Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
History is littered with the tarnished careers and failed dreams of political losers. In American History, there is an elite fraternity of losers whose bond is the stigma of defeat. They are the Edsels of their time, the also-rans of the political process. In a world that worships winners, they are a special breed of has-beens, almost forgotten over the years, their legacies preserved in history books and encyclopedias. Samuel J. Tilden who won the popular vote in 1876 over Rutherford B. Hayes and even captured the electoral vote 184-166. Only to lose the presidency after the political manipulations of a specially appointed Congressional commission. William Jennings Bryan and Henry Clay, three times each they tried for the presidency and three times each they failed. Thomas E. Dewey, trounced by FDR in 1944 who tried again four years later. On the day before the election, a Gallup Poll showed Dewey leading Truman by 5% – 49 to 44. And yet who can forget that famous photograph of the victorious Truman grinning like a Cheshire cat and holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune’s premature front page that read, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Whether it is Edmund Muskie’s public tears, Gerald Ford’s public falls or Dan Quayle’s extra “e” on potato – many’s the candidate who has climbed the political ladder only to fall like a stone from by the vagaries and cruelties of our political process.
Today we remember and celebrate the triumph and tragedy of another great loser who was considered by some to be a figure of political importance. Jesus was hailed by the crowds on Palm Sunday as he entered Jerusalem because they thought he was a conquering hero, a great King who would seize power and rid Israel of her Roman oppressors. He was the charismatic leader who had all the answers to Jewish problems, foreign and domestic. He would balance the budget, end poverty, provide universal health care, fix the stock market and once more make Israel into a great nation. If we view Jesus and His ministry the same way we view our modern political candidates, then Jesus is a politician who did so poorly that the electorate cried out to have him put to death. A candidate who within a week of his arrival in Jerusalem went from conquering hero to state criminal. A candidate who ran unopposed and gave up his life.
In the eyes of the world, Jesus’ ministry was history’s worst campaign failure ever. In the eyes of the world, Jesus, the candidate, never had a chance. But we sit here this morning because our faith teaches us that the ways of the world and the ways of God’s kingdom are fundamentally different. We sit here this morning because the world’s failure is our hope.
Jesus, lived most of his life near the edge of poverty. His entire ministry was only three years in duration. He traveled with a rag tag band of misfits and never once did he acquire any personal wealth as a result of all of his hard work. In the end, he died a young man all alone, an outcast to be ridiculed and forgotten. To the world, Jesus was a failure, a loser. But, in the eyes of God and God’s kingdom, this loser pulled off the greatest triumph the faithful have ever known.
Jesus and his disciples came into Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration . Jesus knew the critical moment in his ministry had arrived, and he traveled to the city to confront his destiny. His followers went ahead of him thinking they were cheering the return of a great king, in the mold of King David. In their eyes this was to be the triumphant moment in Jewish history. The king had returned, the Roman enemy would be destroyed, and Israel would once again be free. The ironic thing is that these loyal followers were right for all the wrong reasons. They were right that this man riding on an ass was a great king. They were right that this king would destroy the enemy and free his people. They were right, but they were so very wrong. Jesus was and is a king, but he came not to save the Jews from the Romans, but to save all people from their greatest enemy – themselves. He came equipped not with an army to conquer through force, but only with his life to conquer through suffering and death. This story that we read today, which in the eyes of the world is the failure of a minor political figure, is for Christians the most profound victory.
This Palm Sunday, and in the days before Easter, let’s think about where we fit in all of this. If you and I had been standing with the crowd outside of Jerusalem would we have heralded Jesus as the conquering hero, only to curse him a week later as a looser and a failure? Are you and I still trying to make Jesus into something he’s not. His followers wanted a conquering messiah – we often want a messiah who is gentle and generous, who is more interested in meeting our needs rather than in challenging our lives, a messiah who gives us comfort but who doesn’t confront our apathy. Jesus’ followers wanted a messiah who would give the Romans what for – we want a messiah who will give us what we want and leave us alone the rest of the time. The Church often grasps hold of the wrong messiah when erecting structures becomes more important than lifting up people, when who goes to bed with whom becomes more important than who doesn’t have a bed, when spending money on this institution becomes more important than sharing it with others. When we allow these things to happen, it isn’t Christ we are following, but some other messiah.
Being a Christian places a great responsibility on us, while at the same time it gives us a great gift. As Christians, we are called to follow the way of the cross, to live a life where loving and giving and self sacrifice are the norm – that is the way of the kingdom. But at the same time, we are freed from the burden of having to base our self worth on where we live, what we do, or how much money we make. As Christians we are told that to be first we must be last, and we are promised that even if we are viewed as last in the eyes of the world we are still first in the family of God.
This Palm Sunday, let’s rejoice with the others over Jesus our king. Let’s wave our palm branches and shout Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest. But let’s keep always in the front of our minds the truth that the joy of Palm Sunday is followed by the suffering of Holy Week. Let’s not forget the truth that Jesus is the victorious king, but that his victory lies in his worldly defeat and death. Let’s not forget that we come to worship the greatest of losers today in thanksgiving for his greatest triumph. As the hymnist writes: “In Thy most bitter passion my heart to share doth cry, with thee for my salvation upon the cross to die. Ah, keep my heart thus moved to stand thy cross beneath, to mourn thee, well beloved, yet thank thee for thy death”. Amen.