Victory at first looked like defeat

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who, at the age of 25, became a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin.

In 1933, and with Hitler’s rise to power, Bonhoeffer became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, a resistance movement against the Nazis. He was arrested in 1943. He was linked to a failed attempt on Hitler’s life and sent to Buchenwald, then to Schönberg prison.

After leading a worship service on April 8, 1945, at Schönberg prison, he was taken away to be hanged the next day. His last words as he left were, “This is the end, but for me the beginning of life.”

Exactly 72 years later we remember Bohoeffer’s courage and sacrifice as he attempted to protect the lives of millions of Jews from a hostile government who saw them as a threat.

We also remember on this day the life of one very courageous Jew who two thousand years ago entered a city (Jerusalem) whose government was quite hostile to him because it saw him as a threat. Of course the common people who, with an open mind, interacted with him and saw him heal the sick and cast out demons viewed him much differently.

Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The gospels record the arrival of Jesus riding into the city on a donkey, while the crowds spread their cloaks and palm branches on the street and shouted “Hosanna (literally “save us now”) to the Son of David” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” to honor him as their long-awaited Messiah and King.

The significance of Jesus riding a donkey and having his way paved with palm branches is a fulfillment of a prophecy spoken by the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9).

In biblical times, the regional custom called for kings and nobles arriving in procession to ride on the back of a donkey. While this doesn’t appear very majestic to modern eyes, the donkey was a symbol of peace; those who rode upon one proclaimed peaceful intentions.

The laying of palm branches indicated that the king or dignitary was arriving in victory or triumph.

Of course we know that Jesus’ type of victory more closely resembled Bonhoeffer’s than a military/political one. By Friday of that week he suffered an agonizing death on the cross. His final words were “It is finished!” That meant that his suffering was over and the whole work His Father had given Him to do, which was to preach the Gospel, work miracles, and obtain eternal salvation for his people, was done, accomplished, fulfilled. The debt of sin was paid.

This week is considered the most holy of the year by the Christian Church. Some are uncomfortable with it because they find the story of betrayal, torture and death to be rather depressing. Sadly, some even avoid worship on Good Friday for that reason. Those feelings are understandable.

Even Jesus, in a very human moment in the garden of Gethsemane, thought about avoiding the scene. Yet he was obedient.

His obedience in facing a situation that was far worse than depressing is what provides us hope for the future. Whatever hardship we may face pales in comparison with what he endured. And he did that just for you.

He did that so that you will know that God understands and has actually felt every pain that you have. He did that so that when you are at the end of your life, you can say with confidence, “This is the end, but for me the beginning of life.”

Larry Gember is pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in Greenfield. This weekly column is written by local clergy members.