One morning this past week I listened as a physician simply said: “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Maybe you heard someone say this as well.
These words were spoken by governors, the Surgeon General, and any number of commentators last week.
There is as sense in which this is good news, as more and more people either sound the alarm or finally wake up to the reality of this pandemic.
Awake and alarmed, we arrive at Palm Sunday, in a much different situation than we were when Lent began.
Sometimes Palm Sunday comes as a joyful shout, almost as if it were a rehearsal for Easter.
Sometimes Palm Sunday leaves us with a sense of foreboding.
This year, Palm Sunday also tells us: “Things will get worse before they get better.”
This, too, is the Gospel message.
This message comes with a disturbing honesty.
This message is difficult to hear.
And this message can give us the courage and hope that we need for the days ahead.
Things will get worse before they get better.
Palm Sunday reveals our situation with disturbing honesty.
“The crowds that went ahead of Jesus and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna.’”
On that day long ago, all were shouting a word that means “save us.” They speak in a way that is not how we today generally want to talk about life or even the life of faith.
To shout, “Save us!” suggests that we can’t handle everything ourselves, that we can’t use our own ingenuity, or thoughtfulness, or scientific skills, or creativity to solve the problems that beset us. To shout, “Save us!” suggests that we’re not strong enough or tough enough or stoic enough to bear up under whatever weighs us down and not complain. In other words, it says, “We can’t do this on our own.”
Frederick Buechner gives us some concrete ways of imagining this when he says: “If you’re pulled out of water over your head, if someone drags you from a burning building, if you discover that life—your life—has a deeper meaning and greater value than you could ever create yourself, chances are you’ve found a savior.”
To cry, “Save us!” in these days does not mean that we give up and consign everything to God. It is more to recognize that the endurance we need and are finding, the courage we need and are finding, the hope that we need and are finding are both beyond us and yet given to us. We are involved in pulling one another out of the water, from the burning building.
Let’s listen, then, a little longer to that cry of “Hosanna!”
The message is difficult to hear, but it speaks to us and for us.
The prophet Zechariah tells the people to rejoice and shout in triumph because the victorious ruler arrives not in a military procession but humbly on a donkey, the animal of peace.
And Matthew’s gospel gives us the picture of Jesus creating a living parable of all this centuries-long hopes, arriving in Jerusalem no in the full might and power of military victory, but on a donkey, as the One who brings God’s peace and mercy.
It isn’t that the prophet foresaw what Jesus would one day do.
It was more that the followers of Jesus were saying that if we listen carefully and look closely, we will hear and see something of the way in which God works in the world, even today. With eye and ears and hearts open we begin to get better picture of who this Jesus is whom we seek to follow.
But it is important for us to listen to the whole story—because it, too, is a story that gets worse before it gets better.
We often want to skip over Holy Week.
Maybe it’s just that all of the suffering and sorrow that we encounter in the week ahead is just too real, too close to our own lives—especially in these days. We can do without the betrayal and growing shadows of Maundy Thursday; we can do without the crucifixion and death of Friday because we encounter them every day.
Given the reality of sin and suffering in our lives and in our world, we might say that each week is Holy Week and we don’t really want to enter the suffering of the days between now and Easter. But the events of Holy Week, the events that we are so ready to skip over, illuminate our own lives, helping us to understand our situation better and to better live our lives. They help us to get a better focused picture of this Jesus, the One to whom the people cry, “Hosanna!”
Here’s the thing: In whatever way we go through the days between now and Easter, whatever we do—or don’t do—to mark Holy Week, we can’t skip over the hard parts in our own lives or in the world, especially now. Illness must be walked through in all its pain and uncertainty and treatment and healing day by day. The sorrow of grief is with us when we wake each morning. The anxiety about tomorrow keeps us awake in the night.
Yet, even now, we find the courage and hope that we need for the days ahead.
In these days as things get worse, we are reminded this week that even in the depths of pain and fear, God is with us. This has always been a relationship of love and mercy and forgiveness; of God being with humankind in sorrow and loss and suffering; of God being with each one of us in sorrow and loss and suffering. What we see in Jesus, especially in this coming week, is what we might have expected all along as because of God’s covenant love for all people and indeed for all creation.
We live in the time between now and Easter—familiar with suffering and sorrow. And at the same time, we know that we are not alone in these days.
We have one another in this this church—and that is a glorious advantage. Ask anyone who has been through a difficult time and they will tell you that they made it through in part because of the other members—maybe even because of you. We bear one another’s burdens, and in doing so we fulfill the law of Christ. That’s why we keep reaching out and connecting with each other even when we can’t be together.
We also have the sustaining presence of God, the One who in Jesus Christ suffers with us. This is not an unmoved, impassible god, but the One who responds to human pain. God does not skip over our suffering, but enters into the very heart of it. The story of Moses and the Exodus begins with God coming to the people because God saw their suffering. James Carroll wrote that “the age-old intuition that God is close to the hurt and the lost is given a particular expression in the story of Jesus.”[i] In Jesus God takes on human suffering, bearing it fully on the cross. That is our wholeness, our well-being, our salvation.
In life and in death, we belong to God. In these days between now and Easter we have the chance to see and hear this good news with renewed clarity so that all our days might be lived in joy and gladness.
And so, I invite you to do something for yourself this week.
Make some time to sit down and read through the story of this last week of Jesus in one of the four gospels. You will discover in each Gospel a different picture of the one Jesus who entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
Matthew and Mark draw a stark picture of the human abandonment of Jesus that is dramatically reversed by God at the end.
Luke shows us a Jesus who heals even as he is broken, who forgives even as he is cursed, and who dies commending his spirit to God.
And John presents Jesus going almost defiantly to the cross, always in control, whose final words area solemn decision: “It is finished.”
It is possible for people with very different needs to find meaning in the cross.
Sometimes we cry out with the Jesus of Matthew and Mark: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and find that, despite appearances, God is listening and can reverse tragedy.
At other moments, suffering finds meaning in our being able to confidently entrust ourselves into God’s hands, as Jesus does in Luke.
At still other times, with the faith we find in John’s Gospel, we understand that suffering and evil have no ultimate power over those who are God’s children—and we are all God’s children.
If we will go through the days ahead with humility and repentance, we will discover that we are walking on a path of commitment and love. On this path we commit ourselves and our energies to a world where love, peace, a community of sister and brothers, and openness to God, will be possible, if not less difficult, for us.
This is the message of Palm Sunday: things will get worse before they get better. But they will get better.
Our hope is not in positive thinking.
Our hope is not in looking on the bright side and waiting for spring.
Our hope is in God’s power to begin again, in God’s power to renew destroyed lives. Our hope is found in the continual springtime of God’s mercy.
We are often defeated.
Even Jesus was defeated and died.
God however is not defeated.
But that is Easter. And we have much to learn in the days to come before we once again face the empty tomb.
May the crucified and risen Christ continue to lead our way.
[i] James Carroll, Christ Actually, pg. 260.