Topical Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11
Bruce McIver was pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church here in Dallas for thirty years. When he retired, he then published Stories I Couldn’t Tell While I Was A Pastor and a sequel. If you’ve not read them, you’ve missed a delightful blessing.
Here’s my favorite story in the books. It was Palm Sunday at Wilshire, and Bruce was preaching from our text. In the King James Version Bruce read, the Bible says, “And (they) brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon” (Matt. 21:7). This was the Elizabethan English word for the donkey. Well and good.
Bruce described that first Palm Sunday in eloquent detail, with Jesus getting off his donkey and ministering to the people in the streets. Then in a burst of emotion Bruce exhorts his people, “And, ladies and gentlemen, if we’re going to do anything for God in this city, we’re going to have to get off our [King James Version for donkey] and minister to people in the streets!”
He realizes immediately what he has done, and makes a strategic decision: he will keep on going. Maybe no one will notice; maybe he can gloss over it. He couldn’t. The minister of music sits rigid, staring straight ahead, until his body begins to shake and tears come to his eyes. His smothered laughter ignites guffaws in the choir, which cascade off the platform into the congregation. And Palm Sunday is over for that year, and that preacher.
From his story Bruce concludes that when a pastor makes a donkey of himself, he may as well admit it.
But that’s not the only lesson this day can teach us. Today I’ll be your tour guide as we travel back to join the procession on that first Palm Sunday. Let’s get among these people, see what they saw, feel what they felt, know what they knew. Then we’ll decide who we are in this procession, and who we want to be. The answers will surprise you, and encourage you, I think.
Setting the stage
Passover always occurred in the Spring. It was the greatest season of celebration in the Jewish year, something like Christmas for us.
This particular year more than two million people have crowded into the Holy City, many of them with special excitement. They have heard the stories about this Galilean rabbi, his miraculous powers and rising popularity, and his clashes with the authorities. The question on everyone’s lips is, “Will he come?”
If we could combine a presidential election with Christmas Day, we’d have something of the electricity in the air that week
Because Jerusalem is so crowded, most travelers stay elsewhere. And so Jesus settles at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary in Bethany, 2½ miles outside the city. It was here that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead on his last visit, just a few weeks earlier. His decision to stay here only fuels the fire of speculation, reminding everyone of his amazing powers.
It is Friday, and Jesus has come for the Jewish Sabbath, from 6 o’clock Friday afternoon to the same hour on Saturday. I’m sure he went to the synagogue in Bethany on the next day, as was his custom, then rested with his friends. He would remain here until Sunday morning.
Now comes the pivot point of his entire mission on earth. If he goes to Jerusalem, there will be no turning back. The enthusiastic crowds are waiting for him like their presidential candidate, and the authorities are waiting for him like the Gestapo. He can still turn around and go back to Galilee, keep healing people and teaching disciples and building God’s Kingdom. Or he can go to Jerusalem and die. This morning, in his friends’ home in Bethany, he must decide.
You know his choice. And he will go to Jerusalem in the most auspicious manner possible.
The ancient prophet Zechariah had made this prediction: “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” (Zech. 9:9). The military conquerors returned from their triumphs on white stallions; the men of peace always rode on a lowly donkey. This King would come in peace, the prophet said.
What would this King do when he arrives? The text continues: “He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the [Euphrates] River to the ends of the earth” (v. 10).
What would he do for them, the crowds milling about Jerusalem this day? “As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit” (v. 11).
So the prophet had promised them a King, one who would overthrow their enemies and free them forever; one who would rule the entire world, from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth. How would they know it was he? He would come to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, a symbol of peace.
Jesus could pick no more powerful or clearer way to stake his claim: he is the Messiah, God’s promised one, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Nothing would arouse the crowds or incense the authorities more.
And the stage is set.
Meeting the players
Now let’s meet the players in this drama we have joined, as Jesus approaches the city on his Messianic donkey. First we see the crowds, and they’re ready for him. The journey from Bethphage, where he borrowed the donkey, is less than a mile from the east.
The crowds hear that he is coming, and immediately catch the significance of his decision. And they make their own decision. There are no primaries, no elections. They are certain that the One riding this donkey is the Messiah, the King. His procession instantly becomes something like a presidential motorcade.
They line the narrow streets leading to Jerusalem like a parade, and throw their cloaks on the road for his donkey to step on. They cut palm branches from the trees and spread them out before him as a king. They close in behind him into a procession of thousands, shouting at the top of their lungs, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (their title for the Messiah).
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” they sing, quoting Psalm 118:26, a Messianic psalm. In fact, the psalm continues, “The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give you thanks; you are my God, and I will exalt you” (vs. 27-28). “Hail to the Chief” isn’t even a good analogy; they are calling Jesus nothing less than God come to earth.
There’s nothing more this crowd can do to proclaim Jesus their Messiah. And there’s nothing more they can do to incite the authorities, either.
“Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” they shout at him (Luke 19:39). Note that they call him “teacher,” not Messiah. But Jesus refuses: “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). Here he claims to be Creator as well as Messiah.
But Jesus knows that their rejection of him on Palm Sunday will lead inexorably to their crucifixion of him on Good Friday. So, as he rounds the point of the Mount of Olives and turns north into the valley of Kedron, the Holy City bursts into view. Even with the adoring shouts of the crowds ringing in his ears, “he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes'” (Luke 19:41-42).
All the while his disciples are silent. They don’t defend him to the jealous authorities, or shout to the crowds. But they’re there. As we’ll soon see, we must not forget them.
Finally this “presidential” procession leads to the Temple, the “White House” of their culture, where Jesus dismounts his Messianic donkey. Then Mark says, “He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11), returning to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ home. But the die has been cast. Holy Week has begun.
Choosing our part
I’ve tried to be your travel guide as we have joined that first Palm Sunday and met its players. Now I must ask you, Where in this drama are you? Are you part of this adoring, exuberant crowd?
It would be a fun Sunday morning, to be sure. I mentioned last week George Stephanopoulos’s book on the White House. He describes in great detail the euphoria he and his colleagues felt when they realized they had elected the next President of the United States. It would have been even more euphoric, I would think, to be in the procession that “elected” the Messiah, the King of Kings, on this day.
But bear in mind, this is only Sunday. Remember what these same crowds would do five days from today. Remember how their “Hosannas” turned to “Crucify!” Those who lined the streets to cheer him as he rides his Messianic donkey would soon line the streets to jeer him as he carries his Messianic cross.
I’m in the crowd if I cheer Jesus when he’s popular and reject him when he’s not. If I worship him for what he will do for me, and refuse what he asks me to do for him. I’ve been in this crowd. Have you?
What about the religious officials, the authorities? It’s easy to dismiss them, of course. Surely none of us would reject Jesus and his claims to be Lord and King. None of us would refuse him his throne in our hearts and lives. None of us would choose our own ambition, or popularity, or status over him. Would we?
I’ve been among the authorities. Have you?
What about his disciples, amazed and thrilled by it all? They’ve seen his power and hoped he was the Messiah; now they have proof of it. They are no longer the lonely faithful; they are heroes along with him, and leaders in this movement of such promise.
But of course, in five days they forsook him and fled. When they had to risk their lives for his, they refused. When their faith came at a cost, they were broke.
I’ve been among the disciples. Have you?
I guess we’ve all been among the crowd, the authorities, the disciples; maybe that’s who some of us are on this Palm Sunday. Now, who would you like to be? I’ll tell you who I want to be: the donkey.
That’s no surprise to those who know me. I’m sure I have all the characteristics, the necessities. I can be just as stubborn, and just as loud. Maybe you can, too.
But friends, on Palm Sunday the donkey had the greatest honor of all: it carried Jesus. The donkey carried him to Jerusalem for Easter, just as a donkey had carried his mother to Bethlehem for Christmas. The donkey brought Jesus to the people he came to save, and to the cross where he did. In the midst of a fickle crowd, prideful authorities, and cowardly disciples, the donkey did its job. It alone was faithful.
Nobody remembers the donkey, and that’s the way the donkey would want it. Its burden was all that matters. So it is with us.
God rode a donkey because he loves me. Jesus rode this donkey to Jerusalem, to die for me. He loves me that much. Even though I’m numbered in the fickle crowd, the prideful authorities, the cowardly disciples. He died for this very crowd, these very rulers, these very disciples. And for you, and for me.
If I were the only sinner on earth, he’d have done it all, just for me. He loves me as I really am. No matter what you think of me, or I think of myself. He loves me so much that he rode the donkey to the city where he faced the cross—my cross. And yours.
Have you ever received the love he died to give you? A present must be opened; love must be accepted. Have you let him pardon your sins and save your soul? Have you let him forgive your secrets, your shame, your embarrassment, your weakness and failures? Have you let his love encourage your spirit and strengthen your heart?
Every person needs help, home, and hope. Jesus offers you all three. No matter who you have been in this story. God rode a donkey on Palm Sunday to prove it.
And now Jesus asks me to love him enough to be his donkey. To carry him to the fickle, prideful, cowardly people who need him. To tell his story, and share his love in mine. The donkey doesn’t matter—only the One it bears.
God still rides a donkey. Will you be his donkey this week?