WHEN TRIUMPH DOESN’T FEEL TRIUMPHAL

Sometimes God does not meet our expectations.  Maybe it’s a broken relationship, a lost job, a debilitating sickness, an overwhelming sense of anxiety,  or a global pandemic that’s now at our doorsteps.  If God loves us, God knows our situations, and God is the most powerful being in the universe, then surely God will know to respond- with the right outcome lining up with how we each expect Him to respond.

Today is Palm Sunday, an important day in the Christian Holy Week that marks Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. What’s easy to miss, though, is this day represents the beginning of several days of unmet expectations for both Jesus’ inner circle of followers and the multitudes who were drawn in by His teaching and miracles. Here’s a snapshot of what they and their nation of Israel had been going through:

  • Since 63 BC Israel had been under Roman occupation.  This was more than just political. Greco-Roman culture was threatening the Jewish identity.  The Romans even built the huge Antonia fortress next to the temple with its imposing 115 ft high walls where Roman soldiers would mock worshipers heading to the temple.
  • Herod, he king of Israel, was a sell out and puppet for the Romans. He cared only about his personal power, caring nothing about the people of the country he ruled.  To call him a tyrant would be an understatement. To make it even worse,  the High Priest and his cronies who were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the nation had also sold out.
  • Probably most devastating, Israel had experienced 400 years of silence from God.  After centuries of God sending prophets in the good times and bad times, stunningly  there was nothing …
Then suddenly over the past three years this miracle-working teacher comes on the scene. He’s the son of a carpenter from the blue collar town of Nazareth and tens of thousands flock to the Galilean countryside to hear him declare  “the Kingdom of God is near.”  Many believe Jesus is the Messiah or Christ- the promised one who will redeem the people.  And now this Jesus, is coming to Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration.  This celebration where the Jewish people remember God miraculously delivering them as slaves from Egyptian bondage (sometime between the 13th and 15th century BCE).  Think of this celebration as a mash up between the 4th of July and Christmas.  Although Jews had been dispersed across the Roman Empire, many would make a pilgrimage back to Jerusalem making the population triple and even quadruple.  Here’s how one of Jesus’ followers described what happened next:
1 As Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the town of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. 2“Go into the village over there,” he said. “As soon as you enter it, you will see a donkey tied there, with its colt beside it. Untie them and bring them to me.3 If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will immediately let you take them.” 4 This took place to fulfill the prophecy that said, 5 “Tell the people of Jerusalem, ‘Look, your King is coming to you. He is humble, riding on a donkey— riding on a donkey’s colt.’”6 The two disciples did as Jesus commanded. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on it. 8 Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting, “Praise God for the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the LORD ! Praise God in highest heaven!” 10 The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked. 11And the crowds replied, “It’s Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew 21:1-11
The expectation was clear: Jesus, the long anticipated Messiah, was being welcomed into Jerusalem like a conquering King.  The crowds were essentially yelling, Praise God!  Save us we pray! The Son of David is here! The promised one we have been waiting for has finally arrived.  Would this be the time when God once again freed His people from bondage, putting the Romans, the crooked King, and the sellout priests in their place?
We can look back historically and know the trajectory of this story.  The multitude’s excitement about Jesus waned, hundreds if not thousands would chant “crucify him” to their Roman oppressors, and the ten thousand fans would be whittled down to a fearful 120 faithful followers.
Like our first century brethren we can often want God to change the circumstances of the universe and at first glance it seems as if God is doing nothing.  What if I my job is in jeopardy?  What if I cannot pay the rent or mortgage?  What if I become sick? What if death visits someone I love?  There is something about sitting in uncertainty that forces us to simultaneously look upward and inward and this is where true soul-shaking transformation takes place.  I find myself rightly asking God  to heal, to redeem, and to reconcile.  And His Spirit says, “OK let’s start with your heart.”
It’s in those moments of brokenness and desperation that God brings healing, redemption, and reconciliation into our lives in such a way that it inevitably begins to overflow to other around us.

An afterthought.

Over the next 200 years the Roman Empire would face two epic plagues which would  directly impact the influence of the early Christians.  In both cases most citizens who could flee did, but a relatively small group decided to stay.  The Christians remained and instead of cheering the pain and demise of their oppressors they showed radical compassion.  The kind that only comes from a transformed heart.  Sociologist Rodney Stark records the following statement by the bishop or Carthage in his book, The Triumph of Christianity:
How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the mind of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsman as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted…. Although this mortality had contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.
Stark goes on to posit: “As for action, Christians met the obligation to care for the sick rather than desert them, and thereby saved enormous numbers of lives!”
Stark, Rodney. The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (p.116-117). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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