Giving Up Popularity

Bible Text: Matthew 21:1-11 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: Giving It Up | This morning, on this Palm Sunday, we are going to continue in our Lenten sermon series, “Giving It Up,” where we have been talking about the things that God wants us to give up, and not just for Lent, but for always. That is not to take away from the practice of giving up certain luxuries or comforts during Lent like certain foods, drinks, or habits. That practice has proven to be very meaningful and helpful for many people. But there are things that God wants us to give up, and calls us to give up, that we need to seriously and prayerfully consider.

Last week we talked about giving up our lives and how there are many ways in which we give up our lives for others, and how especially during this challenging time we need to continue this practice, just maybe in different ways. Just because we are practicing social distancing amid this pandemic does not mean that we stop doing the work of Jesus Christ, as the body of Christ for the world. Today, we are going to use many of the readings we have heard this morning so far as we talk about giving up popularity.

Popularity. A topic of joy and revel for some, while a collection of bad memories and pain for others. For many people, when you mention the word popularity they think of their youth, maybe high school, and who the popular kids were. Maybe it was the athletes, the financially well off, those deemed to be the most attractive. But then again, maybe not. Everyone has different experiences and situations through life.

For some, when they here the word popularity, they think about those who have influence in our society, our media, our politics, and other areas that tend to draw our attention. There are social media influencers who many consider popular. You have politicians, regardless of party, who carry some level of popularity, whether at the local, state, or federal levels. We have actors and actresses who seem to appear in countless movies every year that we wonder when they sleep who many would label as popular.

If you are a musical theatre fan you may hear the word popularity, or just popular, and think of the song of the same name from the Tony award-winning musical Wicked. The song always makes me laugh when I hear it, as it is a little tongue-in-cheek. For those unfamiliar it is about a popular girl trying to help her unpopular roommate become more popular. She does this by trying to get her roommate to conform to the more accepted ideas of beauty and popularity of their context.

But can, or rather should, popularity be more than that? There are many who feel, and argue, that our world has become such a “what have you done for me lately?” kind of place that popularity is often fleeting and not a true sign of someone’s value to society or the world-at-large. There are many who think of popularity as something shallow and ultimately a poor measure of someone’s character and true self.

But what do we find in Scripture? What can we learn about popularity in our collective readings for today? Let’s start with our first reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter twenty-one. This passage covers Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. As he enters, riding along, it says that “a very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

That’s a pretty nice welcoming. “Hosanna!” the people cried out. They hailed him as an honored king. The crowds loved Jesus on that Palm Sunday. He was a celebrity. And when people in the city didn’t know him, they were told by the crowds, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Jesus was being hailed as coming in the name of the Lord, a prophet, the Son of David. These were some of the highest, if not the highest, praises and accolades that could be put upon someone in the Jewish culture. David was the greatest king EVER!

This is great, right? Coming into the big city, everybody loves him. They shout chants of “Hosanna!” and lay cloaks and tree branches on the ground in front of him. Now this is popularity. And everything stayed just like this forever, and everyone lived happily ever after. Eh…well, not exactly. You see just a few days later, a much different crowd is calling for Jesus death and the release of a murderer. Things take a complete one eighty and the once popular prophet, the Son of David, is now being treated like a criminal, an outcast, someone worthy of death in the eyes of the crowd.

15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.

20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

But it gets worse for this once loved man. 27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head.

From there, as we have already heard, Jesus is led, carrying his cross, through the streets and taken away to be crucified. And he is alone! His disciples abandoned him back when he was arrested. Peter, one of the most dedicated of his followers denies him three times! This is about as far away from popularity as you can get. And then he is crucified, he dies, and he is laid in a tomb, with a large stone rolled in front of it and a guard put there to make sure no “funny business” goes on.

To say that this is a perfect example of how popularity and acclaim in the eyes of others is fleeting would be a bit of an understatement. And unfortunately, when we put all our faith in popularity, in the end, we will be very disappointed. Jesus, even if people didn’t completely understand, was the Son of God! We are talking what many people would probably think of as the ultimate celebrity, the most important person in any room. And yet, even Jesus’ popularity did not last.

But, if instead of putting our faith in popularity and acclaim, instead if we put our faith in God, well then something much different is at play. God calls us to put our faith in God’s unending love and grace. Those are things that will never go away. Those are things that can, and will, sustain us through the times when others have abandoned us. Being popular in the eyes of humanity can be nice, but it is not a light that will burn forever. But God’s unending love and grace, those things are lights that can never be extinguished or covered up or hidden away. Those lights burn forever.

So, what does it mean to give up popularity in practice for us in our world today? Does it mean that we should just all start doing things that are unpopular? Well, no, that would be a bit extreme, and not necessarily following the teachings of Jesus either. What I believe it means is that we must not sacrifice our faith, our call to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, our identity as beloved children of God, just for the sake of gaining favor in the eyes of another.

That means sometimes doing things that may be unpopular to some. Things like speaking truth to power. Things like loving your neighbors, ALL your neighbors. Things like Jesus did including hanging out with the poor, the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the outcasts of society. None of those things are ultimately likely to cost you your life, at least not in this country, but they may make you unpopular with some people. But I guess we have to ask ourselves who are we more concerned with living up to their expectations? God? Or someone else? Amen.