"Understanding the Savior Mythology"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – April 17, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11



     This morning we are going to consider the message Jesus was sending to the massive crowd that clogged the street leading into Jerusalem. Did Jesus accomplish his mission? Finally, we are also going to see what his very dramatic entrance means to us twenty-one centuries later.

     To set the stage for that first Palm Sunday, a little background might be helpful for us to understand why Jesus behaved in this manner.  Jesus had planned his entrance down to the last details.  He had made arrangements for the animal on which he would ride.  He timed his coming into Jerusalem to coincide with Passover, an event that would maximize his exposure.

     Jesus knew that it was mandatory that every adult male living within a twenty mile radius of Jerusalem must come to the Passover feast.  Attendance was also considered an obligation for Jews all over the world to attend at least one Passover celebration in Jerusalem during their lifetime.

     How many people would you guess gathered in Jerusalem during Passover?  While we cannot be certain, thirty years after Jesus’ entrance, a Roman governor took a census of the number of lambs that were slaughtered for the Passover meal.  Secular records show that 250,000 animals were purchased for that occasion.  Figuring that ten people would consume one lamb, the crowd could have easily exceeded two and a half million people. 

     Why did he choose this method to enter Jerusalem and why would his entrance have such a dramatic impact on those who had come for the Passover celebration?  One hundred and seventy-five years before Jesus’ entrance, Antiochus Epiphanes was the Syrian ruler that governed the entire territory.  One of his goals was to stamp out Judaism in his mini-empire, particularly in Jerusalem. (The word Epiphanes means, “I represent God’s presence.”) 

     This Syrian monarch desecrated the Jewish Temple by sacrificing unclean animals and sprinkling water in which pigs had been boiled throughout the building.  Antiochus erected a statue of the Greek god of Jupiter in the Temple and then imposed Greek religious practices on the Jews.  Led by Judas Maccabaeus, the Jews revolted and achieved their independence.

     When Judas entered Jerusalem following his victory, his entrance was celebrated in the identical manner as was the entry of Jesus. (2nd Maccabees 10:7) Palms were cut, people spread their garments in the path and they shouted their “Hosannas.”  Judas proceeded to cleanse the Temple from top to bottom of all Greek influences.  This is what Jesus did following his entrance into the city.  He entered the Temple and drove out the money changers, exclaiming, “The Scriptures say, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer.  You have made it a hideout for thieves!’” 

     We moderns have changed the meaning of the Hebrew word “Hosanna.”  In Jesus day, “Hosanna” was a cry of distress.  It meant “Save Us Now!”  And the words, “Hosanna in the highest” accurately translated meant, “Let even the angels in the highest heights of heaven cry unto God to save us now!”

     The savior mythology has circulated widely in every generation and culture since the dawn of civilization.  Our saviors have had many faces and have taken countless forms.  Of course, not all of them have been religious as you will soon understand.  Using the word saviors in this context means that for thousands of years people have tended to look for something or someone in their external world to save them by giving them a more perfect world.

     For example, a number of us were astounded to see the banner headline on the front page of Tuesday’s Royal Gazette, “US-based end-times group in Hamilton blitz.”  This group recently circulated brochures in front of City Hall proclaiming that the end of the world will happen on October 21 of this year.  However, Judgment Day will be earlier on May 21 when God will save the Elect and take them to heaven while the rest of us must languish on the earth until the 21st of October.  This group announced that God will save them by taking them to a better world.

     There is another group that is equally committed to such a savior motif.  The date for the end of our current reality is December 21, 2012 because that is the day and year when the ancient Mayan calendar ends.  Many people find such prophesies extremely compelling. 

     Dates for the end of the world have been numerous in our life time.  Many of them claim to be based on hidden revelations in the Bible that have only recently been revealed.  Obviously all such days have come and gone with nothing to show for such prophecies but another group of disillusioned believers.   They must believe the nature of God is one who missed Jesus’ request from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

     There are other saviors that wear a much different mask and have no religious overtones. This one found its way into the Gazette as well, “New private pre-school will hire full-time toilet trainer.”  The new owner of the school said these astonishing words,

     Children four years old that are still in diapers are a problem for Bermuda.  It appears to be a real challenge for parents to potty train their children.  We see it all the time.  There is a lot of work involved, it can be very taxing and time consuming.  It is a daunting task that is no fun for parents.  So many parents are trying to juggle work and home life.  There are single parents who are also very busy.  Potty training just isn’t a priority.

     Here a school is offering salvation to parents who wish to escape a teachable moment with their children that is as basic as eventually teaching them to dress themselves or to learn the skill of tying their shoes. If parents would prefer not to get involved on this level of their children’s education and growth, at what level would they like to begin? 

     One of the granddaddies of all saviors is romantic love.  The savior mythology blooms eternal for many young lovers.  The common themes are so well-scripted, they go like this:

     I am so in love that I find it hard to concentrate.  We have taken long walks on the beach.  Time seems to stand still when we are together.  We can talk for hours uncovering so many things we have in common.  We finish each other sentences. My loneliness is gone.  I am so happy.  I have finally found someone with whom I can share my life as an open book. When we are on our honeymoon, I know every experience will melt by soul. My greatest joy will be watching my dearest soul mate sleep.

     Please!!  If we put this same relationship on fast forward the myth of a savior becomes somewhat tarnished.  Before the infusion of two or three children into the mix, such a couple often experiences a very different conversation:

     I had no idea that you needed the top-of-the-line titanium golf clubs.  Honey, why do you have to buy a pair of ear rings and shoes to match each new blouse you buy?  None of my friends are married to a guy who plays on two Cricket leagues.  Dearest, you either have to do something about your snoring or sleep in another bedroom.

     The entire advertising industry builds its commercials around the savior mythology.  Men will get their confidence back by having a hair transplant procedure.  Men and women will have their self-esteem enhanced by various forms of shape-wear.  We are invited to get behind the steering wheel of some new car to announce to the world that we have arrived.  I am sure we get the point.  The savior mythology is all through every culture.

     Back to Jerusalem -- What was Jesus’ point for making his grand entrance in this manner?  He was using the symbolism of a former hero, Judas Maccabaeus, to restore the core sacred-values of the Jewish faith. Like Judas, he cleansed the Temple of all that stood in violation of what was holy and sacred.   Did it work?  No!  Once the crowd saw that he did not intend to answer their cries for salvation from the Roman Empire, they lost interest.

     Jesus wanted his witnesses to understand that there is no magic pill that would save them from their own unhappiness.  Jesus was modeling for the Jews that their lives must not focus on overthrowing Roman rule, but overthrowing their own selfish desires that God would send someone to fix their world. 

     The crowd was concerned about politics and Jesus wanted them to understand that such saviors come and go.  He was offering what would give them freedom from hatred, resentment and contempt.  He wanted to cleanse the inner temple within them.

     We can easily proclaim that Jesus is the Lord of our lives, but the truth is not in what we say.  The Truth is not in what we believe.  The Truth we hold the most sacred is always revealed through the spirit by which we live. 

     For example, the speed limit in Bermuda is 35 kilometers an hour on all roads.  Why, then, is Bermuda among the nations with the highest death toll on its highways?   Why does Bermuda have an extremely high rate of diabetes among our population?  The answers are extremely obvious.  Our saviors of a speed limit and warnings to watch what we eat are well known by most of us but many people do not choose to follow them. 

     These and countless other issues are just like the message Jesus was acting out.  No one is coming to save any of us from the circumstances imposed by the world.  The only one who can untie the constraints that define and confine us is us.  Until we are willing to follow the blue print Christ gave us, we will continue to be like a ping-pong ball caught between the paddles of our stubborn wills and the pleas from Jesus to change our attitudes, thoughts and actions.  Christ died on the cross to show us what that looks like.  He overcame the worst the people of this world could do to him.

     Jesus did not come into our world to give us a new, unique power that we did not already have.  He came to teach us why it is so critical that we use it.  We will find that salvation is not some recipe of our beliefs and wisdom that propels us toward heaven when we die.  Rather it is a commitment to grow through every barrier we face that tries to keep our love silent and out of sight.  

     With all the barriers Jesus faced during Holy Week, each had the power to prevent his love from showing up.  However, he plowed through each one from the flesh-tearing lashing to his crucifixion, determined to let his light shine in spite of the darkness.

     Years ago, Sir Edmund Hillary tried to climb Mount Everest.  He failed.  During the expedition two of his fellow-climbers were killed.  His colleagues around the world labeled him a fool for trying to climb such an invincible mountain.

     Four days after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, she knighted Edmund Hillary as one of her first acts as the Queen of England.  Behind the head table hung a large black and white picture of Mount Everest.  As he came forward to receive his award, the people present gave him a tearful standing ovation. 

     When Sir Edmund Hillary stood to speak, he turned his back to the audience and faced that picture.  These were his words, “Mount Everest, you have defeated me once and you might defeat me again.  But I am coming back again and again, and I am going to win, because you can’t get any bigger, Mount Everest, and I can!”  That day arrived and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first human being to conquer a mountain that every authority said was impossible to climb.

     Jesus showed us that there is no barrier capable of preventing us from loving others when we are committed to following what he taught us.  Every demon we face, some of them on a daily basis, will flee when we stand forth as one of his disciples saying, “I can accomplish all things through the spirit of Christ that strengthens me.”