Liturgy of the Palms | Mark 11:1-11, John 12:12-16
We know the story. The image is iconic, even to those who have only a passing familiarity with Christianity: Jesus riding a donkey, palms and cloaks covering the ground, a crowd calling out his name and welcoming him to Jerusalem.
The trouble is that the crowd were expecting someone else. They did not see the man they welcomed, the one riding the colt and accepting—perhaps tolerating—their accolades. Instead, they saw the person they had been expecting, a savior, a deliverer, a king.
To be sure, there were many ideas in the minds of those people, just as there were many ideas swirling in the minds of Jesus’ closest followers. The inner circle had heard Jesus pronounce enough strange and dark predictions that they were not certain what lay ahead of them in the great city. The crowd along the side of the road expected a great deal, though little of what they expected would come to pass.
They were blind to what was before them, seeing only what they wanted to see. They believed that God was going to deliver them from the Romans and restore the monarchy, and they thought this man Jesus had come to accomplish it. It is what they wanted to believe, and which of us will question our own beliefs?
There is our problem. People of faith have certain understandings of God, certain beliefs that we hold as true, even though we may be just as wrong as those people shouting on the side of the road two thousand years ago. Like them, we make the mistake of holding blindly to our expectations of God, regardless of what God intends, regardless of what God might do right in front of us.
We confuse our expectations of God with our faith in God.
It is a paradox. Rather than consider that we might, in some particular or major way, be wrong, we hold blindly to our belief system, thinking that it is the same as faith. We substitute our beliefs about God for our faith in God.
We are happier with a belief system that does not change than we are with a God who might not meet our expectations. Questioning our beliefs feels like questioning God.
That is why there are so many angry religious people, why there are always people who will shout and strut and do great harm, physical or otherwise, rather than question their own ideas. Their beliefs give them certainty. Doubt fills them with fear, and fear too often is expressed as anger.
Here’s the thing. If God is God, then we may lay aside our entire religious framework and rest certain that when we put our thoughts back together, God will still be there. If God is God, our opinion of the matter changes nothing.
It is another paradox of faith—we may feel undone by our doubts and still pray to a God about whom we feel we know very little, or in whom we have little faith remaining.
We think that prayer is a request, a petition, and perhaps it is. We say that in prayer we offer thanks, praise, love, as we communicate our thoughts and feelings to God, and perhaps we do. At its base, prayer is a confession of faith. We pray because on some level, beyond our doubts, we still believe God exists. We still believe that God hears us. We still hope that God responds, though it may be in ways that do not meet our expectations.
They stood by the road and shouted to Jesus. Few, if any, believed that they were welcoming God into their midst: they thought they were welcoming a king. Nevertheless, like other blind men who sat by the road and called out for help, Jesus heard them. He knew what they wanted, and he knew that in a few days he would disappoint them. He also knew that despite their mistaken beliefs, regardless of their misinformed shouts, he would far exceed their expectations.