(Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 11:1-11)
“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” ~ Blaise Pascal
On the property that my extended family has on the St. Lawrence River, there was a huge, old tree at the entrance to the driveway. This tree had always been there. In fact, there was a sign attached to the tree that alerted people to the fact that beyond the tree the property was private. (The house is at the end of a lane and sometimes people would get lost down the lane, so the sign let them know they had reached the end of the lane and needed to turn back unless they were visitors to my family or the family in the house next to ours.)
A few years ago, there was a big storm and that huge, old tree came down during it. It was sad, because the tree was like a member of the family. The landscape that had been known for about 90 years was now changed: There was no more tree to mark the end of the lane and the beginning of the property. Our natural sentinel had died.
Even though this huge, old tree had come down in the big storm, the much smaller weeping willow trees next to the water hadn’t! They survived the storm and are still growing to this day.
Blaise Pascal, a Christian thinker and writer who lived from 1623-1662, wrote, “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” Our huge, old tree had seemed so strong, but it was stiff, so it cracked when the wind got strong enough, while our little weeping willow trees, which seemed weak, were flexible, so they merely bent in the strong wind. The wind blew, they bent in the direction of the wind, and they survived.
Of course, when we think about the result of trees being stiff versus flexible in a strong wind, it makes perfect sense that the stiffer trees are more at risk of breaking than the flexible trees, despite the fact that they seem so much stronger! The real lesson, though, is what this means for we human beings as we deal with the storms of life. Will we stiffen and break, or bend and survive? This is a good question to ask ourselves as we enter Holy Week.
As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowd shouted, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven" (Mk 11:9b-10)! They were certain that Jesus was the Messiah who had come to restore the Israelite kingdom and rule as king in the manner of David. This was the calm before the storm. The people in the crowd that welcomed and praised Jesus thought that prophecies and expectations were finally being fulfilled. The sun was shining and all was right with the world. “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
As the week wore on, however, signs of the coming storm appeared. Jesus drove the vendors out of the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers (Mk 11:15-16). The chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders questioned his authority (Mk 11:28). A woman anointed Jesus with expensive perfume and Jesus described this act as preparing him for his burial (Mk 14:3-9).
These signs of the coming storm were witnessed, but there were also signs that took place behind the scenes. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were alarmed at what Jesus was doing and saying, so they were looking for a way to kill him, “for they feared him” (Mk 11:18). After the woman anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests to betray Jesus. He began watching for an opportunity to hand him over to them (Mk 14:10-11).
The “weather” conditions were changing. Clouds had begun to gather, the barometric pressure was dropping, and the air was becoming charged. Tensions were rising among the people. Finally, Jesus was arrested and charged with claiming to be king of the Jews, which was treason to the Romans and blasphemy to the Jews. The storm had arrived. What would happen to Jesus, to his disciples, and to the people present? Would they stiffen and break, or bend and survive?
Jesus, as Son of God, Messiah, and Christ, bent to the will of God. Although he prayed that the cup of suffering be taken from him, he prayed, also, that not his will, but God’s be done (Mk 14:36). Then he submitted to arrest, trial, conviction, and crucifixion.
The disciples, those who loved and revered Jesus, struggled. They didn’t understand the magnitude of the storm that was bearing down upon them: One of us will betray you? Not I! One of us will deny you three times? Not I! Stay awake with you? Of course! You’re being arrested? Let’s fight! You’re being tried? Let’s scatter. You’re being crucified? Let’s watch from a distance. You’ve died? Let’s hide. The poor disciples had trouble bending to God’s will. At first, they didn’t understand what was happening. Then, when they finally understood, they couldn’t accept it. They wouldn’t bend, so they broke.
The people in the crowds both bent and broke. When Jesus did what God required of him – which meant that he did not behave like a warrior king – they stopped believing he was the promised Messiah. They turned on him. The week began with them shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” and ended with them shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him” (Mk 15:13-14)! By turning on Jesus, however, they were doing God’s will. In that sense, they unknowingly bent to the will of God. At the same time, by turning on Jesus, they were unknowingly denying God by denying him as Messiah. In that sense, they stiffened and broke.
Regardless of how people responded to the storm of Holy Week, the Resurrection made it possible for all things to be made new. If you bent to the will of God during the storm, God bless you! If you stiffened and broke in the storm, God can redeem you. Jesus bent to the will of God and rose to new life in the Resurrection. The disciples stiffened and broke but were redeemed after the Resurrection. The people both bent and broke and were offered redemption after the Resurrection. Some took the gift offered; some refused it.
As we enter Holy Week, the lesson for us is that we must bend to the will of God or we will break. The challenge, of course, is knowing the will of God in any given situation. It’s not always clear, as I’m sure you’re aware. It certainly didn’t seem to the disciples and people in the crowd that God’s will was being done as tensions rose between Jesus and the authorities and he was arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified. It certainly seemed as if God’s will was not being done. It certainly seemed like everything was going wrong. It’s no wonder that people stiffened, suffered, and broke. It wasn’t until after the Resurrection that God’s will became clear. Even then, people struggled to make sense of it all.
The same is true in our lives and in our world. When things aren’t going as we think they should go; when what seems to be bad things are happening; when we are suffering – it certainly doesn’t seem like God’s will is being done. But later, down the road, we can see God working his will into our lives and our world during those times. The suffering came from us stiffening and breaking. Had we been faithful and trusted that God was, indeed, with us in the midst of whatever storm we were experiencing, then we would have suffered less. Perhaps we wouldn’t have broken. The key is to trust, to have faith, to know and believe that God is with us at all times working to bless our lives. When we bend, we work with him and suffer less.
This past week, I posted a quote on my Facebook page: “Things are as they are. We suffer because we imagined them different.” The disciples and the crowd of people who greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem imagined things differently than they were as the week unfolded, and so they suffered. Had they bent to the will of God, they would have suffered less and not broken. The same is true for us. The events of Holy Week remind us to trust God; to have faith in God’s process; to bend, not break. But, if we don’t – if we stiffen and break – let us remember that redemption is available. Let us receive the gift of redemption from God and be blessed with each resurrection we experience as we journey with Jesus. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, March 25, 2018, the Sixth Sunday in Lent, Palm & Passion Sunday.