Popularity Isn’t Everything
If you think events in Syria are bad - they are at least consistent with that country’s history. In 167 BC the King of Assyria was Antiocheius. He had adopted Greek culture and sought to impose it anywhere he could. He conquered Palestine and enacted laws prohibiting circumcision and possessing the Hebrew Bible in pain of death. He desecrated the Temple courts. He offered pig’s flesh as a sacrifice on the altar. He opened brothels in the ancillary rooms there. He tried to wipe out the Jewish Faith completely. Compared to him, Assad doesn’t seem such a bad sort.
In 167 BC a hero of Jewish history arose to free the nation and the Faith. His name was Judas Maccabeus. It is after him that our great Christian resurrection hymn tune to accompany 'Thine be the glory' is named. He was a son of the Jewish priest Mattathias. He led a revolt for 7 years until 160 BC and is acclaimed as one of the greatest warriors in Jewish history alongside Joshua, Gideon and David. He defeated and drove out Antiocheius’ forces, set the nation free and reclaimed the Temple. The Jewish feast of Hanukkah ("Dedication") commemorates the restoration of Jewish worship at the temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE. In one of the books, called Maccabees which were not included in our Bible, it is written:
'…there was a great celebration in the city because this terrible threat to the security of Israel had come to an end. Simon and his men entered the fort singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving, while carrying palm branches and playing harps, cymbals, and lyres. You will recognise the similarity of the description of Jesus entering Jerusalem. You might be interested to know what happened to Judas Maccabeus. Various tribes in that part of the middle east did not like Jewish re-emergence and fought battles in which Maccabeus engaged. He wisely made a peace treaty with the Romans. He then had to deal with Antiocheius’ successors who came against the Jews with formidable armies. In 160 BC heavily outnumbered he fought to the death. He is remembered in Judaism as a David like person and his efforts later won religions freedom for the Jews within the restrictions of being ruled by foreigners - that which was present at the time of Jesus. Some scholars think that Psalm 118 may have been written to commemorate Judas Maccabeus. It is a bloodthirsty song of victory.
'All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. They swarmed around me like bees, but they were consumed as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them down. I was pushed back and about to fall, but the LORD helped me. The LORD is my strength and my defence; he has become my salvation. Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!” I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done. The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes. The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad. LORD, save us! LORD, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever'.
But why was it that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was a given hero’s welcome? He was not a warrior like Judas Maccabeus and he had not freed his people. What he had demonstrated sufficiently through the miracles for many was that God was with him and in him. He had an established reputation as a public preacher and teacher and his message was one of liberation for the oppressed. His own disciples kept asking him when the action would begin. When would the kingdom arrive and be restored to Israel. The people thought the same way. If Jesus could do all these things, what could he do if he put his mind to it to liberate his nation. And so they greeted him with enthusiasm. All we need to do is to imagine Jesus on the donkey with the disciples and others in his entourage including the women who accompanied them approaching Jerusalem and in that packed and crowded city, people being attracted to something happening and being inquisitive enough to gather around Jesus. You know that if you stop on the pavement and look up, very soon, others will stop beside you and look up to. It is a childhood prank. Hope was what Jesus brought to people - and that is why they joined in the welcoming party. They shouted 'Hosanna' which really was a prayer for deliverance from and by God. It meant 'Save now'. We have it here on the wall. 'Hallelujah' means 'Praise the Lord'. We have it here also - but those who welcomed Jesus were not shouting that. This was not a charismatic renewal service in the streets of Jerusalem. It was an invoking of the Living God of Israel finally to do something spectacular to liberate his people from the Romans and set up and everlasting rule on earth.
Have you ever walked through a park after a large event has taken place? Have you walked round the streets after the local Gala Day. Have you seen TV pictures of the sites of music festivals after everyone has gone home. Have you seen a football stadium at 5 00 pm on a Saturday after the game has ended? There’s plenty of evidence that humans have been there. But - it’s all over. There is an emptiness around and an eariness - a sense that something happened but didn’t last long. Great for a short time only. Significant just for a few hours. It must have been like that because the great triumphal entry to Jerusalem petered out. Nothing came of it. Nothing happened. People drifted away disappointed. No miracles took place. No confrontation with the Romans or the ruling Saducees occurred. God did not intervene at that moment at all. Jews and Judaism were not redeemed. And that was that.
It was not through popularity that Jesus saved the world. It was not through popularity that our sins are forgiven. It was not through popularity that humanity is redeemed. It was not through popularity that eternal life is brought to life. It was not through popularity that resurrection gave birth to the Church. Popularity isn’t everything. Christianity has become unpopular in this country now. Did you think that you would live to see this happening? The official report on last summer’s rioting in English cities offered reasons for why they happened, poor parenting, poor education, low aspiration and poor prospects among people and acquisitive and materialistic society. Another report on education suggested that the reasons pupils don’t do as well as they should in school and in later life is that they are not given character education and formation. No-one puts two and two together and says - 'Actually - what is missing is Christianity'. This is what happens when God is left out of national life. If you depart from acknowledging Jesus Christ - the only way is down.
All we humans can manage as far as resurrection is concerned is the survival of Fabrice Muamba. That is a good as it gets. But few in public life see what Jesus’ resurrection means and our Christian leaders seem unwilling or unable to make the evangelical point. What a waste of space they are at times. Popularity isn’t everything. Much that has been accomplished for the benefit of human beings has had nothing to do with fame. Years of lonely research in laboratories to find a cure for an illness, for example. Single-minded exploration of the earth’s undiscovered regions. Dedicated efforts towards perfection in music and writing. And of course the pursuit of God in prayer and spiritual seeking. In every generation there have been those who never found recognition, polarity or fame, but who found God. Facebook and Twitter make people popular for a moment. Andy Worhol is remembered for prophesying that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes.
Our Lord Jesus had his moment in the sunshine - he was popular up to a point. But it was not popularity that defined Him. He constantly dampened down false expectations and rejected leadership visibility among the people. There was nothing popular about crucifixion. It was in that stark lonely place that our sins were taken from us and the path to eternal opened made possible for us. A traditional hymn puts it rather well. 'Ride on! Ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die; Bow thy meek head to mortal pain, Then take, O God, thy power and reign'. It is in the quiet moments that you and I find God. Our spiritual life is not an open book to be read by all and sundry. It is in your prayers that you find peace. And if suffering comes your way - God will be present for you and with you. And at the end of life on earth - you go onward alone - to find eternal life. 'Make me a channel of your peace. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; In giving to all that we receive; And in dying that we're born to eternal life'. This Holy Week, remember that you are precious in the sight of the living God. Remember that you are known and loved by the Risen Jesus. Put the world aside for a few days. It’s between you and the Lord.