A Different Kind of Joy

Matthew 21:1-11

For a moment, Jesus was a hero, riding into town on a donkey. We don’t know what the crowd was feeling, but for a moment, they recognized greatness when they saw it. No Caesar on a war horse, no Roman legion ready to quell any disturbance, no fancy chariot financed by the sweat of oppressed people. Just a simple rabbi, but more than that God’s beloved teacher and healer, coming with a vision of a new way of life and a new world order.

It’s hard to imagine such powerlessness inspiring such adulation. Jesus has no protective guard, no pomp and circumstance. Yet, we feel the same way as that crowd when see photos of Mother Teresa ministering to the dying on Calcutta streets or hear the Dalai Lama’s gentle teachings or recall Martin Luther King marching into Selma. In seeing them, we like the crowd in Jerusalem, see ourselves with new eyes, as larger, more compassionate, creative, and loving people. We see the possibility of our own greatness and spiritual stature, when we glimpse their largeness of soul.

It’s been said that there are two primary ways of wielding power – unilateral and relational power. Unilateral power is the power of Caesar, the power of “my way or the highway” edicts, the power of “I’m in charge and your voice -doesn’t matter.” It’s win-lose; it’s do what say or else. Unilateral power rules by fear and punishment. You can bow down to it, but you will never respect or love it.

Relational power is all about listening, hearing the deepest needs of those around you, doing your best to find a path that honors diverse opinions, and leaves everyone feeling as if their experiences and attitudes, their viewpoints matter. It’s about bringing forth creativity from those with whom we work, leaving room for contrast and surprise.  It’s about making the workplace, the school, the church, a place of joy and not guilt!

That day, the crowd saw relational power in action. They saw the divine one, riding on donkey, coming in peace, ruling by love, respect, and partnership.

The power of love often seems powerless, but who today remembers Pilate or the high priests in Jerusalem or Caesar? They have no power to change our values or spiritual lives. But, we remember Jesus, and when we have a personal relationship with the powerless Messiah, we are transformed by the greatest power in the world – sacrificial love – the power of love, love that embraces the lost and lonely, that goes to the cross so that life might defeat the power of darkness. On that day, the crowds for a moment saw a different kind of world and experienced a different kind of joy, the joy that emerges in the midst of life’s challenges, based on trust in God’s providential care and inspiration.

As a pastor, I am amazed at this different kind of joy and I want to contrast it with other joyful experiences – if you’re a Patriot fan, do you remember your delight when the Patriots came from behind to win the Super Bowl? Do you remember the satisfaction you may have felt when your candidate was elected? Or, you got the job you were hoping for? There is nothing wrong with these joyful moments– and I am happy when my side wins and was delighted when Peg Belden called me roughly four years ago to tell me that the Search Committee had nominated me to be their candidate for pastor. We want good fortune for us, and those we support.

There is, however, a different kind of joy. It is the joy I’ve experienced at the hospital when a woman facing a life-threatening illness says, “I’ve had a good life and I am grateful. I’ve loved and been loved, and now I trust God with the future.” It’s the joy of facing a chronic illness with equanimity and asserting that “God still has work for me to do” as you bring a casserole to church. It’s the joy – very understated – that my Dad’s pastor noted after one of his visits to the nursing home: confined to a wheel chair after a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side, my Dad told his pastor, “I’m stuck”….and then he paused and smiled that crooked post-stroke smile, “But that’s ok.” Broken though he was, he could still smile at his fellow residents and reach out with kindness.

It’s the joy of a parent or grandparent who has spent the night up with a sick child, grateful that they can care for this little one and shower her or him with love.

Joy is at the heart of the Christian vision and the roller coaster journey of Holy Week. It doesn’t depend on success, on winning or getting ahead of others; it doesn’t even depend on good health. Joy comes when we realize that our lives are in God’s care, that God is with us, that God still has work for us to do, and that our future is in God’s hands. As the song says, “What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms.”

Soon the darkness of Holy Week will descend: the palms will be replaced by whips and nails. The crowds will flee, and all that we love is jeopardized. But even this cannot defeat joy. There is, within the pain of Holy Week, the birth pangs of a different kind of joy. The joy that comes in the darkest valley when you see a ray of light, a stone rolled away, and the outline of a path to tomorrow.

It is the joy that inspires us to proclaim, regardless of life’s circumstances, “Hosanna! Hossana! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God.”