Last week, we started our celebration of the Holy Week with Jesus going to Jerusalem with a crowd greeting him and his disciples by waving palm leaves and people cheering Jesus as king. Some threw down their cloaks on the road as Jesus rode in. Some asked, “Who is this person?” The answer came back, “He is a prophet. More than that, he’s the Son of David, the King of the Jews.” It appeared that it was the culmination of everything that Jesus had worked for, everything he had dreamed of.
However, the enthusiasm wore off as the week went on. The number of people dropped off. The celebration by the end of the week turned to betrayal, denial, and crucifixion. From hosannas, it turned to “Crucify him!”
But then we know that on the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus, God reversed all these when Jesus rose from the dead. Ultimately, the story of the Holy Week is one of triumph and tragedy, then triumph once again.
As we look at our lives, this happens to us as well — sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic. One moment we are on top of the world, believing that nothing can go wrong; and then suddenly, literally, all hell breaks loose. But yet we know that because of God’s amazing grace, it does not end there.
Being a pastor for more than 40 years, I have come to meet members and friends of the church starting with vibrant lives, with dreams and hopes. Then slowly, they live lives characterized as stagnant relationships, dead-end jobs, abandoned dreams, and unfulfilled lives.
And some of us, maybe all of us at some point, think that nothing can change. When anticipation is gone, when the possibility of things being any different is missing, we have the sense of finality being stamped on things about which we are not very happy. However, thanks to an amazing grace, most things are not as final as they seem.
Let’s go back to the Holy Week when Jesus said to Peter, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me.” Peter said, “It won’t happen!” Well, it happened — three different times.
It may have sounded like a final thing but later, Peter became one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church. On the day of Pentecost, he brought thousands of people to Christ. In fact, according to tradition, he was crucified with the head down defending his faith. The final answer was a divine forgiveness.
On the cross, the other criminal who was equally guilty we assume and who hung there with the rest of them said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” There with the condemnation of the cross seemingly making a final statement about the man’s guilt for the entire world to see, Jesus spoke, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:39-43)
When Jesus cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” it must have been a horrible feeling, especially to feel abandoned by God. But even with that, the final word is not “forsaken”. The words come from Psalm 22 which begins with a note of despair. But listen to how the psalm ends: “I will tell of your name; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. For you did not hide your face and you heard our cries.” Forsaken turns to praise!
In our journeys, we, too, may have come upon what seemed like deadends in the road, only to find out later they were really only intersections. It would seem they were periods but actually, they were just commas. I know of someone who was given a diagnosis of doom, a final word that an illness would take him, but every time I see and talk to him, we know that God has the last say.
In our personal experiences, we know better because we have encountered deserts and dark valleys along the way when God seemed so far and we have become hollowed out shells with no enthusiasm for anything. But because God is always at work making all things new, we who are aware of God’s presence can live daily with anticipation of good things.
We know better because we have encountered situations in the church that seemed to have “final answer” written all over them, but then to our great surprise, somebody’s life gets turned around, or somebody’s abrasiveness is changed to compassion, or somebody’s indifference becomes excitement, and we realize one more time of God’s amazing grace.
We know better because there have been times when we were ready to quit, give up and give in, but something always came up and opened new opportunities.
We know better because we see families who lost a loved one and who went through depression and despair thinking there was no end to their grief. But then after going through valleys of dark shadows, they found green pastures and still waters.
We know better because through all this horrible week of betrayal, denial, and death, Jesus on the third day was resurrected from the dead. God still triumphs!
However our lives are unfolding, regardless of the dilemma or question we are struggling with, despite the pain or the hope, the sorrow or the joy we might be experiencing at any given time, God has the final word. That is why the cross is so meaningful to us believers: It calls us to repentance but it also represents God’s grace that covers all our sins and gives us new life.
One day a man strolled in and sat down on a chair near the bed of a soldier-patient who was so depressed because his legs were cut off. He drew a harmonica from his pocket, and began to play softly. The patient looked at him for a second, then back to the ceiling. The next day, the player came again. For several days, he continued to come and to play quietly. One day he said, “Does my playing annoy you?” The patient said, “No, I guess I like it.” They talked a little more each day.
One day the harmonica player was in a jovial mood. He played a sprightly tune, and began to do a tap dance. The soldier looked on but was apparently unimpressed. “Hey, why don’t you smile once, and let the world know you’re alive?” the harmonica player-tap dancer said with a friendly smile. But the legless soldier said, “I might as well be dead as in the fix I’m in.” “Okay,” answered his happy friend, “so you’re dead. But you’re not as dead as a fellow who was crucified 2,000 years ago, and He came out of it all right.” “Oh, it’s easy for you to preach,” replied the patient, “but if you were in my fix, you’d sing a different tune.”
With this, the harmonica player stood up and said, “I know a 2,000-year-old story is pretty far in the dim past. So maybe an up-to-date example will help you to believe it can be done.” With that, he pulled up his trouser legs and the young man in the bed looked and saw two artificial limbs.
The tap-dancing fellow with the harmonica once lay where that young soldier now lay. He himself had known what God can do. He had learned to live life abundantly — even without his legs. Needless to say, the young soldier’s own resurrection began that moment.
The triumph: they cheered Jesus on Sunday. Then on Friday, tragedy. They hung him on a tree. But because of God’s amazing grace, God took that tree, and made it a symbol of our salvation from the forces of sin and death because on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. The cross then becomes a symbol of new life, an abundant life that God gives to all who believe. Thanks be to God!