Powerful Awe | Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020

Recently, a headline appeared in my newsfeed: “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.” The tag line explained, “The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom can’t be explained by natural selection alone—so how did it come to be?”

The article made me think back to the extravagant splendor we found in the northeast Georgia mountains. With the help of a little app called All Trails, we found our way to four unique waterfalls, two of which took our breath away. The last one we visited was a two mile hike into the woods. Before we had reached the waterfall, Carter wore out and he and Dana turned around to go back to the car. Within five minutes, as Jack and I pressed ahead, we were at a towering waterfall of what I estimate to be twenty feet. It was magnificent. So much so, that Jack and I ran back down the trail to fetch Dana and Carter before they returned to the car so they could see it. Jack lost both of his shoes to the mud, but we caught them and brought them to see the extravagant splendor. And collected Jack’s shoes on the way. 

There, at the base of the falls, we stood in awe. Creation, nature, in all its extravagance. Evolution explains much, but it can’t explain why we’re enraptured by such beauty. 

Evolution cannot explain our penchant for beauty; to stand in awe of something. Why do we value beauty? It poses no evolutionary benefit. Evolution sees the world not as a place of beauty that should inspire awe and wonder. No, it sees the world as marked by the strong and the weak; a world to be survived by the fittest among us. 

Those who appreciate beauty according to an evolutionary perspective are not stronger and, therefore, more likely to succumb to the test of natural selection. Those who engage in the creation of art of many kinds are not better equipped for the challenges presented by a nature that can often be characterized by chaos more than order. And yet, we humans love beauty and, should we allow ourselves to be so consumed, awe can inspire our hearts and draw us to a place of extravagant splendor. 

But perhaps such talk of awe, of dwelling secure in the land of beauty, is choosing to blind yourself to the real problems of the world. It’s at best a naive way to see the world and, at worst, lying to yourself about the true nature of things. 

For the world really is survival of the fittest; natural selection. Those who are strong win. Those who have the right resources win. Those who create opportunity for themselves and rely on no one else win. The world is full of winners and losers and the right thing to do, the only way to be, is to do what you need to do to win at life. Life is chaos, create your own order, is the right perspective, the one this crazy, unpredictable, cruel life seems to demand. A right perspective that is seemingly reinforced as we live life with this virus.

We must create our own order for ourselves and those we love. No one else can do it for us, the task is to survive and, when we’ve survived, to then win. Darwin was right: only the strong survive, so be strong.

How do you see the world? 

Based on what we’ve said so far, we can see the world in one of two ways: survival of the fittest or extravagant splendor. One sees the world through conflict and chaos, the other beauty and order. Today’s scripture offers us the same choice. 

Let’s hear it now, with ears to hear it afresh and anew this Palm Sunday. It comes from Matthew 21:1-11

Scripture

How do you see the world? Survival of the fittest or extravagant splendor? 

Jesus is famous for marching into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But Pilate, the same Pilate who will sit in judgment of Jesus in five days, marches into Jerusalem on probably the same day as Jesus. Every year, at the start of Passover, Pilate would march into Jerusalem from his headquarters on the coast. He’d bring a legion with him: Rome’s best soldiers, lined up expertly marching, carrying their banners and signs of empire and power. If you need a mental image, think of the videos and pictures of Nazi soldiers marching during one of Hitler’s rallies. He modeled the banners, the marching style, the symbols, the whole thing on how the Romans paraded around. 

At the head of this parade there’s Pilate, riding a huge white stallion as he enters Jerusalem. He is the personification of power, one of the most important and most powerful people in the Roman Empire. This is the world’s mightiest power, this is the big kid on the block. You don’t mess with Rome. They are the greatest support to those citizens on the inside and the biggest bully to outsiders. Everything about Pilate’s entry screams power; screams survival of the fittest. 

For Rome is the fittest. They will survive. And not just that; they will continue to thrive, as they have been for a while now. This moment, with Jesus in the backwater colony of Palestine, is the near the apex of Rome’s power. They are ascendent. No one can match them. 

They are power. Rome is power. Pilate is power. They are the fittest. They are the strongest.

Knowing this about Pilate changes how we see Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. It’s beautiful, it’s poetic, the people love him and throng to him. They throw their clothes in a makeshift red carpet. They proclaim him King!

But Tiberius, the emperor of Rome, is the King! 

They shout, “blessed is the one who comes…” 

But that’s supposed to be reserved for someone like Pilate, of whom the crowd would shout, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the emperor!” 

They wave palm branches, a traditional sign of peace!

But that’s what Rome stands for. They have a phrase: the Pax Romana; literally the peace of Rome in Latin. Peace is what Rome creates, through strength, through having the mightiest army, through enforcing its borders, through being a bully, through waging war on its enemies and suppressing colonized populations, like those in Israel.

Jesus rides a donkey, the lowest of the equine family in terms of prestige, the opposite of Pilate’s mighty stallion.

All of this, seen this way, makes a mockery of Pilate’s entry. Jesus isn’t just riding into Jerusalem and experiencing a flash mob. Jesus is engaging in political theatre. He knows Pilate rides in with his army at about this time, a sign of power, stating symbolically to the people of Jerusalem: “I know passover makes you rowdy. Keep calm or else experience my strength.” 

Jesus rides in and, without saying a word, states, “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD.”

How do you see the world?

This reality, contrasting Jesus’s humility with Pilate’s arrogance; contrasting Godly power with human power, makes us ask a tough question: where do we put our trust? In the powers around us, those things that convey strength? Or do we put our trust in Jesus, whose power we know to be greater, but whose ways defy our expectations? 

The way God moves in this world defies our expectations. We know God is all powerful but it’s sure difficult to put our trust there because we don’t often get to see that power working. At least, that’s how we feel. Because so often, our experience of God’s power is not through strength, but through awe, wonder, and beauty.

We feel the power of God through awe and beauty, through wonder and transcendence. This week is a great week to experience that, as we look into Holy Week. We are amazed at an act of love that would take Jesus to the cross. We are in awe of the God who would sacrifice himself for us. We stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, as the hymn says. 

We are transfixed, awe-struck, for this week. And then, we get past Easter and our hearts return to their familiar security in the strength of the world. 

I felt convicted of this just the other day. In my prayer life, I’m reading the book Letters from the Desert by Carlo Carretto, an Italian social worker turned monk. He says, “We…believe in God. But then we put our trust in men of power, believe their advice, and in the end think that the affairs of this world are safe in their hands, and that it is to them we must make our petitions. We too believe in God and we pray to him. But then we convince ourselves that it is the great preachers who convert souls. And if we have this in mind when we pray for the growth of the Kingdom, our prayer will be futile, like making a request which will almost certainly be ignored.” (Carretto, 20). 

Before I read these words, I had been checking the news, looking for updates from President Trump and Governor Kemp on how they were working to keep us safe. My view of the world was in the power of governments to keep me, my family, and those I love safe from this virus, instead of following what I had written about only days earlier in my post titled, “Love that drives out COVID-19 Fear.” I said there that we had nothing to fear because God would care for us in life or in death; and what is death anyway except the ultimate healing of our lives? 

And here I was, putting my trust in princes instead of in God. 

Governments have a responsibility to protect us but they cannot match God’s power to do the same. It’s a question of where our hearts rest secure, where our souls find their peace. Is it in governments or God? 

For only God’s power, God’s strength, can truly save us from all sorts of maladies that would cause chaos in our lives. God’s strength saves us even from viruses; for even in death, we are victorious over this virus.

Consider that God’s strength always wins; God’s strength is the only strength that can guarantee survival. God is the fittest, and those in God will survive. 

God is the strongest. God’s strength makes the mightiest army look like a gang of ten year olds with spit balls. God’s wisdom makes the wisest human look like a fool. God’s provision is so great he can overcome the greatest famine. God’s offer of life and life abundant is so remarkable that not even death can defeat it. 

God is the fittest, and those in God will not only survive, but thrive. 

And it’s the beauty of the world, the things that cause awe within us, that remind us that God is with us and among us, moving for order. Extravagant splendor is our way of finding security in this world. 

But if we dare to be honest this morning, if we are willing to peer into our souls and hearts, we discover that this is not often what we really believe. It’s not often how we really approach the world. We very often, just like I did, look to princes, look to human authorities, to save us.

How do you see the world? 

How you answer that question makes all the difference in your faith, in your happiness, and in your life.

The eyes of sin cause us to see the world as a place where only the strong survive, where we must rely upon ourselves because no one will do it for us, where we can’t count on anything but chaos and ourselves to provide. When we see the world this way, we put trust in the powers of this world, like putting trust in the power of Pilate marching in on his stallion with his mighty army.

The eyes of Christ cause us to see the world as a place where God provides, where we can rely upon God to take care of us, where we can count on God to bring order to our chaos. When we see the world this way, we understand that the mockery Jesus made of Pilate was to prove this point: earthy powers are no match for God. 

That’s because only God can restore the world, only God can undo the chaos, only God can restore the destruction, only God can bring hope amidst despair. Only God can do these things, and we can either be a part of what God is doing or stand against God. There is no middle ground. 

Rejoicing in the extravagant splendor of the world, in the ways we encounter beauty, isn’t escapism away from the despairing realities of life. That beauty serves as a reminder that God is present among us, that God is with us, that God created the world to be a place of order and beauty that brings us to a place of awe and wonder. That’s what God’s about. And that’s what God is doing in our midst. And the reality that God is among us, creating order that causes beauty, is why we can trust God. 

Our world gives us extravagant reasons to be in awe of God. This week will give us plenty of reason to stand in awe of God, if we will focus our hearts on the love of God revealed through Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. 

So, this week, make sure you spend time in awe of God. You have, in your life, your own waterfalls, jazz, and people: things that cause you to stand in awe of who God is. Perhaps it’s getting outside and enjoying the beautiful spring weather we’re enjoying, while practicing social distancing, of course! 

Standing in awe of God teaches trust in God which inspires hope. That’s the proper way to see the world. That’s how we are to orient our faith and, indeed, our very lives. Standing in awe of God teaches trust in God, which inspires hope. And that hope will keep us from putting our trust in earthly powers. 

Make sure you make time this week to do things that cause that feeling of awe and wonder of God. That’s the challenge: in the midst of all we have going on, even in the midst of this virus, take the time to create space to experience God’s extravagant splendor. 

We have a choice on this Palm Sunday; a choice of how we see the world: embrace the power of the world to save us, or live into the things that cause us to be in wonder and awe of God, whose power, indeed, can save us.

How do you see the world?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

1 Comment

  1. Very good. I can relate to this so well. I remember the day that I stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and
    telling Howard: “There no way that anyone could say there is No God when seeing this.” What a beautiful
    world we live in, if we only take the time to look.

    Like

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