“Trending Now: Jesus”
On Palm Sunday Jesus was a huge hit with the crowds. Compare his popularity on that day with that of other prominent leaders, and Jesus wins hands down.
But Jesus as a populist or popular person wasn’t what he was going for—Jesus had no interest in “trending”—a term used today in social media when a person or a topic is being followed by masses of people around the world.
For instance, the other day on Yahoo Trending was Sarah Michelle Gellar, March Madness, Mike Tomlin, and Solar Panels.
On Twitter what was trending was #ThankList and #JimmyFalon.
If on that first Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem being hailed as a conquering King, there was Yahoo, Twitter, and other forms of social media, Jesus would have been at the top of all the “Trending Now” lists.
He would have been the talk of social media and a buzz feed of bloggers would have flooded the internet with posts and memes.
And as you might imagine, this kind of trending wouldn’t sit well with the powers-that-be of the day—the Romans, particularly Pontius Pilate—a man who believed himself to be more popular than God.
But like today, a person’s popularity can go from the highest high to the lowest low in just one tweet. This was true for Pilate, and it was even true for Jesus
A generation ago, John Lennon of the Beatles thought Jesus was a popular fellow. But then in 1966, he infamously proclaimed that he and his fellow Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”
That claim, of course, set off a storm of protest in a then more conservative post-war United States.
Problem was that whether you were looking at things from Lennon’s perspective or from that of, say, the average churchgoer, there really wasn’t a way to check the facts of the claim. Lennon was looking at packs of screaming fans every day, while churches were not exactly being overrun by hordes of teenagers rabidly wanting to be close to Jesus.
Lennon’s comment, taken in context, was really more directed as a slap at Christianity than at Jesus.
Lennon further said, “Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
Now who knows if Lennon was right or not about his claim of being more popular than Jesus. I think he probably wasn’t.
These days, however, no rock star could pop off such a statement without Gallup and/or a host of bloggers and pundits running the actual numbers.
In fact, Internet search-engine giant Google offers a quick way for anyone to compare the relative popularity (or at least the number of Internet searches and news stories) between two celebrities or entities, by using what is called Google Trends.
Type in “Jesus” and the “Beatles” in the Google Trends search engine and out comes a graph that compares the Google search history of both “Jesus” and the “Beatles” in the form of a graph.
While we don’t know what the Google Trends graph might have looked like in pre-Internet 1966, as of 2015 the Beatles garner only half as many Internet searches as Jesus does.
So at least today, we know Lennon was wrong—although we still don’t have hordes of teenagers clamoring to get into the church.
On the original Palm Sunday there was no doubt about where Jesus was trending, at least among his followers.
Coming up to Jerusalem from Jericho, Jesus and his disciples would have fallen in with hundreds of other pilgrims who would swell the population of the Holy City from 40,000 to more than 200,000 for the celebration of the Passover feast.
Passover was a time of celebration, but it was also a time of high tension in Jerusalem.
While the festival celebrated liberation from the tyranny of Egypt generations before, first-century Israel was still under foreign domination.
The Roman occupation of their homeland chafed at many Jews, tempering the joy that was supposed to be part of the festival.
Riots and uprisings were common during the Passover, so Rome made sure that there was a robust military presence during that week, garrisoning more troops at the Antonia Fortress, which overlooked the temple complex.
Now, on this particular Sunday the people in Jerusalem would have witnessed not one processions, but two,—the Jesus Procession, but also the Pilate Procession.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about this in their book “The Last Week”, saying that the procession of Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and his accompanying military force, coming into the city from the west provided a military deterrent during the festival, while Jesus’ entrance from the east provided a hope filled future.
Two processions. Both trending. But both contrasting events for us to consider today.
According to the historian Josephus, when Pilate first brought Roman troops to Jerusalem, he committed an unprecedented violation of Jewish law and traditions by allowing troops to bring their military defenses, and busts of the emperor, into the temple.
A massive protest forced the removal of these violations, but only after the Jews used tactics of nonviolent resistance by lying down and baring their necks when Pilate’s soldiers, swords in hand, attempted to disperse them.
This instance, along with many others, shows Pilate’s procession as one that would not have been well attended—and for those who did; they likely did so as protesters.
Then there was Jesus’ procession into the city.
If today with modern social media, the Bethany bloggers would have been burning up the bandwidth in reporting the arrival of one the who they believed to be a different kind of ruler—a liberating one.
Jesus had sent his disciples to get a colt, and when secured, Jesus rides down the steep road from the Mount of Olives to the Golden Gate of the city, where a large crowd of his supporters are shouting “Hosanna!”, a Hebrew word that mixes praise to God with a prayer that God will save God’s people.
As they shout, they spread their cloaks and cut branches down on the road— actions that were done only in the presence of royalty. Except, they weren’t doing this at the other procession.
On that day, and for those who were with him, Jesus was maxing out on the trend chart.
Today as we wave our palm branches, one of the things we have to be careful not to miss is that Jesus was intentionally setting up a comparison between the violent and powerful trend of the empire and the peaceful and grace-filled trend of the kingdom of God.
Borg and Crossan describe the Palm Sunday parade as a kind of pre-planned political protest.
The symbolism of a ruler riding on a donkey would not have been lost on those putting their cloaks in the road, for they would have remembered the words of the prophet Zechariah who shared an image of a king coming into Jerusalem with shouts of joy from the people.
Words like “triumphant” and “victorious” were words that Romans and other imperial leaders would have embraced — but he who is “humble” and rides on a donkey instead of a war horse was a form of communication that the military might would not have been able to grasp.
This means that this king is not a conquering hero who uses weapons of mass destruction, but one who will break the power of military might with humility, justice and a “peace” for all the nations.
If Pilate’s procession embodied power, violence and the glory of the empire that ruled the world, Jesus’ procession embodied the kind of kingdom that God was ushering in through Jesus’ ministry of healing, through his message of good news and, ultimately, through his sacrificial death on a Roman cross.
On Sunday Jesus is trending, but, in Mark’s time line, by Monday he begins to take a serious dip in his trending.
Sure, Jesus’ verbal sparring with the Pharisees and temple officials had him trending well with the people but it led the religious leaders to look for a covert way to bring him down.
“Jesus” vs. “Pharisees” is, again, no contest when it comes to trends. It’s no wonder they were determined to get rid of him.
And when he turns over the tables in the temple, his trending presence bottoms out.
Though what appears on the surface becomes what trends, what Palm Sunday really address is the clash of worldviews— worldviews that are still at odds today.
The empire’s worldview of status, power, military might, and coercion is as present and dominant in today’s world as it was then.
So is the desire for comfort, security, self-interest and wealth, particularly in American culture.
Trend out “Kingdom of God” vs. “American Dream” and the kingdom loses by a landslide.
This shows us that we may admire Jesus, but we’re not necessarily ready to follow him down that road of suffering, sacrifice and servanthood that ultimately leads to the redemption of the world.
As if to underscore the point, the traditional route Jesus took down the Mount of Olives went through an ancient cemetery, as it still does today— a stark reminder of where this particular parade will lead.
Some of those same folks who were waving branches on Sunday were gone by Friday, having abandoned Jesus to the powers of the temple and the empire.
They read the trends and chose self-preservation over the way of Jesus.
The question we have to ask on Palm Sunday is whether we do the same thing when following Christ becomes inconvenient at best or, at worst, seemingly impossible.
Following Jesus requires more than checking a box via a social media application.
Following Jesus often means sharing his popularity and his unpopularity, be it at school, in the workplace or wherever.
What we must remember is that Jesus wasn’t looking to trend for the sake of trending, rather he was looking to trend the whole world upward, bringing hope and wholeness through his obedience and submission to God.
That was what Jesus wanted people to follow—a way of life that put first the Kingdom of God.
More than what’s trending in social media—Jesus is only interested in what’s trending in our hearts and on our lips.
So what is trending in our hearts and on our lips?
Is it the things and powers of this world? Or is it Jesus? Amen.