John 12:12-16 The Rev. Helen Havlik
Palm/Passion Sunday April 14, 2019
Do you wake up in the night with anxious thoughts racing through your mind? What won’t you do and who won’t you talk to because you’re afraid? And maybe most important, does fear get in the way of your loving God and loving neighbor? Lent is the 40 days before Easter where we think about where we’re falling short in faith so that we can keep moving toward God. This year we’ve been looking at what Jesus says and does about fear—so that we can “fear less.” As Jesus and the disciples came to Jerusalem for the Passover, it became clear that something huge was happening that no one seemed to have control over. In fact, the events of that last week were mostly out of their hands. Except for Jesus, that is. I’m reading from John, Ch. 12, beginning with vs. 12. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
Things could have turned out so differently. There were so many chances for something to happen that could have saved Jesus the pain and humiliation of crucifixion. Something that would have resulted in a clear victory, rather than a confused and demoralizing defeat.
He didn’t have to go to Jerusalem in the first place. He, of all people, knew he wouldn’t be safe there—and if he did go, he didn’t have to come into town so publicly with so much fanfare. He could have mingled in the crowd, hidden his face beneath a cloak—anything but ride in on that donkey colt in broad daylight, with the disciples and others shouting loud enough to be heard in the next county.
At the Passover dinner, what turned out to be their last supper together, Jesus already knew that one of the disciples had arranged to deliver him into the hands of those who wanted to stop him—he even let his betrayer know that he knew. Why didn’t Jesus just stop Judas? Maybe he could have talked Judas out of it, or at least told the other disciples who could have stopped him, by force if necessary.
Jesus didn’t need to go out to the Mount of Olives. Yes, it was his custom, but he could have skipped a night, or prayed somewhere else.
He could have fought back when the crowd came to arrest him. He could have let the disciples use the swords they carried to fight them off, while he escaped into the night. He could have hidden out for awhile and just let the trouble blow over. Surely there was a way for him to avoid arrest?
He could have argued more before the Council—called on his friends to defend him against what were truly flimsy charges. He could have stirred up the crowd that followed and supported him, gotten them to shout down the council members. Given the chance, they surely could have prevailed?
And he could have answered Pilate more convincingly. Pilate may not have been clued into what the religious authorities were attempting to do, but he possibly could have been helpful—Jesus could have flattered Pilate, or pleaded for his life, or at the very least agreed with Pilate that he was innocent and deserved freedom.
In Luke’s version of this story, after meeting Pilate a first time, Jesus is brought before King Herod, who is thrilled to finally meet this mystery man. He could have danced for King Herod, done the magic tricks Herod expected, at least answered his questions. Herod would have been pleased and surely it would have saved his life—and things could have turned out so differently!
If Jesus was who he said he was, even as he hung on the cross, surely, even then it wasn’t too late, he still could have saved himself! There he was, the Son of God, in the most degraded and humiliating of places, dying a terrible and agonizing death. He could have called on God to send some angels; he could have worked one more miracle on his own behalf and come down from that cross.
Make no mistake, Jesus died on that cross that day. He could have saved himself, yet all along the way he was defeated at every turn, victory slipping through his fingers, finally succumbing to the ultimate defeat of death. The disciples watched in mute terror as every dream they had died with this man. How could he let this happen, when it could have been so different? How could he just give up without a fight? After the adrenaline high of that amazing entry into the city, why did he put them through all the heart-pounding of the rest of the week? Did he really have to die that way?—they asked and we ask, too. Wasn’t all of what happened in his hands?
Nowadays, we talk a lot about choices—making good choices and not making bad ones, as if everything in life is within our control and that ultimately it boils down to what you and I choose to do or don’t do. Don’t get me wrong—wise choices matter, but much of what happens in life is out of our hands—as they say, “above our pay grade.” When it comes to the big events of life, we often are a small cog in the gigantic wheel. And knowing that can be overwhelming and scary, as we come face to face with just how insignificant and powerless we really are. Ask anyone who has dealt with a major medical issue or been in the military or grieved about something they’ve seen on the news. We are not in charge here. And this week of all weeks, given what happened to Jesus, it’s even hard to trust the one who is.
Dorothy Day was a woman who lived a decadent life in the roaring 1920s, a time when great prosperity covered over the despair caused by World War I. “Eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow we shall die” seems to have been the motto of many people, like Day, who handled their sorrow and fear by living selfishly in the present moment. Pregnant with the child of a married man, one day on her way home from work, she found herself drawn to the lights of a church holding evening mass. She slipped in and was confronted by the hopelessness of her life. That church gave her hope and eventually she found her way to the Bowery of New York City, where she and a partner started a mission to help the poor. That became the Catholic Worker Movement that did much good when the Great Depression was doing its worst. Day wrote, “What we do is very little. But it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. What we do is so little that we may seem to be constantly failing. But so did he fail. He met with apparent failure on the Cross. But unless the seeds fall into the earth and die, there is no harvest.” (quoted in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, p. 236) What Day discovered we might call “right-sizing.” Humbly knowing and accepting our small place in life—I’m working on it! Doing what we can do with our few loaves and fishes—and trusting that what is out of our hands is firmly in God’s hands.
Jesus could have saved himself and triumphed, too, but the “Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” He could have saved himself, but he came to save us—and save us, he did.