What Kind of Champion?

In March of 1983 the North Carolina State Wolfpack squeaked into the NCAA tournament. Called “The Cardiac Pack,” these players and their young coach starred in the greatest Cinderella story in the history of college basketball.

When they reached the title game, it looked like the end of the road. The Wolfpack faced a star-studded Houston team including Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. But when the players took the court, they produced one of the greatest basketball games of all time, ending in a stunning final sequence. The Wolfpack’s Dereck Whittenburg threw up a 30-foot air ball, which Lorenzo Charles slammed home for an N.C. State victory.

Video of Jim Valvano sprinting around the court, looking for someone to hug, is still played every year on television. Nothing says “March Madness” like this moment from the 1983 national championship 35 years ago.

Now, take that mental image – 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. Buzz 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 – Jerusalem March 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 (v. 10).

Others in Jerusalem wanted a religious leader such as the high priest to come out on top.

The Romans’ imperial political machinery wanted their appointee Pilate to keep the peace through a show of military force.

And the disciples wanted Jesus to be their champion – but they were not exactly sure what his victory would look like.

This is where we are today, on Palm Sunday 2018. 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 that Jesus will cut through the chaos and emerge as the champion. But what kind of winner do we want him to be?

Mark tells us that when Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, Jesus sent two of them ahead to find a colt. He said that if anyone questioned them, they were to say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately” (vv. 1-3).

“The Lord needs it.” What a surprising admission. Jesus needed a stranger to provide him with an animal so that he could make his march into the city. You wouldn’t think that the all-powerful Son of God would need anything, but Mark reveals that he did. He needed a colt and a cooperative animal owner. Jesus was not going to enter Jerusalem under his own power, beating his chest and calling attention to himself. In basketball language, you would say that he was a team player, not a ball hog.

So, what does the Lord need from us? Probably not a colt.

David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, has written, “About once a month 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 funny and valued. … They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. 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 their time and effort and talent. 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.

Jesus also accepted his role as a leader. Every successful team needs a leader, and Jesus did not resist playing the part. Mark tells us that many people in the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. That’s 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!” (vv. 8-10).

In Old Testament times, people spread their cloaks on the road for a king to walk on (2 Kings 9:13). The shouts of the crowd were clearly intended to identify Jesus as their king, the son of David. Jesus did not shy away from this role with some kind of false humility, but he embraced it. He entered Jerusalem as a leader, a king.

But what kind of a leader is he? Jesus invests in people that others would have dismissed – a fisherman named Peter, a tax collector named Matthew, a woman named Mary who had seven demons cast out of her. People like us. He practices servant leadership, most visibly when he washes the feet of his followers on the night of the Last Supper. And 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 people, serves them and entrusts them with his work. He’s a true champion because he looks beyond his own achievements to the continuation of his ministry and mission.

Finally, Jesus was clear about what success looks like. He was willing to suffer betrayal and arrest. He stood before the Jewish council and Pontius Pilate, and said not a word when the crucifixion order was announced. Jesus knew that the earthly powers – opponents if you will – were hell-bent on eliminating him from contention.

We struggle with this because we expect champions to be victorious, happy and rich. We wear their jerseys because we want to feel like winners, and when they suffer defeat we tend to become fans of other players. But Jesus is a champion who trusts God through a week of defeats, walking faithfully to the cross, and he invites us to pick up our crosses and follow him. This doesn’t make us feel like winners.

Jerusalem March Madness ends with the chaos of the cross. Instead of making a winning shot at the buzzer, Jesus gives a loud cry and takes his last breath. But in a surprising turnaround, a Roman centurion looks up at him and says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39).

No one saw that coming. An officer in the Roman Empire – the opposing team – sees that Jesus is the true champion. He identifies Jesus as the Son of God, victorious in his faithfulness to God. Jesus knows that trusting God is true success, and then the Roman centurion discovers the very same.

At the moment of his death, Jesus achieves victory. He demonstrates just how far he will go to show us the endless, unconditional and saving love of God.

When we march with Jesus through Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we can listen for what the Lord needs from us, and we can respond. 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 success instead of defeat.

Truly this man is God’s Son. A Champion. Not a Cinderella but a Savior. As we root for him, we can trust God in the same way that he did, through all the madness of life.