Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday - From Celebration to Tragedy (to Celebration)

Mark 11:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Mark 15:1-47

Celebration and tragedy back-to-back. That’s what today is, wouldn’t you say? From Hosannas and a parade and triumph to crucifixion and darkness and death in just under half an hour. I would say that it’s surreal, but it’s not. This move from celebration to tragedy is a familiar experience for many of us. The celebration of the birth of a baby, immediately followed by a grandparent’s diagnosis of cancer. A tenth wedding anniversary, immediately followed by the revelation of a series of affairs. A high-school graduation, followed by a fatal car accident on the way to the graduation party.  Our lives are made up of these back-to-back experiences of transcendent joy and sudden loss.

The diagnoses, the betrayals, the deaths––the unexpectedness of these and other tragedies, and their arrival in the face of celebration––can overwhelm us. It’s no wonder our psalmist for today writes, “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.” To endure these things seems impossible. It explains why, during times of crises or tragedy, the average person’s consumption of alcohol goes up. This isn’t a judgement, merely an observation, that we are not well-equipped to handle that sudden transition from joy to despair on our own. We need something to hold on to as the ground shifts beneath us. Even Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” right before he died. These experiences can suck all the light out of our lives until we feel that we are alone in the darkness, unable to go on.

If you are struggling with this shift from celebration to tragedy in your life right now, God has a word for you this morning: You are not alone in this. To paraphrase Paul, you “can do all things through God who strengthens” you. Which is to say that God has not forsaken you, but is with you and remains with you to give you the strength to endure whatever it is you’re going through. And I know you may not feel that way. Just because God is with us in times of adversity doesn’t mean that we go through life always feeling warm and fuzzy and filled with light, even as our world is crumbling. You will still experience doubts, and fear, and the very strong desire not to have to go through whatever it is you’re going through. But God is with you, just as God was with Noah in the flood, with the Israelites in their slavery, with the prophets in exile, with Jesus on the cross. At every step of the way, in the stories of the Bible and in the stories of our lives, God is with us, giving us God’s own strength to endure.

It is the strength of God that carries the writer of our first reading, a prophet exiled from Jerusalem and struggling under the Persian Empire, through his struggles. “The Lord GOD helps me;” he says. “Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” It’s almost as if, realizing that God has carried him through everything that he has gone through before, he is daring the world to come at him again. “He who vindicates me is near. ... It is the Lord God who helps me.” Isaiah looks death in the face––his own death and that of his people––and proclaims that God is with them, that God is their deliverance, that God is their shield, their rock, their ground that can not be shaken.

This strength of God has carried others, as well. In our Gospel reading, we recognize, of course, that God was with Jesus, but we often overlook the ones who stayed with Jesus during his crucifixion––the ones who also were experiencing tragedy at the heels of celebration: Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome. These women, along with many other women, had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. They had seen him perform miracles, speak the word of God, and show them what the kingdom of God looked like. They had walked with him through Jerusalem as the Hosannas rang out and the branches waved. And then they stayed with Jesus as he was suddenly convicted and sentenced, suffered on the cross, died, and was buried. From celebration to tragedy. But the strength of God was with these women, helping them to endure that unimaginable turmoil and to be present in it.

More than endure, actually. What we see in Scripture is that God gives God’s people the strength not just to endure the tragedy, but to be present through it to the very end. You see, today is not the entirety of the story. On Palm Sunday we move from celebration to tragedy, but the story doesn’t end here. This is not actually a cliffhanger. We know how it ends. It ends on Easter, with celebration again. With resurrection. With new life. We know that the exiled people of Israel, who were given the strength to worship God in foreign lands, were returned to Jerusalem and they celebrated the rebuilding of the Temple. We know that the women who were given the strength to watch Jesus die were the first to see him risen from the tomb. They were the first to celebrate the new life he had been given.

From celebration to tragedy to new celebration. All of our stories end this way. That is to say, all of our stories end in the resurrection. This is why God gives us the strength to endure. To be patient. To get through the death facing us. So that we might arrive once again at celebration and new life. God does not wish us to be overcome by the events in our lives, or to feel overwhelmed, or to feel forsaken. Tragedies happen, they are part of the life we live here and now, but God does not desire that they should be the end of us. God desires for us to make it through. To face death, to endure death even, and in the end, to experience new life.

The last verse of our Psalm today, which we didn’t read, says, “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.” You may find yourself right now echoing the earlier words of the psalm, “my strength fails because of my misery,” but let your heart take courage. God is with you. God is with you in the sudden shifts in your life from celebration to tragedy. God is with you for you to turn to and lean on. You are not in this alone. God is with you, filling you with God’s own strength to endure, even if you don’t feel it quite yet. God is with you through today and all the way to the resurrection. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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