Our Lenten journey with Jesus continues – in just a few days, on Palm Sunday, we will walk across the walled city of Jerusalem and a multitude along the main road will be waiting for us. We all walk with Jesus to celebrate a new Passover – the annual festival to remember with deep thanksgiving how God liberated his people from captivity and forced labor in Egypt. We want to find out what is going to happen there.
Actually, we already know what has happened there, for the first Christians told us everything in their gospels. Today I’d like to focus my mental camera on Jesus just a few days after his triumphal entry in Jerusalem.
As you know, things did not go the way his disciples might have expected –the crowd is gone, and their many enemies are breathing on their necks. Jesus’s hopes of a Jerusalem turnaround, close to 0 – his heart is already broken.
That’s the kind of situation I dread so much –when everything seems about to collapse and even my best dreams have lost their power to keep me going.
I’m sure you all understand what I’m trying to say. Jesus’s somber words and images speak of broken dreams, yet, like the phoenix, they also point out to a time of resurrection and new beginnings. The problem is, who amongst that anxious bunch around Jesus is going to ever see a rainbow at the end of the stormy road? Yet when the conversation that day is over, his disciples are left with a reassuring message – “Our daily disappointments may be God’s appointments.”
Some twenty-five years later, and not far from there, a man called Paul would spiritually survive crisis after crisis because of those reassuring words – “Our daily disappointments may be God’s appointments.”
In the 16th chapter of the book of the Acts of the Apostles –the book where the story is told of the early days of the Christian church — Paul is setting sail for the city of Troas even though he is deeply disappointed, for he believes he has nothing to do there. He had wanted to go east, in the opposite direction, to his native Asia Minor – familiar places, where he was anxious to preach the gospel among more welcoming villages.
He had preached there before and left a blooming church. “The churches there were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily,” wrote Paul. But this time God was sending Paul west rather than east, in the opposite direction. I’m sure Paul felt like God was frustrating his eager desires and blocking his plans. But the Lord must know better, Paul reasoned.
Indeed, God knew better, and God wanted Paul to make inroads in uncharted territories – this time in Macedonia, north of Greece, a beachhead into Europe in those days. Like prophet Jonah before, Paul did not want to go where God was sending him, for he was totally convinced that the Macedonians were not ready for Christ.
Yet despite his obvious frustration and his personal brokenness, Paul eventually came to terms with God’s preference and sailed to Macedonia instead.
Do you want to know what happened in Macedonia? Write it down — no less than a gospel explosion! And the very first congregation in Europe was born – Paul’s beloved church in Philippi, 410 miles north-east from Athens.
Paul’s experience speaks to me quite often – and perhaps also to you — for we too experience broken dreams from time to time, don’t we? What can we learn from his personal experience?
That very much like Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem, we can be raised from the ruins of our dreams a new self if we only trust that God’s direction for us is OK. Paul eventually recognized this, and when he did, he also discovered that his frustration and disappointment were not catastrophic, rather a turning point in his life.
A few years ago, I saw a unique broken tree somewhere along the Riviera Maya, south of Cancun, in Mexico. It was a palm tree – so beautiful and elegant, more handsome than all the other trees around. Yet it was a broken tree – perhaps broken by a tropical storm. That tree, my friends, reminds me of Paul on his road to Macedonia.
It also reminds me of Jesus on his own Lenten road to Jerusalem for his final Passover. But it also reminds me of how I feel when my best dreams and expectations collapse for one reason or another.
That beautiful palm tree –broken as it was—also speaks to me like this – “Ariel, learn from me. For even though I have been struck down, I am not destroyed.” Although that palm trip no longer had its regal height and shape, it had a new beauty all of its own and the dignity of a surviving hero.
That is, precisely, what Jesus was sharing with his disciples that day. And what Jesus wants to share with us today as we face so many broken moments in our own lives. Brokenness, my friends, cannot stop beauty in palm trees neither in human beings, for God’s grace is always made perfect in our tribulations, as the apostle would write to another of his churches, the one he had planted in Corinth.
“Stand up, Paul –stand up, Ariel.” “Stand up my brothers and sisters here today if you feel like a broken tree, for my grace is sufficient for you, for my grace is stronger and wiser than your weakness!
The day Paul arrives in Philippi, he finds Lydia. This woman is unique – she sells very fine and expensive fabrics for ladies’ dresses, so she must be a fashionable and wealthy woman. But Lydia is also a very sensitive, caring, open-minded member of the newly born congregation in such a remote place.
The unassuming Lydia will soon become a friend in the work of Christ and one of the greatest leaders there, that spot on the map where, according to Paul sometime earlier, folks were not ready for Christ!
A few years later, perhaps a few days before his own death in the prison, Paul sends a letter to Lydia and the others in that church. He writes: “Always in every prayer of mine for you, I do thank God for each of you, for your partnership in the gospel from the very first day until now.” “And I hold you in my heart,” the apostle concludes. What a superb lesson on how to deal with disappointments and broken dreams!
“A little while,” Jesus tells his disciples when they begin to realize the growing complications ahead and perhaps even the impending tragedy of the cross. “You are going to fail, for sure – and you are going to come short of the glory of God when you don’t measure up, when you run for your lives and box yourselves in a close room with closed windows and doors and huddle together like a bunch of scaredy-cats.
“That day – Jesus goes on — you may look and feel like a broken tree, but just for a little while, for my grace will be made perfect in your tribulation, and when that happens, well . . . your pain and disappointments will be turned into joy.
I love John’s reassuring metaphor when he puts in Jesus’s heart these words:
You will be sad [for some time], but your sadness will turn into gladness. When a woman is about to give birth, she is sad because of her hour of suffering has come; but when the baby is born, she forgets her suffering, because she is happy that a baby has been born into the world. That is how it [will be] with you: now you are sad, but I will see you again, and your hearts will be filled with gladness, the kind of gladness that no one can take away from you.
Friends, I pray from my heart that this Lenten journey with Jesus may help you see your own crosses in all their beauty, not only in all their ugliness.
For your crosses remind us, time and again, that God’s grace keeps getting better and stronger in our weakness.