Turmoil Amid Triumph

Palm Sunday

“When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’”

 Amid the palms and the hosannas, and as we look forward to coffee hour or to the rest of our day on this bright and sunny Sunday, it can be easy to gloss over this line: “The whole city was in turmoil.” The notion that Jesus brings with him, turmoil, the thought that turmoil can arise as God breaks into our lives, is often difficult to consider. This is especially true because many of us, myself included, look to religion and our faith as a source of comfort. After all, as we look at the world around us and as we look into our own lives, there often seems to be more than enough turmoil, upending, and conflict. So that we’re all on the same page, here’s the abridged litany: wars overseas, bitter domestic divisions, and large, seemingly intractable problems, such as poverty, environmental destruction, exploitation, and violence. Then there are the more private, bespoke problems that cloud our hearts and occupy our minds: financial insecurity, ill health, estrangement in relationships, and loneliness. There seems to be enough turmoil in the world, so today, let’s just focus on the man riding a donkey. Let’s focus only on the cheering crowds and the waving of palms. After all, who doesn’t love a parade?

We are, of course, warned about focusing exclusively on the things that give us comfort. The Book of Common Prayer admonishes us to avoid “the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only,” and Jesus tells us not to think that he has “come to bring peace to the earth.” Instead, he declares, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

In fact, as we journey together through Matthew’s Gospel, turmoil is a frequent companion. Turmoil is there when Jesus is born: wise men from the East come to Jerusalem and ask where to find this child born as a king. King Herod hears this and is frightened; importantly, we’re told that all of Jerusalem is frightened with him. Turmoil throughout a city. And this is all before Herod’s response: ordering the killing of “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.”

Later, as he begins his ministry, Jesus brings turmoil to family structures. We see him call on James and John to leave their nets. They abandon the very foundations of their life and family when they leave their father standing alone, holding his nets, as they follow Jesus. 

Jesus creates turmoil in the social order by eating with the people most vilified by society: sinners and tax collectors. Tax collectors in this story are not the meek accountants and number crunchers we might think of today, but people who stole and embezzled while working on behalf of an occupying force, imperial Rome. They were the collaborators of their day. It was shocking to choose to sit with them. Finally, and most intimately, the personal turmoil swells and crashes over the disciples, Mary, and all who loved Jesus, at the crucifixion. Jesus and those around him lived in a world full of turmoil, upending, and conflict. In that respect, it was a lot like the world we share today.  

Living in such a world, it’s an understandable temptation to simply seek comfort and solace while overlooking the turmoil around and inside of us. Yet, it’s helpful to remember that Lent is a time of examination, a season to focus on what sustains us and pay more attention to the things we choose to lift up. Sometimes this can get lost in the casual conversations of what we might abstain from or give up for Lent. Turmoil, like temptation, can help to clarify what is important, foundational, and essential in our lives.

It’s worth noting that the Greek word translated into turmoil means a shaking like an earthquake, a seismic shift. The same Greek word used to describe Jesus’ entry that we hear today is also used to describe the shaking of the earth, the splitting of the rocks at the crucifixion, and the earthquake accompanying the rolling of the stone away from the tomb. This is not a coincidence. Instead, Matthew is inviting us to think about the things in our lives from which we need to shake free: to move away from the structures and habits we have built around ourselves that no longer suit a good purpose. What are some old ways of thinking, doing, and seeing that we need to shake free from? What are the practices that we should allow to crumble? 

This shaking and turmoil is God’s way of breaking into our lives and making way for new things. This inbreaking is, to be sure, a triumph. Yet it is often a triumph surrounded by chaos and turbulence. As Jesus enters Jerusalem, the whole city is in turmoil and asks, “Who is this person?” while the crowds of Jesus’ followers respond, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” The interaction suggests that many people present did not know God was in their midst, that they were unaware God was at work in their lives and in that moment. 

Later in today’s service, we’ll pray an affirmation that concludes: “We believe that in the end of all things, God’s love shall prevail.” It’s a powerful prayer that acknowledges that difficult things will happen – there will be challenges and heartbreaks along the way – while reminding us that God is with us, entering into our lives in ways that we may not recognize or appreciate in the moment. Amid the turmoil, God’s presence will sustain us, and long after the crowds have gone home and palms have been swept away, God’s love will prevail.