Messiah Syndrome

What happens when someone fails to deliver? When a person is appointed to a job but doesn’t come up with the goods? How long do you give them to improve?

The game of football is notoriously impatient. A couple of weeks ago Sean O’Driscoll lost his job after only 16 matches in charge of Walsall. It seems that managers are appointed with great expectations that they will transform the fortunes of a club, and if that doesn’t happen the manager is dropped. Derby County sacked Paul Clement, even though they were in fifth place, because they had hoped to be promoted. Their expectations had not been met.

I’m sure we can see similar things happening in other walks of life. In fact, it’s so common it’s got a name: Messiah syndrome. It happens when people build up great hopes for a leader. They project all their hopes and worries onto that person. We hear things like: James knows what he’s doing, he can sort this business out. Jenny’s been a great headteacher and can turn this school around.

It’s understandable why that happens. Sometimes we can get stuck or tired and look for a new leader to bail us out – and it may be that the injection of vision and energy can make a real difference in getting everyone going again. However if people want a leader to make their problems go away without any effort or change on their part, that’s doomed to failure. And if that executive does not deliver, everyone turns their disappointments against them.

Maybe some of us have experienced this. It doesn’t just happen when you’re in charge. Any of us can find we’re suddenly popular when folks want us to do something for them. ‘You’re so wonderfully community minded and very capable – would you like to help out with the village concert?’ Yet if you say no you can find yourself cast aside like a broken tool. That’s painful – let’s not ever do that to one another.

Surviving this needs integrity, a consistency so that you know who you are and what you are willing or not to do, and a resilience so that your self-identity is grounded in God rather than what others think of you.

It doesn’t even have to be about people either. We can end up pinning all our hopes on a project – something which may be perfectly good in its place but cannot be the sole plank we rely on. For instance, we are putting a lot of time and effort into our plans for the building here (and a new service), which is absolutely the right way to go.

But it would be unhelpful if we ever thought ‘Once we get the church reordered then that means people will start coming.’ For improving our building lays a practical foundation on which we must develop. We still need to reach out, to communicate well with the village, to reflect on the worship and events we offer. The point of this Messiah syndrome is that one action or one person cannot fix everything for us.

It’s obvious that this happened to Jesus during Holy Week. On Palm Sunday he was acclaimed as the Messiah, God’s Saviour. Barely 5 days later, the crowd were baying for his blood because he did not conform to their expectations.

It wasn’t that Jesus was unable to deliver. Surely he could do anything? This isn’t like President Obama and the Middle East. Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize after less than 9 months in office – there were great hopes for what he might achieve. Sadly, peace in the Middle East seems even further off. One can hardly blame the President for that – it was ludicrous for anyone to imagine that any individual, however powerful, could resolve all those challenges. Peace has to come from whole communities within that region. That’s a classic example of expectations other people put on the leader and he couldn’t deliver.

What is happening with Jesus is different. Jesus refuses to give the crowd what they want because their desires are not God’s plan. It’s not that he can’t deliver, but that he knows it’s not right for him to follow their agenda. He’s clear about his purpose. Throughout his ministry the crowd often wished to make him king, but Jesus always withdrew from it, because he knew that God’s offer of salvation comes through the way of the cross. Jesus rejected the crowd’s hope of a military saviour, but chose to submit to death in order to save us. He knew our greatest need was reconciliation with God, achieved when he died for our sins.

Now I expect we can understand why the crowd hoped for a worldly saviour. The Old Testament seems to encourage that hope. You can see how they might have come to that conclusion from our Zechariah reading. ‘Lo your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem.’

It sounds wonderful. Wouldn’t it be tremendous if the Roman chariot no longer roamed through Judea and the riot police were no longer needed in Jerusalem? How will the Messiah do that? By commanding peace to the nations says Zechariah in verse 10– and they thought this would be through battle. Imposing God’s peace. It didn’t occur to them that ‘cutting off the battle bow’ might apply to both sides. That ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’, so there is a limit to what military might can do, and God’s peace might come a different way.

Nonetheless, Jesus does make a deliberate choice to fulfil Zechariah’s prophecy. He doesn’t avoid it because of its connotations. Instead, in the gospel reading, Jesus gives detailed instructions to the disciples, making sure that he can enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The crowd understand what he’s doing: it’s a clear claim that he is the Messiah. They go wild, quoting Psalm 118 they greet Jesus as their coming king.

It is true. Jesus is the Messiah. If you ever hear anyone say, ‘Oh Jesus himself never claimed to be the Messiah, it was a title his disciples gave him’ – then here’s the evidence to correct them. Jesus chose to fulfil the symbolism. He wants us to know that he is God’s Saviour. He wants us to be confident that he is the King. Jesus accepts his identity and allows us to celebrate. So rejoice that God has kept his promises! Be thankful for our Saviour! Praise God for Jesus! We are allowed to celebrate, even at the beginning of Holy Week. Palm Sunday is a day of rejoicing.

Of course, we know what is coming. Jesus fulfils Zechariah’s prophecies in other ways too. Zechariah spoke of 30 silver coins, the price Judas received for his treachery.

At the last supper Jesus quoted Zechariah 13:7 ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ When Jesus the Good Shepherd was arrested, his disciples fled.

With the benefit of hindsight it would be easy for us to criticise the crowd. I wonder though. Would I have acted any differently? If I’d been living under the Roman yoke wouldn’t I look for deliverance? And if this famous miracle worker deliberately rode into Jerusalem in the way Zechariah foretold, I would probably expect him to fulfil the rest of the prophecy without too much worry about the details.

I’m sure I would find the promises about liberation and world peace much more attractive than the teaching to ‘love your enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. ‘Today I declare I will restore to you double’ sounds rather better than ‘Give to those who ask of you.’ Yes I’m inspired by what Jesus brings. I’m challenged by the path he sets out to get there.

We do have a habit of rationalising the hard sayings of Jesus, of applying them to our situation in ways which rob them of their force.

For the prophetic voice is uncomfortable. It’s easier to contemplate Jesus dying for our sins than it is to respond to his call to take up our own cross and follow him. To find our own vocation and ministry, whatever that may be. Yet responding to Christ’s call is ultimately the way to the fulfilling life he desires for each one of us.

Jesus calls us to follow him, to have faith in him, to believe we are forgiven through him, and to share with him in the task of building God’s kingdom. Let us follow our Saviour, not because he does what we want him to, not because he promises us an easy life, but because he loves us and does what is right for us all. Amen.


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