My first fall in seminary while traveling I stuck my head in an airport bookstores and grabbed a book called, “What if? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been.” The editor, Robert Cowley, the founding editor of The Journal of Military History, writes:
[What ifs] can be a tool to enhance the understanding of history, to make it come alive. They can reveal, in startling detail, the essential stakes of a confrontation, as well as its potentially abiding consequences.
[Then he asks] What if the Persians had beaten the rowers of Athens at Salamis in 480 BC – perhaps the single most important day in the history of the west – or if the Spanish Armada had won and the Duke of Parma’s army had occupied London?…Or what if the Germans had beaten back the D-Day landings?
The first essay asks, “What if a mysterious plaque had not smitten the Assyrian besiegers of Jerusalem in 701 BC? (found in Second Kings 18-19) Would there have been a Jewish religion? Would there have been Christianity?” “What ifs can define true turning points,” Cowley writes, “They can show that small accidents or split-second decisions are as likely to have major repercussions as large ones.” But we don’t often know where we are until much later.
I thought about this book and our relationship with history as I read verse 16: “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him…” After chapter 11 when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, things get serious. The civil and religious leaders conspire. His friends knew going to Jerusalem for the Passover wasn’t safe. “What do you think?” John has one say in 11:56, “Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?”
But he does, and John says ‘The great crowd that had come to the festival,’ heard Jesus was coming, and as they see him they know something, sense something, and they take branches of palm trees – John is the only gospel to mention palm branches– and rush to meet him. The scene explodes, the crowds shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” like we did with the psalmist a few moments ago. He grabs a donkey, fulfilling prophecy from Zechariah: “Do not be afraid…Look, your king is coming!”
Verse 16 steps back: “His disciples did not understand these things at first; BUT when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered…” New Testament Scholar Lamar Williamson writes:
The so-called “triumphal entry” was hardly a triumph. It was a shabby show in the carnival atmosphere of a religious festival; a simply dressed provincial rabbi and miracle worker on a borrowed donkey being welcomed noisily by an enthusiastic but frothy crowd. It had no relevance for the fate of the honoree just days later, nor did his own disciples see any significance in it until after Jesus was crucified and had risen from the dead…. Then, those who believed in him and loved him saw it as the fulfillment of a prophecy…and understood…Jesus’…glory…revealed on a cross and by an empty grave.
So, verse 17 continues, after these things, they continued to testify. Because they had been with him when Lazarus was raised, because they had seen that sign, they hung in there through the hurt that was to come. But the Pharisees, ominously, say as this text concludes: “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
Those disciples were living in the in-between times. They knew Jesus was special, even unique of God. They saw Lazarus raised. But they also saw the authorities coming. This shabby show was filled with hope yet underlined with fear. They saw the religious leaders, suspicious, watching people buying whatever impure religion they knew he was selling. The irony is thick. It was only later, John tells us, it was only then his disciples even began to see what God was doing in the mess, the turmoil, the confusion, the violence.
I am not at all comfortable saying that whatever cultural turmoil we are experiencing is a part of God’s plan. And, if it is part of God’s plan then I would like to argue with God about that. So much in our broader world seems so unstable. So much was already in the works, in the process of shifting, a tumultuous election season that tore the cover off whatever was festering, and it’s only gotten worse. We can’t see, can’t look at, can’t live with each other. We are defined and labeled and categorized by our skin color and immigration status and political party. We view each other, especially people who we think are on the ‘other team,’ with deep suspicion. No one gives anyone the benefit of the doubt anymore. And it is exhausting and does damage in families and neighborhoods and churches and we can’t SEE each other.
And I don’t know the ‘what if’ on this one. I do know we all feel a sense of loss. Of a stability that might or might not have been real but for people who look like us we could at least cling to the illusion. All the things that used to work that don’t work. And it a source of grief. And we act in hurtful ways to each other, it causes divisions in every group you are a part of, I bet. And we see racist hatred that used to be tucked away emboldened. I saw a friend who is an architect at the Y this week, and he told me that he was at a conference last week of a national organization of professionals that build schools, that work with governments on planning and construction. The state of North Carolina’s chapter met a few weeks ago. And much of the focus was on violence. About what kinds of materials worked well in the construction of our schools to stop bullets. Doors and windows and walls. Because that’s where we are.
Yet we have an opportunity before us. This week, today, this most holy of weeks, the hinge of history, with repercussions so far beyond what anyone who was there and living in it could ever possibly imagine, and only some of which made some sense later. This week is an opportunity, to place all of this into this story that shapes our faith and ought to inform our faithful response to it all. Might we descend with Jesus and his disciples all the way to the depths, and to take our grief and hurt and loss and all of it with us, down, down, down? To the Garden of Gethsemane, nailed to the cross, into the darkness of the tomb as the world’s heart was breaking. Knowing that it is in the One who sits right smack in the middle of all of the pain, and yet who STILL triumphs over it all, that it is in this One, Jesus Christ, in whom we must ultimately place our trust. That God, in whatever way, is working God’s purposes out. And that we cannot, and we may not in our lifetimes, see how the pieces fit. Some people, like the disciples, almost see it. Others, like the Pharisees, will look back with regret. Usually, it seems to me, we look back with a little of both. But, ultimately, all we have is to be able to look in the mirror, or look back at the sweep of things we have said and seen, times we have spoken up and times we have remained silent. Times we have listened and needed to listen more. Times we have felt loss, deep loss. Times we have decided to get to work. And placed it all in the hands of Jesus, who invites us to follow him in whatever strange and beautiful and messy and hard and glorious place he calls.
I have not seen Hamilton, but enough of the music floats around, and I continue to, whenever I read or hear of that era of our founding fathers and mothers, am amazed at their keen sense of history. That their lives and choices didn’t just resonate in that moment, but echoed far beyond. They made decisions not just about what was in front of them, but tried to think, as well as they could, about the nation that was even then becoming, and is still becoming, still in process, even now. At one point Hamilton and Layafette and Mulligan and Laurens drink a toast to history. “I may not live to see our glory, but I will gladly join the fight. And when our children tell our story. They’ll tell the story of tonight…” Because they understand that who they are then is not just about them, but casts them out, beyond, towards a vision of more. That is our call. To live this day, and the day after, and they day after, knowing history awaits. And Jesus calls us to set it all aside, all of it, whatever it is, and follow. “We’ll tell the story of tonight….” they sing.
And we’ll tell the story of this week, and lean into it with all we have. Much pain is to come, but glory awaits. All praise be to God. Amen.
 Robert Cowley, ed, “What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been,” (New York: Berkley Books, 1999). I quote from the introduction, pages xi-xiii.
 See Psalm 118:25-26, Zechariah 9:9.
 Lamar Williamson, Preaching the Gospel of John, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004), p 148-149.