The world has gone after him. That one line sort of captures the whole spirit of the day doesn’t it. In that time and place, Jerusalem right before the Passover, I imagine it would have been pretty easy to conclude that the whole world hadgone after Jesus. We can easily imagine the ancient world as pretty small town and parochial, which of course much of it was. Jerusalem though, at least in Jesus’ day, was quite a substantial place, even by today’s standards. And whenever Passover rolled around, the normal crowds of the city would swell enormously. About thirty years after Jesus’ death, a Roman census was taken during Passover, which recorded that about one quarter of a million lambs were slaughtered for the celebration. Jewish law required that there be at least ten people for each lamb, which means there would have been at least two and a half million people in Jerusalem for the festival. That’s a pretty good-sized party by anybody’s standards.
Palm Sunday, I have always found, is a rather fascinating story. For a few brief moments, Jesus found himself hailed as a celebrity; a “Superstar.” I don’t think this was something he especially went looking for. It’s kind of ironic when you think about how unassuming Jesus was most of the time. The gospels record a number of occasions when he would heal people, but then tell them not to tell anybody. Right. As if anyone who had just been healed of a major life malady was at all likely to keep quiet about it. And then there were the times when Jesus would say things that people found offensive, which is usually something celebrities normally try to avoid. He was constantly saying, “O ye of little faith. You hypocrites! You blind fools.” He once called the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs,” beautiful on the outside, but full of death and decay on the inside. This was, shall we say, not very complimentary. So, much as we may like the image of Jesus as the meek and mild one who pulled little children into his lap, the truth is that Jesus could be pretty harsh when he wanted to be. He didn’t always pull his punches.
There’s a story in the sixth chapter of John that has Jesus addressing a large crowd of people. He starts talking about being the “Bread of Heaven.” He says that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Today, of course, we understand that this is a reference to the communion meal. But at the time, the crowd responded as though it was pretty disgusting and probably crazy. “Because of this,” John tells us, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” If Jesus wanted to be a celebrity, he most likely would have worked a little harder not to drive the crowds away.
But the crowds never stayed away for long did they. As much as his words could be confusing, sometimes infuriating, he must have been tremendously charismatic. Throughout his life, people swarmed around him like moths to a flame. Somehow, he managed to communicate a love and warmth, a power to heal and an intimate connection to God that just about everyone found compelling. All these years later, even when nearly all we know of him comes from the pages of the bible, people still find him compelling, enough to want to turn their whole lives over to him.
So along comes Palm Sunday. The setting is of a great procession of people; singing, shouting and celebrating. The whole motley crowd comes banging their way into Jerusalem with their “celebrity of the day,” Jesus, riding along quietly in their midst. At this moment, like no other we know of, Jesus is riding the crest of a huge wave of adoring fans. The way John’s gospel tells it, the Pharisees are looking down in fear from the city’s walls at this mass of potential revolutionaries. Their anxiety is obvious as they mutter to themselves, “what are we to do? The whole world has gone after him.”
Of course, as we know, they needn’t have worried. Jesus had no intention of leading a revolution, or being king, or otherwise pandering to the adoration of the crowd. He was more concerned that his “Father’s House” had become a crass commercial enterprise, rather than the house of prayer it was meant to me. He throws over the tables of the money changers, infuriates the temple authorities, and in five short days manages to scatter not only the adoring fans, but even his own inner circle of disciples. He dies horribly on what later came to be called Good Friday, with hardly anyone willing even to admit they knew who he was.
But then, the crowds came roaring back. Well, maybe not roaring; at least not right away. But gradually, worldwide Christianity came to account for about one third of the whole human race. Somewhere north of two billion people understand themselves today, in some form or fashion, as followers of Jesus. Ironic isn’t it? For someone who was apparently so ambivalent about celebrity, he has become the single best known person in all of human history. The whole world, or at least a very substantial part of the whole world, has indeed gone after him.
Now, celebrity, is an interesting notion. What do you think about the idea of celebrity? Have you ever wanted to be famous? Not me, boy. I’m perfectly happy being unknown and obscure. But, judging from the magazines that litter all the checkout counters, there certainly are a lot of people who would love to be well known. Becoming and staying a celebrity, for some people, is a driving force in their lives.
I’ve got an interesting illustration. A few years ago, it’s probably 20 years ago now, I remember reading an expose of Olympic Ice Skater, Michele Kwan. Remember Michelle Kwan? She’s one of most celebrated ice skaters the world has ever seen. At the time I first became aware of her, she had just missed getting the gold medal at the ’98 Winter Olympics in Nagano. But despite that setback, she was at or near the top of an enormous number of competitions. Even now, she continues to be one of the best loved and best-known skaters in the world.
The article I read had a fascinating quote that gives us a glimpse into Michelle’s motivation. The interviewer asked her what it was like to come so close to a gold medal, but not get it “As a child,” she said, (she was all of eighteen at the time of the interview, but I guess we’ll let that pass), “As a child,” she said, “I’d wonder, ‘When I die, will people still remember me one thousand years later?’ And without the gold medal,” she said with a shrug, “well, the Olympics are the ultimate achievement in my sport.” So, clearly, at the time, she seemed to think that not winning the gold meant that people wouldn’t be remembering her at the beginning of the twenty second century.
Now I always thought Michelle was delightful. She had this wonderful, bubbly personality, and, oh my word, her skating was like poetry in motion. She had extraordinary talent, determination and charisma. But her comment at the time of that old interview sticks with me. It’s pretty typical of what most people think of as celebrity. Remember the theme song from the old T.V. show, “Fame”? “I want to live forever. I want to learn how to fly. High. I feel it coming together. People will see me and cry. Fame. I’m gonna make it to heaven. Light up the sky like a flame. Fame. I’m gonna live forever. Baby remember my name.”
Now, to a child, even to an adult, a thousand years comes pretty close to forever doesn’t it. It’s clear from that interview that Michelle, at least at one time in her life, believed that the gold medal represented her chance for immortality. And among the firmament of recent ice-skating stars, Michelle shines as brightly as any of them. But, let me ask you; really, what’s the likelihood that anyone is going to remember her name a thousand years from now? I don’t mean to be grumpy or anything, but I think the chances are virtually nil. Of course, her chances are certainly way better than mine are, but I’d have to say, not too good for either of us.
That kind of celebrity doesn’t last. And to hear those who are celebrities talk about it, fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway. James Taylor, the folk singer who was probably best known for his song Fire and Rain, later wrote another song about his own experience with celebrity. My favorite line goes like this, “Fortune and fame is a curious game. Perfect strangers call you by name. They pay good money to hear Fire and Rain, again and again and again.” Julie Andrews, was once asked how it felt to be a star. She responded, “I suck my thumb a lot.” And look how Princess Diana was literally hounded to death by her adoring fans.
In a book written by Richard Shattuck that he called The Half-Haunted Saloon. In it, the author talked about his own experience with fame. He said this: “Once you start you can’t stop; you’ve got to go on doing things to keep famous because an ex-famous person is better off dead. My dad told me that. He was a hurdler in his youth, and then someone jumped higher than he did and people acted funny toward him all the rest of his life. They couldn’t forget, and he couldn’t jump any higher.” Well, that’s about the size of it. At some point, no matter who we are, no matter how talented or lucky or determined, we all reach the point where we can’t jump any higher. And when we reach those limits, our ability to insure our own immortality can be seen for the illusion it always was. Whatever fame is, it does not make it possible for us to live forever.
One of the most influential books I think I’ve ever read was called The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. He talks a lot in his book about this desire for immortality that drives a lot of us. We can’t really deal very well with the idea that we’re going to die at some point, he says. And a lot of us respond to this by devoting our lives to something that we hope and believe will allow us to live on forever in the hearts and minds of the world after we’re gone. Becker called it our causa sui project. Causa sui is a Latin phrase that means to be the cause of oneself, or, in other words, the source of our own immortality.
And that’s exactly the difference between Jesus’ celebrity and our own. It may be that in some sense, the whole world has gone after him. But that was never the yardstick he used to measure his own success. Jesus set his sights on one lifelong principle, faithfulness to God. And he followed that principle whether the crowds were there or not. The crowds around him have always come and gone according to whether, at any given moment, they found him appealing or frightening, but Jesus, unlike many in our own time, never based his decisions on opinion polls. He had no need to ensure his own immortality because, in faithfulness to God, his immortality was already a given.
And his message to us, part of his message anyway, is that what was true for him can also be true for us. We can relax. We don’t have to ensure our own greatness. We don’t have to please the crowds. We don’t have to make ourselves worthy. We don’t have to run through our lives searching for ways to guarantee our own immortality. All we need do is be faithful to who God has called us to be, and use well and enjoy the life God has given us to live. We don’t have to worry about how to live forever because, in faithfulness to God, our immortality is already assured. That is precisely the “Blessed Assurance” that we sometimes sing about; Perfect submission, all is at rest; I in my Savior am happy and blessed. Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love.” This is our story this is our song, praising our savior all the day long. We praise Jesus, not because he was a celebrity, at least not in this life, but because he put us all on the path to wholeness with God.
Let me close with a story from the book Each New Day, by Corrie Ten Boom. She tells of a meeting she had with Sadhu Sundar Singh, an Indian holy man and Christian convert who had a dramatic impact on the people of India in the early part of the last century. When Corrie met him, she wanted to know how he managed to hold on to an appropriate sense of humility in the midst of all the attention he was getting. “Doesn’t it do you harm,” she asked, “your getting so much honor?” Singh’s answer was this, “The donkey went into Jerusalem, and they put garments on the ground before him. He was not proud. He knew it was not done to honor him, but for Jesus, who was sitting on his back. When people honor me, I know it is not me, but the Lord, who does the job.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference at all who the world chooses to go after. We don’t have to worry about how to live forever because, in faithfulness to God, our immortality is already blessedly assured.