By Richard Niell Donovan
This great week had a humble beginning and a humble ending. Jesus began the week by riding into Jerusalem, not on an impressive stallion, but on a donkey—on the colt of a donkey—and he ended the week on a cross.
Jerusalem was accustomed to impressive displays. When kings and Romans came to Jerusalem, they tried to outdo each other—to impress people with their importance. They rode great horses and dressed in rich garb. They entered the city trailing an entourage—soldiers and servants and hangers on. The people of Jerusalem were accustomed to these great parades. Who could blame them if they judged a man’s importance by the grandeur of his entrance.
We don’t see displays of that sort very often, but they are there. I happened to be in Washington, D.C. one time when the President’s motorcade passed by. It was a long procession of cars—all painted the same dark color—flashing lights and wailing sirens—moving quickly through the streets—police stopping traffic along their route. It wasn’t a parade. They were simply moving the President from Point A to Point B.
I was annoyed. Traffic was backed up everywhere. I could imagine a string of traffic snarls all along the President’s route. Was this really necessary or just an ego trip?
But then I realized that I was witnessing something more than the Secret Service moving the President from one place to another—protecting him from would-be assassins. That busy motorcade proclaimed to the world that our President is important—important because our nation is important. It was a display of power in a world that respects power.
I didn’t happen to like the President that they were moving through the streets that day. I resented the high honor that he was being accorded. But I also realized that displays of that sort are inevitable in an imperfect world. It is the way that the world works!
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But Jesus didn’t work that way. The Son of God came into the Holy City accompanied, not by soldiers and servants, but by a ragged band of disciples. He came riding, not on a great white stallion, but on a donkey—the colt of a donkey. His humble procession made a statement. It proclaimed that the Almighty God chooses to work, not through displays of power, but through displays of humility.
We saw it a Christmas. We saw a babe born, not in a palace, but in a stable—dressed, not in fine silks and linens, but in swaddling clothes—attended, not by princes and courtiers, but by lowly shepherds.
On Palm Sunday, we see it again. Jesus comes into Jerusalem in a way that proclaims his humility—not his power.
This Holy Week we will see it again and again. Jesus will move through the week, doing his Godly work—cleansing the Temple—denouncing the rich and powerful—teaching his disciples—lamenting over Jerusalem—gathering his disciples to share bread and wine—praying in the garden.
And then we will see Jesus arrested—mocked—beaten within an inch of his life—marched through the streets like a common criminal—and hung on a cross to die.
Let me ask you a question. If you were God, would you have done it that way? Would you have brought Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey? Would you have allowed him to die on a cross? I doubt it! I know that I would have done it differently!
• I would have had Jesus descend into Jerusalem from the clouds.
• I would sent lightning to illuminate him as he descended.
• I would have vaporized his enemies.
• I would have parted the crowd for Jesus as God, centuries earlier, parted the Red Sea for Israel. I would have created a royal pathway to the Temple. I would have installed Jesus there on a throne, high and lifted up.
But it didn’t suit God’s purposes to do it that way.
• God didn’t care about installing Jesus on a throne in the Temple. God cared about installing Jesus on the throne of our hearts.
• God didn’t care about impressing the people of first century Jerusalem. God wants Jesus to be Lord of our lives in every century.
And so God did it differently than you and I would have. God’s ways are not our ways. Nothing demonstrates that as clearly as Palm Sunday and Good Friday. God has a grand vision, and that vision could never be realized by a display of human power. God’s vision can be realized only by humble service—by winsome courtship—by great love.
(NOTE TO THE PREACHER: The pope mentioned below was John Paul II, who died not long after this sermon was first preached.)
I have seen a good deal in the press lately about the Pope. The Pope, as you know, is in poor health. He has been in the hospital recently—near death. Newscasters have tried to assess that.
• Some of them believe that the Pope is living out a sermon illustration—although I have not heard them use that exact language. They say that the Pope is drawing attention to the value of all life—even the life of an elderly, sick man.
• Others suggest that the Pope is being irresponsible. They believe that he should retire so that a healthier, more vigorous man can assume leadership.
• One commentator (I think that it was George Will) noted that, ordinarily, a person who has been given power should, when infirmed, give that power back to the people so that they can find a healthy, vigorous leader. But he went on to say that the Pope’s power does not come up from the people but down from heaven (which is true for everyone called by God). The Pope, therefore, owes nothing to anyone but God—and it is quite possible that God has called him to serve through adversity—through his failing health.
God often does that. God often demonstrates that there is Godly power in weakness—in suffering—in adversity. That was true on Palm Sunday. It was true on Good Friday. It is still true today.
So what does that have to do with us? There must be many lessons that we could derive from Jesus’ humility on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Let me mention three:
• First, we need not despair when we when we see the mess that people have made of the world. For those closest to Jesus, things looked even worse on Good Friday—but Jesus’ cross turned out not to be the end, but the beginning—turned out not to be defeat, but the prelude to victory.
• Second, we need not despair when things are going badly for us personally—when our dreams seem to have come to an end—when our health has turned bad—when we are grieving the death of a loved one—when all seems darkness around us. In such circumstances, we can lift our eyes to the heavens. We can ask God to redeem our suffering. We can ask God to show us a pathway through the darkness. We can ask God to help us to find new meaning for our lives. And he will.
• Third, let us remember how much power there is in Godly humility—Godly service—Godly love. I know people who have great earthly power and wealth. I know others whose only power is their humility—their service—their love.
In some cases, people with earthly power use that power in Godly ways. I know that God will bless them for that stewardship. But I believe that it is only through their humility, their service, and their love that their power and wealth take on real meaning.
But the lives of those who have no power and no wealth—who have only humility, service, and love—those lives also have great meaning. Palm Sunday and Good Friday demonstrate God’s determination to work by Godly rather than earthly power. If you think of yourself as ordinary—as having little power—as living from paycheck to paycheck—then recognize that you have a special place in God’s plan—that God can do wonderful things through you as you render humble service in Godly love.
If you are powerful or wealthy, I pray that God will give you a humble heart and willing hands to do his work.
If you are ordinary, I pray that God will give you the faith to recognize the wonderful things that he can do through your life.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.