Have any of you heard about or seen the Reality TV show “Survivor?” I haven’t seen it in recent years, but I watched a few episodes when it first began. In case you haven’t heard about it or seen it, I’ll give you a little description of it (at least, as it was back when it began; it may have changed since then). A group of people, separated into two competing teams, is chosen to go to an uninhabited part of the world – like a remote island or parts of Africa or Australia. Each week the teams are given a challenge – usually a physical challenge, like balancing on a rolling log in the ocean or eating something disgusting like a bowl of maggots – and the team that loses must vote off one of its members during what is called a “tribal council.” One by one, the group diminishes until there is only one person left, the “survivor.” This person wins a million dollars. Throughout all of this, the living conditions are tough. For example, the participants have to construct their own dwellings and find their own food. There are also a lot of personal and political machinations that go on, like forming coalitions that agree to work together to get a particular person voted off. Of course, as the group gets smaller and smaller, these coalitions fall apart because, eventually, the members of the coalitions are competing against each other. It ends up being every man or woman working for him or her self.
You might be wondering why in the world people would want to put themselves through such an ordeal. I know I’ve wondered, particularly since I pretty much only enjoy activities that do not put my body at high risk of injury – activities like gardening, bike riding, walking, reading, or going to a movie – nice, sensible activities. You’re not going to catch me on a show like “Survivor.” It just doesn’t sound like a fun time to me – it sounds more like torture! So, why would people want to be on those shows?
For one thing, they get to be on TV and have their 15 minutes of fame. They get to go to exotic locations. They get to be part of the public scene. They get to have a chance at winning a lot of money and becoming rich. They get to have a chance of becoming even richer through opportunities that come their way because they had 15 minutes of fame. From the outside, it seems like a pretty smart thing to do. It seems like it promises riches and rewards beyond anything the participants have known previously. “Do I stay at my same old, same old job doing the same old, same old thing, in the same old, same old place, or do I fly to Africa and be on TV? Going to Africa and being on TV looks pretty darn good from where I’m standing now.” It offers change, excitement, fame, and riches. I can imagine that this might be what goes through the participants’ heads as they decide whether or not to be involved.
I can also imagine, however, that once they get to Africa and are in the midst of the ordeal – being too hot during the day and too cold during the night; going hungry because they can’t find anything to eat; being betrayed by the best friend they’ve made during the show; having to eat live cockroaches – well, I can imagine that they had second thoughts. “What have I gotten myself into? It would be so great to have a home-cooked meal and a bowl of ice cream right now. I just want to take a hot shower and sleep in a warm bed for one night. Please, let me go home! No more live maggots!”
Although from the outside the opportunity looked good, from the inside it was much more than they bargained for. They saw the glittery outside and found the muddy inside.
This is what happened to the people of Jerusalem as they went from welcoming Jesus with shouts of “hosanna” to killing him with shouts of “crucify him, crucify him” within the span of one week. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the crowds saw the glittery outside: the long-awaited Messiah that would bring them to victory over their foes, crushing them with his power and enslaving them so that they would no longer be a threat. Instead of seeing clearly what was in front of them – Jesus riding on a donkey and clothed in a lowly cloak – they saw Jesus riding on a grand stallion, wearing a golden crown on his head, and clothed with a magnificent robe. This was their hope and their dream: a king that would move them from resignation and drudgery to hope and glory. Like the “Survivor” participants, they saw what they wanted to see as the adventure began, only to find out that they had deceived themselves. Like the participants of “Survivor” they had second thoughts. They saw the glittery outside and found the muddy inside. What they got was not what they bargained for.
They got a king whose kingship was not about control and domination but about humility and obedience. They got a king that had not pledged allegiance to the kingdom of this world, but to the kingdom of God. They got a king that would save others rather than himself, although it was in his power to do so. They got a king that would not return evil for evil, but who would forgive and love those who persecuted him. They got a king that was not victorious over their human enemies, but over their spiritual enemies: sin and death. They got a king that did not require from them the courage of physical combat, but the courage of spiritual combat. They got a king that asked them not to lord it over others, but to wash their feet as a servant would. They got a king that did not sit on a throne, but that hung on a cross. They got a king who turned the whole idea of kingship upside down. And so they had second thoughts. And, by week’s end, they had abandoned this king that they had showered with joyous shouts of “hosanna” as he had ridden into Jerusalem. In the reality show of the life and death of Jesus, they were not survivors.
We, too, when we first welcome Jesus into our lives do so with shouts of “hosanna.” It is a joyous thing to discover that God forgives and loves us, and that he has defeated sin and death on the cross. The story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not called “good news” for nothing. It is good news, and we are excited when we first receive it. All will be well now. Life will be safe and comfortable. Nothing will go wrong.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Becoming a disciple of Jesus does not necessarily make life safe and comfortable. On one level, all is well: sin and death will not have the last word; love will prevail; God is alive and active in the world, and nothing – not even death – can separate us from him. But, on another level, all is not well. While we walk this earth we struggle and suffer: people get sick and die; some are cold and hungry; others are at war. While we walk this earth we see and experience sin and death. The challenge, then, that we face as disciples of Jesus, followers of a king who rides a donkey, wears a lowly robe, and dies on a cross, is that though we are attracted to Jesus because of his triumph, what we face as we follow him is the challenge of living out that triumph. For it is not triumph as the world understands it. It is the triumph of the humble king, the servant king, the prince of peace.
When we are confronted with the challenge of following such a king, we may have second thoughts. We were attracted to the glittery outside and have found the muddy inside. We thought we would be dazzled by beauty and instead we are slogging through mud. We are feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing the poor. We are comforting people as they mourn. We are confronting our own demons and facing up to our own sins. We are speaking out against injustice. We are living as Christian brothers and sisters in a church family and dealing with all the challenges biological families deal with – and I know I don’t have to tell you what those challenges are. We are slogging through the mud of this world, working to bring love and light into it in the name and by the power of Jesus Christ. When faced with the challenge of discipleship, we may have second thoughts, just as the crowds in Jerusalem had second thoughts when Jesus was arrested, tried, and convicted. “Crucify him,” they said, “Crucify him” – a chant that was a far cry from the joyous hosanna they had sung a few short days before.
Let us not give in to our second thoughts when the mud of the world challenges our allegiance to Jesus. If we stand by our original commitment, if we see the adventure through to the end, we are survivors: We arrive at a glorious Easter morning and experience resurrection.
Let us thank God, then, for giving us the truly exciting and adventurous life of a disciple of Jesus, a life in which unite and uplift is the name of the game, and EVERYBODY wins (unlike “Survivor”). This is God’s way, and it is our way when we follow Jesus through Holy Week to Easter together. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, April 9, 2017, the Sixth Sunday of Lent.