In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the embattled tyrant takes comfort from the prophecies of three witches, who tell him his throne is secure until the great forest of Birnam Wood comes to his castle on Dunsinane Hill. Everyone knows forests don’t move; all is well!
When enemy soldiers, however, take branches from the trees of Birnam Wood to use as camouflage as they advance, the prophecy was fulfilled, but not in the way Macbeth had interpreted it.
Almost 2,000 years ago, the people of Jerusalem similarly misunderstood prophecies about the coming Messiah. On the day now referred to as Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into the city on a donkey. This was an obvious fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The cheering crowd waved palm branches, a symbol of military victory, as it welcomed the one who would liberate the people from the Roman oppressors.
Wasn’t this the man who fed thousands of people with just a couple fish and some bread? Wasn’t this the man who raised Lazarus from the dead? Surely, this was the time God had ordained his people would be set free. By the end of the week, when it became clear that Jesus had no intention of leading an armed revolution, the cheers turned to jeers. The nervous Romans were more than glad to oblige the mob and crucified him like a common criminal.
Zechariah’s prophecy was indeed fulfilled, but this king received a crown of thorns instead of gold, and was given a cross for a throne. Consequently, Jesus and his mission have been consistently misunderstood down to the present day. Some proclaim a Jesus who is apparently a vegetarian committed to saving the whales and abolishing nuclear weapons. Others are sure Jesus is a capitalist wrapped in the American flag who also supports gun rights. Still others contend that the real Jesus intends for us to be wealthy, have perfect health and always enjoy personal fulfillment on our terms.
To be honest, we are all guilty of looking for those aspects of Jesus’ character and approach to life that most closely resemble our own, and we easily jettison anything that might contradict our preferred image of him. The “inconvenient truth” is that Jesus saw his own purpose differently: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
All the other things, however worthy they might be, are distractions from the Messiah’s true mission, which is to reconcile fallen humans with the heavenly Father.
What’s more, the only road to reconciliation Jesus offers is the one he himself took: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
Jesus’s words are not only a prophecy, but a promise; the question is, will we take him at his word, or substitute our own?
If Birnam Wood could come to Dunsinane, then maybe this Jesus is telling the truth when he says we must die in order to live. As we enter Holy Week, may we see Jesus, not as we imagine him to be, but as he really is.
THE REV. ED REES IS THE PASTOR OF ST. ANDREW PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN AUGUSTA.