Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Oh, to be popular! Oh, to be famous! Oh, to bask in the adulation of others! The attraction of celebrity is so great that people will do all sorts of things to achieve it. Some will compromise their morals, if they had any to begin with. Others will embellish the truth, or even flat-out lie, whether to build up their own record and reputation, or to tear down those against whom they are competing.
Some will cheat, whether it be on an academic test, in their work or research or reporting, or by taking performance-enhancing substances to give them advantage. Some will even carve up their bodies to gain attention: removing things in some places, implanting things elsewhere, or turning their bodies into canvases of excessive human graffiti to cover up the masterpiece God painted in the womb.
That’s not to say that everyone famous got that way through underhanded means, of course. Many who gain the public’s attention do so by actual merit, by achieving worthwhile things that contribute to the well-being of their neighbors, by following the rules and not resorting to trickery or gimmicks. Along the way, they sinned like everyone else, of course, but shortcuts and compromises weren’t the primary or even a substantial factor in their results.
Contrast our methods and motives of achieving popularity, if you will, with those of Jesus. Our Gospel lesson this morning is John’s account of the triumphal entry to Jerusalem. It’s just five days before Jesus will be arrested in secret, tried in travesty, tortured in shame, and crucified in humiliation.
Here, though, He is at the pinnacle of His popularity. Even in our time of near-instantaneous mass communication, there is rarely so swift a plummet from the heights of favor to the depths of abandonment as Jesus experienced. Even the worst offenders today seem to have their vocal and active supporters well after the majority’s adulation has turned to scorn.
It has a lot to do with the fact that in spite of all the attention and popularity Jesus had accumulated, it wasn’t something He was seeking. While He made use of the crowds’ attention as an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of the kingdom ofGod, that wasn’t what made Him attractive to most of His hearers. To them, His preaching was powerful and engaging, but it wasn’t the main thing. His message of trust in God for forgiveness and salvation was too intangible for them.
What really made Jesus popular were the miracles: Water to wine, healings of all sorts, endless supplies of food. Even word of the miracles done in private, like walking on water and calming storms, had probably gotten around through the grapevine, because the disciples were only human, too.
And now Jesus had just pulled off another doozy, raising Lazarus from the dead just a few miles east of Jerusalem. Word had spread fast. Jesus had raised others from the dead before Lazarus, of course. The widow’s son at Nain, and Jairus’ daughter. Those were miracles just as powerful, just as impressive, even if they hadn’t been dead and buried for four days, like Lazarus. What made this miracle so important was that it happened right out in the suburbs of the most important city in the region, one that was swollen with Jews coming for the Passover.
Many people heard about it as rapidly as was possible in those pre-Twitter days. With thousands flocking to Jerusalem, all those travelers coming from or passing through Bethany would have heard of his miracle, and brought the news to the big city with them.
Now the news that the man Himself, the miracle worker, was coming to Jerusalem stirred the people into a frenzy. Gathering palm branches, the crowds line the roads to see and give acclamation to the popular preacher. In fulfillment of the prophecy from Zechariah, Jesus rides into the city on the back of a young donkey. It’s not the powerful stallion of a conquering warrior king, but a humble beast of burden, and a small, immature one at that.
The crowd doesn’t mind the modest transportation, though. They elevate Jesus’ to a whole new level of popularity and esteem, something at the far reaches of what He had ever been called on a wide scale. Jesus is proclaimed king of Israel, one sent by God for the rescue of His people. The further He rode, the more chatter ensued. The story of Lazarus’ resurrection reaches more and more ears, and even more people are drawn to see, hear, and adore Him.
How strange, then, that St. John writes that the disciples didn’t understand these things, but only remembered them much later. Certainly if those only on the periphery of Jesus’ ministry and miracles took the signs as being indicative of Him fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy, we might expect that those closest to Him, who had traveled and learned from Him for over three years, to grasp it, too.
But maybe the crowds didn’t really “get it,” either. Maybe they just wanted their bellies filled, their diseases healed, their infirmities corrected, and perhaps a just, righteous kingdom established, with the hated Romans and their lackey, Herod. Anyone who could pull all that off would be very popular, indeed—even if he gave any indications of it. And Jesus had demonstrated most of the signs already. Expectations were high, and so were emotions.
Not everyone was thrilled with the developments. The Pharisees argued among themselves about what to do. They’re frustrated that Jesus had caught the wave of popularity, despite all their efforts to discredit and derail Him in the past and present. Their pride arises against Jesus’ humility. Their ambition drives them against His path of servanthood. Their desire to have and keep their own place in the popular culture leads them to resistance and rebellion against the one was fully obedient, even to death.
Jesus was right to warn His followers against the leaven of the Pharisees. Even a little of that corrupt yeast can infiltrate the whole loaf of our being, causing us to become puffed up just as real yeast inflates real dough.
Why do we, too—even we who come here in worship—grumble and complain and plot against Jesus? We don’t do it nearly so contemptibly as the Pharisees might have, or nearly so blatantly, but we have our ways. We look for ways to undermine the kingdom, and overthrow the rightful King. We’re just subtle about it.
What do you do in the name of popularity and comfort? Do you keep your faith under wraps, reluctant to give clear indication of who has claimed you as His own, the redemption price paid in blood? Do you choose to divert the fruits of your labor into a mushy applesauce of shiny, glittery things that will tarnish and fade, passing away in the blink of an eye, melting with the earth when the final fire comes?
Do you focus your time and energy on the pursuits of shallow, passing things of this world, on empty pleasures that serve no god but yourself? When was the last time you really followed that guidance in the Small Catechism, and prepared yourself to confess your sins by considering how you have violated your vocations as citizen, worker, family member, and Christian? When did you last seriously measure yourself against the Ten Commandments, one by one?
Our prayers and our confessions, though always led only by the Spirit, sometimes do turn shallow, trite, and cold. They remain pleasing to God not because they are carried to His ears through any power or righteousness within us, but only because He has commanded us to pray and confess in Jesus’ name, and for Jesus’ sake. It is His humility and obedience, and not your own, which are counted to you as your alien righteousness.
Jesus’ acclaim that first Palm Sunday exalted Him and gave Him the title, “King of Israel,” but it was fleeting and fickle, shallow and hollow praise. His humility was very real, though, and His humiliation was not yet complete. The climax of that will come later, on the cross, where in the ultimate mystery of the ages, the Perfect becomes sin for you; the spotless Lamb becomes your scapegoat; the Author of Life chooses death. His greatest humiliation becomes His greatest glory.
It is for that one great act of love and obedience—planned according to God’s will from before time began—that the Father exalts Him and gives Him the supreme name. Bend your knee and bow, then, to Him who is both humble and glorious. Confess Him with the Church in heaven and on earth, and kneel before His throne and His altar, receiving the fruits of His cross. He empties Himself, so that you might be filled with His good.
It’ll be easy to find excuses this week to avoid coming to the more somber services. It’s hard to contemplate the sorrow of Jesus’ betrayal and to reflect upon His suffering and death, because we have to confront the fact that we all contributed to it. The temptation is always to skip the ugliness and the pain, and to seek the beauty and comfort and—yes, the popularity—of the resurrection. But it’s really only popular within the Church, isn’t it? The world might accept that a man named Jesus died on a cross, but not that His death atoned for your sins. Certainly it doesn’t accept that He rose again as proof and guarantee of His promises of forgiveness, salvation, and life everlasting in paradise. As Christians, we love that part, the Easter triumph and glory and joy. And we should, for God wants us to have it.
But don’t miss out on the discomfort, too. It’s good for us; we need to be reminded of just what happened, and to be turned in repentance of our sins at every opportunity. That work of the Spirit is what binds us ever more closely to the suffering and death of Jesus, as well as to His eternal blessings. We need to remember just what was at stake as those Pharisees, and the world, and Satan, and all of our sins and sinful nature, drove Jesus to that cross. The whole world went after Him all right—they went after Him with all of its evil and vengeance and rage. But so did you and I. Though the Pharisees gained nothing out of it, by God’s grace through faith in the suffering and death of Jesus you have gained everything.
To Him who was humble, be all the glory, forever and ever. Amen.