As we turn to Gods Word this morning I would like to ask for special prayer from each of you this morning. Anton Foat and I have joked over the years that I should let down my Presbyterian hair a bit and let the Spirit lead. In some circles it is understood the height of spirituality to get up and say, Well, I have a sermon prepared here, but I sense I need to say something else. Now, certainly God can work in many ways, but Ive found that the Holy Spirit for me works just as much on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday while I am preparing as he does on Sunday morning when I get up to preach. Yet, there are times God in His providential wisdom does something that shakes my Presbyterian rigidity. Last night, as I was plodding through what I sensed to be a difficult sermon, I flipped to retrieve a file from another document to cut and paste, and pop - my sermon disappeared into cyber-space.
Now for those of you who are inclined to believe such an event was the work of the Spirit of Vince Lombari seeing to it that I would be done in time for you to get home for kick-off, let me remind you that my manuscript keeps me from rabbit trails and spurious thoughts. So, without the sermon I toiled on I am left to ruminate and share some thoughts. Although Ill admit I do not find much humor in this predicament, I must say that the humbling course of events fits very well into the text for this morning, as I hope youll see as we look at Matthew 21.
Although its been over two hundred years since we discarded the vestiges of monarchy from our shores, Americans love royalty. It may be that we long for something more transcendent than the democratic ideals of egalitarianism. Our leaders are chosen from among us; we celebrate their humble beginnings, their common struggles. We easily use them for butts of our jokes; Leno and Letterman are in business because of our leaders. So, we may find the otherness of royalty appealing. The allure of the privileged lifestyle, the special grooming, the extensive family tree dating back centuries, filled with intrigue. The skeletons which reside in their closets are far more appealing than old stories about weird Uncle Fred.
But lets face it, we are drawn to them, if for no other reason, they fulfill a fantasy of rank and privilege we at least secretly desire. We want to be them, or at least, on good speaking terms with them. There is a magnetism to majesty which draws us like nothing else. Last year far more of us were drawn to the unfortunate funeral for an unhappy Princess than we were for the hard working nun of Calcutta.
Royalty with its glitz and glitter creates an image of might and power we all desire. But for each of us, for whatever the reason, our images of what royalty should be and should do can become confused when we come to Scripture to consider how God should relate to us.
This morning we are going to return Matthew, which of all the gospel accounts of Jesuss life present Christ as the King more than any other. As is the custom here at Cornerstone, I flip between the Old Testament and New and we have made our way through Matthew 20. This morning well begin at chapter 21, which is the final section of Matthew. Up to this point we saw how Christ was presented as King, through Old Testament prophecies and the worship of others. We saw how His Kingdom ethics were explained on the Sermon on the Mount. His power as King was shown through the miracles He performed and His authority as King has been seen in His teaching and preaching. But now in Matthew 21 we move to the final five days of His life where His work as King comes to a head.
It is here, however, that His regal status is most confusing. What we expect does not happen; what we think should be the case is pushed aside.
While John describes Jesus venturing down into Jerusalem on a couple of occasions, Matthews focus is much more on Jesus work in Galilee to the north. So for the first time Jesus makes His way to the Holy City. Enroute on numerous occasions Jesus tells His disciples that He must die.
Now as Jesus and the disciples make their way up from the valley by the Dead Sea and the town of Jericho, they climb up into the hill country where Jerusalem is located. They are not alone in their ascent, for they are going to Jerusalem for the upcoming holy week of Passover
As they approach the outskirts of Jerusalem, they come to the villages of Bethphage and Bethany. It is in Bethany where Jesus friends Martha and Mary live with their brother Lazarus. As we come to Matthew 21 Johns gospel informs us that Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead and the area is a buzz with the talk of this teachers special powers. Before their final trek down the Mount of Olives into the Kiddron Valley and up the slopes to Jerusalem, Jesus sends two disciples to fetch a donkey in a nearby city. Upon their return, the disciples throw their outer coats over the donkey for a make-shift saddle. Luke tells us that this was a colt which was never ridden and Matthew informs us that Jesus wanted the mother as well as the foal.
It is at this point Matthew helps us understand what is happening by his common formula (verse 4). "This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet." What does this mean?
If your Bible has a cross reference youll be sent to Zechariah 9:9. This second to last book of the OT gives a bit of a different wording. What Matthew did was to combine two passages. The opening lines come from Isaiah 62.
When the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament it is not just nice window dressing showing that this was to happen for a reason. Rather it is an interpretative tool, a key into the Scripture to better understand the person of Jesus Christ. Look at what is said in Isaiah 62: The image here is that of a returning victorious army, coming home from battle and it is time to celebrate.
That kind of image may be a bit foreign to us. Victory parades are not too common in our day and age. Perhaps the closest picture happened last year when the Packers returned to Lambau after their success in New Orleans at the Super Bowl. Youll recall how the streets were lined with fans, blocking the slow moving, windowless buses full of very cold and tired players as they wove through the streets toward the high and holy Temple of Lambau Field. Banners filled the streets as the procession made their way toward the gates of Lambau. As the anxious fans within the stadium waited, their joy was complete as the victorious team broke through the gates, carrying their reward with them: the Lombardi Trophy, home once again to Title Town.
That is the picture here: The Savior comes, victorious, and Gods people are being called to gather around and see His reward. Part of that reward in Isaiah 62 is what the people are then called in verse 12, "The holy people, The redeemed of the LORD... Sought out, a city not forsaken."
That is the first picture that is to be created as Jesus mounts this donkey. But there is more.
Again, a similar picture, but here there is something vastly different. Again there is a call to the Daughter of Zion, again the victorious one enters the city gates. But here it is not the picture that wed expect. He is called a king. We have certain expectations of a king, and we they are unfulfilled when we read this passage. 300 years before, Alexander the Great was in the midst of his great crusade of conquering the known world. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he lead his army up these same hills, through these gates, sitting astride his great white stallion. That is the image we all conjure when we talk about conquering kings.
But here, the king comes on a donkey. For us in this day and age, riding a donkey is mostly a joke. I remember years ago how organizations would have a game of donkey basketball or softball, and wed laugh at how silly our teachers looked on the backs of those creatures. But in the ancient world, if you had money for transportation, a donkey was your best bet. It was sure-footed and steady. It was relatively cheap and could carry a lot. It was the mini-van of the ancient world. Horses were used by the military and for war. Important people would ride donkeys, but only for mundane, peaceful purposes.
But the passage here talks about a King coming. This is a victory celebration. It is time to break out the biggest and best. When Queen Elisabeth II visited the United States, reporters delighted in spelling out the logistics involved: her four thousand pounds of luggage including two outfits for every occasion, a mourning outfit in case someone died, forty pints of plasma, and white kid leather toilet seat covers. She brought along her own hairdresser, two valets, and a host of other attendants. A brief visit of royalty to a foreign country can easily cost twenty million dollars. You wouldnt expect Queen Elizabeth to arrive at a state dinner in a Toyota Camery - and you would laugh at a king coming victoriously perched atop a beast of burden. But that is exactly the picture God desires. It is in that humble position he will accomplish what is necessary.
This is the key to the passage; this is what the entry into Jerusalem is all about - a king on a donkey. That is a king we may confess we want, but we so quickly reject Christ as a King on a donkey, as a King who has taken on the Fathers wrath so that He might not take vengeance on us. He suffers injuries and indignities while putting up with our stupidity and sinfulness. He is easily accessible. His laws are not written in the blood of His subjects, but in His own blood.
We want a king to be distant, to have that ethereal quality about Him. For as long as He is distant, He will allow us to go about our lives with little interference. A King on a great stallion, galloping past is awe inspiring, but as soon as it appears it is gone. A King on a donkey trods along side of us.
We want a king to be harsh, for we mistakenly believe that we are saved not by grace but by guilt. Some the foolishness of Gods mercy is that it seems to tolerate sin; it winks at broken laws. A King on a donkey will only lead to more sin, it is thought. That can not be tolerated. We love the King with the flashing sword because we are sure it will strike down our enemies but will leave us standing. A King on a donkey is too soft on those I dont like. Its too soft on me. How else will I grow and mature in the faith, unless Christ knocks me around a bit?
The disciples did as they were told; the donkey was brought. The disciples placed their cloaks over the back of the young donkey onto which Jesus then climbed. The road was already crowded as the pilgrims flocked from the surrounding areas of Palestine for Passover. The crowd followed suit as they laid their outer cloaks across the road. Others cut palm branches to create a green carpet down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, through the Kiddron Valley and up to Jerusalem.
The imagery was not completely lost on the crowds. They saw Jesus as a King, but were confused on what that meant. One other time in Scripture are we told of a king entering Jerusalem and the people responding like this is in 2 Kings 9 when Jehu is anointed as King of Israel and is sent off to kill Jezebel. The people as a joyous response that there was at last a king to destroy their oppressors began the response of blanketing the path way for this king. The people perceived the position of Jesus as King, but they did not understand the nature of His royal work.
They also began to shout as Jesus made His way through the crowd. Some of this may have already been taking place. What the people shouted was a passage from Psalm 118. During this season there were six psalms used to celebrate Israel's freedom from captivity in Egypt, Psalms 1\13-118. These are called the Hallel Psalms, the songs of praise.
The shout of Hosanna is Aramaic for "Lord, save us," from Psalm 118:25. But notice what comes next, in verse 26. "Lord grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." Again they thought, this one is to be the King who would grant them peace, freedom from the oppression of the armies that occupied their land.
But the context tells a more complete story. What they shouted was not incorrect, but the larger context is critical to understand all that was being said. Look at what would have been said next in verse 27. "With boughs in hand, join the festal procession." In Hebrew there is a play on words: The branches (like a willow) would be gathered and used to take the offering, the sacrificial lamb, to the altar and tethered to the rings on the altar. What the people do is cut branches, we often use palm, to wave at the procession, but the context of the psalm they sing makes reference to those branches as what binds the incoming sacrifice.
No doubt unwittingly the people give God praise for what they will do to His Son in the coming days. They called to God to save them, but their concept of salvation was far from what God had in mind. They wanted freedom from the political tyranny. They wanted God to grant them success on their own terms.
How true of us as well - well shout Hosanna, well want to worship God as long as He meets us on our terms. But all the while we worship God, we are the same ones who in time, like those crowds in just five days, will call for His death.
But Christ is not a wax nose, to be bent and twisted to fit whatever image we like. He comes to us as a King on a donkey; His incarnation is majestic meekness. With our very praise of Him, we are the ones who lead Him so victoriously to the altar where He was slain as the final Passover Lamb. We shout "Hosanna, God save us," and He does, but not in the way we would ever imagine. We think it foolish that He would bring us to Himself through something as foolish as faith, something as empty as listening to someone say a few words. What does bread and wine have to do with my eternal destiny?
It is here that God comes, it is at this place in something as odd as the Word, as simple as bread and wine that we gather a glimpse of the awesome greatness of our reigning King, our glorious Lord who came to be sacrificed for our sins. We receive by faith that this bread is His body, that this wine is His blood, for in that we are strengthened. But once again we encounter nothing more than a King on a donkey.