There is nothing like the acclaim of a crowd. It is a good thing to have the praise of a teacher or a mentor. It is a special thing to earn the regard of a parent. It is a gift to be applauded by a close friend or a spouse.
But the praise of a crowd is different. I grew up doing my share of singing and public speaking on little stages. But I don’t remember feeling that magical connection between me and an audience until I started fooling around with an electric guitar. I was never all that good at it, but I worked hard at soloing, and when I hit a good one--I can still remember the song, it was that old folk song “Hey Joe” that Jimi Hendrix covered--the reaction of the crowd was, well, electric. In my little band there was me, a bassist, a pianist, and a drummer. We told jokes at each other’s expense. How can you tell that a stage is level? Because the drool comes out of both sides of the drummer’s mouth. How does a guitar player change a lightbulb? He holds the bulb and waits for the world to revolve around him.
Despite how it may seem, this experience had little to do with how and why I got into ministry. Believe it or not, the reaction of worshipers looks and feels very different. But when I do freelance public speaking, rarely, I still get that feeling of joy that a crowd is listening and praising me, if only with their attention. At a conference once, where people freely moved between small sessions around a college campus, I remember feeling a profound sense of satisfaction that people were not leaving my session. In fact people kept streaming in from other workshops and talks. They were listening. They liked me.
The acclaim of a crowd is a powerful thing. You can get addicted to it, like you can get addicted to the high from hitting a good streak at the blackjack table or buying something you really don’t need and can’t afford or chasing a sexual conquest. That is, it’s a feeling that people are tempted to do more and more risky or outrageous things to keep getting.
Today we mark Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. He has, in Matthew’s Gospel, been moving toward the holy city for some time. He is a country boy from Galilee, an outsider with his rag-tag group of disciples. To the city, going about its business, he may have looked comical or perhaps threatening, but most likely he would have been relatively easy to ignore.
And yet his arrival takes the form of a triumph. That is, he arrives on a mount rather than on foot. He rides over palm branches and cloaks rather than the bare earth. And perhaps most importantly he arrives with shouts of joy and acclamation from a crowd rather than in the relative silence and obscurity that have marked his journeys so far. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels, Jesus is most often a somewhat recessive figure. He does not impose himself. He does not seek renown or praise. He even swears his followers and the demons alike to secrecy.
But now he has a crowd imitating the triumph--the celebratory parade--given to a conquering king or general. It is an odd triumph. It is perhaps a parody of a triumph. He is riding a humble mount rather than a chariot. He is accompanied by a random crowd rather than a procession of soldiers and dignitaries. But it is a triumph nonetheless. And the shouts of that crowd mark a new chapter in his ministry.
The shouts of a crowd mark the turning point in the lives of many tragic heroes. The obscure scholar, the humble monk, the modest general have all been tempted to destruction by the sound of those shouts. They are listening to me. They love me. They are in the palm of my hand. It tempts them to take foolish risks. It tempts them to egomania. It tempts them to flatter the people whose flattery brings the great man--or even the amateur guitar player--so much electricity, so much power, so much joy.
Hosanna to the son of David! they shout. It is a thrilling and dangerous phrase. Jerusalem has so long been subjugated by the great kingdoms of the Gentiles--Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. Is she now receiving her liberation? Is this the descendent of the great King, the one who will redeem the city and the nation from their long servitude?
The acclaim of the crowd tempts the hero to imagine that he is who they want him to be. To seize the moment. To drink in their love and impose upon it, shape it, push toward a cliff. The city is in turmoil. No one knows who this is. Lead the crowd to your destiny.
But this is not Jesus. He does not depend on the love of the crowd. The crowd does not validate him. The crowd does not prove his worth.
Instead, he loves the crowd. He validates them. He proves their worth. Regular people, waiting for hope, with no special power or status. He does not feed off their energy. Rather, in secret, he feeds them. He does not manipulate or pander to them. In Jesus’ whole ministry you never see him do that. He does not cultivate the praise of anyone. He does not pull anyone’s heartstrings. He does not whip anyone into a frenzy. He is not dependent in any way on the love the world shows him.
The truth about crowds and their leaders or performers is that they need each other. They are codependent. It’s a hard lonely moment when the cheering falls silent. When the room empties. When the next invitation doesn’t come or the next crowd is smaller. Once the energy is gone, everyone has to keep on living.
And that is the strange, sad, and beautiful anticlimax of Palm Sunday. Crowds and their heroes are passionate and fickle. They can be joyous and murderous. They can be cooperative or hostile. But while Jesus attracts a crowd and calls forth their praise, he will end this journey almost alone. While a crowd shouts praises now, a different crowd will shout mockery later. While he is welcomed by a parody of a triumph today, his true triumph will look nothing like this. It will come on a cross, with only the condemned and the foolish and the whole invisible host of heaven and the whole groaning creation in attendance. The crowd’s love for him today will find its echo in his unconquerable, steadfast, fatal love for them, for us, and for the whole world. Hosanna to the Son of David. Hosanna to the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna to the one who loved better than even the neediest human crowd could love him back. Amen.
God's Work. Our hands.