This post first appeared as “Death of a Triumphant Jesus” on brandonshillington.com. Republished with permission.
Yesterday was Palm Sunday. Often Palm Sunday is a joy-filled day Christians wave Palm Branches and celebrate the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as a victory of vision – a delightful moment when the world saw and celebrated Jesus as he truly is, King.
I think Jesus was intentionally destroying that vision.
Jesus had been telling his disciples quite a while in advance that he was going to have to die in Jerusalem. All of the Gospels record this, and all of them show that the disciples didn’t really understand what Jesus was talking about. At times they even stubbornly resisted the idea (Peter was compared with Satan as a result.) Repeatedly Jesus intentionally diffused the enthusiasm of the crowd to make him king, to rally around him in resistance to Rome, or to build a renewed Israelite power. He told people to keep their healing a secret, or he crossed the lake at night to get away from the crowds.
By going to Jerusalem when he did, in the way he did, he intentionally allowed the people’s latent enthusiasm to be released; allowed expression of the full ferment of their hopes in song and dance and palm branches.
Then he walked away. Mark records this: “Jesus entered Jerusalem and came into the temple; and after looking around at everything, He left for Bethany with the twelve, since it was already late” (Mk. 11:11). It seems to me that a King coming into the ancestral capital of Israel to establish a kingdom would setup a headquarters in the city. Instead Jesus walked out the back gate and spent the night in a little village outside the city.
The next day he went back into the city and tore the temple apart, a prophetic enactment of God’s judgement on the hypocrisy of Jewish religious practice. It was an action sure to inflame the already dangerous fear of the religious and political elites.
Each day throughout the following week followed this pattern: out to the village at evening and back into the city during the day. Jesus spent the week teaching in the city, in the temple, often engaging directly with the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. He challenged them and exposed their hypocrisy and abuse of power, from telling a thinly-veiled story about murderous vine-growers to pointing out a widow being stripped of her final two cents by a system that valued her religious observance more than her life.
He told stories about responsibility and stewardship, which along with his warnings for Jerusalem clearly exposed the inability of Israel to live into her calling as a light for the nations.
By the end of the week it is clear he has spent most of it exposing the failure of both the powerful elites of the Israelite community and the people to truly live as children of God. He has said nothing in condemnation of Rome, and everything in condemnation of Israel. He has made no political moves, initiated no power maneuvers. The people reacted exactly as he knew they would: they killed him.
By absorbing the violent rage of God’s chosen people Jesus exposed the failure of the world’s systems and religion, making possible the victory of others-oriented love that is the essence of the Trinity and the foundation of creation.
Palm Sunday is not a celebration of Jesus finally taking his rightful place. It is Jesus’ intentional exposure of the failure of human methods and systems to bring Shalom. On Palm Sunday Jesus obliterates our victorious vision so that we can see the God who suffers with us on the cross and begin to enter into the love of the Trinity.
This leaves us with the uncomfortable task of letting Jesus expose our victorious visions of him, visions that prevent us from seeing Jesus here with us, suffering with the least and lost and lonely. In my experience the Triumphant Jesus is also a distant Jesus. The suffering Emmanuel is much more meaningful for me in the crush of life.
As I have grappled with financial and familial stress over the past two years since resigning from a pastoral position, the concept of Jesus here with us—not fixing, but bringing wholeness in the midst of struggle, has become important for my wife and I. We have found grace by embracing the presence of doubt and difficulty rather than resisting it. By looking for Jesus in this place, we are discovering a deeper understanding of faith as a sometimes walking-in-the-dark experience. Jesus seems to show up at moments in a word, a song, a friend. His presence is often unexpected, and always a gift.
In this place he is unraveling those visions that have often inhibited our ability to see, the ways we have been blinded to ourselves and others by our pursuit of the Triumphant Jesus. When I am looking for a Jesus who is a winner, a Triumphant King, I pursue a religious life characterized by success, health and happiness. I measure others against their level of success, or the impact they have on mine. I get frustrated with myself or others when we fail. I get impatient when things progress slowly, or when momentum is lost. I expect the church, and my ministry, to be Triumphant.
When I am able to see Jesus as he is revealed on the cross, however, I find a Jesus who is present with me in my failures and mess, reminding me I am deeply loved and inviting me to love others with him.
I am learning to embrace my weakness as the place I am most loved by God rather than something to be ashamed of.
I am reminded to be patient and present, listening and watching to see where Jesus is working and how he is inviting me to be involved.
I am learning to sit with others in their mess, to wait and watch and love even when it is uncomfortable or seemingly unproductive.
I am learning to listen more and talk less, to ask better questions and give fewer answers. I am learning to be loved by Jesus.
We need to allow Jesus to reveal himself to us as he is rather than as we wish him to be, and, once we have seen, our seeing invites us to be loved and to love. Our seeing challenges us to respond to Jesus’ call to suffer with him on behalf of the world.
Can we let go of our vision of the Triumphant Jesus so we can enter into life with Emmanuel—God-with-us?