THE HERO WE NEED
Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 20, 2016; Palm Sunday, Year C
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40

“As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives,
the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully
with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen”
Luke 19:37

It seems a strange day for this to happen, but on Good Friday a blockbuster superhero movie is going to open at theaters across the country. It’s called Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Here’s the setup for the movie, as I understand it. Superman’s been going about his crime-fighting business, but he’s caused a good deal of unintended damage to the city. Citizens of Gotham are growing uneasy with the Man of Steel and all the power he has at his disposal. Government officials are calling for someone to rein him in.

Who should volunteer for the job, but Batman? “Superman has the power to wipe out the entire human race,” he says. “Now I have to destroy him.” Let the superhero games begin!

Who are you going to be rooting for? It’s a tough decision. Superman and Batman are two of the most popular superheroes of all time. It hardly seems right they’re lined up against each other, instead of teaming up to battle some super-villain. However it all turns out, it’s going to be box-office gold.

*****

We do like our heroes! In a world grown weary of war, terrorism, economic stagnation and declining moral values, a great many Americans are turning to presidential candidates, looking to them to be their heroes. The problem is, all of them have feet of clay, in some way or another. None of them are qualified to step into a phone booth (if they can find one anymore), slip on that spandex outfit, and sally forth to save the day!

It’s a perilous thing, to lay that sort of mantle — or cape — on the shoulders of any political leader. Yet, is that not what the citizens of Jerusalem are doing as Jesus enters the city, in today’s Gospel lesson?

I’d like to ask you to turn in your worship bulletins to the next-to-last page. You may already have discovered that we’ve reproduced a modern painting there.

It’s by a contemporary American artist named Douglas Blanchard. It’s called “Jesus Enters the City.” (http://tinyurl.com/j8xy8er)

It’s not a complicated painting. But what I like about it is the way it takes the biblical story and pulls it into our present era. The artist is challenging us to imagine what the Palm Sunday procession would look like in modern times.

There’s Jesus, in the center of the picture. He’s riding not a donkey, but a colt — which is actually consistent with today’s reading from Luke and also the parallel passage from Mark. It’s John that has Jesus riding on a donkey. As for Matthew, he can’t seem to make up his mind. He has Jesus riding on both a colt and a donkey (presumably, one at a time!)

Jesus isn’t dressed like a Jewish man from the first century. He’s in contemporary garb — although his suitjacket-and-t-shirt ensemble doesn’t mark him as one of the movers and shakers of society.

He’s evidently at the forefront of a political protest march. The banners make this unmistakably clear: “Freedom!” “Justice!”

Gathered all around him are people who represent a cross-section of society: but the crowd’s especially heavy on minorities and disaffected younger people. It looks like a civil-rights march. Women are prominent, as is the disabled person in the wheelchair, off to the left.

Now, in case you’re worried the artist is injecting politics into a Bible story, don’t be. He’s actually holding rather strictly to the story as the scriptures tell it: just translating it into the modern era. When that Jerusalem crowd is waving palm branches, it’s not because they’re trying to keep cool on a hot day. The palm branch was the symbol of the Maccabean revolt, nearly two centuries before the time of Jesus. Mattathias Maccabee and his two sons, Judah and Jonathan, led a war of independence against the Seleucid Greek empire — one of the smaller kingdoms that was left after the death of Alexander the Great. The Maccabees actually succeeded in overthrowing their foreign overlords and achieved independence for a brief while. So, to wave palm branches in the face of the Romans is a way of saying, “We want another revolution, just like that one!”

The same is true of the shout, “Hosanna!” (which means, “Save us!”). “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” David, of course, was the greatest of Israel’s ancient kings: so calling for a renewed kingdom of David means putting a true descendant of David on the throne — not King Herod, that Roman puppet, but someone who’s a true man of faith, a king will rule justly and compassionately, on the Lord’s behalf.

Now, look at what’s looming in the background. It’s a Roman triumphal arch. You can see such a monument in great cities of the Western world. The most famous are in Rome itself: like the Arch of Titus, built by that general after his sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Victorious Roman generals — many of them soon to become emperors — would build these arches for their great victory parades. Their troops would march through the arch by the thousands, and at the end of the procession, in a magnificent chariot, would be the general himself. Marching in front of the general, in chains, would be the defeated enemy general and some of his leading officers. When the parade was over, as often as not, these miserable captives would be driven to their knees and cut to pieces with swords, for the enjoyment of the cheering crowds.

In case that calls to mind a bloodthirsty ISIS propaganda video, a mass beheading of men in orange jumpsuits, you’d be right. The Romans could be every bit as brutal as today’s most notorious terrorists.

You also see triumphal arches in other places: in great cities of the Western world. There’s the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris, built by Napoleon to celebrate his victories. (Napoleon was a great admirer of the Romans.) London’s Wellington Arch celebrates the British general’s victory over Napoleon. New York has the Soldiers and Sailors Arch — a Roman-style monument to the Union’s victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Hitler had plans to build an absolutely huge triumphal arch in Berlin — a structure so massive that 47 of Napoleon’s Arcs de Triomphe could fit within it. He ran out of money, though, building airplanes and tanks, so construction never began.

The largest triumphal arch in the world, I’ve learned, happens to be in Mexico City. The Monument de la Revolucion was finished in 1938. It commemorates the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.

When Douglas Blanchard paints a Roman triumphal arch in the back of his picture, looming over his ragtag procession of political demonstrators, I don’t think he’s saying those marchers are the ones who are triumphing. The arch looks more to me like a looming threat of a military crackdown — maybe the sort of reprisal that awaits them, for protesting. Nations build triumphal arches not only to commemorate victories of the past, but also as a display of military power in the present. “Don’t mess with us” is what a triumphal arch really says.

Finally, take another look at the figure of Jesus on horseback. He’s not doing the sort of thing you’d expect the leader of a revolutionary movement to do, on an occasion like that. He’s not facing resolutely forward, as the other marchers are. He’s leaning to one side, reaching down to touch someone in the crowd, someone we can barely see. He’s distracted, not fully present for the pomp and circumstance of the occasion. Now, maybe he’s just dropped his wallet but I prefer to think he’s reaching down to heal someone. It’s an unabashedly political scene, but the central figure of the painting seems oddly detached from all of that, as though he’s got his mind on something else entirely.

He’s a rather odd choice of hero. The crowd has a pretty clear vision of what sort of hero they’re looking for. The problem is, this man perched awkwardly on the back of the colt doesn’t seem to be the one to fill that particular bill.

*****

Who’s the hero you’re looking for, this Palm Sunday, in the Year of our Lord 2016? What sort of problems are you facing in this life, that you’re looking to him to solve?

Are you wishing your health were better, your income more robust, your family relationships more harmonious? Are you looking for God to bless your favorite political candidate in the presidential election? Are you wishing for world peace, but only after our nation triumphs over all her enemies? Or do you simply wish your faith were stronger?

You and I, my friends, are inveterate worshipers of heroes. We cut our teeth on hero-worship as kids, eagerly devouring comic-book sagas of Batman and Superman. We sublimate our hero-worship tendencies watching sporting events, and yes, also watching the election-return numbers appear on what Wolf Blitzer of CNN unabashedly refers to as “the magic screen.”

There’s only one hero worth worshiping, the most unlikely hero of all. He never commanded an army. He never threw a touchdown pass with seconds on the clock. He never wrote a bestselling book nor commanded a six-figure salary as a Hollywood star. He most assuredly never ran for President, even though some of his more zealous followers believed he could be that kind of leader.

What he did was something you and I will all do someday. He died. He did it prematurely — and, by all accounts, needlessly. Both Pilate and Herod seemed to be giving him an out, offering him the opportunity to trade the punishment of traitors and thieves for a lighter sentence. But he just stood there silently, adamantly refusing to speak a word in his own defense.

What sort of hero does that?

A hero who is unlike any other. A hero who, at the dawning of the third day, rose up from the tomb and walked a garden path, there to call out the name of a dear friend who had feared she would never see him again.

It’s not the stuff of triumphal parades. But this hero offers us a gift more splendid, more miraculous, than any other hero dares to even hint at. He offers us — and all who trust him, and acknowledge their sin, and take him into their hearts — the gift of life itself, life eternal.

He’s the hero we need. This week, we tell again the story of his most climactic days. Come journey with us: from the upper room, to the cross, to the empty tomb.

Our next hymn, “A Stable Lamp Is Lighted” — written by one of America’s greatest modern poets, Richard Wilbur — tells this great story. It does it in a simple way, to a lovely little tune written especially for this poem, a tune gentle as a lullaby.

But before we sing it, let us pray:
Teach us, O God,
in this holiest of weeks,
that the greatest treasure of our lives is found
not in the roar of a pumped-up crowd,
nor in the triumph of warrior and politician,
but in the gentle victory of love over death.
We thank you that, in Christ, you promise us
a share in that victory
and pray that you would help us lead others
to share it as well.
In his saving name we pray. Amen.

 

Copyright © 2016 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.