“I just graduated from seminary, and I can’t find a job, can’t afford my apartment, all of my friends are moving, and I haven’t had a date in over a year! Why would God make me for things that I can’t have?” This question from an honest friend is one version of the same question that I’ve heard over and over and I’ve asked many times myself. Why doesn’t God give us what we want — especially when we want good things?
This weekend I found myself immersed in a story that gave me another perspective on this question. I was reading the Gospels and came upon the story of Jesus’ “triumphal entrance.” It’s a story that we probably only think of once a year when we invite the children in church to carry branches and march to the front of the church singing, “Praise Him, Praise Him all ye little children. God is good. God is good.” Have you ever pondered this story and what it might really be saying about God’s goodness? I began to think of this story in new ways after visiting Israel about a year and a half ago.
It was incredible, standing at the top of the hill at the Mount of Olives, looking down over the beautiful, lush Kidron valley, gazing across to the other side — to the city of Jerusalem. I was deeply moved; listening to my pastor read the gospel texts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city. I stood there and imagined what it was really like that day.
The scenery was not exactly as I’d envisioned it after seeing many flannel graph Sunday School lessons about the event, and it made me think about the people in Jesus’ time and their disappointment with the unfolding story. The street was narrow and winding without a lot of room for large crowds. As we slowly walked down the narrow road, I tried to imagine what the thoughts and feelings might have been for the men, women, and children lining this little road. Had some traveled with Jesus for awhile, anticipating a coronation? Were others on their own, or with families, making their way across the valley and up the other side into the city to see what all the commotion was about? Maybe they heard the voices of others behind them, singing praises, crying out, “Hosanna, Hosanna to the Son of David,” and decided to join in with what sounded like a great celebration.
I envisioned the royal processional that everyone must have been expecting for a king, the son of David entering the city. And then I could feel the confusion and disappointment of the celebratory crowd. When does a king ride on a lowly animal like a donkey? Why would Jesus specifically choose a donkey?
I wonder how many of the people along that winding road, heading down the hill across the Kidron Valley and into Jerusalem were surprised, upset, and disappointed that their leader — their king — couldn’t do better than a donkey! Jesus had been performing miracles in his ministry, and the crowds were following him. Were they not hoping that this new king would be the one to deliver them from Roman occupation and oppression and make their lives work? Couldn’t this king defeat the enemy and restore the kingdom of David to its glory? They wanted a hero! And they probably wanted him to look like a hero! Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem could have been the time to show strength, to exhibit some royal status in a public way, to make a statement, and to show people what his Kingship would look like – to make everyone’s dreams come true.
But Jesus confuses them and confounds them and their expectations and dreams. He enters the city on a beast of burden — not a beast of war! He rides in among them on an animal of the common folk — a gentle, humble, dependable donkey. I suspect that the crowds were looking for something more — maybe a beautiful, high-stepping, strong, and stately horse. For some folks it must have felt like a shattered dream.
In studying this passage, I read one theologian who wrote, “Jesus’ ‘triumphal entry’ into the clogged streets of Jerusalem was a deeply ironic, highly symbolic, and deliberately provocative act. It dramatized his subversive mission and message . . . . Identifying with Jesus and patterning our lives after him results in endless subversions . . . .” The dictionary defines subversion as “to destabilize, to topple.” We certainly understand the subversion, the destabilizing, and the toppling of dreams in our own lives. And sometimes it does feel endless. Just like the people who lined the streets when Jesus rode in on a donkey, we may think that our lives are full of big mistakes – it is not the life we dreamed of. Perhaps, we are exactly where God intended us to be. Subverting our dreams is sometimes a necessary part of the pilgrimage to find our heart’s true desire. We think our desire will lead us to a relationship or experience that finally works, but I am coming to believe that God’s intention is to lead us to His heart in the hopes that we will rest there even when life doesn’t work.
For the people of Jesus’ day, His ride on the donkey (reminiscent of His entrance into this world carried by a donkey to be born in a stable) announced that He did not come to conquer governments – but the burdened, lowly, and humble individual heart. It is good (and hard) to remember that when our dreams are subverted, God is at work to conquer our hearts. When the desires of our heart are “subverted”, can we believe that God is at work to share our burdens, enter our world, and to ultimately bring rest to our hearts? And dare we believe that subversion reflects the goodness of God?
“It is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things . . . . He created them to seek God, with the hope that they might grope after Him in the shadows of their ignorance, and find Him.” Acts 17:24-28