Palm Sunday: John 12:12-19: What the Donkey Tells Us

Palm Sunday 2 (610x351)

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Perhaps, you delighted in watching the old movie clips.  Perhaps, you lived it.  World War 2 was over, and we welcomed our veterans back home, victorious from the fight.  Flags lined the procession.  Guests of honor rode in the finest cars, as people turned out in droves.  Applause and shouts of joy rang out.  Paper streamers swirled, moved by the wind.  A victory parade marched before you as you gazed at the celebration.

Life hasn’t changed much.  Go back to biblical days.  After a king had conquered another nation or a general captured a city, he returned home to a celebration.  In those days, confetti didn’t exist.  So, the Israelites waved palm branches as their symbol of triumph.  We learned as much in our Old Testament reading, from 2 Maccabees, where palm branches first became a symbol of rejoicing—but also of Israelite independence.

In 164 BC, the Israelites threw off the yoke of foreign domination and became a free nation again—until Rome conquered them later in 63 BC.  For a century, Israel was a free and independent nation once more.  The tradition of palms became ingrained in the people, as Israel now minted coins, emblazoned with palm branches on them.  Palms became symbols of celebration and nationalism—but after Rome conquered Israel, waving palm branches as an independent people became a distant memory.

Who then will be the mighty king?  Who then will free us from foreign domination?  Who will become the new Judah Maccabeus?  Will it be Jesus?  Is He the Messiah?  The momentum builds into an ever-increasing crescendo.  The commoners come out to greet our Lord.  Shouts and cheers rise from the streets.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem.  People are following Him into the city.  They are also there to celebrate Passover.  So, many there for the festival join those who come out to shower Jesus with praise.  They wave their palm branches, for they consider themselves not only pious Jews but even good citizens of Israel.  They chant “Hosanna.”  Shouts spring out: “Jesus is the king of Israel!”  One look, and we can’t miss it: Jesus riding into Jerusalem turns into a victory parade for the people.

The king, however, isn’t sitting on a mighty steed, a horse that stood tall and pranced in statuesque pride.  Jesus is on a donkey.  He’s not in a fancy chariot or on a tall and mighty horse.  Our Lord is on a little donkey, a young one.  St. Luke tells us no one had ridden the donkey before—a pack animal untested in the ways of warfare.  This donkey is no impressive stallion of war.  How strange for Jesus to do this.

Not so, for the donkey is the key to understanding Jesus’ victory.  But even Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand what He was doing—at first.  Only after Jesus returned to heaven, did it all click into place (John 12:16).

The disciples thought little of the donkey as they entered Jerusalem.  If they did, they might have understood the victory Jesus came to bring.  So also with us.  The palm branches wave high, moving in the breeze, and the people shout—but we need to focus on the donkey.  For the donkey unmasks the real enemies Jesus came to defeat.

So, who were these enemies?  The Israelites knew it was the Romans.  Why not?  Their armies conquered Israel, and their soldiers occupied the land.  The people want Jesus to be the new Judah Maccabeus, the general who freed Israel from their former captors.  They even want Him to bring back Israel’s glory days, like King David.

Hey, they only want what all people want: to be free and secure.  They want a leader who will protect them from their oppressors.  It was the same with our Lord’s disciples.  Little did they know that their real foe was not Rome, but their fellow Israelites, the religious leaders, the Pharisees, and chief priests.

A few days before this impromptu celebration, Jesus did an incredible miracle.  His friend, Lazarus, died—who was now dead for four days.  So, Jesus goes to his tomb.  He commands, “Lazarus, come out!” bringing His friend back from death.  No wonder so many people follow Jesus into Jerusalem and come out to meet Him!

Behind their smiles, however, discontentment grows within Israel’s religious leadership.  Grumbling, they assemble in council.  Their discussion went like this: “If we let Him go on, everyone will believe in Him.  The Romans will then come with their legions, and life will become worse!”  “The Pharisees told each other, ‘You see; you can’t do anything.  Look! The whole world is following him!’” (John 12:19).

So, with Judas, these enemies plot to betray Jesus.  They will work to arrest Him, trump up some charges, and condemn Him to death.  They could collaborate and sway the crowd to cry out, “Crucify Him,” instead of “Hosanna.”  If they could somehow convince the Romans to execute Jesus—and so our Lord’s fellow countrymen acted, the Romans only being their hatchet man.

Still, we don’t grasp the entire picture.  Jesus’ enemies aren’t just His people.  An even greater enemy is hiding behind the Pharisees, pushing them to do what they’re doing—jealousy!  The people are following Jesus instead of them, and they are jealous.

Fear makes the religious leadership think they will lose their position of privilege.  Hate fills their hearts, for Jesus is telling them to change their lives and follow Him.  Greed makes them hungry, for Jesus attacks their money-making schemes in the Temple.  Anger consumes them, for Jesus doesn’t stop the people when they worship Him.

Now, this hits home.  Don’t we also have anger, greed, hatred, and fear deep within us?  Sin lurks in those dark places within our hearts and minds.  The world around us puts this sin on display.  This sin leaves its wake of destruction.  But we still can’t hide and not get dirty.  A mad world with Satan intertwined in it all, tempts us all to give in to these formidable enemies of Christ.

Even so, we don’t grasp the entire picture.  We still have one more enemy, our final enemy: death.  Death is the result of sin, and sin causes us to be greedy, jealous, angry, hate-filled, fearful, and everything else that put Jesus on the donkey.  Who are the real enemies?  They’re not the Romans or a few religious leaders.

Jesus doesn’t ride a warhorse.  No, He rides a donkey to face down our real enemies, haunting us in our bones.  Our Lord battles against the dark places in our hearts and minds.  He faces down our worst enemies: sin, the wickedness infesting this world, and Satan himself.  Jesus faces down our greatest enemy—death and the grave.

Jesus goes into battle against these enemies on a donkey.  How strange, for a donkey is an animal of peace.  The horse rides into battle; the donkey carries commerce.  Humility and gentleness are the hallmarks of the donkey, not violence and bloodshed.  But war was going on—and Jesus rides right into the worst of what His enemies, our enemies, will do to Him.  He will not resort to violence, but the Romans will still flog and thrash Him.  They will abuse and whip Him to within an inch of His life.

Yes, blood was shed, not the blood of the Romans, the Pharisees, the priests, or the people who yelled out “crucify Him.”  No, the blood of the One, who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, humble and gentle, seeking to bring peace.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem for one purpose: to make the victory parade come true.  To become our Prince of Peace, He rode into Jerusalem.  To show how He would defeat all our enemies, He rode into town on a donkey.

Jesus will achieve His victory, not as the world does, but as God will do.  So, how did Jesus gain the victory?  He let those enemies do their worst to Him, not stopping the violence done to Him.  Undaunted, He went to the cross.  There, our sin, greed, fear, hatred, jealousy, anger, evil, and death surrounded Him.

That day, darkness covered the land.  Those enemies drank of their triumph, getting drunk in the victory.  The defeat was sure!  His body is dead on a cross, beaten, battered, and bloodied.  Soon, He would be in the tomb.  Victory’s intoxication filled their nostrils.  Satan and all the powers of evil cheered.  They won—or so they thought.

What’s the real story?  Not Satan’s fake victory, for the Sunday following the Friday shattered the darkest places of sin and evil!  No longer did the stone seal the tomb of death.  Our Lord, the Prince of Peace, rose above and defeated their hatred, jealousy, fear, anger, and greed.  The Savior, who let death swallow Him down whole, defeated the last enemy, death, once for all.

Only then did the disciples understand.  Jesus’s victory was bigger than pushing back a few soldiers or greedy, threatened religious leaders.  His victory defeated everything that sin and death tossed our way—and that Victory came riding into town on a donkey.  The triumph over sin came by death, death on a cross.  Sin died in defeat because of Christ’s victorious resurrection from the dead.

Since then, our Lord’s victory has been marching on.  Every hymn of praise we sing adds to the sounds of our Lord’s parade.  Every prayer we say raises the volume of the celebration.  Every day we follow Jesus in faith, we’re joining the crowds who followed Jesus that first Palm Sunday.

Every act of devotion and love for Jesus is like the palms branches waving once more.  Today, in this service, and every day, in our lives of love and devotion, we join in a victory parade, which takes us to an eternity with Jesus.

Yes, this corrupted world will do its worst and lead us to the enemy called death.  But death is not our destination.  The final destination is an unending, eternal parade.  With all the saints, we celebrate the victory that Jesus won for us when He rode into Jerusalem—a victory parade on a donkey.  Who would have thought it?  Amen.