ďFollow the Crowd?Ē
March 16, 2008 - Palm Sunday
†††††††† I was swept along in a sea of red. All around me, men, women, babies and grandmothers pushed toward their goal, which was a seat in Memorial Stadium to watch the Cornhuskers play. During my time in Lincoln, Nebraska, the stadium held about 74,000 and every game has been a sell-out since 1962. That streak continues, even with capacity now increased to over 80,000. The fierce loyalty of Cornhusker fans makes a Memorial Stadium game crowd larger than any city in Nebraska, except for Omaha and Lincoln. My deepest apologies to all you Oregon fans, but Duck green fever pales when compared to the passionate intensity of Nebraskaís love for the Big Red. The city, the state becomes a ghost town when they gather at Memorial Stadium.
†††††††† So there I was, engulfed in the largest gathering Iíve ever been part of. But I was not really part of it. Iím not a football fan. I understand the game. I know the rules. I can follow the plays. But I donít get excited; Iím not really interested; the outcome doesnít particularly matter to me. Regardless of how long I live in a place, I donít think of the men out on the field as my team. Even though I went along to the game, I wasnít really following the crowd. I was there, but I didnít care.
†††††††† As we watch the Palm Sunday crowd ascend the road into Jerusalem today, I wonder how many of us may be following the crowd, but without much excitement, without much interest. Are we, and I ask myself this question as much as any of you, here but not really part of it? I wave my palm, but am I there? Do I care?
†††††††† You could wonder about that crowd around Jesus in Jerusalem. They were certainly caught up in the moment. They were cutting branches from the trees to wave and to lay down like a red carpet along the road for Jesus. Matthew tells us they even laid their coats in the dirt for Him to ride over. And they were shouting, Iím sure as loud and strong as any football crowd, shouting ďHosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!Ē They were so loud that both Luke and John tell us the authorities worried that it would all get out of hand, that a riot was imminent, that Jesus was attracting too great a following.
†††††††† But part of the Passion story we remember this week is the huge change from the mood on Palm Sunday to the mood on Friday morning. From ďHosanna!Ē to ďCrucify him!Ē in five short days. It almost certainly was not the same people in the two crowds. Even so, by the end of the week, what became of all that support for Jesus at the beginning? It just faded away.
†††††††† Our own enthusiasm for being in Jesusí crowd fades away. Itís especially true in churches like ours, churches that have been around awhile. Unlike some others, our Covenant denomination has grown steadily for the last fifteen years. What may not be noticed is that 95% of that growth took place in new churches, churches less than fifteen years old. In older, established churches like ours, the numbers have been flat or declining.
†††††††† Church plants grow much faster than established churches. Some of it has to do with the excitement and commitment of something new. We know what it feels like to start out on any new course, a new house, a new job, a new marriage, a new friendship, a new hobby, even a new diet or exercise program. Your heart and mind are full of the fresh idea and high goals. You go out and buy an exercise bike, a set of weights, a freezer full of tasty low-fat, low-calorie meals. And it all goes well for awhile.
†††††††† Then things start to get old. Your butt gets sore from the bike. Pushing the weights is just plain boring. You dread the thought of yet one more meal of grilled chicken and vegetables, with no-fat, no-sugar ďice creamĒ for dessert. You just get tired of it, your enthusiasm wanes, and soon you are following the plan less and less. For some of us it might be in just five short days like Holy Week, for others a little longer, but we wear out, and lose our inspiration.
†††††††† The same thing happens in Christian life, in church life. We get excited, weíre glad to be part of a crowd, especially if itís all new. We buy a new Bible and start reading it each morning. We show up every Sunday to worship, every Thursday night for a Bible study. But we get tired. We start letting other interests, other excitement take over. We skip the Bible reading for homework or housework. We miss church to spend a weekend camping or for a sports event or to entertain visitors from out of town. And we start thinking more about Christmas gifts and decorations than about Advent preparation, more about what weíll do on spring break than about the celebration of Holy Week. Weíve lost our inspiration.
†††††††† So then we want someone or something to inspire us again. A rush of enthusiasm got us into the crowd following Jesus. A Palm Sunday kind of excitement brought us here. ďGive us some more to keep us here,Ē we think. But Holy Week is the Bibleís demonstration that we cannot follow Jesus solely on the basis of spiritual excitement. If we try, weíll follow the crowd into Jerusalem, but when that energy fades, when Jesus turns and starts walking toward the Cross, we turn and fall away. All night long praying in the Garden of Gethsemane isnít very exciting. Even the Apostles fell asleep.
†††††††† Mamu of you know, after years of stories in sermons, that I enjoy fly-fishing. I really enjoy fly-fishing. Yet the fact is that over the past few years, I havenít been out too much. Family, church, teaching for the Covenantóitís all filled my time so Iíve only gotten out on a stream two or three times a year for awhile now. And you know, I donít find myself dropping by Caddis Fly to lust over the newest rods. The Blue Ribbon Flies catalog arrives from Montana and rather than spend an evening with it, I toss it in a pile of magazines and catalogs. I donít find myself itching for the rain to stop and the rivers to come down so I can get out there. Iím less interested, less excited than I used to be.
†††††††† My interest in fishing has fallen off because Iíve quit doing it so much. The less Iím on the stream, the less I care about being on the stream. Oh sure, I miss it, in a kind of nostalgic way. But itís faded from being a passion to being more of something Iím always meaning to do, but never quite get to it.
†††††††† Now you might think that what I need is a little more fishing inspiration. I should go up to Eugene Bible College and listen to Professor Rick Lewis tell me about the latest big one he caught. I should pick up a new John Gierach book and read some fine fly-fishing stories. I should go down to Caddis Fly and ask them about the hot spots. And those things might help a little. But you know whatís going to make me interested in fishing again? Itís pulling my old red tackle bag off the shelf and tossing it with my waders, boots, net, rods and vest in the back of my truck and heading up the hill. I need to hear my line swooshing back and forth in the air, see the little circle on the water that means a trout took my fly, feel the weight of a good fish bending my rod, smell the river and the pine trees and the fish itself when I lift it from the water for a moment. Now that would get me excited about fishing again. Doing it.
†††††††† Excitement may get us into a crowd, but itís not what keeps us there. Thousands of folks bought fly-rods after they saw Robert Redfordís film, ďA River Runs Through It,Ē but only a few of them are still fishing. And theyíre still out there on the stream not because its popular, not because thereís a crowd there, but simply because theyíve kept at it, and keeping at it, they find enthusiasm for it.
†††††††† The point of following Jesus is not the excitement, not the crowd. The point is Jesus. It was a glorious crowd on Palm Sunday, a spiritual high if there ever was one. But of all the hundreds who were out there on the first day of the week, only a handful were left by Friday and nearly all of them ran away scared before it was over.
†††††††† Crowds are fine. Shouting and rousing music are great. Fiery prayers and stirring sermons are wonderful. But, in the end, sticking with Jesus is what itís all about. Day after day, offering up simple prayers at meals and before you go to bed. Week after week showing up to worship, making an offering, learning a bit more of the Bible, serving others in need. Those are the things that keep us alive, that keep us in the crowd. We shouldnít be looking for inspiration to do those things. We should be doing those things in order to keep our inspiration.
†††††††† Habit. Thatís what Iím talking about. Itís such a dirty word in evangelical Christianity. Weíre told and we think that if we do something by habit, then it canít be very spiritual, canít be very exciting. But the basic, simple habits of prayer, worship, Bible study, giving and service are exactly where weíll find the inspiration to stick with Jesus for the long haul, even to follow Him to the Cross.
†††††††† Iíve shared it before, but I love Stanley Hauerwasís story of Christian habit in Russia. If any church had lost its inspiration and zeal, it was the Russian Orthodox Church under the czars. It was almost wholly a tool of the rulers. It kept the people in line and was about as spiritually dead as you can imagine. But it had some habits, some practices it did faithfully, week in and week out.
†††††††† As Stanley tells it,
††††††† There was one Russian Orthodox habit, however, that brought the church out of the church. Before the Eucharist, the priest was expected to go to the porch of the church and ring a handbell. The bell was to indicate to the people in the village that the celebration was beginning. The early Communist regime, however, as part of its anti-religious campaign, outlawed the traditional public ringing of the bell. Finally, the world had impinged upon the church, and through that impingement the Orthodox discovered that the God they worshiped was indeed the God of the world. Orthodox priestsÖ doggedly continued to stand on the porch, ringing their little bells, finding church impossible without the ringing of the bell. The state reacted by slaughtering and jailing priests by the thousands. Refusing to give up the ringing of the bell, Orthodoxy confronted its nationís rulers with a determination that they did not know they had. God, in Godís mysterious ways, had made the Orthodox more faithful than they ever wanted to be.
Good spiritual habits work that way. They may look dead, uninspired, lifeless, but if they are faithful, consistent, and true, they one day surprise you with their strength and power.
†††††††† Long ago in the Scouts I learned itís dangerous to build a fire in a pine forest without clearing away the ďduff,Ē that layer of old, dry pine needles. Even if you circle it with stones, a fire started on top of what can sometimes be a foot or more of dry needles will burn down into the duff. Even if you think you put it out, a fire may stay smoldering among the needles, beneath the surface. It can burn along slowly there, out of sight, for hours or even days, then suddenly spring up in flames twenty feet from your fire circle.
†††††††† The fire of healthy spiritual habits is like that. All you see on the surface is the same old quiet layer of the same old prayers and songs and service. But when the conditions are right, when someone says you canít or when the Spirit blows on the embers, that hidden, quiet devotion springs into unexpected, fiery life.
†††††††† Follow the Palm Sunday crowd, but develop habits which can carry you to the foot of the Cross on Good Friday. Greet your Lord with enthusiasm, but honor Him with your devotion also. Love Jesus with all your heart, but love Him with all the habits of your soul and mind as well.
†††††††† I told you I donít care about football. Neither did my friend Jay when we first went to Notre Dame. His wife Jan would talk about how she was so glad she had married an intellectual and that she wasnít a football widow. But Jay started going to the games with friends he met at Notre Dame. And the more he went, the more he grew to love it, the more excited he got about it. Game after game, his passion grew. Now he keeps that passion alive by watching Notre Dame play on television, by talking about it with his colleagues and his son. Unlike me, Jay spent good time on football and he fell in love with it. Spend good time on Jesus and you will find yourself passionately in love with Him.
†††††††† Do you get it? Most of the time, you donít learn to behave like a Christian by seeking inspiration. You behave like a Christian, day after day, and then find yourself inspired.
†††††††† I drove by Hamlin Middle School yesterday on the way to pick up our palms. The marquee had a notice up, ďĎLove and Logicí Class Cancelled.Ē Iím not quite sure what a class on love and logic would be, but I can imagine why people would be so uninterested that it would be cancelled. Weíve been taught by our world to believe that love and logic donít have much to do with each other, that they canít be combined. Love, we imagine, comes from passion, from deep feeling, from great stirrings of the heart like those that moved the Palm Sunday crowd. But logic, we suppose, is dull, uninspired, unfeeling, practical but not exciting at all.
†††††††† The truth, however, is that, while love inspires great actions, itís that dull, logical, practical business of habitual action which keeps you in love. Quit kissing your spouse and saying ďI love you,Ē every day, and I guarantee the spark will go out of your marriage. Quit spending time in prayer and worship and the Word, and the fire in your walk with Jesus will also go out. Thatís the logic of love.
†††††††† So today, as we enter Holy Week, Iíd like to call us again to holy habits, habits which keep the fire burning, keep our hearts open to the Spirit, keep us in shape to follow wherever Jesus goes. This week He leads us to the upper room to share at His Table and to pray. He leads us up the hard road of sacrifice and death to our own wishes. Then He finally leads us away from all superficial celebrations, even away from all the exuberant crowds, until we finally meet Him with the greatest joy, the deepest excitement, on the other side of the grave, on Easter morning. May we have the habits to follow Him there.
†††††††† Valley Covenant Church
†††††††† Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
†††††††† Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj