As I often like to do when I am preaching on Sundays, I like to take into account the context of the readings that we hear, and I would like to start by considering what comes shortly before the gospel passage of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.It’s a familiar story of the sons of Zebedee—James and John—and the request of their mother that they sit one on either side of Jesus in his Kingdom. Jesus asks James and John if they are willing to drink the cup that he is about to drink, the cup that he will drink in Jerusalem, particularly by his acceptance of the Cross on Good Friday.
And then Jesus teaches his disciples something very important that relates particularly to the Gospel we just heard. He tells them,
Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slaves
just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life a ransom for many (Matt 20.26-28).
Service is at the heart of leadership for Jesus, and he wants his disciples to do likewise—not to use their gifts, status, and power for personal gain but in order to serve others. Jesus is a king, yet his ways aren’t like other kings. Considering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he does so with confidence, yet with a marked humility, riding on the back of a donkey.
As most of you have observed in the almost-finished city parkette adjacent to the church, there is a very large sculpture wrapped in white plastic. Many have asked me what it is. It is a sculpture of a donkey created by a Canadian artist. I always thought how perfect it would be to gather there on Palm Sunday for the reading of this Gospel and the blessing of the branches. I have even toyed with the idea of mounting the donkey as it is read, but then I don’t want to get arrested or fined for doing such a thing!
Some people have asked me, “Why a donkey?!” What do you think of when you think of a donkey?
One commentator noted that Jesus chose to come riding on a donkey, which was the animal that kings sometimes chose to ride when they came with a message of peace while “the horse was the mount for war” . How appropriate that the Prince of Peace comes riding on a donkey.
Also, the donkey is an animal that is identified with work, a “beast of burden”, an animal used in service.
That the one who came to serve not to be served riding on a donkey thus seems appropriate as well. Yet as creator and King of the Universe, with anything at his disposal, he could have chosen to enter Jerusalem in a different way, perhaps on a different animal, but that’s not what he chose because he wanted to demonstrate authentically who he was, a reflection of who God is, a God who serves.
The people, who line up and lay their cloaks and tree branches on the road before the Lord, greet Jesus with great homage in the spirit of the prophet Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! 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” (9.9)They shout, “Hosanna”, which could be used to express praise and adoration, but also could mean “save us”, when we go to the root of the Hebrew word.
They recognize that Jesus is the one to praise and adore, and Jesus is the one who can save them.
This, indeed he did—by his becoming human like you and me and accepting completely the will of God to love and serve us unconditionally, a love that led him to the cross and resurrection, thus enabling us to share in his life.
As we enter this holiest of weeks, Jesus, the King of Glory, comes to us, setting an example of humility, love, and service that we are to accept and live out in our lives as his disciples. How will we respond to him? How will we greet him?
Even though the coronavirus has hit our society where we are vulnerable, let us not allow it to take away the grace that lies available for us this week, but instead let us strive ever more to humble ourselves and be vulnerable before the Lord, our “rock” who saves us and who shows us how to place our lives in loving service to others.