The Easter story is an unexpected injection of hope in a world gone mad with power and violence.
Jesus found himself in the middle of much of it: on one hand he refused to be corralled by the politics of a militant empire; on the other hand he criticized the selfish actions of the religious systems.
He was a troublemaker and he threatened peace and safety.
So they killed him.
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The Genesis account of creation draws our attention to two notable trees that were nestled in the centre of the Garden of Eden. One had a short name, the Tree of Life; the other had a rambling name, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Initially the first one doesn’t get much press while the long-named one becomes the source of an infamous problem. In the end however, they both play important roles in how the story unfolds.
If we dig a little deeper we find that trees are actually an important part of the biblical narrative. Think about it, trees and bushes show up in scene after scene: people plant them, harvest from them, climb in them, build from them, use them for fuel, hang from them, rest under them. There are numerous metaphors about roots, branches, leaves, fruit, growth, life. Why, in one place trees are even described as clapping their hands! In the Bible, trees can represent life or people.
The palm was a tree that symbolized freedom and victory for many ancient cultures in the Middle East, particularly for the Jews who were under Roman occupation. When Jesus entered Jerusalem in the days before his death, the palm became a ‘freedom tree’ with ready-made flags which people broke off and waved from the sidelines. It’s where the celebration of Palm Sunday came from.
On this occasion Jesus was elevated onto the back a young donkey and each of the gospels share their own understanding of his ride toward Jerusalem. The donkey was also symbolic. It had become an international symbol for peace because of its contrast with the war horses that conquerors typically rode.
On one hand Jesus’ ride to Jerusalem was a triumphant one, cheered by palm-wavers along the road. On the other hand a pitiful display compared to the pageantry when Pilate, the Roman governor, had entered the city. Jesus’ ‘parade’ into Jerusalem that day represented a clear alternative to the ways of the world.
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the king of Israel!” – from Luke 19, NIV
In the story of the first Palm Sunday Jesus takes a most unlikely path – he slowly and directly travels through the eastern gate, behind the walls, and into the heart of his violence. As their processional came within sight of Jerusalem, Luke tells us that Jesus began to weep and he uttered the mysterious words, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But you wouldn’t listen.”
He goes on to predict the violence that will soon appear both outside and inside the walls of one of the most impressive cities in the world. His words became reality with the horrific death of the city in 70 AD.
We don’t have to observe the world for long before we see the truth in what Jesus said. The cheers came easily at first but the palm flags fell to the ground when people realized he expected change to come through them.
There is a famous painting of Jesus knocking on a door. Actually there are many of them, but one in particular is familiar from my childhood. He is a caucasian Jesus like many are, even dressed in white. He is standing and knocking at a thick wooden door which is set in a stone building framed by heavy vegetation. It is a take on the verse in Revelation 3:20 which depicts Jesus as knocking, waiting for us to let him inside.
In church language he is knocking on our heart’s door, waiting to be invited in, but I think we should fine tune that a bit.
You see, we have the word ‘soul’. The Hebrew word for it is nephesh, an idea related to breath. It is God’s breath, his inexplicable presence, that takes our organs and bones and gives us life. God’s presence in us is what makes us human.
For me, the problem has never been having him inside me – I know that he has always been there, gently nudging, tugging, interacting, waiting, giving me life. The problem for me has been allowing him access to my will, and to the way I live. Like the cheering crowd on the first Palm Sunday, I was happy that Jesus was with me, but not that he wanted me to change.
That brings us back to trees. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil turns out to be a stale, weighty thing, as Adam and Eve would soon learn – as you and I have learned. Turns out it grows fruit like guilt, anxiety, secrets, hurts, and violence.
On the other hand, there is Jesus on the Cross – the Tree of Life which grows fruit like love, joy, peace, goodness… You see, this isn’t about ‘becoming a Christian’, whatever that means, it’s about surrendering to the one who loves us freely and intends the best for us.
Jesus stands at the door of our will and says, I’m already here. Please let me all the way in.
Imagine. Take your time. Close your eyes if you need to.
Imagine going to your door and opening it to Jesus. How would that feel?
You see Jesus standing there. Look into his eyes. What do you see? What are his words to you?
You know it is okay, so you open the door wider and invite him into your home. How do you feel now? What do you need to say to him?
Ask him to sit down and have a cup of tea. Or maybe a glass of wine and some of that fresh bread on the counter?
Seems like bread and wine would be a good conversation starter.