Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why the Donkey?

The First Sunday in Advent, December 1st, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Why the Donkey?  Matthew 21:1-9

     A conversation, on a particular Sunday evening, during the spring of a particular year, in a village a short distance outside Jerusalem. 

     Say, Bartholomew,” Thomas asks as the evening light fails, “Why did Jesus have us go get those donkeys for Him to ride as He came into the city this morning?  I mean, I have some ideas, but I doubt I’m right.  You always paid more attention in Synagogue.  Help me out here, would you?” 

     Grinning in the darkness, Bartholomew quips, “Well, I think the Master wanted the mama donkey along so that the colt would be calm and let Him ride it.  Nobody wants to get bucked off, you know… not even the Son of Man.”

     “Knock it off, Bart,”  Thomas snapped back, “I know plenty about donkeys.  And you know that’s not what I’m getting at.  I’m trying to sort out what it all means.  It makes me think of a bunch of stories from the Book, like Zechariah’s promise of Zion’s king coming to her on a colt of a donkey.  And of course the people were shouting Hosanna to the King of David, so they were thinking the same.  But which of Zion’s stories apply to today?  The whole Scripture can’t all be connected to this morning, can it?” 

     “Can’t it?  Why not?” asks Bartholomew.  “Come on Tom, you can’t always be doubting God’s Word.  If there’s one thing Jesus has been teaching us for the last three years, it’s that all of it, Moses, the Prophets, the Psalms, all of it is about Him.” 

     Matthew, drifting off in the corner of the house in Bethany, tries to rouse himself from sleep.  “This should be interesting,” he thinks.  “I should take some notes, so I have this stuff when I write my biography of Jesus.  There could be some great details.”  Matthew lifts himself up on one elbow to listen.     
     “O.k., Tom,” says Bartholomew, engaging his friend, “Let’s work through it.  Which stories from Scripture are you thinking of?” 

     “Well, there  are lots of donkey stories, I guess the first one is Abraham and Isaac heading up Mount Moriah, a donkey carrying the wood for the sacrificial fire.  But that doesn’t seem to fit.”

     James, John’s brother, jumps into the conversation: “I hope it isn’t connected.  This is going to be a bad week if Jesus is fulfilling what almost happened then, the sacrifice of the only son, the son of the promise.  Of course, Mt. Moriah is where Jerusalem is built, and Jesus did say that He is coming here to be arrested and killed.  I was hoping He didn’t mean it.  That can’t be what Abraham meant when he said, ‘The Lord will provide the sacrifice,’ can it?” 

     James, the other James, the son of Alphaeus, speaks up:  “Back to the whole donkey-colt thing.  I know the mother donkey’s presence would calm the colt, but did anyone else expect that to go very badly?  First rider on its back, and the colt lets Him sit there, like he knew his Rider.  I guess Balaam’s donkey isn’t the only donkey who’s smarter than he looks.  Still, I wish the colt could speak, to tell us what he was thinking, like God let Balaam’s donkey do.”

     “The animals recognize the presence of the Lord and His angels better than we,” offers Bartholomew, “so why should we be surprised that the One who can walk on water can also calm an unbroken colt?  And since the people today recognized Jesus as the Son of David, we should remember how King David rode a mule.”

     “Say, Bart, I’m a fisherman, I get confused with all this animal husbandry stuff.  What’s the difference between a donkey and a mule?”  No one says it out loud, but Peter’s bad jokes always make them wonder why Jesus singled him out as a leader amongst them. 

     “Well, donkey or mule,” Bartholomew continue, trying to ignore Peter, “the prophet Zechariah was certainly referring back to Solomon, the son of King David, whom David put on his own mule and had him ride into Jerusalem, to let everyone know who the true king was.  Certainly Jesus must have been trying to make that point about Himself today.  That is at least what the crowds understood, when they hailed Him as the Son of David.”    

     “Then the Master is trying to get Himself killed,” says Thomas grimly.  “The Romans are not going to like hearing about all this, and you can be sure the priests will let them know…”   

     “Another Scripture comes to mind,” adds Bartholomew.  “Did you notice that we entered the city from the east, from the Mount of Olives?  And then Jesus, making the Pharisees crazy, allows the people to worship Him, acknowledging that the proper place of worship is at His feet?”

     “Yes, just like the blind men in Jericho.”  “And the  Canaanite woman.”  “Don’t forget the Samaritan leper.”  “Or Peter, in the boat, at the great catch of fish.”  Simon Peter has no joke to reply to this memory. 

     “Well,” continues Bartholomew, “I’m remembering how the prophet Ezekiel tells of the departure of the Lord from the Temple, out the East gate, departing to the Mount of Olives.  And then Ezekiel later promises that the Glory of the Lord will return to the Temple, from the East, from the Mount of Olives.  And after his donkey ride, entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, what did Jesus do?  He went straight to the Temple and cleansed it.”

     “Again,” says Thomas, “trying to get Himself killed.”

     “I don’t know about that,” said Bartholomew, finishing his thought, “but if Jesus is the Son of God, like Peter said, didn’t He just fulfill this morning the prophecy of Ezekiel, the Lord returning to His Temple from the east?”    

     “But if Jesus is the new King David, why isn’t He gathering an army?  Simon, the other Simon, the zealot, joins the conversation.  “Instead, He goes around unarmed, unprotected, and taking such risks, always challenging the Pharisees, and the Priests, giving them plenty of ammunition to accuse Him to the Romans.”  Simon cannot put together the idea of a kingdom and Jesus’ apparently deliberate attempts to anger the powers that be, but without building an army.  Neither can any of the rest.  Not yet. 

    The Church has historically opened the season of Advent with the account of Jesus entering Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Crucifixion.  We quite rightly think of Advent as the season leading up to Christmas, to our celebration of Jesus’ coming into our world as the Babe of Bethlehem.  So this fast-forward to Holy Week seems odd, out of sequence, at least to our one-thing-after-the-next way of thinking and living.  But God is not bound by time, and all of His comings have similarities, like the dread His holiness brings to sinners, and the subsequent joy God’s coming brings to those who hear of and believe in His forgiving love.  The advents of God throughout Scripture have similarities, like the interweaving of prophecy, kingship and priestly sacrifice Jesus achieves in His Palm Sunday entrance.  Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of all the Old Testament. 

     The Advents of Christ, in the Old Testament, at His conception, at His birth, and His entrance into ministry, all of these have similarities, like the call to repent and believe that the Spirit of Christ is always making.  In every Biblical account, the Spirit calls us to repent of our sins, including our sinful way of thinking about how God should come to us.  The Spirit calls us to repent of our sinful thoughts, words and deeds, repent, and believe, even though we cannot fully understand, even though we can’t completely connect all the dots. 

     We believe because we know at the center of every Biblical story is a connection to the Cross, from Mount Moriah where Abraham went to sacrifice his son, to the manger, where the True Sacrifice lay; from Balaam’s donkey, who spoke the truth of God, to the angels sent to the shepherds, bringing good news to all God’s flock.  We enter Advent anticipating the celebration that the coming of Jesus brings, long ago in Bethlehem, and on Palm Sunday, headed to be the Sacrifice, today as He comes in Word and Supper, and someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a long time, but someday,  when He will come fully revealed in glory, to bring His faithful into His everlasting, perfect, joyful, glorious kingdom. 

     I, of course, have imagined this conversation of the Apostles that evening after the original Palm Sunday.  But the connections to God’s Word are true, and they are only part of the story.  This Advent and Christmas, God grant us to grow more and more in our understanding of Jesus, of His Coming, of His Purpose, and of His forgiving love.  He is our coming King, coming with healing, mercy, peace and joy, for you, and all people, the true gifts of Christmas, yours already today. 

     “Say,” murmurs Thomas, just as everyone is drifting off to sleep, “Do you suppose Mary, when she was pregnant with Jesus, do you suppose she rode a donkey into Bethlehem, or when they fled from Herod to Egypt?  Somebody should remember to ask her, and write it down.  That would be a pretty cool.”  But nobody heard Thomas, and so we are left to wonder whether Joseph really found a donkey for her.  Scripture doesn’t tell us this detail, but we do know all the important parts of the story, and so we wait with confidence and peace, knowing we can ask the Lord ourselves, someday, face to face, when He comes again.                         

Come Lord Jesus, come, Amen.  

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