First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
March 25, 2018
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh-- my adversaries and foes-- they shall stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.
5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
8 "Come," my heart says, "seek his face!" Your face, LORD, do I seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.
11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!
12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.
13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord-- the King of Israel!"
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
15 "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!"
16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
17 So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify.
18 It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him.
19 The Pharisees then said to one another, "You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!"
It was last year’s hottest Christmas gift for kids, and most adults couldn’t figure out what it was. The L.O.L. Surprise Big Surprise is a plastic globe filled with layers of wrapping paper, encasing 50 surprises. Four dolls, along with accessories, clothing, charms and other knick-knacks — that must be individually unwrapped. Sounds like a parent’s nightmare.
And yet, parents all over the world were scrambling to pay almost $70 for this toy as they became increasingly difficult in the lead-up to Christmas.
MGA Entertainment, the company behind this phenomenon, spent almost no money on advertising for this toy. Instead, they quietly released a trial version of the doll and watched as YouTube videos of people opening the globe, and all its hidden treasures, went viral. Soon enough, celebrities were buying them for their kids, popular YouTubers were filming themselves opening layer after layer, and the trial doll became the country’s top-selling doll.
Part of the allure of the L.O.L. Surprise Big Surprise is the slow reveal. It is literally full of surprises, and there is a new shot of adrenaline with the discovery of each of the 50 items in the toy.
But another part of its appeal is the way you’re invited to participate in what has become more than a toy – it’s an online video movement. Kids are inspired by watching other people unwrap their toys in YouTube videos, and they want to create their own videos for others to watch. To encourage more of this, MGA Entertainment set up recording booths in 13 U.S. cities where kids can film themselves opening their L.O.L. Surprise, potentially becoming the next viral video sensation.
The popularity of this toy has shocked and confused plenty of people, but it is filling others with a frenzied excitement.
And that’s why I’m talking about it today. Because today, Palm Sunday, is when Jesus causes a similar reaction.
There were plenty of people who didn’t understand Jesus’ appeal. First century Judea had seen scores of Jewish zealots, numerous people claiming to be the Messiah. They had all been beaten by the power of the Roman Empire, one way or another. In the grand, holy city of Jerusalem, a carpenter’s son from rural Galilee was nobody of interest. His followers were all the losers who couldn’t get into rabbinical school. His teaching was confounding, and his use of parables irritating.
Jesus and his band of followers are not very well organized, and their marketing is even worse. They wander somewhat randomly around Judea, the disciples never knowing what Jesus is going to say or do next. There doesn’t seem to be a clear plan or purpose to their mission. When Jesus performs miracles and healings, he keeps telling people not to tell anyone. Sounds like a Messianic nightmare.
And yet, on Palm Sunday, the streets are packed, palm leaves are sold out, as Jesus enters Jerusalem. In other gospel accounts of this event, people are spreading their cloaks on the ground for Jesus to ride over. They might get dirty, or ruined, but for some reason it’s worth the cost.
Jesus has the same appeal as the L.O.L. Surprise. Throughout his ministry, there is a slow reveal. Jesus performed dozens of miracles, ranging from calming a storm to healing diseases. Just before he rides into Jerusalem, he raises a man from the dead. Trust me, no one saw that coming.
He teaches with an authority people have never seen before, and he says things that turn heads and shock people’s sensibilities. Those parables that irritate and confound some people are alluring to others who can see that Jesus is slowly revealing the kingdom of God. I’d wager there are at least 50 surprises wrapped up in the Jesus event, each one creating a new rush of excitement among the people he encounters.
And even without the benefit of YouTube, Jesus manages to create something that is more than a single person, more than an isolated event. He creates a movement. Word gets out about Jesus through the social networks of the first century. He becomes the talk of the town, even before he arrives. People want to connect with his popularity and participate in his movement.
The only problem is, they misunderstand what the movement is about. After the Maccabean Revolt two hundred years earlier, the Jews had coins minted with palm branches on them. This was a symbol taken from their oppressors – a sign of victory. Someone with the power to command the wind and the waves and raise the dead was surely coming to liberate them from Roman oppression and establish a kingdom like David’s. So they create a flash mob of palm branches to demonstrate their support, to give themselves a way to participate in this movement.
But the secret kingdom being unwrapped a tiny bit at a time is nothing like the sensational power of the Roman Empire. Jesus will be beaten like a rag doll. His accessories are not a sword and shield, but a crown of thorns and a cross. There are a few secrets left to unwrap in the Jesus event, and they will change how the game is played dramatically.
But for now, as the Pharisees say, the whole world goes after him. Right after this, some Greeks come to the disciples and want to meet Jesus. Already, he’s gone beyond the Jewish community and reached across religious and cultural barriers in his popularity. Jesus becomes so popular, in fact, that he must hide from the crowds like a celebrity ducking the paparazzi.
Two thousand years later, there are plenty of people who don’t understand Jesus’ appeal. There hundreds of religions one could choose to follow, no shortage of spiritual gurus. None of them follows the scientific, empirical method in their truth-claims. Most religions have bloodstains, abuse, and collusion with worldly powers in their history.
Jesus might have said some nice things, done some good deeds. But he also said some harsh things. And he didn’t seem to do anything that tangibly made people’s lives any better. After he died, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and Jews and Christians were persecuted. Christianity became a secret society, with hidden symbols and underground churches. Sounds like a religious nightmare.
And yet, Jesus has several Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and his book is the best-selling manuscript of all time. Even as his popularity wanes somewhat in the northern hemisphere, it is spreading like wildfire in the southern hemisphere. In countries where Christianity is prohibited, or Christians are persecuted, people are willing to pay a high price to follow Jesus.
Because the allure of Jesus is still the same. For those who are willing to buy into the Jesus movement, each new age, each new day, each new experience, reveals something new and awesome about the God we worship. The mystery of Jesus, the slow unfolding of truth, wrapped in layers of wonder, is thrilling. Each new revelation gives us a rush of adrenaline; each epiphany amps us up; the discovery of each new truth about life, God, the universe, gives us a surge of amazement.
This is a movement people want to be a part of. There are online churches and live-streamed worship services, YouTube Bible studies and Christian video bloggers. The Christian publishing and music industries garner over a billion dollars annually. When you factor in all Christian merchandising, that profit rises to well over 4 billion.
The only problem is, we’re still not understanding what the Jesus movement is about. We keep using the symbols of the oppressor – the branches of consumerism, the coattails of political parties – to welcome Jesus, to celebrate what we think he’s going to do for us. A new church in town is having a “Grand Opening” next Sunday, like it’s a furniture store, while another one invites you to “Check out all our spring events!” like it’s an entertainment venue. Christian individuals, churches, and organizations spend millions of dollars to lobby politicians from both parties to use their political power to further the causes they believe God champions. Surely a man who can die and be resurrected has the power to win elections, pass legislation, and make sure me and my family are healthy, wealthy, and happy.
The events we will commemorate this week are a stark reminder that there is more to unwrap in the Jesus event, and the hidden treasures have nothing to do with political victory or our health, wealth and happiness. As this week slowly reveals betrayal, abandonment, humiliation, and death, we will have to sort out how those accessories adorn our own Christian life.
These online videos where people film themselves unwrapping their L.O.L. Surprise toys belong to a category of YouTube videos of people opening all kinds of new products and offering commentary on their experience. They are known as “unboxing” videos. Because you’re typically watching somebody take something out of a box. I’m not totally sure why this is entertaining, but these are very popular videos, generally.
Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, which studies how people interact with media across platforms, thinks unboxing videos feed into a primal curiosity and desire to know what's hidden inside something. She asserts that the desire to be surprised might be part of our essential makeup.
“The human brain is wired to be curious,” she says. “What's in stuff? What's behind stuff? We have a natural proclivity to know.” This is not simply vicarious behavior. Unboxing, says Rutledge, is “more of an exploratory learning process.”
What if that was the way we approached Jesus? Not as a champion, but as a mystery? What if we viewed faith as an “exploratory learning process” instead of something you manufacture and possess? What if we unboxed Jesus?
Perhaps we would have the same frenzied excitement engendered by the L.O.L. Surprise Big Surprise and the Jerusalem crowds on Palm Sunday. But perhaps we could participate in the Jesus movement that aligns with the rest of this week, in all its darkness and grief, yes, but also with a spirit of curiosity, a wonder at what is hidden inside these events. Perhaps, after hearing these stories for many years, we might be surprised by them. We may not ever figure it all out, but that might be the fun of it.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.