Gospel mentions that great crowds had begun coming to see Jesus after they heard he raised Lazarus from the dead, and this was kind of a watershed moment for Jesus’s celebrity. It’s as if up until that miracle, those in power could explain Jesus away as an unusually good teacher, a powerful and peaceful presence, a wise and good man. But this latest miracle—raising a man from the dead–crossed over into the realm of the unexplainable, the impossible, maybe, the divine. For the Pharisees and scribes, that was a bridge too far. The chief priests began plotting to kill not only Jesus but Lazarus too, because they both were causing people in increasing numbers to turn away from the synagogue and begin to follow Jesus.

So it is against that backdrop of heightened tension and revelation that this scene of the Triumphal Entry unfolds. The smallest details of Jesus’s return to Jerusalem were heavy with symbolism that wouldn’t have been lost on the people of that day. First Jesus makes his way from the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, fulfilling his responsibility as a Jew to make the pilgrimage to the city for the Passover festival. He tells his disciples to go to a nearby town and find the donkey that had never been ridden waiting there. This fulfils something the Old Testament prophet Zechariah wrote 500 years earlier, which foretold the coming of the Messiah.

The disciples found the donkey just as Jesus said they would and brought it back to him. They spread their cloaks on the animal’s back and Jesus climbed up. Then they started toward Jerusalem, perhaps traveling with others who were also making the pilgrimage for the coming festival.

Along the way, people came out to see the spectacle of Jesus’s arrival. Soon the roadways were lined with colorful, jubilant, cheering crowds. As they sang and celebrated, the people waved palm branches, which is significant: In the Mediterranean world, palm fronds symbolized victory, triumph, peace, and eternal life. In Mesopotamia, the place in modern-day Iraq now thought to be the inspiration for the Garden of Eden, the palm was considered sacred. In Egypt, the palm signifies immortality; in Islam, the palm represents the peace of Paradise.

What’s more, the people called out phrases that echoed the prophecy of the arrival of the messiah. Shouts of Hosanna! rang through the crowd, and Hosanna is from a Hebrew word that means save us, now or save, we pray. The people also chanted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” which is a well-known verse from Psalm 118, which by their tradition was sung each morning in the temple. The people knew it well. They knew who they were welcoming. Jesus arrived like the messiah they’d been waiting for.

In their book, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem, theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write that all the symbolism of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem makes it clear that this moment marks the arrival of a king, but a different kind of king. They write,

“This king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land—no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be a king of peace.”

And Jesus’ entry through what is known as the Golden Gate—called the Mercy Gate in Jewish tradition—was also significant. The Mercy Gate is the one through which the messiah was expected to enter one day, on the east wall of the Temple Mount. Borg writes that Jesus’s entry this way,

“…deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession [returning to Jerusalem for Passover] embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. The contrast—between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar—is central not only to the gospel of Mark, but to the story of Jesus and early Christianity.”

So as Jesus rode into the beautiful city of Jerusalem on the back of the donkey—a symbol of humility and peace, as opposed to the warlike stature of a leader riding in on horseback—we can see that this was a great moment of arrival for Jesus. It was also a moment of arrival in the Jewish tradition—the coming of the long-awaited messiah—and a spiritual in-breath for Christianity too. All three, together in this high moment, the apex of sacred purpose and meaning. It’s hard to get our modern human minds around what a moment of change this was in the world.

Don’t you wonder what Jesus must have been feeling as he saw the crowds cheering and waving the palms? Was he happy he’d reached so many? Was he grateful that people had listened? Could he feel the weight of prophecy, the fulfilling of God’s promise, this huge high moment, resting heavily on his shoulders? And did he realize those same people cheering him now would shout, “Crucify him!” when given the choice later in the week?

If you’ve ever experienced a moment of arrival in your own life, you know how good it feels to reach a goal you’ve been working toward for a long time. Whatever it was—we finished a project, painted the kitchen, lost the weight, saved the money, planned the trip—there’s a moment of elation and gladness that comes when we realize we did what we set out to do. But it’s also possible that soon after—and maybe very soon after—there may also be some uncertainty that comes and maybe even a little sadness.  We realize that now that we’ve reached what we were striving for, things will change because an arrival is the ending of something known and the beginning of something new.

The reaching of a big goal can leave us wondering, “Now what?” or even cause us to look back with some regret and second-guessing. The “what ifs” and the woulda-shoulda-coulda’s may crowd into our thinking. Sometimes our tendencies to replay mistakes and missteps from the past can rob of some of the joy I think God wants us to feel in our arrivals. There’s celebration to be had, but our resistance to change keeps us stuck, analyzing the past, replaying what happened and didn’t happen, and wondering why. Sometimes that resistance is strong because finishing something and moving on to the next means we are leaving behind familiar things, familiar places, and maybe even favorite people.

The Old Testament verses we heard today from Proverbs offer a comforting reminder that wherever we find ourselves in life, whatever mix of emotions we may be feeling—from sadness to celebration and everything in-between–the whole story we’re living is God’s to unfold in the perfect way and time. When we commit what we do to the Lord, the scripture says, he will establish our plans. “The Lord works out everything to its proper end.” The people sang it in the streets as Jesus approached: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” God blesses what we place in God’s hands.

What might that look like if we took that promise literally and lived each and every day having committed it to the Lord? We could wake in the morning and give thanks for a new day and then simply give the whole day to God, trusting God to unfold it in the perfect way. We could ask Spirit to take the lead in all we do. Before we even get out of bed, we can ask God to go before us and inspire our actions, guide our steps, bring good and helpful thoughts, make us mindful of our words, give us opportunities to love and serve others. And then all we’d need to do—through the whole day–is stay close to God, trusting and listening and following, certain that our plans, our steps, will be made clear as we go along. That sounds like a great day, doesn’t it? An easy day. A loving day.

I’ve mentioned before that as part of the process I go through in writing these messages, I work on a first draft all day Saturday and then, feeling mostly finished with it, when I go to bed, I always ask God to bring to my mind anything I left out that needs addressing or things that should be changed. Last night just before I drifted off to sleep, I saw how often I look for a connecting point with the human Jesus in the stories he lived. I want to know what his emotions were. I’m curious about the insight he had. I wonder about what he knew, how he looked at the world, how he reacted when faced with such big moments, like the one we’re talking about today.

But then the scene from the Transfiguration came to my mind—remember that? That’s the moment recorded in the Gospels when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to the top of a high mountain, when Jesus was transformed—his face and clothes became dazzlingly bright as he spoke with Moses and Elijah. And it occurred to me that something was missing in my understanding of Jesus’s big moment of arrival in the Triumphal Entry. It was this: Jesus had seen what we have not yet seen. And he knew what we don’t yet know—the true, wholly good, divine reality not just of his life alone but of all life. God’s loving purpose behind every experience, intended for us all to discover and know, cherish and share.

Perhaps the biggest moment of arrival in any of our lives isn’t about a place, an event, lots of people, or the pinnacle of change. Perhaps it’s about discovering a higher way of seeing—a more noble, loving, all-inclusive view—and bringing that perspective right into our experience of every day, whatever that may bring. To really grasp what it means to be made in God’s image, to carry God’s light, to commit our days to the Lord and let ourselves begin to live in touch with that of God that truly does live in each and all of us.

People may not come to see us along the roadways, cheering our names and waving palm fronds—nor would most of us want that. But when we give our days to God and let Christ be our guide in our seeing and living, watching for the divine spark at the center of every soul, we may finally remember who and what we’re capable of. Maybe we’ll get a glimpse of what Jesus saw and knew and lived. And then all of life will be a celebration, without fear or resistance of any kind, because we’ll be certain—100 percent–that God is lovingly, perfectly unfolding it all.


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