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When the Cheering Stops

April 14, 2014

“When the Cheering Stops” Matthew 21:12-17, Philippians 2:5-11 © 4.13.14 Passion Sunday A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“Humanity is fickle,” poet Calvin Miller once wrote. “They may dress for a morning coronation and never feel the need to change clothes to attend an execution in the afternoon. So Triumphal Sundays and Good Fridays always fit comfortably into the same April week” (The Singer).

And so it was. The adoring crowds that greeted Jesus on his entrance to Jerusalem faded away. Some of them may have joined the mob stirred up later in the week by threatened religious leaders longing to be rid of a thorn in their side once and for all. Angered by his call to be true to the traditions taught by the prophets, his criticism of their compromises, his insistence on love not law, but mostly by his popularity, the chief priests and scribes and elders could put up with Jesus no longer.

Those of you who are or have been popular may say the leaders just needed to get over it. You know from your own experience that popularity can be fleeting and fraught with problems. After awhile, if they had just left things alone, people would have moved on to somebody else they liked better, who excited them a little more, who did something different.

But someone who has never been popular, like yours truly, can understand where the leaders were coming from, how disappointed they were to have worked hard day by day, to be put in positions of authority, only to have their leadership undermined by somebody who just showed up one day preaching repentance and calling men and women to follow him. I understand envying people with charisma, charm, and wisdom that comes from some amazing place inside that I can’t even fathom, much less hope to experience. The chief priests and scribes were wondering what made Jesus so special, why he got all the accolades, why they didn’t get a parade down Main Street celebrating their very presence. The cheering of the crowd grated on their ears, the little children’s voices were not sweet, the quotation of yet another put-down scripture text infuriating.

But once they got rid of Jesus, they wouldn’t stop there. Like popular celebrities and leaders of our day, he had followers, an entourage, consisting of the truly committed, the sort-of interested, the hangers-on, the wannabes. The true test of who fit in which category was what they did when Jesus was handed over and tried and executed. It’s easy to associate yourself with a leader, an entertainer, a team, an institution, a cause when they’re winning and adored and rich and famous. Their status trickles down to you, so you get to bask in their glory and name drop and tell stories that sound as if they are exalting your idol, but actually are intended to enhance your reputation.

What happens, though, when the cheering stops? When your team starts to lose, do you desert it or do you stick with it, loyal whatever may come? If I like a movie or a book that’s not a blockbuster or bestseller, and others criticize it as dumb or boring, do I back down or keep singing its praises? When the culture no longer props up our perspective on faith, but we have to compete against overwhelming odds to get attention, members, money, and status, do we go somewhere else or do we remain true to the way of believing that continues to sustain us? When so many Christians these days worship a Jesus we would barely recognize from the gospels or the text from Philippians, do we stand up for who he really was and what he truly taught or do we remain silent, afraid of incurring the wrath of our friends and neighbors, being called a fool or a heretic? When faced with a choice between the easy thing and the right thing, which do we decide on?

James Russell Lowell said it musically in 1845: “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side; some great cause, some new decision, offering each the bloom or blight, and the choice goes on forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

“Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust, ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ‘tis prosperous to be just; then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside, till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

“Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong; though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong, yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow keeping watch above his own.”

In the end, when the cheering stops and all is silent as a tomb, it is, and will be, only the voice of God that matters.

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