Between Scylla and Charybdis
Between Hope and Despair
Address delivered at Heartland Community Church, Landmark, Manitoba, Palm Sunday, 2011
Read Walter Wangerin Book of God p. 764-767
I want to turn our attention to the themes of hope and despair in this story. What can we learn about hope from the people who so enthusiastically welcomed Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt? How does the despair we encounter in this story alert us to the pitfalls that sometimes obscure for us the vanity of our hope? And how can a recognition of these hazards lead us not to despair, but to dig down deeper to a chastened hope that can sustain us through times of excruciating pain and disappointment?
We do not know exactly what was in the hearts and minds of those who threw down clothing and branches to pave the way for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but they are moved to ecstatic hopefulness by the appearance of One whom they acclaim as King, and to whom they look for some sort of salvation. Their cries included expressions of hope for peace and salvation, but to what extent Jesus’ riding on a donkey inclined their expectations towards a Prince of Peace rather than a conquering warrior king is uncertain. There is ample speculation that Judas was a Zealot whose expectations leaned toward a military champion who would overthrow the Roman oppressors and lead Israel back to her former glory as the sovereign power of the homeland originally promised to Abraham. Bible scholars tell us that the a king would ride on a donkey in a time of peace. That makes Jesus’ choice of a donkey in this case, a powerful statement of his intention to come in peace, and a purposeful repudiation any notion of a violent overthrow of Roman tyranny. Whatever the precise nature of the expectations held dear in the hearts of the throng, it is clear that this was a time pregnant with hope – hope that the fulfillment of a long awaited and dearly held expectation was imminent.
However, a week later the One on whom the crowd had hung their hope, was himself hung on a Roman cross. What happened? How was delirious hope so quickly and cruelly dashed? How was euphoric hope so suddenly turned to abysmal despair? And where was this throng when the personification of their hope was on trial for his life? We don’t know how many of these people were present at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, but if present, they certainly seem to have lost their voice, as there is no record of any significant dissent at the travesty of justice that was perpetrated less than a week after this jubilant procession. For those who hoped in Jesus for release from Roman oppression the tables have been cruelly turned. The One who was to facilitate their freedom is Himself executed by the very Roman power that He was to vanquish. Now where is hope?
We could go quickly to the Christian interpretation of these events and settle the matter by recasting the crucifixion as not merely a political setback, and not even cosmic defeat, but the most monumentally pivotal victory ever to occur in the history of the universe. We would not be entirely remiss in doing so, but I fear we would be covering too much ground too quickly. That Christian understanding of the event of the cross we whole heartedly take to be true, thank God, but what does it mean for us to place our hope in that interpretation of this event? How would that understanding have impacted the jubilant throng of Palm Sunday when the terrors of the day we have come to call Good Friday transpired? Is there a thread of hope that runs between these events or must one give way to the other? How do we anchor our hopes so that they are meaningful for the life we live day by day, without anchoring so that our hope is susceptible to a cruel uprooting in the same mundane events? How do we anchor our hope deeply enough to withstand the ravages of a life that sometimes gets very messy, without anchoring at such a remove from ordinary life that the security of the anchor point becomes meaningless? How can we hope in the Jesus who rides the unbroken foal of a donkey into Jerusalem on Sunday, without losing all hope when that same Jesus hangs on a cross on Friday? How can hope not be shattered, and how dare we respond with anything other than despair, when it is not only our hopes, but our God himself who hangs on a cross?
The answer, I think, is as new as today, and as old as Genesis, and it is not an answer, but an invitation. The answer lies not in a formula or theological creed or religious activity. The answer is not the end of a search, but the beginning of a journey that starts at the cross and must never get past the cross, and can never get past the Jesus who both rode the donkey and hung on the cross, but then rose on the third day, burst the confines of the grave, and conquered death and sin, our worst enemies, and now lives forever.
A clue to the answer is found in the substance of Jesus’ expression of despair in his lament over Jerusalem “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.... because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:42, 44b). The people were still consumed with what they hoped God would do for them, so much so that when God became flesh and moved into the neighborhood, they did not recognize that their God who they hoped would do things for them had done better than save them from a distance. He did not merely offer them a homeland and freedom and hope and peace, but he offered them his very self, and they did not recognize him. They didn’t notice that their hopes had been wildly exceeded, they only noticed that they did not realize their dearly held dreams. In their obsession with their dreams they missed their God when he walked among them.
So often we put our hope in what we want God to do for us, rather than in the God who wants to be for us. Now, it is not entirely wrong to have hopes for what God can do for us, but our confidence needs to be in the God who wants to be for us. This is not to say that God does not want to do things for us, but that the things we hope for may or may not line up with what God wants to do for us, and what God wants to do for us is always a function of who God wants to be for us.
This is why the answer is as old as Genesis. When God created all the heavens and the earth God said
“Let us make mankind in our image....
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
I won’t pretend to unpack all of the theological significance of these statements, but it is clear that at the heart of who God is there is a relationality - for God says “Let us make mankind in our image”, and that relationality is at the core of what it means for mankind to be created in the image of God “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” We are created for relationship – with God and with each other, and it is in relationship that we find our anchor point for hope. It is in the knowledge that God is for us, and in responding in gratefulness with our being for God, that we find a deep hope that exceeds anything we could hope for in terms of what we wish God to do for us. It is in our relationship with one another that we encounter images of God in each other, and find hope in our being for each other and in our being for God together. This does not preclude our doing things for each other and for God, but our being for each other is both expressed in, and exceeds, the things we do for each other.
Now how could the throngs that lined the road to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday have recognized Jesus as God, and as their hope, not only as their liberator from bondage to Rome, but their hope for freedom from themselves and their willing servitude to the real enemy Jesus intended to vanquish? By what sort of dynamic or discipline or experience could the people of Jerusalem have been expected to hope for more than what they wanted Jesus to do for them? And how do we learn to respond to Jesus in a way that exceeds what we wish him to do for us?
Just as the people who watched and shouted and worshiped as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that donkey’s foal, so do we often find ourselves shivering in a religious ecstasy when it seems that our expectations are coming to fruition, only to find our hopes dashed when events seem to just as suddenly turn against us. Sometimes our euphoria rides the wave of a new religious experience, or an overwhelming sense of God’s presence and direction in our lives, or a satisfaction when our efforts begin to reap anticipated results, and sometimes we could be hard-pressed to distinguish this sort of elation from that which we experience as our favorite hockey franchise embarks on a post-season quest for the Canadian Holy Grail - aka the Stanley Cup. None of these things are intrinsically bad, and in fact all of them can quite legitimately be a source of satisfaction, adding meaning and enjoyment to our lives, but all of them - all of them - can also serve as place holders in which our kingdoms dangerously mimic God’s kingdom, surreptitiously obscuring critical distinctions between our efforts to build our own kingdoms, and our participation with God in building his kingdom. Programs and buildings and dogma can be very useful, even indispensable, tools we use as we work with God to build his kingdom, but God’s kingdom is about people first, and that means relationships.
This is not to say that despair and disappointments will all disappear when we place our hope in a relationship with our God, and all of our God’s children. Even if the people of Jerusalem had recognized their Saviour on Palm Sunday, they would still have been crushed on Good Friday, for how can we not be crushed when God hangs on a cross? We cannot truly understand the emotions and despair of Good Friday, because on our side of the resurrection we know that Sunday’s a’comin’! However, there is something profoundly significant in recognizing our God not merely as a God who can do great things for us, though surely he “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Eph 3.20). There is something profoundly invigorating in seeing God not simply as a genie who we hope will bend to our every wish, but as the God who is for us, and “if God is for us, who can be against us?... No,” Paul says, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:31, 37-39)
This relationship with God is part of the treasure that we carry “in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (So that, while w)e are hard pressed on every side, we are not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor 4:7-9)
However, we do not live this relationship in an individual vacuum. We live out this relationship in the community of faith, and in recognizing the image of God in each and every act of God’s creation, particularly in our brothers and sisters with whom we journey, we retain remnants and glimpses of God to help carry us through our disappointments. It is in the hope that is nurtured in relationships of mutual caring that we see Jesus and experience that relationship which sustains us when things do not work as we wish, or even as God wishes.
That is why the answer is as new as today. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. Instead, reach out in response to his invitation to walk with Him. Reach out and join hands with your brothers and sisters as we learn and grow into Him together. Anchor your hope in the Promise that is as old as Genesis, and as new as today. “And surely,” Jesus promises “I AM with you always, to infinity and beyond!” (Mt 28:20)