Saturday 3 December 2011

All I want for Christmas is... Joy (Matthew 21:1-11)

Our passage today focuses on Jesus as the King, but what is really interesting about this account – which is so significant that it is found in all four of the gospels in the bible – is how it presents Jesus as the long-expected King who arrives in an unexpected way. Surprising still, is how the most unexpected element in this story has to do with a donkey. It really is quite remarkable how everything turns on this donkey that Jesus rides into the city of Jerusalem.

We will explore the unexpected nature of Jesus as the King in today’s passage under three headings:
1.       Preparation (verses 1 to 3),
2.       Explanation (verses 4 to 5); and finally,
3.       Expectation (verses 6 to 11)

1. Preparation

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
Matthew 21:1-3

Here is the surprising thing about Jesus. He is about to make this big entrance into the city of Jerusalem. He knows there is this massive crowd waiting to receive him. And he goes, “Hang on, what I really need to get at this point is a donkey.”

So he tells two of his friends, essentially how there is going to be this donkey just waiting for them round the corner to pick up. “At once,” Jesus says, “you will find a donkey tied there.” Now of all the strangest things for God to do; compared to all the miraculous things Jesus has already done – calming the storm, healing the two blind men, raising the dead! – You have to admit that this one’s rather strange!

And you can tell that the disciples were also thinking, “Hmm, this is a bit odd,” because Jesus has to say to them in verse 3, “Oh, and in case anyone says to you, ‘Hey! What are you jokers doing stealing my donkey!’ All you have to say is, ‘The Lord needs them’.” That’s all you need to do. Just say to the nice man whose bicycle you are breaking into, “The Lord needs this,” and he’ll go, “Oh! Why didn’t you say so? Please have my keys and don’t forget the bike lights too.”

What’s going on? Well, that’s the reason for point 2: the explanation in verses 4 to 5.

2. Explanation

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

Matthew 21:4-5

This is a quotation from the prophet Zechariah Chapter 9 verse 9 explaining the significance of the donkey. “See your king comes to you,” Zechariah says, “gentle and riding on a donkey.” The very next verse says, “I will take away the chariots of Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem.” Do you see the contrast? The King gets rids of the war horses and rides in on a donkey. The donkey is a symbol of peace. This is a peaceful King.

Imagine if two nations are at war and one loses, the conquering nation might ride in with its armies, tanks and helicopters to subdue the enemy nation. It is saying, “I’ve won. You have lost!” It is a show of power. The tanks rolling into the city. The solders marching line by line with their guns. It is saying, “We have defeated you. Now lay down your arms and surrender.”

But Jesus is the King who comes in peace. He is victorious, yes, but he doesn’t ride in on a war-horse. In fact, he intentionally chooses a non-threatening domestic animal – the donkey. How does Zechariah describe this king again? Gentle and riding on a donkey.

That’s the explanation. The donkey symbolised that Jesus was the King who had come in peace.
However, was that the expectation? Did the crowds in Jerusalem understand that Jesus was a gentle king? Look at verses 6 to 9.

3. Expectation

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”
Matthew 21:6-9

“Hosanna!” according to the footnote at the bottom of my bible means “Save!” or “Save now!” Meaning: the huge crowd had gathered to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem because they wanted him to do something for them. They wanted Jesus to save them.

This week in Cambridge and all over the UK, large crowds gathered in an effort to save their pensions. The new shift in government policy meant that they would have to give more, work longer and yet receive less money at the end.

This crowd in Jerusalem wanted Jesus to do more than reverse a government policy. They expected him to bring down the entire government. They wanted him to be the King who would conquer the Romans and kick the foreign occupiers out of Jerusalem.

Notice that this “very large crowd” (verse 8) did two things. Firstly, they “spread their cloaks – or their jackets - on the road.” This was a sign of submission and loyalty. It was saying to Jesus, “These jackets on the ground; that’s us on the floor in total submission. We submit ourselves under your authority.”

Secondly, they praise Jesus. “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Son of David is a royal title not unlike Prince of Wales or the Duke of Edinburgh. In the bible, the Son of David was God’s way of referring to his chosen king. So for the large crowd to shout out in public that Jesus was the Son of David, they were recognizing that Jesus was this King who had been sent from God. Hence the next line in the chorus, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus had come in God’s name empowered with God’s authority.

So again, the crowds did two things: the submitted themselves to Jesus, and they sang praises to Jesus. Two very good things. Two very positive things, in fact, for any Christian to do.

And yet let me remind you of the question I asked just a few moments earlier: Did the crowds understand what kind of king he was? Do we understand what kind of king Jesus is?

You see, we, unlike the crowds, we have the benefit of reading the whole story. We have the preparation and the explanation. Matthew has prepared us and explained to us about the donkey and the reasons for the donkey. And yet when we as Christians sing songs like “Hosanna in the highest” are we singing in a way that is no different from the crowd? I sincerely hope not.

Hosanna means “Save us!” And yet, tell me what did this crowd want Jesus to save them from? A bad government. Oppression. Injustice. Suffering. Poverty. The Roman government. And how did they think Jesus was going to save them? As a conquering king. With God’s awesome power.

The “large crowd” did not understand that Jesus was the gentle king of Zechariah 9. I wonder if they even noticed that Jesus was riding in on a donkey. Some of them might have gone, “Hmm, that’s a big strange.” A bit like seeing David Cameron being driven up to Number 10 Downing Street in Paul’s car, a Renault Clio. No, all they saw was Jesus – Conquering King, coming in God’s power, Defeater of the Roman Empire.

The prophet Zechariah would have said to them, “See.” You need to open your eyes and see. Daughter of Zion, meaning Jerusalem, see your gentle king. See your humble king. See your king who has come to you in peace.

Notice that Zechariah was referring not just to the crowd, but to all the people of Jerusalem. Their response can be found at the end, in verses 10 to 11.

4. The king has come. The king is coming.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew 21:10-11

Who does this guy think he is – causing this massive traffic jam on the high street?

When it says that, “the whole city was stirred”, it wasn’t saying that everyone was talking about Jesus in Jerusalem, “Oooo, check this guy out!” Rather it is describing how everyone in the city was shaken by Jesus’ arrival. “Is this outsider gonna cause any trouble?”

The crowds reply, “This Jesus is that prophet we’ve all been hearing about. He comes from the northern town of Nazareth in Galilee.” You need to realize what this sounded like to someone living in Jerusalem. It was like telling a Nobel-prize winning Cambridge professor, “Check out that really smart kid from the primary school in the small village up in Arbury who coloured inside the lines.”

I mean, this was Jerusalem, the city of the kings. Jerusalem: home to the temple of God and the ark of God’s presence. Why are you talking to me about some lowly-educated carpenter’s son from Galilee?
All this is to answer the question: What were their expectations of Jesus? The people living in Jerusalem saw Jesus as nothing more than a trouble-maker. The crowds and fans saw Jesus as a king arriving in power to save them from Rome.

Both expectations were mistaken because both did not see Jesus as he truly was. “See your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey.” The crowds did not want a gentle king. Jerusalem could never accept a humble king. What about us here today at the Chinese Church? Do we see Jesus as he truly is? Like the crowd, it is easy to fool ourselves because on the outside it looks like we’re saying the right thing and acting the right way. Like the crowd we can sing at the top of our lungs, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” and we can bow down in submission. But like the crowds, we need to ask ourselves what are we asking Jesus to do for us? How do we expect Jesus to save us?

I remember a big mega-church back in Singapore which calls its meetings “Celebration services”. I was a young Christian when I first heard that - Celebration service – and thought, “Hmm, that’s a pretty good name for a church meeting”. Not bible study. Not prayer meeting. It was Celebration service. Lively music, amazing band, charismatic song leader and singing! Wow, it really seemed like a celebration! Again, I thought, “Cool!”

But during these celebration services there would a strong emphasis on, well, celebrating. Celebrating life. Celebrating the miracles that God did in our lives. Celebrating the health and the wealth that we receive from God. Which are all good things to ask for and pray for from God, I need to say.

But the question is: How do we expect Jesus to save us? Is it by giving us a better job? A nicer house? Healing our sickness?

Jesus was arriving in Jerusalem to go to the cross. He would be tortured, stripped naked, hung on a cross, bleeding and suffocating to his last breath. And there at the cross, crowds would gather to spit on him. They would curse Jesus to his face, “Save yourself”. Because they could never imagine that a man hanging on a cross could save them – could save them from their sins.

But that’s what Jesus came to do. He came as the king on the cross. He took our rejection of God and he took God’s rejection of us. Sin is us saying to God, “I don’t want you as God”. Sin is us saying to Jesus, “I don’t want you as my King.” That’s sin: it’s rejection. And on the cross, Jesus took our sin and he took God’s punishment for our sin, which is death.

Friends, I think, “celebration service” is a wonderful way of describing our church meetings. But we need to celebrate the cross. “Hosanna” is a good song to sing – but we need to sing it praising Jesus for the cross. And Jesus is the Christ – he is the King – but he ascends to the right hand of God by going to the cross.

Do you see this? Do you see your king, gentle and coming on a donkey. Meaning: do you see Jesus now coming in peace and offering salvation through the cross? Not everyone does, but I hope you do. Because friends, the bible says that one day, every eye will see him. On that last day, Jesus will return riding on a white horse, no longer in peace, but riding in victory and judgement.

Revelation 19:11 says, “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war.” One day Jesus will return in justice and in judgement. One day Jesus will return as the conquering King.

But that is not today. Today we are able to sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King.” Today we can sing, “Hark the herald angels sing ‘Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.’”

We can sing that because Jesus came two thousand years ago to bring us peace. By coming as the king, yes, but as the king who went to the cross. The bible prepares us for this King. The bible explains to us who is this King. And the bible tells us, Expect this King – Christ Jesus – who comes to brings us peace, salvation and joy.

Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

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