A Disappointing God

A Disappointing God

Jerusalem is packed—jammed with millions of people. The rumors about Jesus have preceded him. “Have you heard? A king named Jesus is going to come into Jerusalem and overthrow the Romans. I even heard he is the promised one—the Messiah. God is finally going to rescue us—just like God did in Egypt. I can’t wait to see the look on Pilate’s face as he gets sent packing by this Jesus.” Then the crowd begins to chant; “Hosanna, hosanna to the Son of David”. “Hosanna to our impending rule— hosanna to peace and freedom and justice, done our way”. The crowd is packed in so tightly no one can move. And then he appears. And a ripple goes through the crowd, a ripple of anticipation followed by recognition followed by—confusion. “Something’s not right here. That looks like Jesus, but why is he riding a donkey rather than a stallion? Doesn’t he know that the donkey is what princes ride to show they are unarmed and coming in peace? I thought he was going to lead a revolution and overthrow Rome. This is a disappointing beginning”. And then he gets off the donkey. The crowd goes silent—waiting, wondering what he is going to do now. He walks into the Temple. And they look at each other, nod, and say “maybe now he is going to make the Temple fall down like he said.” Anticipation hangs in the air. But Jesus? He walks into the Temple, looks around, comes back out, gets onto his donkey and says to his disciples, “Let’s go to Bethany.” And leaves. Leaves. Just like that. The crowd falls completely silent. And then a murmur runs through the crowd as someone names out loud what they are all starting to think; “this Jesus is a dud. He hasn’t done anything for us at all. What kind of king is he?” And they grow angrier and angrier. And quietly at first, then more insistently, cries of “crucify him” fill the air. And then, well, we know what happens from here.
What went wrong? What was the crowd so upset about? Had God tricked them, us, with some kind of false promise? No, I think what happened is a fairly simple case of misunderstanding. And it is just a short step from misunderstanding to disappointment to anger.

This is not new—God consistently disappoints us—mostly because, at heart, we are more interested in what we want God to be than in who God is. We do a marvelous job of projecting our own wants, needs and desires onto God. Why didn’t I get that job, God—what’s wrong with you? Why did my friend get cancer, why did you let that happen God, what’s wrong with you? Why did my loved one die—if you had been here he wouldn’t have died, what’s wrong with you? Don’t you care at all? Why do you so consistently disappoint me? We want God to be a talisman-the One who protects us from bad things and when that doesn’t pan out, we are disappointed-and angry.

But in a strange way misunderstanding and disappointment may be the beginnings of salvation for us. Each time one of our neat, comfortable, self-serving illusions about God, one of our misinterpretations of God’s promise, drops away and we are surprised and disappointed, each time we let go of one of our idols, we make a little more room for the reality of God, for the power and truth of God’s promise. Disappointed, we can let go of our requirements of God and begin to see God as God is. Disappointed, we can turn away from the God who was supposed to be in order to seek the God who is.

What God is, is surprising, and this is intimately linked to God’s disappointing qualities—always doing the unexpected and quietly or not so quietly turning the world upside down. Jesus carefully planned and engineered entrance into Jerusalem, for example, designed to parody worldly understandings of power, was surprising, even subversive. Jesus took the knowledge of the world, our knowledge, turned it on its head and exposed it for what it is—mostly self-serving and fear driven. Most surprising, subversive, and if we’re honest more than a little disappointing, is the cross- that brutal, violent instrument of torture and execution that appears to trumpet the triumph of the ways of the world. We know, of course, the end of the story. And it is tempting to head right for it, skip this week and head straight to the empty tomb. But to do so would be to wallow in our notions of God, notions that will ultimately disappoint us, cheat us of intimate knowledge of the real power and promise of God.

Because the promise includes the circus of today and the agony and abandonment of Good Friday. The promise is that God is present with the totality of our lives. Present with those who go from “hosanna” to “crucify him” in a split second. Present with those who turn away from him or worse, betray him—as did Judas, as do we. The promise is of a death-defying love which refuses to give up or let go. And it is not a promise which says “life is all about glory—stick with me and life will be grand”.

We misunderstand God’s promise—thinking of it as protection against misfortune. We think the promise is that if we hunker down and protect our lives-set ourselves up for minimal damage and disappointment, then God will reward us in the next life. And, in a way, that would be nice. Because life is sometimes hard, unpredictable, cruel and most definitely unfair. Jesus tells us “believing in me, following me will not change that. Following me will help you see the world in a different way. It will help you see what real triumph is all about. It will help you see what real power looks like. It will help you see what real love looks like. It will help you see that there is nothing that will separate you from me—that even death will not win in the end”. But we can only see, only know what this looks like if we are willing to take some risks, to walk this week with Jesus. If we are willing to really know that the fulfillment of God’s promise always involves struggle and suffering, discipline and death. If we are willing to walk into the upper room on Thursday and share his last meal with his friends, walk with him to the Sanhedrin and then to Pilate’s palace, walk with him up a lonely hill and wait with him.

Watch. Watch what is horrifically difficult to see and what we don’t understand, and likely never fully will. The truth is that life is messy and at times painful. And if we are to be open to the joy of life we must also experience the pain of life. Yes, we can try to play it safe, to hang onto a God who won’t disappoint us, to avoid suffering. We can stay sort of safe and insulated, and numb and cut off from life. We have that choice. But this week especially I encourage you, I urge you, for God’s sake, let go, open yourself up, and enter into this awful, wonderful, death defying story.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter’s Church.

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