Sermon for Palm Sunday, 4/16/2011
Text: Matthew 21:1-11
So what kind of a king rides into his royal city on a donkey? A donkey is not exactly the most elegant of creatures. It’s hard to wrap our head around this reality because donkeys make us think petting zoos and petting zoos make us think “cute.” So here’s a picture. Now if Jesus was riding a donkey back then, what kind of a ride do you think he would he have today for his Jerusalem procession? Well he probably wouldn’t be in a limo. And he wouldn’t be in a Beamer. Or a Lamborghini. So what do you think it would be? Well I came up with three options. Let me show them to y’all and then we can vote. How about a Ford Pinto? Or an El Camino? Or a Yugo?! Which one do you think it would be?
I used to have an old beat-up Oldsmobile that I drove around the “hood” in east Durham, NC where I was working as a youth pastor. Y’all think y’all got hood in the Route 1 corridor? East Durham is the real hood. So it helped me feel safe to be in a junky car with the upholstery falling out as I was driving around visiting my youth. My kids called it the “low rider.” Sometimes when we went over railroad tracks too fast, I wasn’t sure the wheels were going to stay on. Well the Olds finally died and I got a hybrid Prius a few months ago.
I’m not sure Jesus would drive a Prius if He were around today. I know that Priuses are “green” and Jesus wants us to care about the Earth, but the fact is Jesus was a carpenter’s son from Nazareth who was born in an animal feeding trough. He didn’t get to jump between the hood and the suburbs like I do. His people were straight-up podunk, and Jesus’ donkey procession brings us back to an important question: why did God make His Word flesh among a podunk people?
God had a lot of better options for incarnating Himself. Why didn’t He go Greek for instance? The Greeks had a very rich intellectual culture at the time even though its heyday was a few centuries earlier. Jesus could have been a disciple of Plato and Aristotle who built on their ideas but became the greatest teacher of all. Then no scholar in the world would be able to question his wisdom, and atheism would have been proven wrong thousands of years ago. Why did Jesus waste his time with low-brow crowd-pleasers like healing paralytics and walking on water? If he hadn’t done all those miracles, then so many intellectually respectable people would be able to believe in him. Miracles are what people do in places like east Durham and the Route 1 Corridor, next to the pawn shop and the dirty movie store. If Jesus stuck to the intellectual high road, then the smart people could follow Him and the not-so-smart people would follow the smart people.
Another option Jesus had was to go Roman. Instead of being born in a barn because of the census decree of Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, he could have been born to Caesar Augustus. He would have had the bully pulpit from the time he was a boy. The crowds would have had to listen to him preach and they would hang on every word even if he rambled longer than Fidel Castro or Moammer Gadhafi. The Roman emperors had a tradition of calling themselves gods anyway and Jesus could have said, “Guess what? Y’all thought you had gods before. Well I actually am God.” If Jesus had been a Roman emperor, Rome could have conquered the whole world and brought all of its people into submission under the universe’s rightful King. Then the new Jerusalem would come down from the clouds, and the story of humanity would have reached its happy ending long ago.
So why did Jesus go podunk? Why did he grow up in a carpenter’s family? And why in the world did he ride into Jerusalem on a donkey? Somehow I suspect that if I walked up to Jesus and told him how utterly ridiculous it was for the king of the universe to ride a donkey instead of a chariot or at least a decent horse, then he would probably get a gleam in his eye and say, “Exactly!” Because Jesus is the king of ridiculousness. Now I don’t mean ridiculous without a purpose. Jesus’ ridiculousness has a purpose, because it make us do things that are ridiculous too.
Look at this story again. The donkey isn’t the only ridiculous thing in the picture. The Bible says that people took off their cloaks and put them down on the road so that this animal that had been walking in the road all of its life would have a softer place to walk. Now that’s ridiculous! Why in the world would you get your cloak dirty in order to protect an animal’s feet? There’s nothing practical about that. It’s kind of like that crazy woman we talked about a few weeks ago who wasted a year’s wages of expensive perfume by dumping it all over Jesus’ feet just to show her love for him. Ridiculous!
Or what about Zacchaeus? Y’all remember the story about the four foot ten tax collector who Jesus went to lunch with? Well like most tax collectors, Zacchaeus took a little cut for himself on top of the emperor’s money. It was a completely normal part of the economic system that made people groan but nobody tried to do anything about it. Well for some reason Zacchaeus was so moved by the fact that Jesus paid attention to him that he decided to do two very ridiculous things – he gave half of his money to the poor and paid back the people he had cheated four times what he owed them.
Many people did ridiculous things in response to Jesus. His disciples got up and left their jobs when he said come follow me. Crowds of people traveled miles to see him. People who had never walked before were running through the streets carrying their mats and shouting hallelujah. Kids ran up and started climbing on him even though he was a stranger and even though his disciples tried to stop them. You know, I really wish I could have been there to see what it was about his body language and the laughter in his eyes and the commanding but gentle tone in his voice that made the people in that street know that this was their Messiah.
He wasn’t a Greek philosopher babbling strange mysteries to a handful of intellectuals who had read all the prerequisites and taken all the right classes. He wasn’t a Roman emperor looking down from some tall chariot to all the masses, separated by legions of soldiers armed to the teeth. But somehow this carpenter’s son from Nazareth riding on the lowliest of mountable creatures was the Word of God made flesh and dwelling among us. And this beautifully ridiculous reality moved a whole mob of people to want to do something, anything to show him honor. They didn’t have any money but they did have the cloaks on their backs. So they put them on the ground, thinking what an honor to wear home a muddy footprint that the Messiah’s donkey put there. Ridiculous!
But there’s something beautiful about this kind of ridiculousness. If we allow ourselves to be infected by the spirit of this donkey-riding king, it’s more contagious than democracy in the Middle East. We become people who engage in random acts of kindness and pointlessly extravagant gestures of hospitality, even if they don’t make a dent in the national debt, even if we don’t get enough bang for our buck, even if it doesn’t help us win any arguments, even if all that we accomplish is to make a donkey’s toes a little less calloused and all that we get back is a dirty cloak to add to the laundry pile.
But when we let this donkey-rider be our king, we become the opposite of cynical, a basic change of heart that’s more important than having the answers to all the world’s problems. God can’t use us very well when we hide behind our practicality but he can use people who aren’t afraid to look ridiculous! So what about you? Are you willing to be ridiculous? Are you willing to treat people with ridiculous kindness especially when they’re being ugly? Are you willing to throw down the cloak off your back and make the ground a little softer for someone else to walk on? Well then be ridiculous! And maybe our savior’s donkey will put his footprint on your heart.