Often, when bad things happen, we find it difficult to make sense of them. The plot of our personal story line takes a sudden twist. The flow of life that we take for granted is interrupted.
Like now. We’re unsettled. We crave calm.
This is part of how we’re made. Some cognitive scientists have argued that our brains are like sophisticated prediction machines, constantly using past experience to anticipate what’s going to happen next. When everything goes as expected, we sail blithely along. But when our unconscious expectations are violated, we suddenly take notice. Our attention zeroes in on the situation, looking for answers: What’s happening here? Why? How do I avoid this in the future?
We get lots of advice on how to handle the bad stuff. But today, on Palm Sunday, I’m wondering: is it also possible to get a little lost when everything is going well?
The day that we know as Palm Sunday was surely an exciting day for the Twelve. It was Passover season in Jerusalem; throngs of pilgrims packed the city and its surrounding areas. In nearby Bethany, the disciples had already watched in astonishment as Jesus raised their friend Lazarus from the dead. The first-century Twitter-verse exploded with the news, and all Jerusalem was abuzz with talk of Jesus.
And like a celebrity mobbed by fans and paparazzi, Jesus slowly made his way from Bethany to Jerusalem, fulfilling ancient prophecy by riding on the back of a donkey:
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him. They shouted, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the king of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, Don’t be afraid, Daughter Zion. Look! Your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt. His disciples didn’t understand these things at first. After he was glorified, they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.John 12:12-16, CEB
First Lazarus, and now this. The atmosphere was electric. The disciples had faced their share of challenges with Jesus. But they had stuck with him, believing that he was God’s Chosen One, hoping that they would have positions of honor in the new kingdom that was about to dawn. It must have seemed to them that their loyalty was about to pay off. Jesus would enter the city and take his rightful place as king.
But less than a week later, Jesus was dead. Buried. Gone. And far from occupying positions of power or prominence, the disciples were in hiding, hopeless, and fearful for their lives.
Their stories had taken a cruel twist indeed.
John tells us, as the other gospel writers do not, that on Palm Sunday the disciples didn’t have a clue what was going on.
They were no doubt soaking up the attention, basking in Jesus’ glory. But this was not the glory of which their Master had spoken. That glory still awaited his crucifixion and resurrection, and ultimately, the future day on which he would truly return as king, for all eternity.
What the disciples were lacking was perspective. After all, who needs (or wants) perspective when everything is going well, perhaps even better than expected? In the thrill of the moment, they lost the big picture (if indeed they ever had it). They saw what they wanted to see: the glorious now, without the prophetic wisdom of the past.
To understand, to see the big picture, they first had to experience Good Friday, when their giddy optimism would turn to despair. They had to endure a dark and hopeless Saturday.
And then, Easter.
The disciples were guilty of what psychologists call it confirmation bias: they saw what they expected to see, and missed what was really there. The same was true of the crowd, especially those who shouted “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify him!” just a few days later.
What everyone saw was a king who, for the sake of his people, had come in power to take what was rightfully his. What was really there was a king who, for the sake of his people, had come in humility to give away that which only he could give — a just and sinless life, a perfect sacrifice.
John has done us a service by noting the disciples’ lack of vision. Even those closest to Jesus can lose their perspective, can be so caught up in the way they want the story to go that they fail to understand the story that God is in fact writing, indeed, has been writing since the opening words of Genesis. We have a chance to understand what the disciples did not: God is eternally sovereign in a way that far transcends both the ups and the downs of the present. The chapter we’re in now is a difficult one. But the story’s not over, and God is still its author.
Palm Sundays seem to get swallowed up by Good Fridays. That’s life.
But we’re Easter people. We cling to the promise of resurrection, of an eternal life of wholeness and peace beyond this sin-infested, virus-infected world. That is the ground and substance of all true Christian hope.
And in that hope, we transcend.