March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
You want a hero? Well, I’ve got one for you. How about a Messiah? How about the return of King David? Let’s have a big parade! We’ll show those Romans that they can’t shove us around anymore!
Why is he riding a colt? I don’t know. Maybe he couldn’t find a horse. Anyway, join the cheer: Hosanna! Save us now! “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”
Shush? Why shush? Oh, the soldiers; I see them. Right, we’d better look busy.
The crowd, gathered for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is quoting Psalm 118, which happens to be the Old Testament chapter most quoted in the New Testament. It appears here, when the people shout Hosanna! “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” We know this one, right? We hear it all the time in our communion liturgy. But this verse is not the most quoted verse of Psalm 118. The verse of Psalm 118 that gets quoted the most in the New Testament comes from earlier in the Psalm. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The New Testament writers mention that passage, or refer to Jesus as rejected, eleven times. I wonder if the crowd didn’t make the connection because they didn’t want to make the connection.
The people who cheer on Jesus as he enters Jerusalem picture him as the kind of hero they want him to be. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” The people want a conquering hero. “With the Lord on my side I do not fear” is another verse from the same Psalm. At this stirring moment, the crowd is caught up in the excitement of new possibilities. Reality, and rejection, will set in soon. But for now, this could be IT. This could be the moment when things finally start going our way.
In our day, celebrities are often confused with heroes. We’re all drawn to celebrity, and it’s easy to get caught up in the pomp and circumstance of a parade. Look, there he is! Hey! Did you see that? He saw me. Jesus waved at ME! It’s a little silly, and I’m sure that the soldiers looking on thought this little demonstration was foolish. It’s just another prophet riding on a donkey, after all. He’s no threat to the empire. Only a fool would worry about this guy. Jesus may have been a celebrity, but more, so much more is happening here.
The way we often define a hero is the one who faces danger or overcomes adversity through feats of ingenuity, courage, or strength. The classic hero is a warrior who lives and dies in the pursuit of honor. The hero fights the dragon to save the village, or rescues the captive from the villain. In this sense, Jesus should have entered Jerusalem on a horse, ridden straight to the Governor’s palace, defeated the soldiers, and driven the Romans away from the city. That is not the hero story of Jesus, however.
A hero might be thought of as one who buys the groceries for their elderly neighbor. While that might be a wonderful thing, and might even save that person from starving, that’s altruism, not heroism. Jesus may have fed the five-thousand with loaves and fishes, and taught us to give food to the hungry, but Jesus was doing a lot more than teaching us how to be nice.
Another version of the hero comes from Joseph Campbell, defined in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” This concept of a hero suggests an archetype of the “hero’s journey” common in mythology and stories across all cultures. This version fits more closely with the journey of Jesus from the cross through the grave to resurrection, but it doesn’t mesh with the rest of what we know of Jesus.
Is the Jesus story a celebrity sighting, the tale of a knight in shining armor, the heart-warming anecdote of a kind person, or a fantastic journey? It doesn’t fit any of those boxes. Jesus might be a hero, but that is not the whole story. Jesus came to break the power of sin and death, to transform human hearts and human societies, and that just won’t fit in the boxes we make.
Jesus enters Jerusalem, and the crowd greets him with a hero’s welcome. Things quickly start to change. The next day Jesus will return to the temple, this time in a rage as he’ll turn over the tables of the moneychangers. He will spend the rest of the week stirring up trouble and making the authorities angry, all the while keeping the crowd “spellbound by his teaching.” At one point Jesus will poke fun at the scribes as the crowds “listen to him with delight.”
It is great entertainment to watch people do dangerous things, and brazenly taunt the powerful. But when the entertainer crosses the line, and the authorities take measures to remove him from the stage, we quickly distance ourselves. It’s all fun and games until someone gets arrested. At the end, even those closest to Jesus will fear to be associated with him. In Gethsemane, after the betrayal by Judas, “All of them deserted him and fled.” Even Peter, bold enough to follow at a distance, would deny him three times before Friday morning.
At the festival, the crowd finally turns on him. Encouraged by the chief priests, they ask for the release of Barabbas, a rebel who took part in a recent insurrection. This is the kind of hero they’re looking for – a warrior, one who is not afraid to take up arms against the Romans. The prophet, yeah, he was entertaining, but he’ll never change anything. And he messed up people’s property over at the temple. Sure, crucify him!
But remember the Psalm. Jesus himself quoted it just a couple of days ago. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” It is in fact the rejection and all that follows, not the “hero’s welcome,” that will shake the world to its foundations and make Jesus the Cornerstone for a whole new reality.
You need a hero? I’ll do you one better. Here is the Son of God, about to be betrayed, abandoned, abused, and executed, riding into the city of his doom aware of what he will face. The crowds are restless. It looks like the evil side will win. I’m on the edge of my seat. Amen.
 The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Mark 11:10.
 Psalm 118: 26.
 Psalm 118:22.
 Psalm 118:6.
 Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton University Press, 1949, 1968), 30.
 Mark 11:18.
 Mark 12:37.
 Mark 14:50.
 Mark 12:10.