Van Ens: Colliding expectations about Jesus
During the first Palm Sunday, the crowd’s high expectations placed leaned heavily against Jesus. Parade-goers expected his entry into Jerusalem would unleash the might of a military leader to free them from Roman domination.
Jesus repudiated the crowd’s expectations, however, by arriving on a donkey, a humble mode of transportation. This common beast represented how Jesus perceived himself, a suffering servant who showed compassion to lonely, isolated and helpless people.
The crowd’s expectations collided with how Jesus presented himself. After cheering him, the crowd-turned-mob jeered Jesus. Later in the week, parade-goers had on their hands his blood.
Spring-break disturbances break out after pent-up expectations boil over. Surging like rising water pressing against a dam, it bursts, destroyed by white-water’s force. We are sick of being cooped up because of COVID-19’s restrictions. With vaccinations increasing, we anticipate escaping our at-home confinement. Collegians expect to party on crowded beaches and tip beers at busy bars. Other Spring Break revelers fly in airplanes crammed with passengers who flaunt pandemic precautions, such as social distancing.
On Palm Sunday, some worshippers act as if spiritual Spring Break mania has overtaken them. Children waving palms parade down central aisles in sanctuaries. Youth choirs belt out lyrics of the gospel favorite “The Palms,” their voices shouting this chorus’ lyrics.
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Because a celebratory spirit races through Palm Sunday services, worshippers act as if it is a mini-Easter, a raucous spiritual Super Bowl party. Such worship feels like an “escape Lent” moment when raw emotions are no longer locked down. Excited youth shout hosannas. Adults worship a coronated Jesus whose commanding presence matches their great expectations.
Likewise, Palm Sunday’s crowds expect Jesus will open doors of power and prestige for them. Evangelicals felt ecstatic when former President Donald Trump welcomed them into the Oval Office. Visitors to the White House tell what climatic feelings swell within them when the president of the United States rubberstamps their political agenda. Such great expectations bestow a sense of power and privilege.
The Palm Sunday story is so familiar that we overlook ancient symbols, which spiked the crowd’s fury against Jesus. Matthew’s version of the mob’s grand expectations about Jesus stirred “turmoil” in the city (Matthew 21:10). The Greek word for “turmoil” serves as a root meaning of what we call “seismic” — events big, boisterous and bold. The city shook because put-down Jews anticipated Jesus freeing them from Roman conquerors.
Waving palms branches as an in-your-face symbol of defiance, the crowd recollected a revolt against oppressors long ago. Then their hero, freedom fighter Judas Maccabeus, entered Jerusalem 200 years before Jesus’ arrival. Well-wishers greeted Maccabeus, chanting hymns and waving palms. Judas led a coup against the Syrian king, occupied the Temple, cleansed it of heathens and ushered in a century of Jewish home rule before the Romans took over.
The Palm Sunday crowd remembered this Maccabean revolt. They believed current history repeated itself with Jesus’ advent. Fans bellowed a liberating song Jews sang at Passover. Lifted from Psalm 118, the most quoted psalm in the New Testament, it tells of an enemy stinging God’s chosen people with defeat. Then God spreads an antidote, a “vaccine” traveling at warp speed to wipe out the toxic enemy. Full of bombastic, grand expectations that God will “vaccinate” His people again, they sing “Hosanna!” meaning “Lord, save us!”
What a rude disappointment Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was, not to save but to serve. The stage he set was not grand, politically consequential, or exciting. It featured serving others’ needs, in a spirit we show today by wearing masks, even when such courtesy does not save us from illness, deaths or disappointment.
Episcopalian Debie Thomas tells how tough it is to be a servant to others who are not saved by our help. “We make meals for our neighbor whose cancer will definitely kill him,” she writes. “We send checks to our favorite charities, knowing that for every child our money temporarily feeds, there will be tens of thousands it won’t. We linger at the bedsides of loved ones afflicted with dementia, knowing full well that no matter how long we stay, they won’t remember who we are. We pray for an end to systemic injustice, or political corruption, or the crisis of climate change, or the wearying death tolls of the pandemic, and we understand that our prayers might not see fruition for months, years, decades, or centuries” (The Christian Century, “Crosses We Did Not Choose,” March 10, 2021, p. 39).
Tough, isn’t it, to show compassion when the results of our merciful acts are not realized and can’t be measured in our lifetimes? Our grand expectations of acting like Jesus do not always produce grand results.
Grandiose expectations that gripped the first Palm Sunday crowd surface today. Brazen politicians talk of America-first. They scorn NATO allies’ support because our country’s superiority lords over them. Because God has allegedly chosen the U.S. as His favorite nation, some Americans recite a national creed entitled, “American Exceptionalism.” We saunter, stalk and strut because we are no. 1. Hardly needing God to save us, we act as if America saves itself.
Then, along comes Jesus — meek, compassionate and humble. Does his demeanor fit your expectations or disappoint you, as it did parade-goers on the first Palm Sunday?
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.