Palm Sunday; Power and Popularity, or Faithful Following

palm-sunday

PSALM 118:1-2, 19-29

1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!
2 Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures for ever.”
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the LORD’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!
O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
27 The LORD is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
29 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

READING MARK 11:1-11
1When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

When I was in college there was an album that I swear must have been standard issue for every college dorm room—Frampton Comes Alive. You could hear it playing from five to ten rooms simultaneously, and every time you turned on the radio, you got serenaded by Mr. Frampton, pleading with you to show him the way.

framptoncomesalive In 1977 Rolling Stone called him the Artist of the Decade. And that was pretty the time anyone heard of Peter Frampton. He disappeared just as quickly and just as dramatically as he appeared.
That has happened countless times—from artists to politicians, from TV celebrities to world leaders. Up one minute, and down the next.

And that is what happened to Jesus on Holy Week. He came into Jerusalem to shouts of praise and acclamation. But by Friday the people who were singing his praises were not calling for his execution.

How could things have turned around so dramatically? To understand that you have to understand a little about the political situation at the time. The whole country had been run by a king named Herod at the time of Jesus’ birth, but he was so cruel and so corrupt that when he died most of the people were actually glad to see the country partitioned, and a Roman led government set up in Jerusalem. One of Herod’s relatives, who was also called Herod was set up as the ruler of Galilee. But at the time when Jesus entered Jerusalem, that area was officially ruled by the Romans.

jesus-worldTheir governing of the area was not all that successful. It was not one of the best places to be posted if you were a rising young Roman, and was often ruled by incompetents, the last of which was Pontius Pilate. Pilate had caused a stir when, to show his authority, he put up Roman eagles on the doors of the Temple. That caused a riot which lasted for days, and he had to take them.

Basically Pilate was one of those leaders who folded when he should have stood firm, and stood firm when he should have been flexible. It had been almost thirty years since the corrupt and cruel Herod had ruled, and most people forgot how bad he was. So they were ready for a change.

The other party ruling Jerusalem was the Sanhedrin, The Romans had learned that if they did anything the people pitched a fit. So, like many colonial powers, the appointed some locals to be the local face of authority, and instead of actually controlling the country, they controlled, more or less, the local governing authorities, which was the Sanhedrin, and they let the Sanhedrin rule the country in their place. Most Romans actually lived in the city of Caesarea, which was a coastal resort town, far from Jerusalem.

By the time Jesus makes his Palm Sunday appearance, the people are sick and tired of both the Romans and the Sanhedrin. They had heard of this rabble rousing rabbi, and thought he just might be the one who would get rid of both the Romans and the Sanhedrin. Jesus had deliberately taken the long way into Jerusalem, through Jericho, and taught and preached along the way. He made it known, before the left Galilee, that he WAS heading for Jerusalem, and the something really big was going to happen there, and as he travelled there, the word begun to spread.

So when Jesus is just outside the gates, people knew he was coming, and they had high hopes that he just might the One who could free them from all their troubles. He might be the one who could free them from the Romans, and who could help them get their country back. He could be the one who could reestablish the reign of God back in their country, who could bring back the good ole days when King David ruled the country. He could make them a contender on the world stage, and not just a second rate back water country.

Or, he could at least provide them with some entertainment along the way. If he was not the one, they at least hoped he would put on a good show for them.

So they grabbed their palm branches, which were a “secret” sign of revolt against Rome, and they headed out to meet him as he entered.

****

I can only imagine what Jesus is thinking as he is moving through the crowd on Palm Sunday. He sees the excited crowds, and he knows what they are expecting of him. And he knows he will not fulfill their expectations. Not only that, he knows that by the end of the week, many of the people who are now praising him and who think he is the greatest thing since Roman Numerals will soon be calling for his execution.

So what is he thinking as he enters? What is going through his head as he sees the smiling faces all around him, knowing that some of these same people will be scowling at him in just a few days?

He knows his mission and he knows that it is not what the people want to see. It is easy for them to throw a parade today, but he knows their commitment to him is mile wide, but only an inch deep. Anyone can join a victory parade, especially they had nothing to do with the victory.

But Jesus does not measure his worth by what the crowd thinks of him. His agenda is not set by what will make him popular. He knows that there are things he could do, which would make his stock soar with the crowd, but he also knows that is not what he has set out to do. That would be a detour from his main mission and at this point he cannot afford any side trips.

His job is not to save a country, but to save humanity. He does not want to be a temporal earthly king, subject to all the demands of the political situation. He has bigger fish to fry. He knows political gains are always short term gains, and he has his eye on the eternal. He is not looking to get people’s approval. He is looking to get into their souls. He is not looking to supply them with bread for a day, but with spiritual nurture for life. He is not looking to make a difference in their circumstances. He wants to be the difference in their entire lives.

So the crowds don’t faze him. He is not seduced by them. He does not need their approval. He is not out courting votes, or organizing supporters so he can get his agenda passed.

Jesus knows that you are not defined by who the crowd thinks you are. The crowd may praise you, or the crowd may jeer you, but that says more about that crowd than about you.

Jesus did not come to set up his own version of power politics. He did not come to win more power for him and his. He did not even come to change that game.

He came to set up a whole new game, called the church. Of course, he got crucified for that.

He did not take on the Romans, or the Sanhedrin. He did not go after political power, he did not try to set himself up as the New King of Jerusalem. And the people noticed, and they were disappointed. His own followers began to grow impatient. Instead of attacking the Romans, he went after the religious hypocrites of his day. Instead of going after the dirty sinners and the foreigners, he went after the self-righteous. Instead of going after the political oppressors, he went after things and the people who oppress our souls.

He did not play the game the people expected him to play. I think that was why he was killed. If he had played the game, the people would have supported him, but the religious authorities and the political authorities knew they could eventually end up controlling him. If he played their game, he would have ended up as one of them. And then he might have proved quite useful to the religious and political authorities of his day.

But he did NOT play their game, and I think that is what scared them. They realized he was a man they could never control. He could not be controlled by the crowds; he would never play to them to get their approval, and he could not be controlled by the powerbrokers of his day. He would never try to outdo them by becoming one of them.

He was doing something completely different.

And that scared them.

He could not be coopted. He could not be corrupted. He could not be used. And so in the end he was useless to the crowds, so they called for his crucifixion. He was useless to the powerbrokers, and so they had him crucified.

It is always tempting to play to the crowd, to play to the powerbrokers. It is always tempting to play the game the society around you wants you to play. Over many centuries, at many different times, the Church of Jesus Christ has done that. When it did it often got temporary political power and popularity, but it always lost more than it got.

In this world we do that. And for the most part there is nothing wrong with it. I have played the political game, and it is a fun game. But please, let us NOT do this in the name of Jesus. That demeans his name. That cheapens what he really did on after Palm Sunday, and it brings Jesus down to our level; it does not raise us to the level of Jesus.

We are entering an election year, and we are going to see people running campaigns and advocating worldly political power agendas and some will be claiming to do it for God. And that is just a lie. People who say that are deluding themselves and others (or maybe just others), and there is nothing godly about what they doing.

Any politician who equates an earthly political agenda with the Will of God has cheapened God. They are misrepresenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God does not have a political agenda, at least not the ones that either the Left or the Right in America is interesting in pursuing. Let me say this clearly. If anyone claims that God is behind their political agenda, they are lying to themselves and you. Or they are just lying to you.

This is not to say that some politicians are not influenced by God. I have met a few who were devout in their beliefs, and one even told me he made the decision to run for governor of Alaska sitting in a worship service in my old church. But he never told anyone else that, and he certainly did not run as if he were God’s Own Candidate, which is a good thing, because he lost in the primary.

The Church of Jesus Christ is NEVER called to play the game of power politics, and we certainly never are to do it in the Name of Jesus. We are taking His name in vain if we do that. The Church of Jesus Christ is not called to be powerful or popular. We are called to be faithful.

Whenever the church tried to be powerful or popular, it stopped being faithful and then lost both power and popularity. All through history you see times when the church is pursuing power or popularity and it NEVER turns out well. I wish the Evangelical Right would learn this. You see, the trappings of the world are fickle. Crowds may gather to cheer you on, but later those same crowds may turn on you, and cheers turn to jeers. Jesus knew that, which is why he was not tempted or persuaded by the crowds. He knew his mission. He knew what he was about and he did not need the world, he did not need the crowds to validate who he was.

Had he not remained faithful, he would never have been our savior. Had he fallen sway to the seductive influence of the crowds, had he tried to outmaneuver the power brokers of his day, he would have been a mere flash in the pan. But because he remained faithful, faith as Paul says even to death, he become the Lord and ruler of all Creation.

The church’s only power is its ability to remain faithful to what God is calling us to do. The Church’s only popularity contest is to be popular with God, who calls the Church into being.

If we chase earthly power and popularity, we will be no heavenly good. If we put our faith in the crowds or the politicians, we betray the God who formed us.

But if we remain faithful we will be powerful instruments of God, who have something to offer to the masses. They do not sway us. We minister to them.

As the people of God, may we shun the agendas of others, and remain faithful to our calling in Jesus Christ—to love and to serve.

Amen.

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
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