Such a long road, from there to here.
Such a long road, from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Galilee to Capernaum to Bethphage to Jerusalem to Golgotha to empty tomb to Pentecost;
from Syria to my house; from North Korea to my church
to Halifax to Dartmouth to Sydney to St John to Calgary to Nigeria to Kenya to Bethlehem, to Bethlehem, to Bethlehem…
A long road, long in time, long in spirit, long in effort. Jesus walked it, taking the long way there, walking from birth to death, to resurrection to abiding presence.
Not a long earthly life, mind you, certainly not by our standards in the age of perpetual motion medicine. But still, a long road: full, measured, always focused on people.
What long roads have you walked?
Have you walked the long road of suffering, or loss, or grief, or pain? Have you walked the long road of palliative care?
Or of chronic illness? Or of depression?
Have you walked the hard road of divorce? Or abuse, or betrayal?
Are you even today walking such a road?
Or the long road to get to the next payday?
Or the end of term?
These are long roads. Hard roads. And somehow, in some way, our faith tells us that Jesus walks them with us. Maybe even carries us sometimes.
When I think of the pain of this world, and the pain I know, and the pain I have seen in others, I do not want the kind of Jesus most often held up for us to consume and digest.
I do not yearn for a Jesus who is happy-clappy, content and apart, distant, aloof from suffering. I do not yearn for an easygoing Jesus, surfer Jesus, serene, slightly medicated, snoozing under the radar of reality.
“Well, I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I have my plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car
I could go a hundred miles an hour
Long as I got the Almighty Power
Glued up there with my fuzzy dice.”
That Jesus is the therapeutic, insulated Jesus, who knows no pain and cannot walk with us down our long and hard roads.
When I think of the pain of this world, and the pain I know, and the pain I see in others, I want the real Jesus, the one in the Bible, who rode into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, not a warhorse, like a conquering king.
I want the Jesus the crowds greeted with shouts of “hosanna” –
“hosanna” … meaning “save us – save now”
for they knew their need of saviour.
I want that Jesus who looked at them with bright and troubled eyes,
that Jesus who had known their illness and healed them,
who had known their hunger and eaten with them and fed them, who had felt the depths of their desperation and wept with them.
I don’t want a superstar who will anesthetize the reality of pain, but the Christ of Christmas and Calvary;
the Jesus Christ who has lived through the same pain,
and has walked the hard roads,
and knows the mercy and grace of God
in the power of resurrection.
Is Jesus all we want him to be?
Does he conform to our expectations?
Does he surprise us sometimes?
Is Jesus containable, portable, predictable?
Can we squish him into our narrow definitions?
Can we guess what he will do, what he will say?
Or is he somehow free even from us, free for us,
… free from the world and social convention,
yet free for the world,
precisely because he does not find his self-image
in the opinions of others,
in others’ approval?
Just as we think he’ll be the upright law-abiding type,
he tells his followers to swipe a donkey.
Just as we think he will call out the tax collector Zacchaeus
and chastise the cheating cheater that he is,
Jesus goes home with him for supper.
Just as we think he will fill the table of the messianic banquet
with the beautiful people,
he invites the rags, the beggars, the chronically ill.
Just as we think he will crash through the gates of hell,
he retires to the hills for prayer.
Just as we think he will force a showdown with the Pharisees,
he retreats to a garden to weep and struggle with God.
Just as we think he will pull off one last incredible miracle
and blast the enemies of God to smithereens,
he bows his head, accepts the shackles of his accusers,
and dies, broken and bleeding on a cross.
Just as we think he is dead and gone,
the third day dawns.
Even radical prophetic Jesus,
whom we love to love for his shameless disturbing of the peace,
had moments of simply turning aside to attend to the needs
he believed to be most pressing.
He did not care if the religious leaders liked him,
or if the powerful knew him,
or if the successful respected him.
He was on a mission, to do the will of the One who sent him.
After a miracle, he did not seek fame:
in fact, he told the crowds to keep quiet about it.
For Jesus it was enough to seek God’s Spirit in all of life.
It was enough to love the unlovely, the ugly, the rejected.
It was enough to eat with the excluded, the forgotten, the despised.
For Jesus it was enough to come into Jerusalem riding a donkey – not the warhorse of a conquering King – and while he received their shouts of joy and acclamation at the gates,
and heard the crowd crying “save now,”
and trod upon their cloaks,
and saw their palm branches waving,
it was enough for him all the while to turn his face
toward Jerusalem and accept what was coming:
the shouts of joy turning into derisive cries for his execution;
the cloaks on the ground
turning into abandonment and denial;
the palm branches turning into faces turned away,
too ashamed, horrified, fearful
to look upon the spectacle of the murdered messiah.
As Paul in Philippians put it, it was enough for Jesus to accept human form, the form of a slave – to live among us and love us as we are so that we can become what God would have us be.
C.S. Lewis once said
that for the divine Jesus to become human in our midst
is something like what it would be for one of us
to consent to live like a slug among the trash of the garden.
Lowly and without desire to “get anywhere, have anything, or be anybody” (David Buttrick, Preaching Jesus Christ, 30), Jesus accepted a life of obedience
… for our sakes, to lead us to God;
he humbled himself to a death on a cruel cross
so that WE might have life.
And it was enough for God, more than enough,
that this human Jesus, this divine Jesus,
this bent and broken Jesus,
this denied and dead Jesus,
bleeding on a chunk of wood,
should stand in for us and become for us
the best pathway of all.
It was enough.
“It is finished,” cried the Christ on Calvary,
crying out with his last breath that
we shall no longer be separated from God by any means:
not by any sin, not by any wrongdoing, not by any error,
not by any mistake, not by any poor judgment,
not by any of the sad and sorrowful ways in which we manage to entangle ourselves and each other:
NO, cries the Christ: it is finished.
And the veil of the temple is torn in two and we, even we, may enter the holy of holies;
we may come before God in all God’s wonder and majesty and mystery and great shining love.
And through Christ we are called and welcomed into the household of God,
from whatever places,
whatever roads we have walked
or wheeled or whimpered or wandered.
Who is this king called Christ?
“Who is this?” That’s what the crowds in Jerusalem asked when the palm branches got thrown before him.
This is the lowly one, the Christ, the Son with no home.
Down the roads we walk, you and I,
roads of hope and horror and healing,
roads of forgetfulness and forgiveness and fear,
roads of despair and even death,
roads of renewal and the possibility of a new thing
that God is doing in the world …
down all these roads, this Jesus walks at our side.
Thanks be to God.
Rob Fennell teaches theology and the history of Christianity at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.