St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 24th March 2013
Reading – Luke 19:28-40
The story of Jesus is extraordinary. As you go through Luke’s gospel, you read of His remarkable birth to Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. You read of His amazing public ministry where He feeds the hungry, heals the sick, raises the dead. You discover His revolutionary teaching that seems to favour the poor and the needy. You find that through Him there is a life-giving alternative to the dead hand of religion, a faith based not on law but on belief and trust in Him. There’s no doubt – all this is good news. But does any of it make any real difference to our lives?
In our reading this morning Jesus is clearly portrayed as the coming king. As the crowds acclaim Him, they cry out in loud voices: Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Luke the gospel writer wants to leave us in no doubt that here is the king coming in triumph to His rightful place, at the very heart of His people. Indeed right from the end of chapter 9 the whole of Luke’s gospel has been written as journey to this very point, where step by step, village by village, Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem.
Yet I sometimes wonder if we have really understood what it means to call Jesus king. If we think about our own monarchy for a moment, then, yes, the Queen is head of state. She has to sign all the laws before legislation comes into effect. As we all know, she works exceptionally hard to represent the Crown, and there is no doubt she has done a tremendous amount of good over the past sixty years. But when all is said and done, her role is largely ceremonial. Unlike the chancellor, her decisions this week haven’t made that much difference to our daily lives. She is in many ways a representative, a figurehead, whom we all admire but has no real power.
And I think the danger is, sometimes we treat Jesus in exactly the same way. We like to think of ourselves as Christian, we may even acknowledge that Jesus is king over our lives, but our faith in Him somehow doesn’t permeate into the nitty-gritty of Monday to Saturday. At least, if I’m being really honest, that can be the case for me at times, and I suspect I am not alone.
So today as we think about Jesus the king riding into Jerusalem, I want to look at three groups of people who responded positively to Him, and see what we can learn from their example of faith and obedience.
The first people I want to consider feature only very briefly in the story and it’s quite possible to overlook them. They are the owners of the donkey. We don’t know a lot about them. It might just be they were some random people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, but it seems unlikely. More probably they were already followers of Jesus who happened to live in the next village. If that’s the case, then Jesus had already sent word ahead, and they had arranged for the donkey colt to be there when Jesus needed it. Of course they couldn’t let anyone simply walk off with their prize possession, and so Jesus arranged a simple dialogue to act as a security pass. As He explains to His disciples: If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it.’
And if I’m right and they were disciples, then the owners would have instantly known who was meant by the Lord. It could refer to none other than Jesus, whose power and authority they would have already known. But I wonder if the thought also crossed their mind: what does this Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, want with our donkey? After all, you don’t often associate kings with lowly beasts of burden. You think of them astride magnificent horses or borne aloft in all the pomp and spectacle of a royal pageant. Yet here is Jesus asking for our donkey. What’s going on?
Well, as many of us may well know already, Jesus is here making a powerful statement about the nature of His kingship. His kingdom would be very different from any the world has known before or since. It would not be set up by force, or established by power. It would come into being through humble, loving sacrifice, as He Himself predicted back in Luke 18:31-32 – our reading last week: We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. Jesus, you see, would not be a king worried about His own status or power and prestige. Why not? Because He knew that only by laying down His life could His authority be truly established as by the cross He defeated the powers of sin and death and evil.
Jesus asks for this donkey as a powerful sign about who He is, and what He has come to do. And in the same kind of way I believe He still asks us today to consider what we can give to Him. Because the point we can learn from these unnamed owners is that if we give freely and willingly to Jesus, He can take and use what we offer to point others to Him. That, after all, is the reason why week by week we have a collection in church, why year by year we talk about our giving. It’s not simply so that we can pay our bills, or make sure the vicar gets paid. It’s because Jesus is king over our ordinary, everyday stuff, the money in our bank account, or the car we drive (I don’t think many of us have donkeys).
So when Jesus tells us The Lord needs it what, I wonder, is our response? Do we grudgingly give up some loose change, or grumble about the cost? Or do we actually trust that when we give to Jesus He will more than abundantly provide for our needs? This Easter time as we celebrate the victory of Jesus and proclaim Him king seems to me a good time for all of us to review our giving, to decide our practical response to His grace and mercy shown on a cross. Not out of guilt, or because the vicar has preached a sermon about it, but because of the humble, loving sacrifice shown by the one who chose to ride into Jerusalem on, of all things, a borrowed donkey.
Let’s move on to consider the second group of people who responded positively to Jesus that day. I am talking here about the two disciples who were sent on by Jesus to find this donkey. What did they imagine as Jesus gave them their instructions? The task given to them must have seemed more than a little strange. Yes, they had signed up to following Jesus, and, yes, they may even have made large sacrifices to do so. But they had probably never imagined that their mission would involve handling an animal which had never been ridden before, let alone leading it back along the road. Surely that wasn’t what being a disciple was all about, was it?
And yet there is a real lesson here for us in the way they obeyed and simply did what Jesus asked them to do. You see, following Jesus isn’t always about doing things which are at first sight obviously spiritual. Sometimes it’s simply about hearing His leading and direction in the small details of the everyday and the ordinary. For example, I may be out and about walking from point A to point B, and I suddenly sense the Lord wants me to take a little detour down that street, or go into that shop.
That may sound slightly strange, but I have discovered over the years that when I pay attention to that still, small voice of the Holy Spirit I usually ending up meeting someone I need to see, or having a significant conversation. But why really should we be surprised? After all: Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as He had told them. And if we are willing to step out in faith, then I believe we will learn Jesus has already arranged matters in advance. So today if there’s someone here who is wondering if there’s something Jesus asking them to do, who perhaps is holding back because it seems a slightly strange or unusual thing to do, then may I suggest there is a particular lesson here for you? Give Jesus your obedience, and you will see His hand at work in ways you have never even expected.
So we have thought about the owners of the donkeys. We have thought about the two disciples sent on by Jesus. Let’s now move on to look at the crowd who greeted Jesus as He entered into Jerusalem. What can we learn from them?
Well, the most obvious thing is that they teach us to praise Jesus for who He is and what He has done. Verses 37-38: When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” So let me ask you – when was the last time you really stopped to praise Jesus for all that He is? The crowd of disciples praised God for all they had seen. They praised God for the way Jesus fulfilled the hopes and promises of Scripture. That’s why their language of praise was borrowed directly from Scripture, an exact quote from Psalm 118:26. They praised God for the peace Jesus had given them. Yet when I stop to think about the crowds on that first Palm Sunday I realise just little and how infrequently I praise God by comparison. What about you?
Of course, as we know, within a few days the crowds who were praising Jesus had all fled. When Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified, none of them – apart from a few brave women – were anywhere to be seen. Indeed some of the very crowds who praised His name would be the same people who demanded that Jesus be sentenced to death. It seemed that their praise which at the time seemed so sincere and heartfelt was not so genuine after all. Why was this?
The very simple answer is that Jesus turned out not to be the leader they were expecting Him to be. If Jesus was their king, and if He was coming in triumph to His people, then it would seem only natural that He would set up a political and worldly seat of power right in Jerusalem. He announce Himself, perhaps, by kicking out the occupying Roman forces, or leading the Jewish people in some act of national celebration. But instead what does Jesus do as He approaches Jerusalem? He prophesies its imminent destruction as He weeps tears of sorrow over the city. He goes into the temple and He drives out the money changers and the shopkeepers. He pointedly challenges the religious elite through His teaching and His parables.
Jesus disappointed the expectations of the crowds. Listen to what one disciple called Cleopas tells Jesus on the Emmaus Road: The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. (Luke 24:20-21).Yes, we know that it isn’t the end of the story but it’s worth dwelling for a moment just on these few sad words. Instead of rescuing the Jewish people from national humiliation, Jesus came with a word of judgement. Instead of displaying power and authority and majesty, Jesus allowed Himself to be given over to the hands of sinful men. We shouldn’t perhaps be too surprised, then, that some of the crowds turned against Jesus. We don’t like to follow leaders who tell us what is wrong, or who appear weak and vulnerable.
And I wonder if this explains why sometimes we treat Jesus as merely a ceremonial figure, why sometimes we praise Jesus with our lips, but deny Him with our lives. We love to hear the good news of our salvation, but don’t want to hear the truth that we need to repent, and change our ways, if we are to enter into the fullness of life in Christ. We love to hear how Jesus died and rose again for us, but we don’t want to heed Jesus words’ in Luke 14:27 that: anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Today as we reflect on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, I believe it would be good for all of us to think about what it truly means to follow Him. You see, if we call Jesus our King, then we need to realise that He demands all that we are and all that we have. He demands our giving, our obedience, our worship. Not just for a brief moment on a Sunday, or when the going is good, but even and especially in the detail and the nitty-gritty of the everyday and the ordinary.
So let’s dare to be serious about the money we earn, or the possessions we enjoy. Let’s dare to be obedient in the practical, mundane decisions we have to make every day. Let’s dare to praise Jesus even when the going gets tough. And who knows? Maybe when others see us, they will begin to understand that Jesus really is king, and will be prepared to give their all to follow Him, even their very lives.