So, last week I had a meeting with Reagan and she told me that tomorrow is her birthday! And, immediately, I was very excited. Because most of what I do throughout the week, when you all are actually working and stuff, is think about my next sermon and how I can bring it to the church in a way that’s equally relatable and engaging. Sometimes I really struggle with this and think, “What can I do?!" And then, in walks innocent and unassuming Reagan, and just says, “Here J.T. Here’s a way.” So, Reagan is 20 today and, as a way to celebrate her, I thought it would be extremely appropriate to spend a few minutes taking a look at Reagan through the years. Shall we? Reagan, maybe you can help provide us with some context for a few of these.
I know exactly what Reagan’s thinking right now: “Wow, I’m so lucky to have such a cool boss…” Now, who would have thought that, after all of that, Reagan would end up here, on her 20th birthday, as our music minister? It’s amazing, isn’t it, that all of our experiences, all of our memories, everything we’ve gone through has led us up right to this moment. We’ve spent the last month or so walking through some of Jesus’ most radical teachings: love your enemy; turn the other cheek; do not judge. And all those teachings he laid out for his followers; all the miracles attributed to him; all the revolutionary theological and political work he did have led him to this exact moment: being praised as a king on the outside, but on the inside knowing exactly what’s about to happen.
So, this passage comes right on the heels of one of Jesus’ parables, which is why we start out by saying “After he had said this…” Now, Luke really lays out Jesus’ path here. He turns toward Jerusalem, and then comes to Bethphage, Bethany, and the Mount of Olives. Now this is significant. When Jesus turns toward Jerusalem, it’s not just a geographical marker; it actually means something. Just one chapter ago, in Luke 18, Jesus was talking to his disciples, and said this: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on thew third day he will rise again.” But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” When Jesus goes ahead to Jerusalem, he’s making his final journey in this life and he knows it. Were should feel the weight of that on this day. He’s going to be paraded into Jerusalem in the fashion of a king, all the while knowing what is waiting for him there.
Now, as mentioned above, we’re told he comes to Bethphage, Bethany, and the Mount of Olives. we’ve probably heard of Bethany and the Mount of Olives before. These are places that are mentioned frequently in the bible. But I can tell that you all are really curious about this mysterious Bethphage place. Well, luckily for you, I’ve prepared a short presentation about this location. So, what we’re basically looking at here is that we know nothing about this
place. However, it does have quite an interesting name. “Bethphage” is actually a Hebraism, which means it’s pretty much a transliteration of the Hebrew sounds into Greek letters. And, when traced back to its Hebrew roots, it breaks down into “beth” and “pag”, which mean “house” and unripe figs”. So, this actually means “House of the Unripe Figs.” Now, does this have any bearing on the meaning of our text this morning? Absolutely not. I just care about you guys and I want you to have good talking points at your next party, so feel free to use this one. Obscure ancient Hebrew really livens up a dull gathering.
Anyway, once they get to this area around the Mount of Olives, Jesus sends a couple of his disciples ahead of him and says this: “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, “The Lord needs it.’” So, this scene is interesting
to say the least. First of all, Jesus tells the disciples to go to the village ahead of them where they will find a young, unridden donkey tied to a post. So, if they’ve not gotten to that village, how does Jesus know this animal will actually be there? And second, this is a very specific prediction. Jesus doesn’t say, “There’s probably an animal I can ride in that town over there. Go get something and bring it back here.” No, he has a very specific request.
What I’m a bit more curious about, though, is how the people who owned the donkey responded. Because the text doesn’t actually tell us. Right after Jesus sends them, we see this: “So those who were sent departed and fount it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus…” I mean, these disciples just stole someone’s animal and ran away! They just committed grand theft donkey. It’s like if one of you were to go to Blaise
Alexander Ford down the road here and jump in a brand new Mustang and be like, “IT’S OKAY! PASTOR J.T. NEEDS IT! RELAX!”
Now, I’m sure not many of us have donkeys that we regularly have to worry about losing, but it’s worth asking the question as to what you are willing to lose to Jesus. What are you willing to give up for this faith? What is the thing that, if someone came around and asked you to give it up for the Lord, you’d freely let it go? Are you willing to give up all your possessions? Would you give up your job and your home? Because, at the end of the day, if there’s something that you’re not willing to untie and give to the Lord, you’re not as free from idol worship as you thought you were. Everything belongs to God. Everything you have, everyone you love, isn’t yours to begin with.
There was a 20th century Catholic named Dorothy Day. Day was a social activist and advocate for worker’s rights. She’s often remembered as one of the most famous political radicals in the history of the Catholic Church. And she has this quote that I absolutely love. When talking about Jesus’ command to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s”, she says “Once you give to God what belongs to God, there is nothing left for Caesar.” Nothing is outside the bounds of Jesus’ lordship. Not the donkey of the random people in our text, not your family, not your job. Nothing.
But, coming back to our text, the question still remains as to why? Why this very specific situation is the one that has to come to pass, and to answer that we actually have to go way back into the Old Testament book of Zechariah. Zechariah is a short little prophetic book in the OT, written after the Israelites went into exile in Babylon for several hundred years, and were then brought out of exile and forced to rebuild their civilization again from the up. And a little over halfway through this book, at the beginning of chapter 9, is this verse: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
So, at first glance, this riding a donkey thing seems extremely arbitrary, but it’s actually not arbitrary at all. It’s the fulfillment of a prophecy from the Old Testament, written to a people who had lost their way and fallen into despair. It was written to a people who were in need of a king to lead them, just like the people in our passage. Now, our text says that the disciples threw their cloaks on the colt, and Jesus sat on it, and “as he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.”
So, we can imagine the scene here. People are lining the sides of the road and, one after another, are lying their cloaks down in front of his donkey. In the other three gospel accounts in Matthew, Mark, and John, there’s reference to people also cutting down branches from the palm trees nearby to lay down on the road in front of Jesus as well. Now, we kind of take this story for granted in the church because we’ve all heard it every year and just accept it for what it is. But there’s an important cultural distinction here about this kind of “processing in” that Jesus is doing. This wasn’t something that happened to merely welcome a king into the city. This is something that happened to welcome a king in after he had just won victory in battle.
And at the end of the day, this is what Palm Sunday is all about. It’s the Sunday that we all come together to lay down our cloaks before Jesus and witness to the king he is over life. And, in less than a week, on Good Friday, we will gather together, watch Jesus get nailed to a cross, and witness to the king he is over death. One of the things I love most about this Christian faith that has so gripped me all my life is that it’s taken all the guesswork out of it. We don’t have to go through life and fear the possibility that this is all there is, and this is all there can be. The story has been spoiled; the end has already been revealed; the battle has been won and Jesus is victor. You don’t have to go another second wondering if your life has value; you don’t have to go another second wondering if there’s anyone who cares about you and your problems. Jesus rode into Jerusalem and was greeted as a victorious king because he was getting ready to go into a battle that over before it even began, and that victory was won for you.
This is the thing the entire gospel is based on — the fact that hate and sin and
meaninglessness have fallen by the wayside; that love has prevailed; that regardless of anyone’s journey or place in life, they’re loved unconditionally by a God who died for the whole world. This is what we’re supposed to be talking about when we’re told to go make disciples of all nations. This is why the disciples in our story begin to cry out, and this is why if they don’t, our text says the stones would cry out. Because in his triumphant entry into Jerusalem; in his last meal with his disciples; in his flogging and torture; in his crucifixion on the cross — the entire cosmos is forced to bear witness to its creator.
When Jesus processes into Jerusalem, being regarded as a victorious king, he’s approaching the end of the story. His years of ministry are coming to an end and he has one more task to complete. But even though Jesus may be approaching the end of this particular story, another story is just beginning. More on that next week on Easter Sunday. Let’s pray.