TEXTS: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
In 1966 the British “Fab Four”, the Beatles, were at the height of their popularity (though in my opinion not yet at the height of their musical output and genius). Their popularity had garnered them riches, millions of fans and lifestyles that I am sure none of them could have imagined in their early years; but that same popularity also stripped them of their private lives and even made public concerts almost impossible. In an interview with a British newspaper reporter, Maureen Cleave, when asked about his interest in various world religions, John Lennon commented that while he found Christianity a fascinating faith, it seemed to be on the decline in many parts world. He went on to say, “We’re more popular than Jesus right now.” While the statement was hardly noticed in the original London newspaper article, a reprint of the statement caused a tremendous negative push-back in America as group began what would be the final concert tour of their careers together. They were still mobbed by crazed fans, and they received many death threats as well.
And who’s say whether or not, among teens and young adults throughout the world in 1966, Lennon’s statement may have actually been true, or at least apparent to them as their popularity raged. The group had to be transported from Candlestick Park to the airport after their final concert in America in an armored car!
It is so easy to give in to the praise of others, to believe that you are indeed the greatest at whatever you do when you are being mobbed by screaming fans, when public opinion of you shoots through the roof. After winning gold medals in both the 100 and 200 meter sprints in the 2012 Olympics, Usain Bolt proclaimed “I am the greatest athlete to live.” His statement was quite possibly a play on the statement he may well have heard many time from the lips of boxer Mohammed Ali who was known to proclaim simply, “I am the greatest.” David Lee Roth, lead singer for the band Van Halen, once said, “I’m not conceited. Conceit is a fault. I have no faults.”
We see it in business and commerce as well, as those who perform well and are promoted through the company ranks, or those who begin their own companies which bring in millions or even billions of dollars in a matter of a few years can often be heard boasting about their keen intellect and business prowess. Even popular politicians are not immune to pride in the face of their popularity, with many making boasts that are so incredible as to be ridiculous.
The passage that was read this morning from the Gospel of John describes the events that took place immediately after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had recently raised his friend Lazarus to new life after he was four days in the tomb and news of that miracle (or as John puts it “sign”) spread like wildfire. Bethany was just a short distance from Jerusalem, so as Jesus entered the city to celebrate the Passover great crowds of people met him with praises, proclaiming him to be the “one who comes in name of Lord”. We are told that even the Pharisees said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
Now we have a request put forth by a group of Greeks to Philip, who takes the request to Andrew (two disciples with Greek names) asking to “see Jesus”. Nothing is known of these Greeks, but many scholars believe that since the only reference that John makes of them is by their ethnicity, they were probably not even Jewish proselytes, but rather non-Jews who, like many were curious about and drawn to the great festivals of the Jews in Jerusalem. The fact though that they were non-Jews, people who were not even of Palestinian ethnicity and yet were curious about Jesus may represent an important tipping point for Jesus, the proving that his message at that point was beginning to draw universal appeal.
Oh, how easy it would have been for Jesus, as fully human, to fall into the undeniably human reaction of hubris and pride; to say to himself in effect, “My, what a good boy am I” and to begin to boast about his divine nature, his divine acts, his divine words. What we see instead in the ensuing verses though was totally the opposite; Jesus humbly proclaiming not that he was the greatest, but that he must fall to earth in order to continue bear much fruit. John tells us that Jesus went on to caution those around him that anyone who would follow after him must take upon selves the attitude of a servant.
As I was studying toward this sermon, I was reading a commentary on the Gospel of John by a Professor Gerard Sloyan, now long retired from Temple University. As I read, it was obvious to me that Dr. Sloyan is what I would call a “man of letters”. He is one of those authors that I read with both Wikipedia and Google open on my computer beside me so that I can look up words and references with which I may not be familiar. I actually love reading works like Dr. Sloyan’s, because they introduce me to lots of things that I have not previously known and guide me toward further reading in other areas. At one point, Dr. Sloyan offered a delightful quote from author Saul Bellow, who, upon receiving the Nobel prize in literature commented, “Woe to you when all speak well of you.”
Many, possibly all of us find it so easy to fall into the trap of self-absorption and egoism when others speak well of us, when we receive awards and commendations, when we are praised by others; and the greater the praise, often the greater the ego and sometimes the greater the fall from pride. We listen to the praise of others and we convince ourselves that they must be correct in their assessment. Then it is just a very short distance to repeating that praise ourselves and beginning to tell others how great we are.
So I ask you, are there times when others have praised your work, your intellect, your athletic ability, even your kindness? Is it not truly easy to listen to that praise and to say to yourself, “My, what a good boy – what a good girl am I!”? Have you ever caught yourself boasting of your accomplishments, or at least wanting to boast about them? Have you ever mentioned casually the times when you succeeded when others may have failed? There is nothing unusual about these feelings. They are natural human tendencies. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves, and it is such a small step from feeling good about yourself to telling others how good you are.
Even church pastors boast. Even we feel, at times, that the praise that we receive is well deserved and that we are indeed pretty good boys and girls. That is why I need those moments when someone pops my ego balloon as one of my members did many years ago, early in my ministry; a moment that I remember to this day. It was a typical Sunday morning. The worship service had just ended and I was greeting people in the back of the sanctuary. One of my members, a retired school teacher in her eighties, shook hand and commented on how much she enjoyed my sermon that morning. Just as my chest began swell with pride, she added, “But the one last week I had no use for whatsoever.”
As we enter into the final two weeks of this Lenten season, let us remember that the one who we worship humbled himself and was servant to all. He humbled himself even to the point of torture and death upon a cross. Let us remember that it was in that humbling, that death as a criminal, that Jesus had the power to “draw all people to himself” and through himself to God Almighty. Let us remember that we too are called not to be kings and queens, rock stars with mobs of crazed followers, but rather to humbly serve each other and the world in the spirit of Christ. May the humility of Christ shine through each of us, that we too may find ourselves guides for others to a loving and gracious God who offered his incarnate nature, his own Son for our sakes and for the sake of all people. Amen.