DECISIVE DAYS IN THE LIFE OF CHRIST (7)
THE DAY HE RODE A DONKEY
SCRIPTURE: JOHN 12: 12-19
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
Sometimes life has a way of putting us in places where we would rather not be. Rabbi Paul Michael Yedwab, in American Rabbi, tells of going with his wife to the theater one evening when a college football game was being televised. He said that they happened to sit directly in front of a man who was clearly not pleased to be trading culture for the picture tube, as was evidenced by his constant sarcastic interchanges with is wife who, it turns out, had committed the unforgivable sin of purchasing theater tickets without first consulting the TV guide.
At one point in the middle of the performance, he caught a glimpse of an eerie-gray blue light out of the corner of his eye. When he looked back he saw the man staring down at a miniature portable television set. Worst yet, most of the men sitting around him had stopped watching the performance and were now staring down at this four-inch football game.
Rabbi Yedwab wrote: “I couldn’t help be reminded of the time in my home congregation when I was a boy and the World Series was being played on Yom Kippur. I remember that I turned to my father after services and said, “Dad, I didn’t realize that so many men of our temple wear hearing aids.”
There are many times when circumstances dictate that we are able to be where we do not want to be. That crusty comedian, W.C. Field, once said, “All things considered, I’d rather not be in Philadelphia.”
Do you suppose Jesus might have said, “All things considered, I’d rather not be in Jerusalem?” Who would blame him if he did say such a thing? Who here would not have said something similar facing the same circumstances?
Whatever we think Jesus may have felt or thought, we know that he deliberately chose to go to Jerusalem. He made the conscious decision to go to a place where he probably would rather not be, because he knew that to go to that city meant suffering and ultimately death and crucifixion.
For Jesus to decide to go to Jerusalem was a significant career decision. Most career decisions are difficult to make. Such decisions usually involve a move to a new job in a new city. Most persons in their thirties hope that if they have to make a move it will be one of upward mobility.
Jesus, at 33 years of age, made a significant career decision by going to Jerusalem. There was no upward mobility. In fact, it was just the opposite. It literally resulted in downward mobility.
Jesus had been healing, preaching and teaching for almost three years. Most of his time was spent in Galilee, a small province north of Jerusalem. He was a hero of sorts to many, but to others he was just another self-proclaimed Messiah.
At some point in his ministry Jesus’ popularity began to wane, and the crowds began to drift away. More and more people began to speak out against him. For a time Jesus tried to avoid his critics, but there came that moment when he decided to go to Jerusalem. By going there he would be able to declare his mission. He was deliberate to time his arrival to coincide with the annual observance of Passover.
There may have been two reasons for Jesus going to Jerusalem. First, as a Jew, he, too, wanted to celebrate the Passover with his close friends. But there was a larger reason. He wanted to declare his message to the people of Jerusalem that he had come into the world to be a servant of all humankind.
On these Sunday mornings of Lent we have been looking at the decisive days in the life of our Lord. This morning I want us to consider the day Jesus rode a donkey. If you know much about Jesus, you know that he walked everywhere. But when entering Jerusalem, he chose to ride on a donkey.
This had evidently been carefully planned as Jesus had made arrangements with the owner of the donkey. Why did Jesus choose to ride a donkey? Apparently it was to make a statement. For people to see Jesus on a donkey would mean that he understood his mission to be a servant, and he was going to be obedient to that mission.
A Roman leader would have ridden in a chariot pulled by magnificent white stallions. Jesus entered the city on a donkey, and a borrowed one at that!
Security guards who have kept the crowds from close physical contact to prevent any personal harm to him would have surrounded a political leader. Jesus was surrounded by his disciples representing many walks of life and rode into the midst of the people, almost at their height. If you ride a horse, you can easily look down on people, but when you ride a donkey, you are eye-level with people.
A military leader would have galloped along the road, passing the crowds with perhaps a wave of the hand or a nod of the head---if there was any recognition at all. Jesus, on a donkey, moved slowly with the people, accompanying the people, as well as accompanied by the people.
A religious leader in traditional, appropriate priestly robes would have moved sedately through the crowds, surrounded by an orderly contingency of other religious leaders who would have prevented anyone who was unclean from touching him. Jesus, dressed in his usual attire, moved humbly through the crowds, surrounded by his diverse band of disciples, not shrinking from the touch of anyone.
That first Palm Sunday must have been something. The people were ecstatic. They could not contain themselves, as they saw Jesus fulfilling the prophecy. He was a king coming to topple the old order, and initiate a new era.
The crowd was quick to recognize Jesus as the winner of a war, or political election, or something like that! They did not hesitate for one moment to declare him the king: “the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
The people were both right and wrong. Jesus was indeed the king they had long awaited but he was not the king they had envisioned. They wanted a warrior king who would lead them in clashing arms against their enemies.
They wanted a king, who, in the name of God and freedom, would spill the blood of their oppressors, break the Roman yoke, and tear down the Roman standard that stood over their land.
They wanted a king who would rescue Israel out of the hands of Caesar and his forces so that their nation might once again determine its own destiny. These were not unreasonable desires, but Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey sent a different kind of message.
Riding that donkey indicated that Jesus had no intention of being a political rival of Caesar, nor did he endeavor to create for himself an imperial power like that of Rome, nor would he offer his leadership or support to those who longed to confront their enemies.
Jesus did not enter Jerusalem on a prancing war-horse, but rather came clippity-clopping along on a donkey, symbolizing his kinship as one of peace and servanthood. In that magnificent ride into Jerusalem, Jesus emptied himself and took on the form of a servant. He humbled himself and became obedient to God.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul encouraged people to have the same mind of Christ. He encouraged people to empty themselves so that they could become servants; to humble themselves so that they could be obedient to God.
To empty ourselves and take on the form of a servant is not easy for many of us. It is easy for me to say, but difficult to do. Many people who visit the Holy Land try to re-trace the steps of Jesus on that first Palm Sunday.
People walk from the village of Bethany, some two miles away, over the Mount of Olives, down the slope of the Kidron Valley, and up to the old city of Jerusalem. Many people who have been there relate that this is a powerful experience, knowing that they have walked the very road that Jesus walked on that historic day.
But for many other people that’s all it was—a re-tracing of an historical event. There is not the investment in that walk for some as it was for Jesus. Many people get on a plane or a ship for a few days and later go home. They know no-harm would come to them once they entered the Holy City. They simply re-trace an event that happened 2000 years ago.
That often happens for many of us today. Palm/Passion Sunday is a wonderful annual event. It is a time when we hear one of the historical stories of the Bible. It is a time when the children fill the sanctuary with their palm branches and their songs. But how many of us realize that while the first Palm Sunday started out as a celebration, it ended in a crucifixion? The shadow of the cross was already falling across the parade.
When we lived in San Antonio, I started on a Doctor of Ministry degree from Austin Presbyterian Seminary. One of the books that was assigned reading was The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives by Dallas Willard. His thesis is quite simple: “There is a way of life that, if generally adopted, would eliminate all of the social and political problems from which we suffer. The way of life comes to whole-hearted disciples of Christ who live in the discipline of the spiritual life…! Now there is a bold statement.
The author points out that the word “disciple” is used 269 times in the New Testament. The word “Christian”, however, is found only three times. In other words, the New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples and for disciples of Jesus Christ.
Here is the clincher paragraph from Dallas Willard: “For at least several decades the churches of the western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship. Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Christ in his example, spirit and teachings as a condition of membership…Discipleship is clearly optional.”
This has made an impact on me. I realized that I spent most of my ministry trying to get people to be Christians instead of helping them become disciples. The task for all of us is to become a disciple of Christ. The way we become a disciple of Christ is to have the mind of Christ. That is, to empty ourselves so that we can take on the form of a servant, and to humble ourselves so that we can be obedient to God.
When it comes to discipleship, there are too many of us who are content to remain a Christian rather than doing the difficult working of becoming disciples.
It is easier to be a Christian than to be a disciple of Christ. It is easier to profess our Christian faith than to do the difficult work of emptying ourselves and humbling ourselves. Jesus was able to ride into the city of Jerusalem because he had removed himself from the center of his life. He was now able to do what God wanted him to do: to be a servant.
For some of you here this morning, this Palm Sunday celebration will be just another observance of an historical event. However, for others, Jesus’ decision to enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey may be just what is needed to make a conscious decision to have the mind of Christ. By emptying ourselves and humbling ourselves we may discover that God can use us in might ways as servants in the kingdom.
While no human analogy can ever fully convey the meaning of our Lord’s incarnation and his suffering death on the cross, the true story of Thomas Mott Osborne helps us realize how essential it is for us to be willing to suffer for others.
On a wintry day in 1913, in Auburn, New York, a group of prisoners was processed and taken to cells in the state prison. Among them was a rather fine-looking gentleman named Tom Brown.
Prison conditions at that time were almost unspeakable. It was not only the interminable days of backbreaking labor, poor food, and unsanitary condition. It was cursing savage guards who took lives at will, and the company of ugly, evil men with no thought for separating prisoners by age or by the crime they committed.
One day the news moved from cell to cell that Tom Brown, the fine looking gentleman was gone from prison. In a few weeks, the inmates learned that Tom Brown was actually Thomas Mott Osborne, newly appointed by the Governor of New York as Chairman of the State Commission on Prison Reform.
Voluntarily he had come to be one of the prison inmates living the very life they lived, in order to change the horrible conditions under which they lived.
Thomas Mott Osborne did indeed bring about many reforms to the New York State Prison. But far more than that. Thomas Osborne, through his sacrificial action, changed the lives of many prisoners who grasped the meaning of his unselfishness and sacrifice for them. Thomas Mott Osborne was willing to take on the form of a servant.
Our Lord become one of us, so we might become the sons and daughters of God. May this day and Christ’s decision to ride a donkey inspire us to seek the mind of Christ.
Because of Christ we can join the countless voices in shouting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in Heaven and glory in the highest!” Amen.
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH