Read Matthew 21:1-11 here.
Chuck Norris aside, if you ask a dozen random people what they think about coincidence, the answers are all over the place. Some go full-Shyamalan on you and say things like, “There are no coincidences.” Others will claim that life is no better than a long string of accidents. Many will at least have a story or two about uncanny circumstances that just kind of came together, like how they met their spouse, or once narrowly avoided a mishap, or at some point felt the very real leading of God. Whatever the case, ask folks about coincidence and pretty soon you’re deep in the territory of fate and chance, free will and God’s sovereignty. Then things get real fun, real quick. Like I said, it goes every which-way.
What interests me even more is that if you take another dozen people, only those who firmly believe that there is meaning behind coincidence, and ask them to describe the purpose behind a single group of events, they could still come to a dozen different conclusions. Why? Because at the heart of understanding coincidence is trying to figure out whether or not there is intent behind a set of circumstances, and what that intent might be.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that trying to figure out someone’s intentions can be one of the most difficult undertakings on earth. I don’t even always fully understand or acknowledge my own intentions, let alone someone else’s. So let’s start by trying to agree that coincidence requires a wide berth for interpretation.
Reading the Signs
Even more, any time something or someone leaves us room for interpretation, there’s also room for manipulation. Let me put it this way, not too long ago I was cleaning out my office on a Friday afternoon. I grabbed a bunch of my accumulated trash and junk, threw it in the car, drove home, and then unloaded it in the house. Amongst the rabble, I had snagged a small vase with some fairly decent flowers in it (it had been placed in my office by some ladies who distribute the gently-used church sanctuary flowers every week).
I absent-mindedly put the vase on the kitchen counter and, when Karen discovered them, it was terribly meaningful to her. She decided that this was just the gift that she needed on this particular day, and that I was an amazing husband. I chose to let her keep believing that reality for several weeks before clarifying things.
I do that sort of thing a lot, and not just with Karen – I spend a lot of time convincing myself and other people that what was dumb luck on my part, or happenstance, or God’s grace, was actually a stroke of brilliance. You do it, too. We harness coincidence to our own benefit.
Really, we can harness coincidence for almost any purpose, or to build up almost any idea in our mind. Have a crush on the guy/girl across from you in homeroom? Well if he/she happens to glance up and make eye contact with you after you’ve been staring for five minutes, tell yourself that you could be destined for each other. Envious of someone else’s success and unable to reconcile why you haven’t experienced it at the same level? Rationalize that he/she must have been in the right place at the right time by pure chance. Trying to make some kind of sense out of unforeseen tragedy? Fall back on the idea that God must’ve caused such harm only to bring about some unexpected good, in the midst of a grand plan/purpose; or, worse, deduce that the suffering must have somehow been deserved.
We have got to be careful, careful, careful in trying to discern between what is merely coincidental and what is intentional when it comes to God, ourselves, or other people. That finally brings us to Palm Sunday.
Our Preferred Messiah
If you read the Matthew 21 text, or are familiar with the story, then maybe you can agree that the “Triumphal Entry” is an occasion for trying to distinguish between coincidence and intentionality. After all, the welcome that Jesus receives – as a victory-bringing king riding into his city, hailed with shouts of, “Save us!” during the festival of the Passover – is utterly fitting. It’s the kind of royal treatment that Jesus has deserved from the whole populace since the day he was born, and now it’s finally happening – everyone seems to be finally starting to get the picture!
But we already know that in a very short while Jesus’ treatment at the hands of the people is completely reversed. At best, they desert him. At worst, they demand his torture and death, and mock him all the way to the grave. Literally, almost no one is left standing by him. And we’re left to wonder what happened, what changed.
Reflecting on it this week, I can’t help thinking that very little actually changed in those few days. Rather, I think that during that first Palm Sunday procession we simply give the members of the crowd more credit than they were due. I have to believe that plenty of the people who were participating that day, at least in some part, were doing so only by coincidence.
What I mean is, how many of them, including his closest companions, understood who Jesus really was and what he was coming to Jerusalem to do? Or, instead, how many were there because, up until that moment, Jesus’ path just happened to coincide with their own motives, and goals, and visions of a preferred future? What were their intentions? Think through it with me…
We know that a great bulk of the people saw in Jesus a chance to win. They saw might and victory and national pride and forceful liberation from the Romans. The Messiah would be the justice and judgment bringer, laying down the boom. They saw revolution.
We can guess that a great many must have seen in him a social revolution – here was a Jesus to elevate the poor and the “sinners” and to topple the priests and the wealthy hierarchy, to “set them free.” He was an anti-establishment radical, and fishermen were going to rule alongside him when he established his new kingdom.
How many were there because of the miraculous? Jesus had, literally, fed them and kept them alive, healed things and fixed things. His kingdom would have no end because, well, he would just “Lazarus” anybody who got ill or died.
We know that some in the crowd saw Jesus as a source of purpose or meaning. Here was someone who had things figured out, who knew concrete answers, who could tell them exactly what to do and how to live. A guru.
Or, if they cherry-picked from what they’d heard about him in passing, here was a man who only said really nice things, who preached mutual respect and love, co-existence and universal happiness. He promoted service projects and activism, communal living and shared possessions. The hipster king, maaan.
And, ultimately, we know that some folks were just there. Some were dragged along by a parent or a friend. Some got swept up in the crowd, or joined in the celebration so as not to stand out, or just didn’t have any better plans that day.
Whatever the case, even though there are some somewhat decent intentions in that mix, they still treated Jesus like nothing more than a thing to be used or to be possessed or to benefit from, rather than the person of the One, True, Living God.
“Going my way…?”
So, one of the true benefits of Palm Sunday, as hard as it can be, is to start recognizing ourselves in that crowd, with all of our similar intentions/expectations. We have a chance to ask ourselves how much of our professed faith is merely coincidental where the Christian lifestyle just happens to align with our other goals, motives, and desires.
We have a chance to admit that sometimes Church is nothing more than a great way to play out our cultural norms (Southerners), or to blindly acquiesce to habit, or to satisfy familial obligations. It can be no more than the perfect occasion to showcase our self-righteousness, or to advance our professional/social standing, or to exercise positions of power/authority. It can be nothing but an ideal setting to find an attractive mate, or to try to win God’s prosperity, or to make a living. And so on. Today we have to take a look at ourselves, and our motives for Jesus. And we have to admit that just because we happen to be in the same vicinity as him, going in roughly the same direction for the time being, it doesn’t mean we’re actually travelling with Jesus, let alone following him.
If we can do that, if we can admit the extent to which our own Christianity is just coincidental, we can do something about it. We can change, even right now. We can shift directions, in other words, repent. I mean, I know when you start to take a look at your own motives, or any of us starts to question how sincere our faith has been, it can be kind of defeating. It can be guilt-laden and this faith, done right, can feel impossible. But what should fuel us to start doing things right is summed up in the second great truth of the Matthew 21 passage – for all of the human coincidence on the first Palm Sunday, not a single part of what Jesus was doing was coincidental.
The gospel writer gives us little hints that Jesus is exactly where he intended to be. The donkey just kind of materializes because “the Lord needs it,” and the whole scene connects directly to ancient Messianic prophecies. The people shout “Hosanna!” which is loaded with historical meaning. Jesus has already said all sorts of foreboding things about his arrival in Jerusalem. In other words, this day was the culmination of thousands of years of God’s preparation, and Jesus was focused on his cross, even in spite of the knowledge that this royal welcome was just a farce.
It means that even our own jacked-up intentions don’t prevent God from loving us, even to the point of death. It means that even if it’s only coincidence that draws us close to Christ, in his grace he will draw us towards something substantially more. To me, it means that he deserves loving and following, really and truly.
This Palm Sunday, we reckon with our own intentions, and with what is just coincidence, so that we give ourselves a chance to choose, consciously and purposefully. We have some things to ask ourselves. Did this man die as a sacrifice on my behalf, that I could be forgiven and free? Is he everything the Church claims him to be, even God in the flesh? Does my utter hope rest in him? Will I follow him and offer into his service the very best of all that I have?
Knowing what the first Palm Sunday crowds didn’t know, knowing how the story continues and what kind of Messiah he really was, let’s take an honest shot at answering those questions, personally, and making some mindful choices going forward. Amen.