Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Message preached on Palm Sunday, April 5, 2009.
Posting late because of extra commitments, including ministry away from Lucknow

Here’s a question for you to answer: did Jesus ever ride a donkey before the last week of His life on earth? Most people would say that He had done so as a baby. That’s because all our Christmas cards show Mary riding a donkey with Joseph on foot. So it is assumed that when the family fled to Egypt, Mary must have ridden the donkey and carried Baby Jesus in her arms. But those pictures do not represent any of the information we have in the Bible.

Here’s what we know about the family that could contradict that picture. Joseph was poor. He didn’t require a donkey to go about his work because he was a village carpenter. If it was something that he had to repair for someone at their home, he may have carried his bag of tools on his shoulder and walked to the place.

Would Joseph have been so cruel as to make Mary walk all that way from Nazareth to Bethlehem? Not by choice. But the poor don’t have many choices. If Joseph didn’t already have a donkey, it was unlikely that he would be suddenly able to buy one just because Mary and he were compelled by law to travel to Bethlehem.

When Roshini and I were in Ethiopia doing pastors’ conferences in 2008, we were touched by the fact that the poor who needed to travel to another village or town would set out on foot, and when they heard a vehicle coming up behind them, they would turn and bow a number of times from the waist, holding out open palms and then touching their heads to beg for a lift. The thought came to me that rural Ethiopia must be so much like what it was in those ancient times described in the Bible.

Could Mary have walked the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem so close to her delivery? When I was in seminary there was an African student’s wife who worked as a nurse in the campus clinic. The day she had her baby, she worked with the missionary doctor all morning, went home took care of her household chores, and then walked to the hospital and had her baby with no trouble at all. When our son Ishaaq was due to be born, Roshini decided that she was going to do some washing sitting on a low stool. In the afternoon the pains started, within about twenty minutes of getting to the hospital, the baby arrived with ease. Hard work never affects pregnancies and births adversely.

The Messiah Rode a Donkey
Rabbi Jesus went around teaching walking everywhere. He was a peripatetic teacher, typical of teachers of philosophy. Other teachers were attached to a school with pupils in attendance. But those who taught new ideas were not accepted as teachers and had to win a hearing and a following. That’s the kind of teacher Jesus was. He was a pilgrim, itinerant teacher.

After three years of walking everywhere, suddenly one morning Jesus announced that He needed a donkey. It was a departure from His customary style. He made a deliberate choice that day. Matthew said that Jesus did that to fulfill the prophecy by Zechariah:
Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey— riding on a donkey’s colt (9:9, LB).

Jesus sent two of His disciples to get the donkey. They were told to simply say to the owner of the animal, “The Master needs it” (Lk.19:31, NCV). The owner sent his donkey with the men. Would you ever readily part with a possession because someone came and told you that the Master needs it? I know I would have difficulty accepting the message. I would question the person’s credentials. Then I would wonder if he did get such an order from the Master. That man was ready. It would appear that he was expecting the Master to make such a request, and that is why he responded positively. I think that is the secret. One has to be ready and willing. Then when the Master’s order is delivered to us we do what we have been preparing to do.

When the donkey arrived, people give their cloaks to put on the animal’s back and to pave the path. A long time before Jesus, their favourite king, David, had stripped off his royal robes to be able to dance freely before the Lord God. He thought nothing of abandoning the pomp of his royal position and just being like everyone else, dancing without any inhibitions. David reminded his wife that he had had no status until God had given it to him. He said that he would never cling to it before the Lord. Rather he would humble himself even more if he could (2 Sam.6: 20-22). When someone encounters the Lord and asserts his or her status before God it is a confrontational act. It is an affront to the almightiness of God.

Centuries later, Walter Raleigh is reputed to have laid his expensive cloak over a muddy puddle so that Queen Elizabeth I wouldn’t get her feet dirty. Raleigh did it to gain the Queen’s favour and get ahead in the court. But the people in Judea were honouring the one they thought was the Messiah who would free them from Roman rule, and for those moments they were willing to honour Him by laying down their cloaks for Him to walk on.

The Jews of the period were looking for a Warrior Messiah, who would conquer and destroy their enemies. They failed to note the significance of the fact that Jesus was riding a donkey. Conquerors rode war horses. That is how the Roman victors rode into the cities of the lands they had conquered. The Jews forgot that Zechariah had prophesied the coming of a humble Messiah. Anyway they hailed their Messiah with cries of “Hosanna” which just means “Save!” They cried to God, “Hosanna in the highest [heaven]” (Matt. 21: 9). Their Messiah was not saved that week from death at the hands of His antagonists, but He is in the highest heaven.

The Man Who Cried for Citizens

As Jesus entered the city, He cried over it:
I wish you knew today what would bring you peace. But now it is hidden from you. The time is coming when your enemies will build a wall around you and will hold you in on all sides. They will destroy you and all your people, and not one stone will be left on another. All this will happen because you did not recognize the time when God came to save you (Lk. 19:42-44, NCV).
Earlier Jesus had cried at the tomb of His friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35). “Jesus wept,” the sacred historian wrote and Robert Estienne (also known as Stephanus) who divided the New Testament into standard numbered verses, in 1555, seems to have been so touched by this fact that he demarcated them as constituting just one verse. Strange isn’t it that even though He knew that He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus still cried at his grave. There could be only one reason Jesus did that: it was to show His common cause with humanity, that He shared our feelings, emotions and sorrows. Jesus was not insulated against feeling hurt.

Jesus had come to save His people. Jerusalem, the Temple city, represented the highest aspirations and the deepest longings of the nation. And so Jesus cried. Their hardness of heart and their blindness had prevented Him from saving them in toto. As a result of their rejection of Jesus, Jerusalem, which the Lord God had hallowed by giving His name to it, was going to be destroyed in the future. As the Son of God, Jesus cried that His Father’s beloved city would be ruined. Jesus attributed the cause of their hardness of heart to a lack of discernment about God’s clock having run its course with God’s Son having arrived on the scene.

The New Testament Church was warned that there was a need to discern the time:
So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times! (Eph. 5: 15-16, TM).
Be wise in the way you act with people who are not believers, making the most of every opportunity (Col. 4:5, NCV).
That was then. So much time has gone by since then. How much more we who live today need to be aware that the clock has kept running down. Our Lord told the story of 10 young women getting ready for a wedding. Five prepared beforehand by keeping their lamps filled with oil. Five thought that there was plenty of time before they would need the oil. They must have mocked those who “wasted” time with their preparation, while they themselves were having a blast. Suddenly, it was announced that the bridegroom was nearly there. It was time for the wedding. Those who had filled their time with fulfilling and self-satisfying activities rushed to the market to get oil for their lamps, but the market had closed for the day. There was no place to buy any oil (Matt. 24: 36-51).

It is true that Jesus will not arrive in the very next moment—because Jesus said that some things will have to happen before He returns. It is because we know that it will not happen right now, that we go on with life and forget that time is running out. The day is nearly here. But we are not paying attention to the ticking of the clock. We are people who are eligible for membership in the five foolish women’s club. Those women started with a commitment and desire to be there for the wedding. Their problem was that with so much time to be spent in waiting, they decided to get busy with all the things they wanted to do. They were distracted and diverted from waiting for D-day. If you check on your personal agenda you will find that it seems to have been copied entirely from the schedule kept by that women’s club.

The Master of the Temple
Entering Jerusalem, Jesus found His way to the heart of the city, the Temple of God. Once, at the beginning of His ministry He had gone into the Temple and cleansed it announcing what His ministry was going to be all about (Jn. 2:13-22). Many think that there was just one cleansing of the Temple. When you think about how Jesus had to repeat lessons, why should we think that He didn’t have to do this too more than once?

The Lord walked into the Temple and claimed it was His. He said, “My house”. The right to cleanse the Temple was His because of His ownership. Jesus claimed that His house was reserved for spiritual pursuits not commercial ones. Today, those who follow Jesus do not have brick or stone temples for the purpose of housing God, because He is Spirit, and does not inhabit manmade structures built to keep idols (4: 23-24). But the Apostle Paul made the observation that God inhabits us and we are His temples that must be kept holy because we are bought by the blood Jesus shed on the cross:
Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body (1 Cor. 6:19-20, NLT).
When Jesus cleansed the Temple, He turned it into a place of redemption. When all the commercial activity stopped, and space was freed, blind and crippled beggars waiting for alms from the devotees thronged Jesus and He healed them (Matt. 21: 14-15). They had never dared to enter the Temple before that because there was an edict to stop them from doing that (2 Sam. 5:8).

With all the commercial activity going on in the Temple precincts, poor beggars would not have felt welcome. Poor people always feel that the rich have no time and space for them. They had reason to feel that way so long ago in the time of our Lord’s sojourn on earth. The shouting and haggling, the buying and selling, must have all filled poor people visiting the Temple with the feeling that they would be getting in the way of important business. It was only when Jesus stopped it all and threw out the sellers and whatever they were selling that poor people felt that they could approach someone in the Temple who didn’t care a bit about all that business.

Those who suffered financial losses because of Christ’s disruption of their business, hid behind a protest that what was happening was sacrilegious. They said that such unruly behaviour as the crowd shouting was unbecoming conduct within the Temple. They didn’t think that the shouting and haggling, animal and bird noises, the refuse and the stench had not spoilt the sanctity, but the moment the crowd shouted “Hosanna” they protested. Jesus said that if He asked the crowd to shut up, the very stones of the Temple would shout the praises of God (Lk. 19: 39-40). John the Baptist had preceded Jesus with a similar remark, when he told religious leaders not to hide behind claims of Abrahamic parentage, because God could give stones the genes of Abraham (Matt. 3:9). True. God, who created the world out of nothing by merely commanding it into existence, could do it again and again anytime. It’s time we learnt that Jesus is the Lord. It’s time to praise Him with a sense of abandon—like David danced before the Lord, and that long ago Palm Sunday crowd went wild with ecstasy because Jesus had ridden into town.

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