Can I let you into a sermon secret? There sometimes comes a moment when the you realise the path you’re pursuing comes to a dead end. The sermon you had hoped for doesn’t quite materialise. But in its place comes something much more useful.
I was almost going to focus this morning on the donkey. Here’s how my thinking went. Yes, it’s Palm Sunday; Jesus on a donkey; we’ll have a wee think about the donkey, and how Jesus used such a humble animal for his purposes; and how Jesus can use each one of us. A fine sermon, I’m sure you would agree, but it’s not one that you’ll hear today.
You see, as I studied the passage, it turned into the curious case of the colt. There’s no doubt that the colt, the donkey is featured. It is Palm Sunday, after all. But focusing on the donkey would be a bit like watching a movie to catch a glimpse of an extra who appears in one scene, crossing the street behind the main character. It might be fun, but it kind of misses the main point.
The question that helped me on (what I hope is) the right path was this: Why does Luke report on things in this way, with these words? You’ll probably know that there are four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; each of which tell the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection; but all with their own focus and method.
Last weekend when Ireland suffered a horrendous defeat to those rugby giants Italy, the BBC declared that Paddy Jackson had been Ireland’s best player, while the RTE commentators were of the opinion that the Ulsterman had been the poorest player on the team. They’re reporting on the same match; they’re speaking about the same thing, but each with their own perspective. It’s the same with the gospels - often they share the same story, but with their own take on it.
So while Matthew ties the donkey’s use to fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, Luke doesn’t. So what is Luke’s focus? Why does he give us Jesus’ instructions about going and getting the donkey, including what to say when challenged, and then immediately reporting that it all happened, and that they used the reply to the challenge. I don’t think he’s making the point that the colt is needed, so much as he’s flagging up who it is that needs it.
‘The Lord needs it.’ (31, 34) Twice in quick succession these words are repeated - Luke’s main point is about the identity of the one who needs the donkey: ‘The Lord.’ We’ll see how he develops this as the passage unfolds. But for now, it’s enough to see that Jesus describes himself as ‘The Lord’ - a title denoting authority, power, and honour.
That honour is seen when the colt is brought to Jesus and cloaks are spread on it for him to sit on. More than that, others spread their cloaks on the road. Remember the story of Sir Francis Drake spreading his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth (the first) didn’t have to step in it? This is kind of what’s going on here. It’s like a red carpet for the VIP of the day.
That same honour is heard as the disciples begin to ‘praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.’ (37) The disciples have been following Jesus; they’ve travelled with him on the way up to Jerusalem; they’ve witnessed the miracles, and now, as they come within sight of Jerusalem itself, they burst out in praise. But look at what they say. If they’re praising God, wouldn’t you expect them to say something to God? What do they say?
‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Their words are directed to the coming King. They’re praising God by praising the King in their midst - Jesus. They’re using words from Psalm 118 as they recognise that Jesus is God’s promised king, coming in power, the one to bring peace.
Now these days we’re used to hearing of restrictions placed on some processions by the Parades Commission. It looks as if the Pharisees are the earliest members of the Parades Commission as they seek to impose restrictions here: ‘Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”’ They don’t like the tone of the praise; they don’t accept that Jesus is God’s King.
Yet how does Jesus answer them? ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ (40) They may not accept the King, but creation itself recognises it’s Creator King. If the disciples were to stop singing, the stones themselves would shout out for joy!
It’s a joyful occasion; it’s a big day; one to be remembered, as the disciples sing for joy. Yet in the midst of all the joy and loud shouting, the camera focuses in on Jesus himself. Sometimes in a wedding video, you’ll catch a glimpse of the bride or groom (or maybe their parents) with a wee tear in their eye - weeping for joy.
As Jesus weeps here, in the middle of the joy, we’re told that it’s not happy tears - but a full-on expression of sorrow and sadness: Jesus weeps for the city, weeps for the lost, because of the fate Jerusalem faces - total destruction in just about forty years from then. They rejected peace when it was available; they will instead receive the effects of war.
And why was this so? ‘because you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God.’ Jesus here declares that he is the Lord, the king coming in the name of the Lord, that he is God, on a royal visit to Jerusalem. He comes in peace on the donkey; yet even now he knows that he will not be received in peace. They did not recognise him as God.
Last year for the Jubilee there was a special TV interview with Prince Charles. He spoke of the times in the 1950s and early 1960s when the Royal Family were holidaying in Balmoral and would take a boat over to Northern Ireland for tea with family friends. The Queen was here, travelling about, but if you’d met her on the road you wouldn’t have known it was her. Jesus, the King, has arrived - how will he be received on this royal visit?
Through the nights of this week, we’ll follow the rest of the story; we’ll watch what happens when Jesus enters Jerusalem; the various responses to the king. I invite you to join with us.
Today, the key question is this: what is your response to Jesus? By your words and actions as they expose your heart attitude, will you reject him like the Pharisees, wanting it all to be hushed up? Jesus comes as King, offering peace. God comes to visit - will he be refused entry?
Or will you be like the disciples, who celebrate that God has come to them; that Jesus is here to reign over the new kingdom, bringing peace, as the whole creation cries out in praise?
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Palm Sunday, 24th March 2013.