God on a Donkey
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.