God on a Donkey

God on a Donkey

Matthew 21:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

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.


Help in Hard Places

Help In Hard Places

Luke 4:1-13

Dr. Jim Denison

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,To the last syllable of recorded time,And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more: it is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing (Macbeth, act 5, scene 5).

Now, don’t you feel better? But Shakespeare was more right than we’d like to admit. A shocking seven of eight Americans say that our country is worse off than it was five years ago.

George Barna makes his living surveying Americans on nearly every subject. Here’s his summary of the current scene: “For most Americans, the search for meaning in life continues. Despite our technological sophistication and political savvy, millions of adults are desperately seeking the keys that will unlock the secrets to achieve significance in life and bring them greater fulfillment. As a nation, we are exploring many avenues. Comparatively few have arrived at what is deemed to be a reasonable or satisfying conclusion.” The title of his book is descriptive: Absolute Confusion.

The truth is, America is one of the best-fed nations in the world physically, but we are starving spiritually. Our souls are famished. What can help?

Jesus, in a wilderness setting, faced the same temptations we struggle with today, and defeated them all. When we come to our own wilderness, what can we do? Where is there help in hard places? What should we be doing right now?

Fasting (Luke 4:1-4)

“We turn from self to God, seeking strength not in ourselves but in him. We turn from food, possessions, our bodies and ourselves, to magnify God.”

I mentioned in a recent sermon that every day we Americans eat 53 million hot dogs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 75 acres of pizza. It seems that fasting is the most un-American of all the spiritual disciplines. We seldom talk about it in our churches; in fact, most Baptists have never really studied this subject at all.

Fasting defined is simply abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. Let’s ask three questions about this discipline, from Matthew 6:16-18.

First, should we fast? Or is this an outdated practice from biblical times, like eating kosher food? Jesus fasted for 40 days. When the tempter showed him a rock—round, white, sun-bleached, looking very much like the loaves they baked in those days—Jesus refused to turn it into bread. He refused to break his fast, choosing not to live “by bread alone.”

In Matthew 6:16 he says, “When you fast ….” Not “if” but “when.” He assumes that his hearers will fast. All through Scripture we find people practicing this discipline. Moses fasted 40 days while receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28); Elijah fasted for 40 days (I Kings 19:8); Daniel fasted from meat and wine for three weeks (Daniel 10:3); Paul fasted from both food and water for three days after his conversion (Acts 9:9) and later said that he “often” fasted (2 Cor. 11:27).

Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline is the best book in recent decades on the subject of spiritual disciplines. He says, “Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way. It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer” (p. 60).

Should we fast? The answer seems obvious.

Second, how should we fast? We’ve answered this question in some detail in the booklet we’ve prepared on spiritual disciplines. For now, let’s observe these facts. We are to fast regularly. Our text puts this in the continuous tense: “As you are fasting ….” We are to fast humbly, not to impress people, like the hypocrites do (v. 16). We are to fast joyfully. We “put oil on our head and wash our face,” a sign of rejoicing in Jesus’ day (v. 17). And we are to fast expectantly, knowing that “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (v. 18). Fasting does not earn God’s blessings, but it puts us in position to receive what God wants to give.

Third, why should we fast? Fasting has clear physical benefits for us. Numerous studies have concluded that periodic days of fasting can cleanse our bodies of impurities, rest the digestive system, and make us healthier people. But the greatest benefit is spiritual. When we fast, we turn from our bodies to our souls, from what we can see and feel to what we believe, from ourselves to God. We learn to magnify God. To be grateful for the food he gives us, for our bodies, our breath, our lives. To focus on him in gratitude and worship.

We want to magnify our Father, to glorify him with our lives, our church, our service. If Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Paul, and even our Lord Jesus needed to fast to defeat the enemy, win spiritual victory, and magnify God, what of us?

Meditation (vv. 5-8)

“In meditation we turn from ourselves to God, seeking power to defeat the enemy, not in ourselves but in his strength and presence.”

Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, tells of a time when he nearly “crashed.” He was watching the physical gauge on his personal dashboard, eating and exercising, and all was well. He was watching the spiritual gauge, spending time in prayer and Bible study, and all was well. But he wasn’t watching the emotional gauge which records our souls, our inner selves, and had to experience depression and come near to burnout before he realized the problem.

Satan has tempted Jesus physically—now he tempts him emotionally. “You can have all this authority and splendor, and avoid the cross with its pain and shame,” he says. But when the enemy tempted him with worldly power he already had emotional and spiritual power. His soul was well. How can this be true for us?


The Cure for a Crowded Life

The Cure for a Crowded Life

Mark 1:35-39

Dr. Jim Denison

Have you heard of the new organization, “Sink Eaters Anonymous”? This is a support group for those who are too busy to sit down and eat a meal, so they stand at the kitchen sink and eat with their hands as quickly as possible. We are busy people. Too busy.

We are lonely people as well. Mother Teresa said that the great epidemic of our time is not AIDS or leprosy, but loneliness. Last Sunday our deacons spoke with ninety-three people who called in response to the television broadcast, and found loneliness to be the common theme in nearly every conversation. One woman said she would close her eyes and die if she could, she is so lonely.

And some of us are confused people as well. Some of us don’t know who we are, or why we’re here.

Alexander Curry is a thirty-something Wall Street trader for a large brokerage house. He lives in a luxurious Upper East Side apartment with the latest of everything. Yet he says, “I feel that there is a lack of purpose in my being. I don’t understand why I’m here. I don’t really try to understand why I’m here because I think it would probably be futile. It does provide a real hole in my existence.”

A psychologist spent four and a half years surveying over four thousand executives who would be considered very successful by the world’s standards. Six out of ten said their lives were empty and had no personal meaning. Six out of ten!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a spiritual discipline you and I could practice which would help us with our busyness, our loneliness, and our confusion? Actually, there is. It is the ancient discipline of solitude.

The simple fact is that our souls need time alone with God. God made us this way. But it isn’t easy, is it? When were you last alone with God for a long time? Has it been a long time? You may wonder, Why practice the discipline of solitude? How? Is it even possible, or are our busy, lonely, confused, crowded lives the best they can be?

I have a word of hope and encouragement from Jesus for every crowded life here this morning.

The Scripture on solitude

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went to a solitary place, where he prayed” (v. 35). Jesus has just spent an exhausting day. He started the day by preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, the most important town on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee. He exorcised a demon in the worship service. He healed Peter’s mother-in-law. He spent the evening healing all the sick of this large town.

If I were to preach this morning, and cast a demon out of someone right here in church, then go to a member’s house for lunch and heal his mother-in-law; then spend the evening until late counseling with people from all over North Dallas who have come to me with their problems, I would feel tomorrow like Jesus feels here.

Now it’s the day after the Sabbath—Monday morning to us. I know a preacher who doesn’t take Mondays off because he refuses to feel that bad on his day off. Jesus, on the other hand, gets up before dawn, around three or four in the morning. He leaves Peter’s house in Capernaum and walks out of town. He goes to a “solitary place,” literally a “wilderness place” in the Greek. Some place where no one else would see him, off the road, out in the country. If I were to get up tomorrow morning around 3 or 4, get in my car and drive out of the city, pull off the road, and hike out into a field alone, I would do what Jesus did here.

And he “prayed.” The Greek “imperfect” tense indicates that he continued to pray, all morning long. Not for just a few minutes, but from 3 or 4 until daybreak, two or three hours of solitude with God. When’s the last time you spent this much time alone with God? Have you ever?

But this is bad church growth strategy. Imagine planting a church and preaching the first Sunday to standing-room-only crowds, then not coming back for the next service. Jesus’ movement is just taking off, and he’s left town.

So Peter and the others come to help Jesus out. They “hunt him down,” the Greek says. They look all over for him until they find him, so they can bring him back, so he won’t miss his big chance. But Peter and the others are disappointed, and all Capernaum with them. Jesus says, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (v. 38).

He goes to the people, where they are, as they are. To the “villages”—we would call them the “county-seat towns.” To their “synagogues” (v. 39), where he could reach the most people. Jesus was a master strategist, knowing where to invest the most to reach the most. And this entire tour, which occupied weeks and even months of Jesus’ precious time on earth and led to ministry and healing with untold thousands, was birthed early one morning when Jesus practiced the spiritual discipline of solitude with his Father.

Clearly, Jesus needed the discipline of solitude. Do we?

Why solitude?

For this simple reason: you and I have exactly the same needs in our lives as Jesus experienced here. For one, he needs to know his life purpose. Here he faces something of an identity problem: who would he be? The local pastor of Capernaum? A faith-healer of great reputation and power? If he stays here, these are inevitable. The decision he makes here will determine the very future of his ministry.

And he faces this issue by time alone with God. Now he can say, “This is why I have come,” or “this is what God sent me to do.” He knows the “one thing,” because he has spent time alone with God.