As we draw near to Palm Sunday, the daily readings are filled with episodes of trial and deliverance, a sort of “Top 10” countdown to Holy Week.
There’s the story of Susanna, who was falsely accused of adultery and sentenced to death. She cried out to God and was saved by God’s intervention through Daniel.
There’s the story of the Israelites in the desert, when serpents came among them as punishment for their unfaithfulness. They cried out to God, who had Moses mount a bronze serpent on a pole. Whoever looked at it after being bitten would live.
There’s the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar when they refused to worship the golden statue he set up. They prayed for help and God sent an angel to preserve them in the midst of the fire.
There’s the story of Jeremiah, when the people denounced him and conspired against him. He trusted in God, who preserved his life so that he could deliver the prophetic message God gave him.
A line from Jeremiah sums up the common theme of the Old Testament readings this week: “Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, for He has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked.”
All of this sets the stage for Jesus’ experience in Holy Week, and all of it is for our instruction. Jesus was also delivered from death. And, in Jesus, we too can be delivered from harm.
But there’s no false advertising here. How God delivered His people in the Old Testament isn’t the same as how He did it in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, He saved them from death; in the New Testament, He saves them through death. He gives us a greater victory, but we also face a greater challenge.
Jesus is the prime example that bad things still happen to good people. In the Gospel readings for this week, things aren’t going well. Jesus makes it clearer and clearer who He is, and what people need to do. But the Pharisees aren’t following. Unlike other conversations in John (the woman at the well, the man born blind, Nicodemus), this isn’t a story of a progressive and deepening acceptance of Jesus. It’s a case of a progressive hardening of hearts. At every turn the Pharisees, like Pontius Pilate, refuse Jesus’ invitation to go deeper.
So the tension rises all week.This pent up force will be unleashed with fury during Holy Week. But, paradoxically, that very fury will fuel Jesus’ ultimate victory. He will show that God not only saves His people from death, He saves them even through death. That’s not a comfortable message. But it’s a comforting one.
In the coming two weeks, the encouragement is to let God into the hard places in our lives — and we all have them! We sometimes hear the voice of the enemy: “If God loved you, these bad things wouldn’t be happening.” But that’s a lie. The truth is that God wants to walk with us into those hard places, just as He did with Jesus, and to walk through them to victory on the other side.
God has always delivered His people. But sometimes He delivers us through the hard times rather than from the hard times. As the readings begin to prepare us for Holy Week, it’s a good time to think about how we can let God walk with us into the hard places of our lives.