The first time a wind of hurricane force with a tornado howled into town it scared the wits right out of me. I knelt by the toilet, heart thumping, begging God to protect us, keep our roof intact, and our trees rooted. The sky took on an ominous green colour, the house creaked, and my prized birch tree bent way past its central axis. I thought it was a goner, and maybe we were too.
My picture of God at that moment was very simple: he was my answer to a desperate need. Whether he was trinitarian or omniscient as well as immanent – or any other major theological argument that had rocked the church for centuries – took a very distant back seat to raw survival. My prayer did not include a long introduction letting God know I trusted his will over mine either; it was just one sentence: “Father, please save us,” which I hoped included saving my prized birch tree, and saving the house.
I cannot condemn the Jews in the first century, therefore – when they “heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem” in John 12:12 – for shouting out to him, “Hosanna,” in verse 13, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It was a quote right out of Psalm 118:25-26, where the meaning of the word “Hosanna” was given in verse 25, “O Lord, save us.”
It was for that one simple reason that the Jews “took palm branches and went out to meet Jesus, shouting, ‘Hosanna.’” They believed Jesus had come to save them. It was the reason he existed. And by “saved” they meant save them from death, or raise them from the dead, just like he’d raised Lazarus from the dead a few days earlier (John 12:17-18). Jesus was just the hero they were looking for, a miracle worker who would raise their nation back to the life they’d been dreaming about for nearly five hundred years. At last, the Lord had come to save them.
And I can’t blame them for thinking that either, because I’d looked to the Lord as that hurricane howled for the same reason. And so did my 11 year old daughter who had an exam coming up, which she hadn’t taken the time to study sufficiently for. She asked God to save her, to get her a passing grade, because wasn’t that what God was for? He was there to get you out of a pickle, to save the day when you were in trouble, or as Psalm 118:26 phrased it, “O Lord, grant us success.” God could easily get her a passing grade, in other words.
And yes he could, just as Jesus could have galloped down the Mount of Olives on a snorting great white horse, accompanied by legions of angels, and with a whooping a war cry sliced his way through every enemy the Jews had. But instead he came down the hillside on a little grey donkey clopping its way, head down, at walking speed. And instead of my daughter passing her exam with flying colours, she failed.
To both her and the Jews, Jesus was a terrible disappointment. She decided there and then she didn’t want anything more to do with him, and the Jews shouting “Hosanna” were heard later yelling, “Crucify him.” Their tune had totally changed, because their picture of God had been shattered when he didn’t “save” them as they’d hoped and wanted.
But “At first Jesus’ disciples did not understand” either, John 12:16, which is why they all deserted him too. It was “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize” (same verse), that in his crucifixion, in which Jesus was glorified, was the correct picture of God.
Forget about passing exams and winning battles against enemies, or even protection against hurricanes. Jesus made it clear in John 12:25 what salvation is really about. It’s about “eternal life,” because that’s what God’s really after for us humans. It isn’t temporary “success,” it’s being able to live forever in a world where no hurricanes exist, no exams need passing, and no enemies need crushing.
And that kind of world is impossible for us to create. It’s been impossible from the time God first created us. We could only be “saved” for such a world by Jesus’ death. Or as Jesus put it in John 12:24, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Jesus’ death would produce more than just successes and protection in this “single seed” life of ours, because this life, no matter how safe and successful it has been, comes to an end. God had much more in mind. He had “many seeds,” a whole waving wheat field that extended way beyond just “getting through” this life as best we can and then dying. And he made that waving wheat field of eternal life possible for his beloved humans through Jesus’ death.
How he managed to do that is the subject of another article, but knowing this is what God had in mind through Jesus is where the right picture of God begins. It wasn’t in Jesus entering Jerusalem as the great hero to save the Jews from their enemies in this life, it was in Jesus dying for them so that one day they could live an eternal life without an enemy in sight. Through Jesus God did for us what we dream of but could never create for ourselves, because that’s our God.