God in the Ditch

A sermon for Palm Sunday [Year B]

Mark 11:1-11

Several years ago I pulled up at the gym to find a brand new, top of the line, shining and sparkling Cadillac CTX-V. The gym I go to is on a back road, has a gravel parking lot, and is never crowded, so the car stood out immediately. I had a never seen a car like that. The Cadillac CTX-V is the most expensive Cadillac you can buy. This one was white with gold metal trim and tires that looked like they hadn’t been driven 25 miles. The person driving the car was inside the gym working out. I had never seen the guy there before, and, as I quickly discerned from the loud conversations he was having, he was not the owner of the car but someone who was borrowing the car from an affluent friend. As I suspected, it was brand new, and he had stopped in basically just to show it off, hoping to get some attention.

After a few minutes the man got his things and left, but then I noticed something was going on, a little commotion. The few other people in the gym ran to the window to see what was up, but no one was brave enough to go outside. Apparently, as he tried to drive the parking lot, the young man with the extremely sweet, expensive ride had misjudged the road and the driveway completely. There was that $110,000 car, nose-first in the ditch. He couldn’t have been going more than 5 miles per hour! But he had wrecked it so badly that the back end and wheels were off the ground, sticking up in the air. He was pacing around and running his hands through his hair nervously, waiting for a tow truck to arrive. I wanted to offer pastoral care, but decided better of it. He needed to be alone. I just kept thinking about what that conversation was going to be like with the owner of that brand new car. There was a good chance it had been totaled.

not a photo of the actual event, but close!

Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem on a borrowed vehicle, turning heads, and by the end of the week, his whole life is in the ditch. It is a catastrophe of monumental proportions. Of course, the vehicle Jesus borrows is not a top-of-the-line, fully tricked out model. It is a humble colt, which was most likely a young donkey, small but sturdy, a beast of burden used to carry farm produce or building materials. But regardless of what the animal was, that is the plot of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Jesus rides into town with the attention of everyone, making a buzz, but before you know it, he is deserted and everyone’s embarrassed. It looks as if God has handed the keys to a guy who clearly doesn’t know where the road is.

The crowd that meets Jesus on the day he enters Jerusalem on the back of that donkey to shouts of “Hosanna!” was probably the most public event in Jesus’ entire life. Jerusalem was the capital and most holy city for the Jewish way of life and although it was not nearly the largest city of the Roman Empire, it was a major crossroads for the region and strategically-speaking it was an important military post. And that was just Jerusalem on any old day. When Jesus comes into the city, it’s time for the biggest Jewish holiday, Passover, to start. Tens of thousands of extra people would have been there. There was also an old rabbinical tradition that appointed the weekend before Passover as the time when all the lambs were brought in to the city from the surrounding farmlands to be readied for slaughter.

“Jerusalem” (Hyppolite Flandrin, 1842)

There are several places in Scripture where Jesus is surrounded by large crowds, but it’s probably a safe bet to say that more people see him on this day of his life than on any other. This looks like and feels like Jesus’ moment. The people are excited and anticipating a lot from him. The things they say about him and to him make that even more obvious. Things like “Hosanna!” which is an old Hebrew or Aramaic word that means “Save us,” or “Rescue us!” or “Save now!” They expect Jesus to do something in Jerusalem in those days that will save them. They also call out for the kingdom of their ancestor David. David was the ancient King who had, at least in their memory, issued in a reign of prosperity and stability that they had long wanted to have again. All of these expectations are foisted onto Jesus on that little tiny donkey. With every wave of the leafy branches they had cut down to greet him, they let him know they are ready for rescue and they are ready for stability for dignity, for victory. Wouldn’t you be?

Palm Sunday is a good time for us to address our own expectations of Jesus and of the God who sends him. Who do we really expect him to be? What exactly do we expect him to do? Where exactly do we want things to end up? Do we want a Lord who aligns with or validates all our political agendas, whatever they may be? Hold up the status quo? I don’t know about you, but I like that kind of Lord, one who doesn’t really challenge me on anything. Do we anticipate a Savior who will remove from us everything that’s uncomfortable or hard? Are we expecting a Redeemer who will just pep talk us through life, like a personal coach? I think there are any number of ways that we still project onto Jesus our definitions of what he needs to be and what Jesus needs to do, and, truth be known, those are the things that end up in the ditch by the end of the week.

And that is good for us. It is good for us, even though it is disappointing, and it is bloody, because none of those Saviors and Jesus’ are eventually going to do us any real good. We need a love and mercy that we don’t expect, a compassion and a forgiveness that we haven’t predicted or earned. We need grace, not a governor. Not a genie.

I think this has been a year of managing and readjusting all kinds of expectations. We have repeatedly had our hopes lifted only to have them dashed to the ground a little while later, whether we’re talking pandemic, politics, or personal goals. We have struggled with expectations for school, with what we can accomplish through learning and teaching on-line, with what worship can be like and when. We have struggled with expectations in our politicians and other leaders who are no more experienced in navigating a crisis like this than anyone else. We’ve had failed expectations with our pastors and our congregations who are not bold enough with returning to in person worship or, on the other hand, who are not strict enough with the guidelines. Even as our vaccination rates climb, we are hearing about dangerous new coronavirus variants that threaten to keep us in lockdowns longer.

I came across an article in the Associated Press this week[1] that addressed the growing sense among us all that even the pandemic will not come to an end like we have long thought it will. It stated that we are a people who have been fed a long and steady diet of Hollywood endings where we subconsciously expect every period of hardship to be somehow be turned around by the end with a wonderful, clear outcome. Many of us have just assumed, maybe without even realizing it, that there will be a point in time in the future when everything just suddenly resumes, when we take off that mask for the last time. But that may not happen with this pandemic at all. The writer of the article likened it to the end of a war where the end drags on and on, skirmishes popping up here and here, but eventually people look about and say, maybe much, much later, “We’re safe now. It’s time to celebrate.” I don’t know about you, but I find the constant up and down of failed expectations to be exhausting.

Palm Sunday comes along to remind us this year that God knows all about failed expectations. His Son ends up dying because no one wants the kind of love and the kind of mercy that he offers, but he offers it anyway. Our celebration of this day is a perfect opportunity to remember that God rides into every human story. God chooses to empty himself and ride into every human story, even when we don’t know how it’s going to turn out or when it will feel like it’s over. That is the kind of love and mercy God comes with, the kind of love he borrows a humble beast of burden in order to bring.  He comes to carry us, to carry the sorrows of the world, to carry the sufferings and shortfalls of everyone who cries out for rescue from some other kind of savior, one who will fight and just violently overthrow what we don’t like. For his is a kingdom where glory to God is first and most clearly given in actions of compassion and self-sacrifice. Coming in the name of the Lord means doing things in humility and servanthood.

Palm Sunday comes in 2021 to recall our thoughts to our own place in that crowd and take stock of just who we expect this God to be for us. And then, with a morning on next week’s horizon that will surpass all our imaginations, shout out with joy and thanksgiving to learn that God is present when things don’t pan out like we thought. God is not just a God of Hollywood endings. God is God also of things that run into the ditch. God is mainly God of things—and years, and plans, and lives—that sometimes run into the ditch.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] https://apnews.com/article/americans-coronavirus-ending-e311cadbb86f7165e7d21498548c1768

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