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When God rides a donkey

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

In February of 1996 a limousine driving down the New Jersey expressway got a flat tire. The limo driver got out to change the tire, only to discover that the spare was also flat. Before he could call for roadside assistance, a man in a pickup truck and an air tank stopped to help.

When the man and the driver finished the repair, the car window slid down and the man was shocked to see Donald Trump sitting inside. “That was very nice of you to stop and help,” Trump said. “What can I do to thank you?” The man thought for a moment and said, “Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. My wife would really get a kick out of receiving a dozen roses from you.” Trump agreed and drove off.

The next day a messenger arrived with a box. Inside were two dozen roses and a note: “Happy Valentine’s Day from a friend of your husband. (signed) Donald Trump. P.S. Thanks for helping us out. By the way, I paid off your mortgage.”

While that’s a great story, I found out it’s not true. You never know where help is coming from. It may be driving a truck. It may be riding in a limousine. It may even be riding a donkey…and that’s a true story which withstands close examination..

Let’s see why God did, and why that fact is so important to our lives today.

Why did God ride a donkey?

On Sunday, April 12, in the year AD 29, Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem for the last week of his earthly life and the most monumental week in all of human history. The next day he would drive the moneychangers from the Temple. On Tuesday he would confront the religious authorities, and be anointed by Mary. He spent Wednesday in solitude and in spiritual preparation for the cross. Thursday led to his Last Supper, his betrayal, and his arrest and night of trials. On Friday he was crucified at 9:00 a.m., and died at 3:00 p.m.. On Sunday he rose from the grave.

And he chose to begin all of that on a donkey. Why? He has just walked fifteen miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, up an elevation of some 3,000 feet, through some of the most barren and dangerous landscape to be found anywhere in the world. I’ve been over this road twice in an air-conditioned bus, and wouldn’t want to walk it even today. If Jesus could walk this distance, he could walk into the city itself. But he rode on a donkey instead. Why?

It was a most unusual choice.

Roman conquerors rode into their cities in a parade procession, riding in a chariot drawn by four horses, with a slave holding his crown above his head.

But when the King of Kings and Lord of Lords came into his Holy City, he chose to ride a donkey. In fact, he arranged the whole thing. He sent his disciples to a certain house in a certain village, to bring a particular donkey back to him. Either he had made these preparations earlier, or his divine omniscience knew that this donkey would be available to him. Either way, riding that donkey that day was his explicit and deliberate choice.

It was something like the American President riding to his inauguration in my 1974 Chevy Vega. An odd choice at best.

Why did he make it? Matthew gives us part of the answer: “This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet” (v. 4). And Matthew proceeds to quote from Zechariah 9:9-10. But why did God tell the prophet to make this prediction, 567 years before it was fulfilled?

Zechariah answers our question:

The donkey was a beast of suffering. He was used to carry burdens that no other animal would. And he would endure a great deal of suffering and pain. So would his rider: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey” (v. 9). “Gentle” means to be humbled before God. “Having salvation” means that he is our Savior. The One who would suffer for us to purchase our salvation. The donkey symbolized the suffering his rider would endure.

The donkey was a symbol of peace as well. Horses were ridden in Jesus’ day almost exclusively for war purposes, but a donkey was used during peacetime and for peaceful purposes. In the same way, his rider “will proclaim peace to the nations” (v. 10a). Peace between us and God, and between each other. The peace found only in Jesus.

And the donkey was paradoxically a promise of glory. Solomon rode to his coronation on David’s donkey; Mephibosheth, grandson of King Saul, rode a donkey as well. And so the prophet promised, “His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (v. 10b). One day every knee will bow before this rider. Pilate will bow before the Lord he condemned; the religious leaders before the Messiah they crucified; this crowd before the Savior they mocked; these soldiers before the Creator they beat and pierced. All will worship him. We can start now.

So God rode a donkey on Palm Sunday, to show us what his coming crucifixion and resurrection would mean: our salvation, our peace, his glory.

Why did he ride a donkey into Jerusalem?

A second question: why did he ride this donkey into Jerusalem, during Passover? He could not possibly have chosen a more dangerous time to enter a more dangerous city.

Nearly three million people were crowded into Jerusalem for the Passover week. Many of them thought he was the military Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and set their nation free. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” meant, “The Messiah has come to set us free!”

This was a powder keg, and he was the match. The religious authorities would do anything to put down revolt, and the Romans would punish rebellion instantly. An American entering Afghanistan just as our war against the Taliban began would fare no better than he would that week.

And yet he chose to ride his donkey into Jerusalem at just the time when his entrance would most assuredly lead to his crucifixion. Why?

On May 21, 1946, at Los Alamos, New Mexico, a young scientist named Louis Slotin was conducting a uranium experiment, seeking to determine the precise amount of U-235 necessary for a chain reaction. He conducted the experiment many times. He would put two containers of uranium together and, just as the mass became critical and the chain reaction began, he would push the containers apart with a long screwdriver.

On this day, however, the screwdriver slipped from Slotin’s hand. The containers came together, the chain reaction began, and the room was filled with a dazzling blue light. Instead of trying to save himself, Slotin tore the containers apart with his bare hands and interrupted the reaction, saving the lives of seven other people in the room. Louis Slotin died in agony nine days later.

How would you feel if you had been in the room with him?

On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear plant suffered the worst nuclear accident in history. Millions of people were immediately in danger of radiation sickness and death. The authorities decided their best response was to dump hundreds of tons of sand and concrete into the live reactor to seal it.

One helicopter pilot was decorated for his heroism in making many dozens of passes over the hot reactor to dump huge cargoes of sand and concrete. The pilot knew that each pass increased the danger to himself, but he put the lives of millions of people before his own. He later died of radiation sickness.

How would you feel if you and your family had been living in Chernobyl?

Nicolas Berdyaev, who abandoned Marxism for Christianity, says it was not theology which brought him to the Christian faith, but a simple woman named Mother Maria. Berdyaev was present at a concentration camp when the Nazis were murdering Jews in gas chambers. One distraught mother refused to part with her baby. When Maria saw that the officer was only interested in correct numbers, without a word she pushed the mother aside and quickly took her place. Her action explained the true meaning of the Christian faith.

It still does.

Why does it all matter today?

What does it all mean, that Jesus chose to ride a donkey into Jerusalem for Passover on April 12, in the year AD 29? That he chose a symbol of suffering, peace, and glory? That he chose to die to give us that suffering, peace, and glory? That he paid the penalty for our sins, died in our place, purchased our eternal salvation and righteousness with the God of heaven? That he was our Louis Slotin, our pilot, our Mother Maria?

In my hand is a $20 bill, a piece of paper worth twenty dollars of American currency. I can wad it up, but it’s still worth $20. I can step on it, but it’s still worth $20. I can wash it and dry it and write on it, but it’s still worth $20. No matter where it is or how I treat it, it’s worth $20. Why? Not because of its appearance, or its circumstances. Not because of the way it is treated. Because of its identity, its inherent value. Because the United States Treasury says this green piece of paper is worth $20.

On Palm Sunday, God rode a donkey to tell you that you are worth his Son’s life. You are worth his Son’s suffering and humiliation and crucifixion. Not because of your appearance or circumstances, the way you look or the way you’re treated. Because the Lord of the universe says you are.

What’s the worst sin you’ve ever committed? Unless you’ve driven spikes into the wrists of the Son of God, you’ve done nothing worse than these soldiers did to him. But from the cross he asked his Father to forgive them. And if they asked him as well, he did.

What’s the worst way you’ve ever denied Christ? Unless you’ve shouted “Crucify” in a bloodthirsty crowd, you’ve done nothing worse than this crowd did to him. But from the cross he asked his Father to forgive them. And if they asked him as well, he did.

What’s the worst sin you’ve ever committed? The worst failure and shame you’ve ever experienced? The God who rode a donkey loves you anyway, accepts you anyway, values you anyway. If he would use a donkey, he’ll use your life, failures and all. If you’ll carry him and his love to someone you know, he’ll ride your gifts and abilities, your sins and mistakes. Palm Sunday proves it. He’s waiting to prove it again today.

Conclusion

I want to tell you a story I’ve not told in sixteen years, since Ryan was born. You’ve perhaps heard it from someone else, as I have. It concerns a drawbridge engineer, a man who operated the gigantic railroad drawbridge which spanned a mighty river. He would pull the lever to raise the bridge so ships could pass beneath, and lower it so the train could pass over.

One day he brought his young son with him to work. They walked around the bridge as he showed him the gears and levers. Then he heard a train’s whistle. As the bridge was up, he rushed back to his control room to lower it. Just as he pulled the lever, he realized his son was not with him. Looking out the control room window, he saw him. To his horror, he was playing in the massive gears and shafts which controlled the bridge.

There was no time to get him. There was only time to pull the lever and save the hundreds riding in the train hurtling toward him. He had only a moment to choose. He pulled the lever.

I haven’t told that story since Ryan’s birth, because as a father I cannot imagine it. But it really happened. Not just at a drawbridge. Twenty centuries earlier, at a cross as well.

That’s how much the God of heaven loves you. You’re worth the life of his Son. Would you welcome his Son and his love into your life? Would you dedicate your life, gifts, abilities, and time to carrying his Son and his love to others?

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, was lecturing to an American university near the end of his life. During the questions period following the lecture, a doctoral student asked Dr. Barth for the most profound theological insight he had ever experienced. Everyone held his or her pen, ready to write.

Dr. Barth took off his glasses, smiled, stepped around the podium, and in English said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

He was right.