Donkeys and Destiny

Sermon Palm Sunday March 29 2015

Reverend Felicity O’Brien

Can you feel the pace picking up? Can you hear the prophecies tumbling over each other as they are fulfilled? Something big is happening, something of cosmic importance. It’s time.

Listen again to this passage from Isaiah:

I let them beat my back and pull out my beard. I didn’t turn aside when they insulted me and spit in my face.

Doesn’t it make shivers run up your spine as you realise that it’s talking about Jesus, many hundreds of years before he was on the earth?

You can feel the supernatural aspects in these prophecies, as the veil between earth and heaven is thinned, until it is torn in two on Good Friday.

The Isaiah passage is entitled God’s servant must suffer. And in the Philippians reading we hear the same theme of humility – Jesus emptied himself, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross – the most shameful death there was.

Humility is vital to Jesus’ earthly ministry – and yet, in the gospel, Jesus is riding triumphant into Jerusalem, on a white stallion, flags flying – no, wait, you say, it wasn’t a splendid war horse, it was a humble donkey. And not even a full grown one, just a colt. Jesus wasn’t high above the crowds at all, his feet would have been scraping on the ground, looking frankly ridiculous.

There were so many hopes of Jesus, that he would be the ruler, the General, who would sweep the Roman curse out of Jerusalem, and restore the kingdom to God’s people. But a donkey? Really? It’s too much.

Maybe the crowd would have faltered at this point. But again, the prophecies! Wasn’t here something in Zechariah about a peasant king riding on a donkey? Again, the spine-tingling truth that this man was special, there was something more than just an earthly leader about him. So the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, in echo of welcoming a previous king, Jehu, against an earlier oppressive regime. They waved branches, getting into the spirit of this messianic demonstration. The prophecies were being fulfilled! We’ve been here before! We’ve been victorious many times, and we can win again!

And then the cry went around,

Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Why did they say that? Hosanna means Save us! This was the cry of the passover festival, which was to be celebrated the very next week. The reality of all the times God had saved Israel would have been vivid in the crowds’ minds. Again Lord, please! Hosanna! Save us! And remember too that in the previous chapter of Mark’s account, Bartimaeus had called Jesus son of David – everything was coming together!

What would happen next? Would Jesus go up to the authorities and tell them that his time had come? No. It was puzzling to the crowds, but after all this euphoria, all this excitement, Jesus had a bit of a look around in the temple, like any other passover visitor, and went back down to Bethany where he was staying.

How would you feel if you were caught up in the crowd? Would you feel excited? Confused? Let down?

How do you feel now, hearing the story? Does it encourage you to cry hosanna! Lord Save us!

There are many ways in which the story of the gospel is not straightforward. It’s confusing and conflicted, emotional and overwhelming. It’s about real people, with real feelings.

Paul can help us understand the ‘why’.

After telling us that Jesus humbled himself even to death on a common criminal’s cross, he tells us the consequences of Jesus’ humility.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

God has highly exalted Jesus. He was lifted up on an earthly cross, but also lifted up so that his name is above all names.

In our modern world we struggle with hierarchy. We want everything to be democratic, on an equal playing field. But that’s not how it really is. In a family there is a difference in the hierarchy between the parents and the children. If the children are at the top the family is dysfunctional, and there is no leadership.

In the church you just have to watch a procession in the cathedral to see the hierarchy. The deacons are in the front, with the most recently ordained first, then the priests, then the archdeacons, then the bishop. They have more and more fancy clothes as the procession goes on. There is one advantage to being a deacon up the front though – you always get a good seat!

At the top of the spiritual hierarchy is Jesus. At his name every knee must bow, every tongue confess that he is Lord. Do you remember the hymn ‘At the name of Jesus?’

If ever you feel that the powers of darkness are getting above themselves, you can command them in Jesus’ name to be gone. Even they must bow the knee at Jesus’ name.

But Jesus humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant.

We too must humble ourselves. The opposite of humility is pride, and pride leads to so much pain in the world. Proud people take more than their share, they don’t listen to others, they care only for themselves.

Paul encourages us to have the same mind in us that was in Christ

Jesus. Serving rather than being served. I know you are all the sort of people who serve. But it’s a struggle isn’t it? In this world, the media is constantly bombarding us with images and soundbites that it’s desirable to put yourself first, ‘because you’re worth it.’

Serving others may well use us up quicker. We may get exhausted. But there is help for us. If we are to have the same mind as Jesus, we can echo the words of Isaiah: ‘The Lord God gives me
the right words to encourage the weary.’ We don’t have to do it alone.

We may be criticised for interfering, for upsetting the status quo. But the Lord God keeps me from being disgraced. So I refuse to give up, because I know God will never let me down.’

We may be vilified, accused of all sorts of things, because we stand on the wrong political toes. But My protector is nearby; no one can stand here to accuse me of wrong. The Lord God will help me
and prove I am innocent.’

My friends, be encouraged today to follow the example of Jesus, to trust God for the outcome. The world will try and batter you, but in the end God will strengthen you as you do his work. We must be brave, just as Jesus was brave, riding publicly into Jerusalem, where he knew he would be facing the ultimate challenge.

Now let’s take ourselves back 2000 or so years and think about

the next few days of Jesus’ ministry, and I’m going to play an excerpt from a beautiful nineteenth-century choral work by Stainer, which portrays the crowd’s response to Jesus.

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