Sunday, April 1, 2012

Donkey Rides (Mark 11:1-11)

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.  If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”  They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street.  As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”  They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.  Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

We hear this story every year.  Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the road lined with cloaks and branches and palm fronds, right on time on Palm Sunday every year.  Palm Sunday is that day in the church’s year that lets us know the six weeks of Lent, begun when we saw our shadow on Ash Wednesday, are almost over, thanks be to God.  When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, we know that we only have to hold out for another week to keep our Lenten fast from chocolate or peanut butter or soda or alcohol or whatever else we gave up.  On this day every year, the anthem for worship may as well be, “Hippity hoppity, Easter’s on its way.”  Crowds show up on Palm Sunday and wave their palm branches and shout “Hosanna” and then show up next week and sing “Alleluia” with little thought to the events that took place between these two Sundays.  As happened with Jesus, only a few of the most dedicated, faithful, and devout disciples will show up this week on Thursday, and by the time we get to Friday, the number will be even less.

We hear this Palm Sunday story every year, right on time, pre-Easter, one week left to go; but I wonder if we’ve heard it so much, we no longer really listen to it.  And yet, this week is too important for our familiarity with the story to numb us to hearing God speaking in it, and so I invite your participation today through a listening ear and an open heart.  May we pray.

Sometimes a car is just a car; other times it is a statement.  In high school, I drove a 1982 Ford LTD - it was robin egg blue with a dark blue vinyl top and we called it “The Blue Bomber” - and that was an appropriate name in every sense of the word.  I think the statement that car made about me was “This used to be A.J.’s Dad’s car, but it go so unreliable he got tired of driving it, got another one, and A.J. drives this one now.”

There was the 1987 Chevy Celebrity - the factory color was Rosewood, but let’s call it what it was, pink - and so we called it “Pink Maxie” in honor of the grandma who had owned it previously.  And then there was the car I acquired during my first year of seminary after I wrecked Maxie - a goldish-brown 1992 Saturn SC.  It was covered in Meredith College stickers which I quickly removed, but not before my friends could name the car “Meredith,” and that name stuck.  Do you have any idea how humbling it is to drive around in a car named “Meredith?”

Sometimes, transportation is just transportation; other times, it’s a statement.  It is true in our day, and  it was true in Jesus’ day, as well.  Just take a look at the 11 verses we’ve read today, the familiar story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday at the start of the week celebrating the Passover.  11 verses detail the events of that day in Mark’s account, and fully 7 of those have to do with the procurement of the famous donkey, suggesting that one’s ride in Jesus’ day was just as important as it is in ours.  What did Jesus’ ride say about him?

First, let us understand that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not the only one taking place that day.  The text tells us that Jesus entered the city from the East, from the Mount of Olives.  But over on the other side of town, the Roman army would be processing into the city from the West.  Though there was a garrison of Roman soldiers permanently stationed in Jerusalem and Pilate, the governor, maintained a palace in the city, his headquarters was in Caesarea Maritima, a city on the coast with pleasant breezes off the Mediterranean and a state-of-the-art harbor.

However, during the major festivals, the occupying Roman government would relocate to Jerusalem and enter town in a grand military procession.  The purpose of this procession was twofold - one, to maintain order during the festival, and two, to make it clear who was in charge.  It would have been an impressive sight: chariots, war horses, legionnaires, archers, flags flying, soldiers marching, trumpets blaring, drums beating, armor clanking.  This imposing display of Roman imperial power came with the understanding that resistance to the empire was futile.

There were also hundreds of thousands of pilgrims - Jews who had scattered across the known-world - who would be coming into the city of Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover.  With all these people, it would have been easy for Jesus and his disciples to arrive inconspicuously and anonymously as just part of the crowd.

But Jesus doesn’t do it that way.  He enters Jerusalem with style.  Rome had made its demonstration of power from the West.  Jesus would stage a counter-demonstration from the East.  Jesus comes to the city not in a powerful way, like the Roman army, but in a ludicrously humble way, riding not upon a magnificent war horse, but on a donkey.  His “triumphal entry” echoes the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “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.”  Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy, he is the long-expected Messiah, the one who will liberate the people and set them free.

I know that people have gotten hung up on the language used to describe the actual animal Jesus rode in on.  The gospels of Mark and Luke call it a colt, Matthew says he rode in on a donkey and a colt (Matthew 21:5) - it says that Jesus rode “them,” which I always thought would be an interesting feat to watch Jesus ride two animals at the same time, straddling them like some sort of circus act.  So which was it?  Did Jesus ride a donkey, or did Jesus ride a colt, the foal of a donkey?

John Dominic Crossan offers that the mention of both the donkey and the colt in Zecheriah, echoed by Matthew, is actually speaking poetically and using Semitic parallelism.  He wants us to see “two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides “them” in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism.”

In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a gelding warhorse, a mule, a male donkey or even just any old female donkey.  He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: an untrained, un-ridden, un-neutered female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.

Like a soccer mom with her minivan or a middle-aged man with his red convertible, the ride Jesus chooses tells us what his life is all about.  The warhorses and chariots of the army are instruments of oppression and death.  They are trained, neutered, precise, and predictable.  They are magnificent, impressive, and imposing.  And when Jesus chooses the nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her, he is making a fundamentally different claim.  She may be untrained, wild, and unpredictable.  She may be humble and unimpressive.  But she is the ride Jesus chooses, perhaps because she is fertile, perhaps because she is capable of bringing new life, perhaps because she can nurture new life.  But when Jesus put his two disciples on valet duty that morning and told them to go and find him a suitable ride, the ride Jesus chooses is a statement.

We used to sing it in children’s church: “We have a king who rides a donkey, and his name is Jesus.”  He doesn’t ride in a chariot, he doesn’t come mounted on a warhorse; the donkey symbolizes the humble splendor of his kingdom.  His procession into Jerusalem perfectly mimics the Roman procession in every way, and yet the meaning of each couldn’t be more different.  Rome displayed its oppressive power.  Jesus displayed his subversive humility.  Rome brings control.  Jesus brings peace.  Rome brings occupation.  Jesus brings liberation.  Rome will reign from a royal palace.  Jesus will reign from a cross.  Rome comes armed and ready to kill.  Jesus is willing to die so that we might live.

On that first Palm Sunday, the crowds didn’t know all that, and yet they still greeted him as a king.  No wonder they yelled “Hosanna - save us!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Years of expectation exploded from those words as people cut leafy branches from the field and laid them ahead of Jesus in the road along with their cloaks.  As they waved their palm branches, they knew that everything was going to be different because of Jesus.  Friends, it is!  And the clue to all of that is the donkey.  Humble, unassuming, fertile, slightly unpredictable - all of these are the blessed hallmarks of the kingdom Jesus reveals.

For one day, we sorta get it right when we recognize that this is what a king looks like.  But by the end of the week, we’ll prefer a different kind of king.  We’ll want God to act more like the mighty Roman army than this itinerant, humble, carpenter preacher from Nazareth.  We’ll want to trade in the king Jesus is for one that looks more like one the rest of the world will recognize.  God will send us a king, but before the week is over, we’ll send him back.

But today, on Palm Sunday, we get it right.  We get it right when we hail him as king, and worship him as Lord.  We get it right when we obey him as master, and call upon him as Savior.  When we get it right when the joy explodes from our souls, no matter how much some oppressor or another wants to squash it down, it will not be contained.  We get it right when our lives center upon Christ and the joy is magnified simply because we are in the presence of his humble splendor.  We get it right when we call upon Jesus for our salvation and recognize that he comes to us with the promise of new life.  Palm Sunday invites us to experience the humble hope that is the hallmark of Jesus and his kingdom.

Today, we’re given a choice about which side of town we want to be on, and which parade we’re cheering for.  May we be found faithful.  Palm Sunday is the day we get it right, shouting Hosanna, hailing Jesus as king, running to meet him along the road he travels.  Before the week is over, that road will lead him to the cross, but even there, in what the world will see as defeat, that is the place Jesus will name his work as finished.  He is a different kind of king.  The ride he chooses should tell us that.  Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest!  Thanks be to God.

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