Matthew 21: 1-11
1 When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2 He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. 4 Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5 Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
When I was in middle school and high school, but particularly middle school, I wanted nothing more than to be popular. More specifically, I wanted to be in the “popular group.” I went to a private middle school where we all wore uniforms and where most of us came from affluent families, and yet it was full of social cliques. Starting in 5th grade, right away it seemed like our class was divided into at least 4 different obvious groups. The nerds, the average people, the popular people, and then there were those who just didn’t seem to fit into any of those. I was in the “average” group I suppose. Not in the popular crowd for sure, but not in the “nerd” crowd either.
These groups were so divided that in between classes you could walk down the hall and see circles of people hanging out and talking to one another, and no one could break into the circle unless you were “one of them.” I had some great friends, but there was always a part of me that wanted to be in that popular group where the girls were seemingly perfect, most of them made the cheerleading team, and everyone seemed to have it all together. (I think I tried out for cheerleading 3 times before I got to high school and realized that the dance team was actually where I belonged! Go figure…)
Of course, looking back now, I realize how stupid it all is. I think my life in middle school and high school would have been so much better had I realized how important it is to just be yourself and to see everyone as their own person, not defined by which “group” they are a part of. Sometimes I even wonder if some of the people my friends and I considered to be in the “popular” group even realized that they were called as such. And we even struggle to define what being popular really means. In our teenage years, many of us would say that being popular means that you are good looking, talented, have a lot of friends, a cool car, and you might throw some awesome parties.
In our adult lives, the definition of being popular may not change too much, except that we may not care as much about whether we are popular or not. But I think that deep down we all still long to be popular- well-liked, someone that people want to be like, someone that people look at and think, “I want what they have” or “I wish I could be like them.” Popularity, however we might define or long for it, is acclaim in the eyes of others, and this is a fleeting thing. If we put all of our faith in it, we will end up with disappointment.
Jesus, of course, had his own experience of popularity throughout his earthly ministry, but especially on the day that we celebrate today, Palm Sunday. What a heroes’ welcome he received as he entered Jerusalem! People shouted their “Hosannas” and waved their palm branches, and gave him an entrance fit for a king. Jesus was popular on Palm Sunday. The crowds loved him! But just a few days later a different crowd, with perhaps some of the very same people, was calling for his death and asking for a murderer to be released instead of him. Jesus’ popularity lasted only while the crowd believed that he could give them something they wanted. When they realized this was not the case, popularity and the waving of palms turned into shouts of condemnation and death: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Jesus knew what his future held as he rode in on the back of a humble animal that day. He knew that those who waved their palm branches wanted something that he was not willing to give. He could have chosen popularity, fame, and loyalty. He could have ridden into the city shouting his plans to overthrow the Romans and start a revolt. That’s what most expected, wasn’t it? Their triumphant and victorious king comes riding in to announce a new reign and plans to set things right again. But this moment of fame and popularity was fleeting, and led to a cross.
Jesus knew this, but still he rode on, determined to share his message with those who would listen, knowing that it ultimately wouldn’t be the popular one. Jesus rode on in the midst of the waving palms, knowing that the message of God’s unending love and grace is something that permeates through all of human misunderstanding, agendas, and need for popularity. The Jesus of Palm Sunday shows us that God’s persistent love and grace is something that will never go away, and will sustain us through the times when we become unpopular. It will sustain us through the times when others have abandoned us.
The Jesus of Palm Sunday invites us to give up popularity, or the need to be popular or liked by everyone. For the people-pleasing people out there, myself included, this is a very hard thing to do. Sometimes it’s easier to go with what’s popular, what you know people will agree with, what people will like. But the right thing to do isn’t always the popular thing to do. Sometimes the unpopular action or words or decisions are the most important and correct ones. Jesus knew this very well. Just think of all the times he went up against the religious authorities who criticized his words and actions. They wanted to hold fast to the law and rituals without taking the bigger picture of God’s role in our lives into consideration. They criticized Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath instead of praising the thing that God had done. Jesus turns over the tables in the temple during the last week of his life as his popularity flew out the window. Yet he knew what he was willing to risk in order that his voice would be heard.
Giving up popularity is certainly the road less taken, but can lead to humbling and beautiful things. Giving up popularity can also lead to revolutionary ideas and new beginnings. The easy and tempting thing to do would be to remain in our popularity and enjoy the riches and attention that it brings. Many people in this world wouldn’t know what to do if they were not popular and would not have the courage to make the choice to give it up.
Since we are in the middle of the NCAA basketball tournament and there are lots of stories about basketball floating around right now, I stumbled upon the story of Penny Hardaway, who had the courage to give up his need for popularity. His story is an inspiring one and an example of someone who was willing to step down from fame and fortune in order to help other people. Penny had the type of talent you don’t see very often. At 6’6”, Hardaway had amazing ball handling skills and speed that had people comparing him to Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, and in the 90s, he had one of the most successful campaigns with Nike that resulted in some of their most popular sneakers. Following his college basketball career, he moved on to the NBA where he was a popular player for the Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, and the Miami Heat.
When a series of injuries cut his basketball career short, people believed that Hardaway would look forward to a time to kick back, relax, and enjoy his millions. But he had other plans in mind that involved fulfilling a promise to a childhood friend named Des Merriweather who had been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Des’ wish was that Penny would take over for him as the head basketball coach for their alma mater, Lester Middle School in Memphis, TN. Together, the two were able to lead the team to 2 state titles. Let’s take a look: (start watching the clip at 11:50 to the end).
What would it look like for us to give up popularity not just for this season of Lent, but for forever? This is the challenge that is in front of us today. It could mean that you need to let go of the need to please everyone. It could mean that you need to let go of the need to be liked all the time. Maybe you need the courage to find your voice to speak up even if it’s not the popular opinion or action. Maybe it means for you that it’s time to let go of that desire to be popular and to replace that desire with goals of putting others before yourself. Giving up popularity might mean for you that it’s time to truly be yourself and love yourself for who you are rather than trying to be someone you’re not. Giving up popularity might mean that you are willing to give up your time in the spotlight in order to allow others to step forth and shine.
After all, that’s what Jesus does for us during this holy time, and as we enter into this Holy Week. He gives up his popularity, his fleeting fame, his crown, that we might step forth and bask in his everlasting light. Jesus, on Palm Sunday, knows that his earthly popularity is but for a moment, but the love and forgiveness of God is eternal. So as we begin this holy week, may we challenge ourselves to give up popularity, that we may focus our hearts on those things that truly last and give our lives meaning. Amen.