A lot can happen in the course of a week. We’ve probably all had weeks like that, where the place we started looked nothing like the way the week ended. Sometimes it’s for the better, when everything goes our way and the weekend feels bright and optimistic. And sometimes a week that starts off well enough makes a hard left turn for the worst. We can all probably think of a certain week where exactly that happened not too long ago.
It feels particularly important, then, that it’s just that kind of week—one where things go suddenly off course—that tells us the most important things about God. We heard how Jesus was celebrated in a huge parade, complete with a donkey to ride on and palm branches littering his path. Matthew describes the crowd as “the greatest crowd,” the biggest Jerusalem had ever seen. The whole city was in an uproar about Jesus showing up as pilgrims across the Jewish world, there for the Passover, were curious about who was being hailed as the Messiah.
And in the course of a week—less than a week, really—things turned very wrong very fast for Jesus. The crowds that had celebrated him turned against him. One of his own disciples betrayed him. He was abandoned to be tried, flogged, and crucified on a hill outside the city. The week had not gone as we might have expected.
But the reason it went so wrong is baked into how we understand who God is. When things go wrong, when disasters strike, when we face a pandemic, we want to know where God is in the midst of it. Maybe the most common way to react is that we need God to be firmly in control of things. So firmly in control, in fact, that God becomes the cause of the disaster, but causing it for a good purpose. We just have to figure out what that purpose is.
But the gospel writers, the apostle Paul, and the Tradition of the Church all point in a different direction. They were all much more comfortable with the idea that God was not directing things. Bad things happened, but not because God caused them to happen. Instead, what was important was to know who God is when we are faced with disaster. And that probably is captured best in the text from Philippians.
God is known in Jesus, and Jesus is known in the crucifixion. Paul was making the comparison of Jesus to the Greco-Roman gods, who also occasionally came in bodily form to the world. But unlike these gods who would manipulate people and throw their power around, Jesus humbled himself. He accepted all the limitations of being human, showing us who God is by going to the cross rather than enforcing his will on us.
What’s more is that the God revealed by Jesus on the cross isn’t just some version of God, as if God would normally send plagues and disasters to teach us a lesson but just this once decided to be kind and merciful and loving. Instead—and this is what we learn about who God is this week—this is the fullness of God. This poor man, wrists hammered to a crossbeam, dying at the whims of his own creation, is who God is and how God acts in the world. God doesn’t act from a place of power, crushing resistance and enforcing his will. God acts out of pure, unstoppable love.
God didn’t orchestrate the crucifixion, but God knew it was going to happen. God knew the death that awaited when he rode the donkey into Jerusalem, and he did it anyway. He humbled himself in obedience to the overflowing love God has for us. That’s what God does in the midst of disaster. God sees the brokenness, the backbiting, the suffering, the dying of this world and rather than send corrective plagues or teach deadly lessons, God comes to be with us.
Jesus knew suffering—he was crucified. He knew loneliness—he was alone as he was tried, flogged, and executed. He knew betrayal—his own friend handed him over. He knew fear—he asked for the cup to be taken from him. He knew death. He knew all of these things so when we hear that God is with us when we suffer, when we are in pain or heartache or dying, it’s not a condescending sympathy card from heaven but a declaration that God has been there already, and walks with you in it. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “only a suffering God can help us.”
But what’s more is that God isn’t merely with us in suffering. God isn’t just present with us as we grapple with the anxiety of this pandemic, or worry over having enough supplies, or hope our loved ones stay healthy and whole. God is at work redeeming it all. The utter disaster of the cross should have been the end of this God of love, but God redeemed it, made it into the very shape of God’s unconditional love and hope for eternal life. God is at work redeeming the world in this pandemic as communities pull together to support each other, as scientists work to understand the disease better, as families grow closer, as churches discover new ways to be God’s people, as the creation breathes a Sabbath from working.
That’s what we learn about who God is this Holy Week. So as we walk from the streets filled with celebration and palm-waving as Jesus enters Jerusalem, into the upper room where he dines with his disciples for the last time, through the halls of power where the governor commands his death, at the lonely hill of Golgotha, and on to the empty tomb—think on who God is. When this world’s anxieties rush in, know that God is with you. When you’re not sure how we’ll come out the other side of this, know that God even redeemed death. God will redeem this too.
Thanks be to God. Amen.