All of us have giants to face.
Maybe you’re a retiree with chronic health problems. A not quite yet to retirement person who has been laid off and is having trouble getting interviews. A middle aged person struggling with guilt about choices you made as a young adult. Someone with the beginnings of a drinking problem. A teenager feeling the out-of-control expectations of your parents. Illness. Unemployment. Guilt. Separation. Substance abuse. The expectations of others. Giants, every one of them—we all have.
Giants are well known in our lives, and because they are, they often appear in literature in some shape and form—from implied to very overt. Children’s books, of which I am becoming an expert in, are no exception.
We all know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, right? Jack is a boy who lives with his widowed mother, with nothing to support them but a cow. When the cow stops giving milk, Jack is sent to the market to sell it. But on the way he meets a man who offers him a handful of magic beans in exchange for the cow. When he arrives home without money, his mother is furious. She throws the beans out the window. Then, while they’re sleeping, the beans grow into an enormous beanstalk, reaching up to a land high in the sky. Jack climbs the beanstalk and discovers the house of a giant. After stealing some treasures, Jack is chased by the angry giant, where he makes his way back home, gets an axe, and chops down the beanstalk—killing the giant.
There’s a Mickey Mouse version of this story, but Violet no longer lets us read it to her because it’s too scary. And frankly I’m glad Vi doesn’t want me to read her this story because I’m not so sure I want to lift up this Giant Slayer as a role model. Think about it. He shows terrible judgment, not to mention disobeying his parent, in exchanging a cow for magic beans. He then steals from a giant, who was just minding his own business in the clouds. Then when the giant simply tries to get back that which was stolen from him, Jack kills him.
Sure, we sympathize with Jack, but we have to admit that he brought much of his trouble on himself. The problem is we desperately want to see Jack as a hero. That’s what movie makers sought to achieve when in 2012 they made this story into a feature length movie. (And before you roll your eyes, no I am not going to make everyone watch “Jack The Giant Slayer” like I have been trying to make everyone watch “When God Left The Building.”) In this new take on the fairy tale; Jack is a young farmhand who unwittingly opens a gateway between Earth and a land of fearsome giants. The giants are determined to gain control of Earth, thus sparking “an epic battle that will shape the destiny of people everywhere.” Suddenly, Jack has become a hero and not a kid with poor judgment and a touch of kleptomania.
We like this, because we all want a hero who makes the impossible, possible; someone to make the improbable, probable; a hero who slays our giants. This is true today. And true on the first Palm Sunday. The people of Jerusalem were looking for Jesus to be a Giant Slayer, and to drive out the imperial Romans who had conquered their land. And truly they get the hero who would do the improbable and impossible. It just wasn’t the improbable and impossible they wanted him to do.
The first Palm Sunday was during a time when standard operating procedure was the Pax Romana— Roman Peace. What this meant was that you obeyed the Roman empire or you were slaughtered. Jesus knew this of course, so he had to plan accordingly. But then again, Jesus is always planning accordingly; he is always several steps ahead. Jesus also knows that the people of the city will talk, and that the gossip about his movements will flow, especially regarding the borrowing of the colt which is part of prophecy. And sure enough, his plan works perfectly. The disciples find the colt, the owners ask what they are doing, the disciples reply “The Lord needs it”, they take it. Jesus then rides it into the city and the crowd goes wild. The Pax Romana is disturbed, but they can’t do anything about it—yet.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem like a conquering hero, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” The people of Jerusalem are excited to welcome their mighty king, their Giant Slayer who will slay the evil Romans. But Jesus is not the Jack of the fairy tale, who makes bad choices and takes things that don’t belong to him. Nor is he the Jack of the movie, entering an epic battle with sword and shield. No, Jesus shows a very different form of heroism, one that is grounded in the power of sacrifice. Jesus does not deal with the Roman political complex. He does something far more important because Jesus knows that the giants of empires come and go—and Jesus knows things of this world never last. Jesus knows there are inevitable and impossible giants that need dealt with more so— sin and death.
There is a problem though, especially on that first Palm Sunday and into that first Holy Week. Jesus is not the Giant Slayer the people expect, or want, even though he’s the Giant Slayer they need.
Jesus the Giant Slayer isn’t what people expected or wanted because the people then, like us today, have an ingrained notion of what such a Giant Slayer should be. We, like them, want power and might—shock and awe. But that’ not Jesus, and it’s not how it ever works with Jesus. So exactly how does Jesus slay giants? Well, there are four ways
First, He does it with humility. Jesus’ humility begins by entering Jerusalem on a colt instead of a war horse and chariot, sending the signal that he is a humble king who comes to make peace. “He humbled himself,” writes the apostle Paul, “and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
Second, He does it by laying down his life. Jesus takes our sins on himself, and satisfies the debt that each of us owes but can never repay, and pays it all, to so that our return to God is assured. This is true whether we are thieves like little Jack, guilt-wracked middle-aged man or women, substance-abusing young adults, or people with any variety of sins on our consciences.
Third, He does it by inviting us to join him. The impossible becomes possible when we join with Christ to participate in his saving work, and practice his self-less love. Whenever we comfort a grieving church member, lend an ear to a discouraged friend, give a welcome to an immigrant neighbor, offer a hand to a coworker in need, or reach out to a classmate who is becoming isolated—we join with Jesus. But that’s hard work.
And lastly, He does it through resurrection. Through Jesus’ resurrection we are shown the way—that we too must die—die to our old ways, our old selves, so that we can be resurrected to new ways of living and being and thinking. This too is hard for us because we don’t want go through such a real and difficult process of change. But these are the ways of Jesus—and he proves just how effective they can be.
One of the spiritual problems we face today is the temptation of perfectionism. For some reason, we feel that we need to get our acts together and present an image of seamless perfection to the world around us—that we’ve faced and slayed all our Giants. In the process, though, we place impossible expectations on ourselves, our spouse, our children and grandchildren, and we set ourselves, and others, up for failure. Which is why the good news of Palm Sunday is so important—it reminds us that Jesus came to do what we cannot—to make the improbable, probable; to make the impossible, possible.
Though the Palm Sunday crowd cannot see beyond the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, we know that Christ’s work will continue throughout the week that follows, and even beyond the sacrifice of Good Friday. And when God raises Jesus on Easter morning, the last giant, that could ever defeat us, will be slain— the giant called death.
So, no, Jesus may not bring the power and might, the shock and awe we want—but he does, nonetheless, slay our giants.
Jesus faced some fearsome giants, far more powerful than the oppressive Romans. He faced the giants of sin and death and defeated them for people of every time, place, race, economic condition, and sexual orientation.
Yes, Jesus was a king, but no ordinary one. He was the giant slayer king of fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, harlots, blind men, demoniacs, and cripples; the poor and rich, men, women and children. As biblical scholar Alan Culpepper say, “Those who followed this king were a ragtag bunch.” That’s us—a ragtag bunch—all because Jesus came to slay giants for all.
And on Palm Sunday we welcome him as our giant slaying king, because we, too, have giants we’re dealing with, giants that are trying to destroy us. Which is why we don’t need a shock and awe, sword wielding, impulsive, thieving giant slayer with poor judgement. We need Jesus who had a plan, and continues to have a plan as to how to slay the giants of our lives.
On Palm Sunday, we wave palms and throw down our coats and ask Jesus to come and do the impossible—slay our giants. And that’s exactly what he does. Not just during holy week, but every week…every day.
So may we let Jesus slay our giants, by throwing not just palms and coats at is feet, but rather by throwing before him our whole selves. Amen.