In March of 1983 a maddening buzz was building.
That was the year—35 years ago— when the North Carolina State University Wolfpack squeaked into the NCAA basketball tournament. Called “The Cardiac Pack,” these players and their young coach starred in the greatest Cinderella story in the history of college basketball.
At the beginning of the month, no one was paying much attention to the Wolfpack. But Coach Jimmy Valvano—or Coach V— and his team began to march through the brackets.
They beat Pepperdine, UNLV, Utah and then the powerful Virginia Cavaliers to make it to the coveted Final Four. And now in the Final Four fans were greeting them at the airport like they were rock stars, and the pep rallies around N.C. State became legendary.
Coach V was at the center of it all—a joyous entertainer in front of a crowd, but more importantly, a master motivator on the sidelines.
NC State beat Georgia in their semi-final game. But in reaching the title game it looked as if the Wolfpack’s Cinderella story was about to hit midnight. They faced a star-studded team from the University of Houston, which included Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler—players who would both go on to Hall of Fame careers in the NBA. But when all the players took the court, they produced one of the greatest basketball games of all time, ending in a stunning final sequence.
With the score tided and mere seconds to go, the Wolfpack’s Dereck Whittenburg threw up a 30-foot shot to win the game—and hit nothing but… air.
But as fate would have it, the Wolfpack’s Lorenzo Charles was right there at the basket to collect that errant shot that became a serendipitous pass. He caught it mid-jump, and slammed it home for an N.C. State National Championship.
Needless to say, the crowd went wild and madness ensued. Players and fans stormed the court in jubilation, perhaps none more jubilant than Coach V., who sprinted around the court, looking for someone to hug.
Video footage of this incredible moment is still played every year during the tournament because nothing says “March Madness” like this moment from the 1983 national championship 35 years ago.
It tugs on our hearts especially because just 10 years later Coach V. died of cancer.
It’s fitting to mention this because right now the country is mired in March madness. So take that mental image we just saw—the image of the champions joyously racing out to center court when the final buzzer sounds—and place it in Jerusalem.
The year is not 1983, but more like A.D. 33. Energy and excitement is building as thousands of Jews gather for their celebration of Passover in the holy city. A march is staged by Jesus and his disciples, and before you know it— madness!
Just as fans make their bracket picks and try to guess who will make it to the Final Four, residents of Jerusalem were trying to figure out who would come out on top.
Some of the locals were betting on a new ruler who would establish the kingdom of their ancestor David.
Others in Jerusalem wanted a religious leader such as the high priest to come out on top.
The Roman imperial political machine wanted their appointee Pilate to keep the peace through a show of military force.
And the disciples wanted Jesus to be their champion.
This Final Four begins when we watch as Jesus marches into Jerusalem on a thrilling and unpredictable ride. Every opponent he faces is going to test him and try to defeat him.
In this single-elimination tournament, there are no do-overs and no second chances. We hope Jesus will cut through the chaos and emerge as the champion. But what kind of winner do we want him to be? And what kind of champion does God want him to be?
Jesus was clearly a team player, not a ball hog.
Mark tells us that when Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, Jesus sent two of them ahead to find a colt. He said if anyone questioned them, they were to say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”
“The Lord needs it.” What a surprising admission. Jesus needed a stranger to provide him with an animal so he could make his march. You wouldn’t think the all-powerful Son of God would need anything, but Mark reveals he did. He needed a colt and a cooperative animal owner.
Jesus was not going to enter Jerusalem on a war chariot, beating his chest and calling attention to himself. He needed others to do this with him. In basketball language, you would say Jesus was a team player, not a ball hog.
So this sets up a critical question… What does the Lord need from you?
Probably not a colt. But how about your time, your efforts and your talents? How about a contrite and humble heart. How about a willingness to listen—to God and to others.
David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, wrote, “Every now and then I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel appreciated and valued. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. In fact, they are not thinking about themselves at all.”
“Such people,” says Brooks, “have generosity of spirit and depth of character. They are people who say ‘yes’ when Jesus asks them to contribute. They don’t think about themselves as much as they think about what they can do for others, and because of this they are outstanding teammates for Jesus.”
How does Jesus need you to be an outstanding teammate?
Jesus accepted his role as a leader.
Now every successful team does need a leader, and Jesus did not resist stepping up to such a role.
Mark tells us how the crowd spread their cloaks and leafy branches on the road—which is where we get the term “Palm Sunday.” All around him, people were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
In the Old Testament we find people spreading their cloaks on the road for a king to walk on, offering similar cheers and shouts of jubilation—which make the shouts of the crowd as them identifying Jesus as their king, the descendant of David.
Jesus did not shy away from this role with some kind of false humility, but instead he embraced it. He entered Jerusalem as a leader, as a king.
But what kind of a leader is he?
Pastor Ron Edmondson says, “Jesus is a leader who invests in people that others would have dismissed—a fisherman named Peter, a tax collector named Matthew, a woman named Mary who had demons cast out of her. Jesus invests in people who society casts away. Then he practices servant leadership, most visibly when he washes the feet of his followers on the night of the Last Supper. And then, lastly, Jesus shares responsibility with others in a succession plan, telling his followers that they will have to carry on his work after he is no longer with them.”
Jesus is a leader who invests in all people, serves all people, and entrusts them with his work. He is a true champion because he looks beyond his own achievements to the continuation of his ministry and mission.
How has Jesus invested in you? How can you continue that ministry?
Finally, Jesus shows us a new picture of victory.
Jesus was willing to suffer betrayal, arrest, humiliation, and torturous punishment. He stood before the Jewish council and Pontius Pilate, and said not a word when the crucifixion order was announced. Jesus knew the earthly powers— opponents if you will— were determined to eliminate him from championship contention.
We struggle with this because we expect champions to be victorious, happy rich and powerful. We wear their jerseys because we want to feel like winners. And if they suffer enough defeats we tend to become fans of other players. (Unless you are a Cleveland Sports fan—then you just keep suffering.)
But Jesus trusts God even in the midst of certain defeat, walking faithfully to the cross, because it is what God asked him to do. And he invites us to pick up our crosses and follow him. It’s sheer madness for sure— but it’s faithfulness that leads us to victory.
Jesus demonstrates just how far he will go to show the endless, unconditional and saving love of God. And his success, his victory is shown in the change of heart of that Roman soldier who sees Jesus take his last breath and says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
It’s Palm Sunday, and the madness of Holy Week has begun.
When we march with Jesus through Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we can listen for what Jesus needs from us, and we can respond in faithful ways to meet those needs.
We can look to Jesus as our leader, and be part of his succession plan for ongoing ministry and mission.
And we can stand at the foot of the cross, looking up to see not defeat, not even a Cinderella story, but rather we can see the victory of our Savior who changes hearts.
So as we follow him and root for him, may we seek to give to Jesus just what he needs from us, to help dispel the madness of life.
May we seek to let Jesus lead us to all the maddening places that need his ministry and mission of grace, peace, and love.
And may we cheer him on, trusting and believing, that when all the world has counted him and his team out—certain there is no way in the world they will ever win—that we will be standing in victory alongside him amidst all the madness. Amen.