Jesus Mounted on a donkey
John 12:12-19 // Zechariah 9:9-12 // Philippians 2:5-11
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In our Lenten weekend series of sermons, we are watching Jesus On His Way to the Cross. Last week we saw Jesus on the way, coming to serve. Before that we’ve seen Jesus speaking hard truths, defending his Father’s house, being lifted up like the bronze serpent, and led into the wilderness after his baptism. Today, on Palm Sunday, we see Christ entering Jerusalem mounted on a donkey.
Here it is. The holiest week of the Church’s year. The seven days that over a quarter of the Gospels are written about. The days that give meaning and authority to all the teachings of Jesus. They would not mean anything, to the Christian, if Christ had not been raised.
To frame our meditation, I’ll begin with a question. What would you do if you knew what you will know in 20 years? Kind of a strange question, but let me explain.
I’ve told many of you this story already, but I’m sure that it’s one of those stories that I’ll never be able to get rid of. I can tell you that my Grandpa Orvel Utech, Benjamin Orvel’s namesake, is in his mid-nineties now, and a year or so back, I asked him what he remembers the most out of his life. Now, he’s been retired for longer than I’ve been alive, so I thought that he would’ve said, the campground down in Florida, or the many trips he’s taken, or this or that.
I remember his words. He said that the clearest memories that he has are from when his daughters were 2 and 4. Clearer than yesterday, clearer than any other memories of his life are the days when he would come home and they were there at the door, waiting for him to come home from work. He’d scoop them up into his arms and read them stories.
His favorite days, his clearest memories, those are the days that I’m just beginning now. What would that do to my conception of these days? If I knew that these were my grandpa’s favorite days of his whole life? How does that make me live my life differently? How does that give all I do a different significance?
I tell you that to tell you this: I think of that as I look at the disciples today. What would they have thought if they knew they were going into the last week of their savior’s life? Would they have acted differently? What would they have done? What would they have thought?
John says that they remembered Christ was here fulfilling the Scriptures, specifically our Old Testament reading for today, Zechariah 9:9-12. Zechariah’s writing after the 70-year exile to Babylon, as the people were returning; they were building the city walls of Jerusalem. They were rebuilding the ruined temple, and as they do all of that, Zechariah comes around and proclaims that as they finish this temple, they will be visited by their God. Their rightful king will come to them, and come to them in a very specific way.
Humble. Riding on a donkey. Why a donkey? The conquering king rides into a city on his warhorse, with a train of prisoners behind, to tell the city whom they now serve. The rightful king comes on a donkey, on a beast of burden, to tell the city who serves them. Bearing peace that will spread from the east to the west and everywhere in between. Giving back to everyone more than anyone had ever had taken away.
But let’s return to John. Remember that it is only after the fact – was that a week after the resurrection, or was it when Christ walked the road to Emmaus? Was it in the decades after? Anyways, it was after the fact that they remembered the words of Zechariah, that they interpreted these events as the rightful king coming into his capital, serving his people, bearing a peace that starts at the cross and spreads from the east to the west and everywhere in between.
What would it have done to them in the days of trouble that lay ahead? How would it have changed them to know this?
Whether they knew it or not, they were seeing prophecy fulfilled. The Scriptures were being unpacked before their eyes. The true significance of the world was right before them. That which mattered -- more even than all that they had been through up to this point -- that which mattered lay before them.
The lynchpin upon which the door of the universe turns, the cross and the empty tomb. The point of reality. We stand on the precipice. The focus of Scriptures. Life coming from death. One preacher said it like this: “Hell took on a body, and touched God. It took on the earth, and met heaven. It took what it saw, and fell to where it did not expect! Death! Where is your sting? Hell! Where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are brought down. Christ is risen, and the demons have fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life triumphs.” What would they have done if they knew then what we know now?
That's been the focal point of our sermon so far, but let me change the question a bit. Knowing what we know now, what do we do?
You see, because the story doesn’t end at the cross, and the promise of our God is that we at this moment are still swept up into the same grand story. In the water and the word, we are seeing the ancient promises of our God fulfilled before our very eyes. We are doing exactly what the disciples were doing. We are sent out into the world, to pray that they will be done and thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. God’s church is his instrument to bring the Gospel to the nations, to draw the universe to a close.
What would that do to my conception of these days? How does that make me live my life differently? How does that give all I do a different significance, that God is working through the promises he’s given to me to do his work?
Or, more pointedly, how does that change my interaction with my coworkers? How does that eternal significance inform the patience I should have with people on the road? How does that work affect the rhythm of my day?
The story that the disciples were swept up in on Palm Sunday is the story that has swept you up in the waters of your baptism. The last supper they ate with their master is the first taste that we have of an eternal feast.
We are swept up in the same story. J.R.R. Tolkien touches on that in his great trilogy, the Lord of the Rings. Two main characters, Frodo who bears the ring to destruction and Sam, his friend, are almost to their goal.
Sam said, “‘The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. … The way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind[, f]olk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. …”
He goes on to remember what he calls the tale that really mattered, that stayed in the mind: “Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril [a precious jewel] …. and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that's a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on ... And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We've got – you've got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales never end?'”
And here’s the part to listen to. “'No, they never end as tales,' said Frodo. 'But the people in them come, and go when their part's ended…’”
Here it is. The story of the passion week. The beginning of the end, which is the beginning of the beginning. It’s hard not to talk in poetry about these days of the Church year. They are bitter and they are sweet. They are aching and they are lovely. They measured and they are emotional. They are the days when we find that our Christian calendar is unlike the world. We take time away. We make time these days. We slow down. We go to church on Palm Sunday, On Maundy Thursday, On Good Friday, on Easter Vigil Saturday, on Easter Sunday, remembering step by step, day by day, what it means to be a Christian under the cross and after the empty tomb. (If you’ve never hit for the cycle, I’d recommend trying it!) We find that we are swept up into the same story that the disciples were, the grand narrative that our God began at the beginning of time.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mom and a dad that are often tempted to make the goal of raising children “be quiet and stop doing whatever you’re doing.” But the spirit of God is working in their hearts a patience wrought in eternity. The Spirit of God is working in their hearts a prayer that their children would be held in the hand of their God and Father in heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is like a young woman in a hospital bed, no cure in sight, never knowing if there is a stop to all of the pain. But the Spirit of God is working in her heart to remind her that her story ends in life eternal, in a place where ills have no weight and tears no bitterness.
The kingdom of heaven is like a large church in a small town where God himself comes down to do exactly as he has promised to do. His Spirit fills this word. His water works a life-giving flood. His body and blood give strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. And so, come what may, their hearts are set on a future glory, and their present is lived with an eternal significance, knowing that their story is in the hands of their God.
Amen and amen.
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