Psalm 118:19-29 and Mark 11:1-11
(Quoted scripture is New International Version)
March 1941 was a time when many patriotic young Americans enlisted in the Army. Among them was a man who was not so young, just shy of age 22, film actor James Stewart had just won an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story.
Stewart had been drafted in October 1940, but he’d been rejected because he didn’t weigh enough for his height. Already a highly skilled pilot, having earned his private license in 1935 and his commercial license in 1938, he was deeply disappointed that he couldn’t offer his skills in the Army Air Corps.
Undaunted, Stewart started working with a physical trainer on the staff of MGM Studios. A year later he qualified to enlist as a private. Although he was nearly six years beyond the age limit for Aviation Cadet training, he was soon admitted into the program with a lieutenant’s commission.
The Army was delighted to have an Oscar-winning star in its ranks. They had big plans for him, making public appearances at War Bond and recruitment rallies. But Stewart wanted to fly.
Because of his aviation experience and his celebrity status, the Army tagged him as a flight instructor, assigning him stateside. But Stewart didn’t just want to fly; he wanted to fly in combat. Eventually the Army heeded his pleas and sent him to Europe as the pilot of a B-24 Liberator bomber.
Swiftly rising through the ranks, he soon became a major and squadron commander. Although he could have led his squadron from the ground, he chose to fly as many missions himself as he could. By the time the war ended, he was a full colonel and had earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the French Croix de Guerre. He was one of only a few American soldiers who rose from private to colonel in just four years.
Like many veterans, Stewart’s transition back to civilian life was difficult. He drifted back to Hollywood but found it much changed. Struggling with what we’d now call post-traumatic stress disorder, he wasn’t sure if he could act again.
Director Frank Capra, himself a veteran, pitched him a film role: “You’d be playing a guy who’s very depressed, and you decide to kill yourself on Christmas Eve.” Stewart figured he knew all about that, so he agreed.
It’s a Wonderful Life won him his third Best Actor nomination. Although critics panned it as overly sentimental, eventually it became one of the best-loved movies of all time. Jimmy Stewart was back, although he always declined invitations to star in big war movies, and his contracts barred studios from citing his military career in their publicity.
Although much in demand as an actor, Stewart quietly continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve. Eventually he retired with the rank of brigadier general.
Many would say the character he played in It’s a Wonderful Life, the small-town banker George Bailey who stands up for ordinary people, was his defining role.
It came naturally to him. Because Jimmy Stewart, like George Bailey, was a champion.
I didn’t know all this about Jimmy Stewart, until I stumbled upon it this past week. As I read the scripture for Palm Sunday, I began to see similarities between Jimmy
Stewart’s life and Jesus. Jesus too was a small-town boy who stood up for ordinary people. So, I wondered what Jimmy’s faith was, and I did some research.
Jimmy Stewart was raised a Presbyterian and remained devout in that faith for his entire life. Stewart’s father, Alexander Stewart, instilled Presbyterianism in Jimmy, carting the family to Calvary Presbyterian Church in Indiana, Pennsylvania every week, making Jimmy promise to go to church in Hollywood, and holding him to it.
Stewart went against the norm in Hollywood by only marrying once and never divorcing. He and his wife, Gloria Hatrick McLean, were married in a Presbyterian church in Brentwood, California. He also raised his children in that faith. His son, Michael, wrote: “We were raised with that small-town Christian Presbyterian ethic that nobody owes you a living.”
I don’t know about you, but I sure wish parents today would raise their children in the Christian faith and instill in them what Stewart’s son Michael learned!
Jimmy Stewart was a humble man who served his fellow man. He was willing to go to battle and even give his life so that others could be free. I think Jimmy Stewart felt that way, because of his faith in Jesus Christ. I think Jimmy’s faith made him a champion.
Just before today’s reading, in the gospel of Mark, in chapter 10, Jesus tells his disciples, “—whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)
A true champion is a person who is willing to serve others, even if it means risking his or her life. Jesus was a true champion.
In our gospel reading today, we read that Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem as a servant and yet as a king. Let’s contrast Jesus’ entry with that of Pontius Pilate, who was also entering Jerusalem that day.
Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class.
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God. Pilate’s proclaimed the power of the empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology.
It was the standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals in case there was trouble. The mission of the troops with Pilate was to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in the Fortress Antonia, overlooking the Jewish Temple and its courts. Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A vision of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful. Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology.
According to Roman theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God for Rome’s Jewish subjects.
As we return to the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem in Mark 11:1-11, we come to understand this parade is God’s plan. This parade has been foretold in the Jewish Bible. The people waving the palms and spreading their cloaks and palms on the road would know Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
In Mark, the reference to Zechariah is clear. The next verse 10, in Zechariah’s prophecy, describes what kind of king he will be: “He will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the river (Euphrates) to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus rides in as a king of peace, in contrast to Pilate riding in as a king of war. Yet who wins the ultimate battle? Who becomes the champion over sin and death? Who defeats Satan’s influence over all human beings, Jesus!
We too can become champions over sin and death, if we will proclaim Jesus as Lord of lords, and King of kings over our heart and life. It was God’s plan from when Adam and Eve sinned and had to leave the Garden of Eden. Sin and death began to reign in the hearts of men and women. It was God’s plan to redeem the human race, through the sacrifice of himself, through Jesus the Son. The prophets spoke of it and Jesus fulfilled God’s plan.
We do love the spontaneous joy of Palm Sunday, the parade, the shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10)
We look on with wonder on this Palm Sunday as we remember a very human young man who is willing to become the champion by becoming vulnerable, by letting himself be exploited and abused by others. A young man who loves his friends and his nation and his Father God and the city of Jerusalem. Who loves the gift of his own life so much that he decides to live it out thoroughly, passionately, and courageously.
As my faith has deepened over the years of learning about Jesus, and pondering the meaning of his life, I see in the drama of this day something of the nature of God. God loves like that. God loves us like that. God comes into life where it is lived, into your life and mine, wherever we are, whoever we are; young, middle-aged, old, healthy or sick, happy or sad, confident or scared to death, serene or anxious. God comes and bids us live our lives, following Jesus, with intentionality and the vulnerability of great love, with passion and courage and gratitude. Jesus sets for us the example of how to become a champion in the world we live in.
I’ll close with a story of some real champions. You may have heard this wonderful story before, yet it is worth repeating. It’s an incident that occurred during the Special Olympics. Nine children competing in a Special Olympics race, lined up for the 100 yard dash. The gun sounded and the race was off. Only a few yards into the race, one of the children fell and began to cry. For some reason these challenged children did not understand the world’s concept of competition and getting ahead and taking advantage when a competitor was down.
The other eight children stopped running and came back to their fallen comrade. A young girl with Down’s Syndrome kissed him and brushed him off. The children lifted him up together, arm in arm, they ran over the finish line. The audience rose to their feet in applause. There was not one child who became the champion that day, there were nine children who became champions.
The definition of a champion, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is: a warrior, a fighter, a defender, one that does battle for another’s rights or honor.
Jesus did all these things. Jesus was a warrior who fought Satan for the hearts of men and women. He did battle with Satan, and just when Satan thought he’d won when Jesus died on the cross; Jesus conquers the grave and God raised him from the dead in glorious victory over sin and death!
Jesus is the champion of my life. I pray that he is the champion of your life as well. We cannot conquer Satan’s influence over our earthly life, unless we recognize Jesus as champion of our life and our world!
Pastor Rosemary DeHut