We’ll be in three places, well, let’s not kid ourselves, really four places this morning—Genesis 49, Zechariah 9 and Mark 11 and Revelation 19.
Holy and Gracious God, you have so ordered and governed the history of your people to reflect your glory in the world, help us now to see more perfectly your nature and love that we might behold your hand in all your mighty works. Amen.
We’ll begin, this morning, in Mark, beginning in chapter 11. Jesus is drawing nigh to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Now, if you stand on the Mount of Olives and look up, you can see the Temple in Jerusalem. And you can go right down the hill into the valley and then right up to the Temple. And as you, a pilgrim come for the Passover or the Feast of the Tabernacles or just to come to worship in the Temple, as you go down the Mount of Olives singing particular psalms, like Psalm 118, and then as you go up to the temple, at each step you stop and sing one psalm each step, the psalms of Ascents. And it is such a rush of energy. You, traveling with almost your whole family and with hundreds of other pilgrims, surrounded by others who love God, singing and singing these beautiful ancient psalms of praise, all going together, treading the way so many have walked so that the road is just worked over, the stone steps up to the temple are smooth, you are just overcome with spiritual elation.
And today, the ordinary spiritual high of you, the ordinary pilgrim, is brought to a greater intensity because in the crowd is Jesus. By this time Jesus is So Famous. There isn’t one town, one person in the whole country of Israel who hasn’t heard of the miracles, the authority—I mean, he just goes into every synagogue and sits down in the place of teaching and explains the bible without appealing to any other rabbi or scholar and forgives sin, you’ve heard of the times he’s said ‘your sins are forgiven’. So when you all reach Bethany and Bethphage and Jesus gets up on a young donkey, and everyone around you starts taking off their cloaks and wraps and grabbing branches and singing and singing Hosanna, you do to. This guy is the Amazing Jesus! He is probably going to ride in there and take charge, and because he can do miracles, he’s going to whack some roman guards and then everyone is going to rise up and get rid of the evil wretched oppression of the most evil political system that has ever been in all of history.
You and the whole crowd are looking at this man whose face, to us, is so iconic. I can flip open my computer and google image ‘Jesus’ and my little kids all recognize him immediately. And they have expectations of him. They know he saves them from their sins, that he’s the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know his voice. As they grow older they’ll pour more information and expectation into that face. Hopefully it will all be true and good. Because for most of the world, for many of us here, just like the crowd, we pour into him what we think he should be.
When I was an Episcopalian I heard all the time, ‘my Jesus wouldn’t do that’ or ‘my Jesus doesn’t care what I do.’ But, at Good Shepherd, we do it too. Every time we encounter something in the Bible that doesn’t sit well, or we just don’t like, we’re elevating our expectations and ideas over and above who Jesus really is.
This making Jesus into the god we prefer is not a new thing—reimaging Jesus, deciding that the God of the Old Testament is meaner and nastier than the lovely sweetie pie Jesus of the New Testament, nuancing Jesus to make him more palatable to the world, or, in the case of the crowd around Jesus, expecting him to be the earthly political destroyer of the tyrannical roman state—it started at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and carried all the way through to the moment he swung himself up on that donkey.
So let’s look at the donkey. As they are drawing near to Jerusalem, and there’s a whole crowd and Jesus is kind of in the middle of it, he sends two disciples on ahead more quickly with very specific instructions, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’
It’s possible, of course, that Jesus divinely knows of the presence of an unridden donkey tied to a tree in the village ahead of him, but there’s more reason to believe that he himself is crafting this scene. He knows a guy with a donkey that’s never been ridden.
He’s friends with this guy. This guy knows that secrecy is imperative because Jesus is a wanted man. He and Jesus agree on a drop off point for the donkey and a secret password but the disciples nor the guys standing nearby know the plan and so can’t be implicated if they’re caught. They just know the password, “The Lord has need of it”. “The Lord” could mean, ‘the master of the donkey’ or ‘exalted Lord’. Jesus wants and has planned for a donkey, a young male donkey about a year old that has never been ridden by anyone.
So let’s just stop here for a second and remember about Old Testament Kings and Donkeys. Kings, and we learn this from the written accounts of David and Solomon, would ride horses into war, at the head of their army, rallying them to fight. But in moments of peace, they would ride a donkey. The donkey was a sign of peace and authority.
We have a dismal view of donkeys. They don’t look majestic to our eyes. No American that I know goes and breeds donkeys—no, it’s horses or alpacas or something. But in the ancient world, a king riding a donkey was a sign of peace and kingship. And it had to be, and this is true for a horse also, only ridden by him. Nobody else would ever ride the king’s animal, even to train it.
So, if you turn to Zechariah 9:9 you’ll see “Behold your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It’s not ‘humble on a donkey’ but rather ‘humble and also riding on a donkey.’
But where did this king riding on a donkey come from? Well, turn to Genesis 49:10. In chapter 49, Jacob is blessing all his sons before he dies. He calls each one to himself and gives a blessing in which is included a prophecy. We’ll just look at the blessing and prophecy for Judah. Jacob calls Judah to him and says, in verse 10 that the scepter will not depart from him—that means he will always be the source of kings—we’ll come back to the rest of this verse in a minute but look at verse 11. “Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes.
So long before there was any king in Israel, here is this image of the foal—that’s the male under one year old donkey, being bound to the vine. Now, we know that the vine, in the Old Testament, stands for Israel—it is the beautiful vine that the Lord cares for and tends, but it doesn’t bear fruit and so it is cut off and thrown into the fire. We’ve seen that in Isaiah especially.
So here Mark, without directly quoting anything, turn back to Mark for a minute, carefully describes the two disciples being told to go find a colt that’s been tied and then they’re supposed to untie it and bring it to him, and then he describes them going and finding the colt tied and untying it. Hearken back, for a minute, to the three verses that recounted Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Mark. He’s not a verbosely descriptive guy, and yet here he’s spending seven, Read 7 whole verses to describe the untying of this colt. But he doesn’t say it’s tied to a vine. He just says it’s tied. And they bring it to Jesus who, himself taking the place of Israel the unfruitful vine, is the True Vine. The colt is untied from Judah and brought to Jesus who both is from Judah,
but is greater than Judah. Kingship, heretofore tied to Judah the vine, is here untied and tied to Jesus the True Vine. Jesus carefully fulfills this prophecy in Genesis 49 and supersedes it.
And there’s just a little bit more. Look back at Genesis 49:10. “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,” That means he’s going to be king, or kings will come from him, “until tribute comes to him.” Now, you should have a note right there next to the word ‘him’ and when you look at the note you should see that we have a little Hebrew play on words. If you say it in Hebrew, which I’m not going to do, and you revocalize it slightly, instead of ‘until tribute comes’ you get ‘until Shiloh comes’. Shiloh, of course, means peace, which, as I said before, is embedded in the image of a king riding a donkey.
A king comes in peace on a donkey. In war he rides a horse.
Jesus, humble, a servant, a suffering servant, takes this donkey that has never been ridden, and climbs up to ride it into Jerusalem. He is the king, coming to make peace between God and man. He will come again later, this time on a horse.
Listen to what we can expect. Revelation 19:11-16
“Then I saw the heaven opened and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.”
NB—Go home and read Genesis 49, Zechariah 9 and Revelation 19 and you will see a perfectly symmetrical line between the three, culminating in the robe dipped in wine but then in blood. We don’t have time for that part this morning but it would make a great Sunday afternoon activity if you’re looking for one.
But right now is the time of peace. Right now is the time where we can stop being at war with God and with each other. I’m not talking about ‘world peace’ or ‘absence of conflict’, which is the kind of peace we always achieve isn’t it? Let’s just not fight each other and that way we’ll be at peace. Even though I hate you and you hate me and we both hate God, we’ll just stuff it down and not deal with it. That’s the peace that we achieve in this world. It’s not peace.
By avoiding God entirely, you do not achieve peace with him. By tolerating your neighbor—not throwing your trash in his lawn, but whispering your irritation under your breath while you’re not doing it—you’re not at peace with him. By living side by side with the person next to you at school or work, but not engaging with them—that’s not peace. And certainly inner peace is not avoiding at all costs a good deep look into your own self to find out what’s really there. The world’s peace isn’t really peace.
The world’s love isn’t real love. The world’s idea of Jesus isn’t really Jesus.
When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, like flint, it was to deal with the deep broken nature of humanity, to deal once for all with the death that we all face because we are at war with God. We don’t love him, we don’t want him, we don’t want to be with him or each other or even too much with ourselves.
Does it sound really bleak? On this glorious morning? You might be saying, ‘no, I’m fine, I’m not at war with God.’ But if you haven’t perfectly obeyed and loved him and loved your neighbor, then however you feel about it, there’s a war on and if you don’t repent and turn around to face the King of Peace, to be grafted onto the True Vine, to accept not only who Jesus is in himself for himself but also the work he did for you on the cross, to begin to learn from him true peace and real love,
it’s not going to end well. You will die. Your body will die and your soul will die forever separated from God. The crowd around Jesus as he rides over the smoothed out road up to Jerusalem shouts, antiphonally and ironically, though they don’t intend any irony,
back and forth from psalm 118, ‘Hosanna!’ Which means ‘Save us Lord!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! They wave their palms—palms used to build the booths for the Feast of Tabernacles, the feast where Israel remembers that God came to tabernacle, to dwell with them in the wilderness—and sing. And Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem in all this glory and praise and adoration and then the crowd melts away, scatters, one to the market to buy dinner, another to the house of a friend, another to find lodging, another to guy buy an animal for the sacrifice coming up, another to his business. And Jesus goes alone to the Temple with the 12 and cases it out so when he returns the next day, coming suddenly into his temple like a refiner’s fire,
to scourge and purify, he will know exactly what he wants to do. And then he turns and goes back the way he came, back to the Mount of Olives.
And all the people who today shout ‘Hosanna’,
on Friday will shout ‘Crucify Him’.
He comes to make peace and all hell and the flesh and the devil will work war on his own body. They will mock and destroy and scourge and finally kill. But this is the Last Battle in our war against God. We do our worst to rebel and destroy and corrupt and God himself, in the person of Jesus, takes the full assault of our hate and despair and completely and totally absorbs it into himself and accounts for it and defeats it. When we gather again together, one week from today, we will celebrate the day when the Lord really and truly saved, when the grave that we dug, the waterless pit into which we flung the Lord will be broken open and undone.
Let us pray.