“A View from the Donkey’s Back”
The triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday was the most famous parade in history. It was strictly a pick-up procession, starting from the suburbs of Bethany, up the hill from the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem, and was about two miles distance from the city gate known as The Beautiful Gate. That gate has long since been sealed over, but the arches still show in the wall.
The population of Jerusalem was about 120,000 in Jesus’ time, and the city was jammed with thousands more visitors for the Passover celebration. It was a perfect time for the Messiah to come into the city. It was likely a straggly procession, with Jesus on the donkey, and the donkey’s colt plodding alongside of them; then, the cluster of disciples, and close followers either running ahead to spread palm branches or trailing along behind.
Jesus was well known in Galilee by that time, and in Judea, too. His marvelous miracles, his teachings, and his healings had been the talk of the whole country. Most people had never actually seen him in person. Though there were no newspapers, televisions, or radio, word of mouth had delivered his message…and his legend.
The parade is reported in all the gospels. In Luke it is noted that as they moved down the road from Bethany, and saw the white city spread below, Jesus stopped to gaze at it with great intensity. As was the custom, all the buildings and houses had been whitewashed with a cheap form of paint for the Passover. Even the insides of open tombs were painted white. Jesus had remarked about that at another time, when he had said that some lives were like those tombs: painted white and pure, but inside were nothing but dead bones.
As he stared down at the city, Jesus began to cry. It was one of only two times in all of scripture in which he is reported to have shed tears. Here he foresaw the future of Jerusalem: the conquests by foreign powers, and the ultimate takeover by the enemy. But most of all he saw the blindness of those very religious people to the true picture of God as a loving Father, who willed mercy and justice for all; and, they were blind to him as the Savior, who would make the assurance of eternal life available to all who would accept it by calling him Master. But Jesus knew that most of them would ignore his promise of extended mercy and grace; and yet, he continued onward anyway, both for them and for us.
It is as Dr. King once said – very much in the spirit of Jesus – “Even if they try to kill you, you develop the inner conviction that there are some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And if a person has not found something to die for, that person isn’t fit to live!”
And from the donkey’s back, Jesus urges us to trust him, and to trust his intentions to provide what we need…what we really need.
Jack London told the tale of a gold prospector who was lost in the wilds of northern Canada without supplies. He suffered from hunger, devoured anything at all nourishing, and struggled and crawled for 100 miles. He ate little except for a small fish he caught in a lake, using a tin bucket and ice water. Finally, his life’s energy nearly spent, he saw a ship lying at anchor out in Hudson Bay. Thinking it was but a cruel mirage, he fainted. But the crew had spotted him and came back to take him aboard. After two weeks in bed he began to gain strength and eat wildly. Unable to believe there was really enough food, he went every single day to the ship’s galley to check in with the cooks, and he constantly amused the sailors with his insistence about being reassured that there was truly enough food. The man’s bunk was found to be lined with biscuits he had smuggled away at mealtimes. His mind told him this was foolish, but his heart could not give in and trust.
Sometimes we are like that with God. We can’t quite put our lives and our fortunes completely in God’s hands and at God’s disposal. But when we do, we find that the blessings keep right on coming.
From the donkey’s back, Jesus saw such people as us – and that prospector – in the crowd. He also knew that the majority of them were just sightseers, and that their momentary enthusiasm would dissipate as quickly as it had come. Jesus knew that many of those same people who were wildly cheering and waving palm leaves on Sunday night might very well soon abandon him for something that seemed to be a safer – and more tangible – bet.
Much of the venom directed at Jesus during those last two days of his life by so many people was due to their own guilty consciences. They didn’t really hate him so much as they hated themselves, and they feared that he would find them out.
In the early 1930s the South Dakota National Guard had horse-drawn artillery. The equipment was carried in wagons and on the backs of burros and mules. One summer a training exercise was held in the Black Hills, where the unit was winding its way along a mountain path. One of the poor burros, laden with equipment, lost his footing and plunged to his death down a deep ravine. It was obvious that cargo was scattered all over the place and was now inaccessible, so it was declared that anything the little burro was carrying was expendable. The company commanders were then asked to make an inventory list of everything the beast had taken over the cliff with him.
As the reports came in, the list – like Pinocchio’s nose – grew and grew! It seems that all of the units listed everything that had been begged, borrowed, or “midnight requisitioned” for the past year. If everything that was claimed was true, in fact, that little burro would have to have perished with half a boxcar’s worth loaded on him! Everyone with anything to hide ran to lay their guilt to the burro’s charge.
Jesus knows that streak runs in all of us. But recognizing that, he was still determined, and more than ever, to ride on to fulfill his destiny: to die…and to rise again…because of our need. On Palm Sunday he comes, and he looks from the donkey’s back, upon each one of us. And seeing us, he loves us, and far more dependably than we can love him. Yes, the loyalty of the man on the donkey is constant and reliable. With him we have no worry about our secrets and our unguarded moments, because he already knows us inside and out. We need not worry about hiding our true feelings, because he already knows them altogether. And knowing all of this…he loves us still.
April 15 is normally a troublesome day for many because it is usually our income tax deadline day. But April 15, 1912, was a far worse day for the 1,513 people who went down with the Titanic. In the early evening mist, another ship, the Californian, saw the ice floes, which were so dense they seemed to form a wall. The Californian had stopped in mid-ocean to await the morning light and pick its way through the ice. About 1:00 that night, the Titanic sailed by under full steam. A radioman on the Titanic got frantic messages from the Californian about the ice, but the Titanic operator had been busy sending personal messages all day to relatives of the wealthy passengers: “Wish you were here,” blah blah blah. He was worn to a frazzle. Finally, the Titanic radioman sent word to his counterpart on the Californian: “Get off the air, you idiot!” The Californian radioman, miffed at this, shut down his set and went to bed. They were only ten miles apart – about thirty minutes – more than enough time to rescue everyone. But 1,513 perished. The 705 who were picked up had floated near another ship. The Californian welcomed the dawn with no sight of the Titanic…only litter upon the ocean.
The torment that each of these radiomen had to have suffered over the abdication of their responsibilities must have been enormous…more than can be imagined. But God still loved those radiomen, and God loves all of us…yes, even we who are often derelict in our own duties as we stand around and watch that parade go by. Yet, from the donkey’s back, Jesus calls…even to us.
Yet another story is told of an American soldier who had drawn a rather remote duty. He wrote home to his wife and told her about his seven new friends who were stationed with him out in some seemingly God-forsaken tundra. He had developed a very close relationship with these fellow soldiers. “I am so grateful for them,” he said, “because in this isolated and barren land a person could easily be driven to despair.” When his next birthday rolled around, he received an extraordinarily large package in the mail from the United States. When he opened it, he found not just one gift, but eight – one for him and one for each of his seven friends. The soldier looked at the eight presents and, with tears rolling down his cheeks, exclaimed, “That’s my wife for you, guys! Yes sir, that’s my wife!”
The character of that soldier’s wife was revealed in her actions. That was simply the kind of thing that she would do. That was her nature; that’s what she was always like.
Today, as we pause at the doorway of Holy Week, we sneak a look at the man riding on the donkey, and we see him gazing about at us…and then looking on ahead to the pain, the suffering, the darkness, the betrayals, and the cross that he knows awaits him. And as we look upon our true King, his arms spread wide in forgiving love, we proclaim: “That’s our God for you! Yes…that’s exactly what our God is like! Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!”
Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
O God, how we do love a parade. If it were allowed, we would eagerly line the streets and fill our sanctuary to witness again the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and into our lives. Living on this side of history, we anticipate his Easter victory over the forces of evil and death. But then when the crowds have all gone home at the end of this week that we call “holy,” we also fall back into our comfortable routines, trying to avoid the difficult journey that lies ahead for all who would pick up their own cross and follow him. We put back into the closet our relics and utensils of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday because it is uncomfortable for us to be reminded of such things as neglect, betrayal, suffering, and death. Yes, we confess, Divine Spirit, that in our own homes, quite apart from the usual crowd, in this time of quarantine, we have more time than usual to come face to face with our own questions, confusions, doubts, and fears.
And so, in this quiet time, alone and yet together in spirit, we seek your presence in a special way. We seek the courage to walk, each one of us, with Jesus and with one another into that unknown future that only you can clearly see. We ask your guidance and strength, for ourselves and for those whom we love with all our hearts, to bravely and with great faith face the trials that we know will yet come. Be with those whose energies and faith are sapped by sorrow, and with those whose bodies are wracked with pain. Comfort all who would turn to you with their sufferings of body, mind, or spirit, and give them a sense of hope and renewed purpose.
As we seek to follow our triumphant Christ, teach us by his example that when difficulty and darkness attempt to overwhelm us, that that is the time to commune deeply of our friendships and share our love as best we can, so that our peace may be made whole. Open to us the important message of the depth of your love in spite of the darkness and uncertainty of these present days, for we ask these things in the strong name of Jesus, who taught us that whenever we pray, whether together or apart, we should say:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever!
The Charge and the Benediction
Jesus said to his disciples: “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home…. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (From John 16:32-33).
And now may the grace, mercy, and peace of God the Father,
The rich, rich love of Jesus Christ the Son,
And the abiding presence and power of the Holy Spirit,
Remain with us all, both now and always.