As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
I’ll admit it, we had a pony growing up. The great symbol of privilege and wealth, my family was fully invested in the equestrian world. Okay, maybe not exactly. My family got our pony secondhand, and she was kind of old when we got her. So it was assumed that she would be calm and well-behaved. She really wasn’t. (Well-behaved ponies rarely make sermons.)
We weren’t really able to ride our pony, Sue. She bucked, she kicked, and she did not like to be ridden. So she became a living, breathing weed eater. In the summer we could move her around from large farm implements and allow her to trim the grass that grew up in the hard-to-mow places.
I believe we got Sue when I was about five. Thirteen years later, I was 18-years-old, a boy in a mature body. And I recall a conversation that I had with my younger brother where I said, “I bet I can ride Sue now. I’m a grown man, she’s a little old pony.”
My brother was always a bit of a Barnabas, an encourager; but not always in a good way. He said, “Sure you can! Give it a try!”
This is where I mention that Sue the pony was small enough for me to lift one leg and sit on her back. Maybe three feet tall across the back, Sue was quite the formidable steed. No, far from the bucking bronco you see in the cowboy movies, Sue was old, small, and quite docile. In contrast, I was young, flexible, and agile—at the peak of my physical capabilities.
I straddled the old mare, picked up my feet, and the next thing I knew I was lying on my back on the cold, hard ground.
With my real-life experiences, not only growing up on the farm, but my experiences every step since, there is only one thing in today’s scripture that still surprises me. Jesus rode an unbroken colt and did not get kicked off. The rest of the story totally aligns itself with my reality. People in positions of power will do whatever is necessary to maintain their power. People will cheer you on one day and shout “Crucify him” the next. And sometimes, even your best friends will betray you.
What I want to do today is to encourage you to be the donkey, which I think sounds even better than “Be the colt.” In a world where it is totally normal and perhaps even expected that you will kick Jesus away, may we be the donkey who is faithful and strong.
Let’s start with what we know and expect.
Throughout his ministry, we see Jesus doing miracles, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, walking on water, and preaching a radical message of love and forgiveness. And quite often our Bibles tell us that people recognize that this is no ordinary man. They ask him, “Are you the one we have been looking for? Are you the messiah?” Peter is even more forward in his pronouncement, as Peter often is, when he says, “You are the son of the living God.”
How does Jesus usually respond when people say such things? He says, Yeah, now don’t tell anyone.
Jesus gives a reason for all of this secrecy: His time hasn’t come yet. My understanding is that Jesus knows what will happen when word gets out. Some will worship him, others will be suspicious, and others still will want to silence him. Permanently.
But by the chapter that comes before out text for today, Jesus recognizes that his time has come. In spite of his disciples’ efforts to convince him otherwise, Jesus and his disciples head to Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration. And even though he has previously tried to keep his identity a secret, now that things have progressed to the appropriate time, Jesus doesn’t attempt to keep things a secret any longer. In Luke’s gospel the Pharisees try to get Jesus to keep everyone quiet, and he proclaims, Even if I could keep them quiet, the rocks would cry out!
Jesus knew what he was doing. He knew passages like Zechariah 9:9b-10, where we find: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus didn’t just send the disciples ahead to get the little horse or donkey, or whatever it was, because he was tired of walking. He did this to fulfill prophecy. He entered in a humble way because he was not like other kings. He isn’t demanding that all the people obey him or pay the ultimate penalty. No, he is proclaiming peace. The battle bow will be broken and God will remove the warhorses and chariots.
This is especially significant, according to NT scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, as Jesus’s triumphal entry was a counter processional. As Jesus entered from the east, Pilot entered from the west. Jesus’s message was one of peace, love, and the kingdom of God. Pilot’s message was one of power, domination, and the kingdom of Rome. Pilot rode a warhorse, Jesus rode a donkey. Pilot rode into town to intimidate any would-be rabble rousers during the holy celebration of Passover, when God delivered the people from Egypt. Jesus rode into town knowing that he would be seen as a rabble rouser, and would lose his life for it.
We know how Jesus understood this event, but just who did the people understand Jesus to be? We are told that they yell “Hosanna in the highest!” But what does that mean? It means “Save us, Lord.”
This passage is just filled with biblical references, and the phrase “Hosanna” is no exception. This phrase is found in Psalm 118:25-27: “Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you. The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.”
So the people were shouting “Hosanna,” they had boughs, or palm branches, in their hands. And where did Jesus lead this processional? He went right to the temple. Now Mark tells us that it was late, so he left for the night. But the point is that the while the people probably didn’t see Jesus as God, they did at least believe he was sent by God to save them.
The ironic thing about the Hebrew people quoting Psalm 118 is that it is also where we find the verse that Jesus would quote elsewhere, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The people who welcomed Jesus in with shouts of Hosanna would later choose to free Barabbas and crucify Jesus. Rather than supporting their humble messiah who rode in on a donkey, they sided with the methods of Pilot and his warhorse. The people rejected the cornerstone, or to use the metaphor I developed earlier, the people kicked Jesus off.
The people kicked Jesus off, the disciples kicked Jesus off. Only a few remained, including that donkey, the colt who had not been ridden before.
Here’s what I want us to keep in mind today. The people who would reject Jesus were religious folks. They were quoting the Bible and waving their palm branches, so we know that they spent time studying the scriptures. I’m sure that they were also looking out for themselves and their families. But they were so locked into their interpretation of who the Messiah was that when the Messiah did show up and didn’t fit their expectations, they had him killed.
So much of Palm Sunday comes down to the use of power. How does Jesus demonstrate power compared to Pilot? I don’t really hold it against the Jews and the disciples for not understanding Jesus’s role as messiah, because they didn’t know any different. They knew their Bibles, and they knew God to be all knowing and all powerful. And from their perspectives, those with power use it to get what they want. And that is just as true today. Whether it is Russian hackers using our Facebook accounts to manipulate how we vote, or Kim Jong Un threatening nuclear war if sanctions against North Korea aren’t lifted, those in positions of power use it to get the things they want.
Isn’t that one of the most amazing things about Jesus? Here is the most powerful man to ever walk the earth, a man who gathered thousands of followers in only a few years of ministry, who could perform miracles, and seemed to speak directly to God. So yes, you expect that guy to use his power to overthrow the Romans and give the land back to the Hebrew people. But he doesn’t.
Here’s what Jesus teaches us about power: there’s nothing wrong with it. If it was a sin to be powerful, then Jesus would be the greatest of all sinners. The challenge with power is how we use it. I’ve heard power compared to fire. If used correctly, fire can heat your home in the winter, cook your food, and sterilize medical equipment. But fire can also burn down the entire house, or the entire forest.
People turn on Jesus because he doesn’t use his God-ordained power in the way they expect. They were expecting him to burn down the house. Instead, Jesus uses his power to build people up.
Jesus used his power to serve. He washed the feet of his disciples, a job well below his paygrade. Jesus spent time with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, people below him socially. Jesus is powerful, but he uses that power, not for self-promotion, but to build the kingdom of God.
I’ve heard that one of the most effective former presidents of the United States in his time since leaving office has been Jimmy Carter. Some people find this especially odd because they say that he did get much done while in office. Carter has been an outspoken proponent of Habitat for Humanity, working on many houses himself. And one of my favorite Jimmy Carter stories, which I research myself, is that he is a frequent Sunday School teacher at Maranatha Baptist Church in Georgia. He teaches the class at 10:00 am, and people start to show up around 6:00 so they are sure to get a seat. The fire marshal has limited their attendance to 475, so people sometimes get turned away.
I lift up Jimmy Carter, not because he is a saint, and not because of his role as a politician. I know nothing of his time in office, and I even had to look to confirm which party he belonged to. I lift up Carter because he is someone who has used the power afforded to him as a former president to serve others.
That seems like a very Jesus-like thing to do.
My friends, we all have our expectations of Jesus, and like the people in Jerusalem, like the religious leaders, and like the disciples themselves, it is easy to kick Jesus aside when our expectations and reality don’t line up. We expect Jesus to use his power to help us, when in reality, I think Jesus expects us to use our power to serve others.
Kind of like that donkey, who rather than kicking Jesus off, served Jesus to fulfill the prophesy and usher in the Kingdom of God.
(The fact that the donkey is the symbol of the Democratic Party was totally incidental and should not reflect my support of any one party or candidate. I’m pro-kingdom of God!)